By Adam Lovinus
By Lilledeshan Bose
By Gabriel San Roman
By Rachel Mattice
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Daniel Kohn
By Nate Jackson
By Mike Seeley
The moment the lights dim on My Chemical Romance, signaling the end of one set and the transition to the next, an excitement builds in the crowd. Spectators who had stepped outside for a break start to file back in. No one wants to miss the next band. A three-syllable chant carries through the expanse of Gibson Amphitheatre.
“So-cial D! So-cial D! So-cial D!”
It’s nearly 10:30 on a clear night in early December when the stage begins to spin, shielding the band from sight, while bringing a motionless trio center-stage.
Radio personality Lisa May’s disembodied voice introduces the second-to-last set of Night One of KROQ’s annual holiday charity concert: “A group that’s no stranger to Almost Acoustic Christmas . . . Orange County’s hometown boys—Social Distortion!”
The founder and only front man the band has ever known, Mike Ness, struts out from stage right, wearing a thigh-length black coat and matching fedora. A stagehand helps to remove the coat, revealing a pressed white shirt and black suspenders; the wing of a sparrow tattoo peeks out above his collar, like ivy growing up a wall.
Ness is presented with his signature instrument, a Gibson Les Paul Deluxe. The chants cease, replaced with deafening screams.
The set begins with “Machine Gun Blues,” a single from their soon-to-be released album, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes. It’s a hard-and-fast rocker that takes off like a dragster. Guitarist Jonny “2 Bags” Wickersham, bassist Brent Harding and drummer David Hidalgo Jr. set the pace.
With his head tilted back and the lights still low, Ness saunters to the front of the stage. Looming large over a mass of screaming fans, he takes a wide stance and joins the hard-rocking intro.
The stage illuminates, and Ness’ eyes open. Thousands stare back at him. He’s a picture of poise, holding a sightline with the back of the room. From the time he founded Social Distortion in 1979 in Fullerton, he has faced hundreds, if not thousands, of crowds—teenagers fueled on energy drinks and angst; longtime fans jumping, their arms swinging; haters hurling expletives.
His slicked-back hair shines blacker than the Firestone tires on his 1936 three-window Ford Coupe. Most of his tattoos are hidden, save for “L-O-V-E” on his left knuckles, “P-A-I-N” on his right and a small anchor below his left eye. The eyeliner of earlier days is long gone, as is the leather vest. The voice remains, with its 60-grit sandpaper rasp.
After finishing “Machine Gun Blues,” a fictional account of a gangster on a crime spree, Ness passes along a bit of holiday cheer. “Merry fucking Christmas, Happy New Year, all that shit,” he says, a smile on his face, and then he transitions into the classic “Sick Boy.”
By the time he gets to the fourth song of the set, the fedora is gone. Sweat pours down his face, beads clinging to his substantial layer of scruff. He’s singing “Ball and Chain,” a Social Distortion staple and fan favorite since its release in the early ’90s. No one seems to mind that Ness is singing about despair and rejection, even though he and his fellow punk rockers are on the verge of 50, that Ness is now a married father and multimillionaire who is about to embark on a nine-day vacation in Hawaii. The music, ranging from their 1983 debut album, Mommy’s Little Monster, to the new one due out Jan. 18, resonates with the throng of listeners.
Over the years, Ness says, he has often been approached by fans who want to thank him and the band for music that has gotten them through hard times. “Me, too,” he tells them.
Before the good times, Ness had bad ones, as well—really bad ones, from getting booted from his parents’ house to flat-lining from a heroin overdose. Despite the fame and success, Ness remains a troubled teen at heart. Which is why, before presenting the final song from the new album, “Still Alive”—a song that feels like a battle cry for where the band are today and where they’re going—Ness asks for the lights to be turned up.
“I’m looking out at this crowd, and I’m seeing survivors,” he says. “You don’t grow up in this world and not be a survivor.”
The life story of Social Distortion is a case study in survival. It’s a band who should have shattered into pieces on a number of occasions. And yet, album No. 7 is coming—finally. And, Ness says, the group feel like a band for the first time in years.
Once, Ness was just another pissed-off teenager, with a single tattoo on his left forearm and a troubled soul. He was living on his own, broke and starting in with drugs and booze. He turned to punk because that’s where all the angry, rebellious kids went in the ’70s. It was the scene for swearing and screaming and being a musician, despite minimal musical talent.
That was more than 30 years and countless tattoos ago. Over that span of time, he reached the depths of heroin junkyhood and the heights of music stardom, sharing a tour with the Ramones and the stage with Springsteen.