Ness Is More
Photo by F. Scott SchaferMike Ness-young, zit-faced, spiky-haired, nearly tattooless-is onstage in Winnepeg, Canada, fronting Social Distortion, certainly the greatest band to ever come out of Fullerton. Stage-divers flail past him as he screams "Mommy's Little Monster," draped in a mysteriously bloodstained T-shirt.
Ness describes his average day: "Sleep in; watch Twilight Zone; eat; watch General Hospital, Rockford Files, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart; eat again; watch SWAT, Kung Fu; then go to a show."
Ness insists, "I can get as drunk as I want and still play!" in a don't-you-even-think-about-disagreeing-with-me-motherfucker tone of voice.
Ness gets ready for a show by delicately penciling on thick black eyeliner, and then-because he just wants to give you the creeps-he smears the gunk down his cheeks.
They're all scenes from Another State of Mind, a video documentary of a 1982 cross-country, old-school punk-rock tour featuring Social D, Youth Brigade and a rickety yellow school bus. There's also the inevitable "run-in with the Man" scene, in which Ness and a bunch of his comrades go into a Montreal diner. A crusty-faced schoolmarm of a waitress ignores the leather-jacketed horde. "I guess she's afraid of us," says a protesting voice-over. "She thinks we're gonna fuck with her or something." The waitress calls the cops (history lesson: tattoos, freaky hair colors and leather outfits were once intimidating), and the cops (who look like they're really pissed and want to wallop tout le monde) make Ness and his buddies leave. There'll be no eats for anybody tonight. SCORE: SOCIETY 1, NESS 0.
Seventeen years later, nobody's afraid of punk rockers anymore, not when you can get tattooed, pierced and dyed at your local shopping mall. Ness is 37, and his tattoos have spread over his body like a slowly evolving Sistine Chapel, from the knuckles of his hands (which spell out L-O-V-E on one hand and P-A-I-N on the other) all the way up to the sparrows on his neck. It's a blindingly bright Wednesday afternoon in Austin, Texas, at the annual South by Southwest music fest, where Ness will be playing a showcase the following night of songs from Cheating at Solitaire, his first solo album (Social D is still together, Ness maintains; the solo thing is just an "intermission").
While all the music-biz types are crashing at plush downtown hotels, Ness is at a Red Roof Inn several miles north of the city. When he walks into the lobby, you're surprised by how relatively short he is, probably around 5-foot-10. From all the myth-making tales about him-the time he single-handedly beat up 10 guys the size of Godzilla and then stuffed them up a cop's ass!-you'd think he'd be built like a pro wrestler. Instead, up close, he looks kinda scrawny, like you could take him in a fight, no problem. Still, there's something about him that says you shouldn't try. He's a funny talker, speaking in pretty much the same haggard, beaten-down, dragged-out growl that characterizes his singing. He's also completely honest when he's talking about things that piss him off, which sometimes is also pretty funny to watch, like when he's complaining about the Incredibly Narrowing Parking Spaces at his Costa Mesa neighborhood supermarket ("They made 'em for fuckin' midget cars! I just wanna find the guy who did that and say, 'WHAT THE FUCK WERE YOU THINKING?!? YOU'RE AN IMBECILE!'").
There's a lot to talk about: drugs, tattoos, the State of the Punk Nation, Orange County, the new record and, ultimately, surviving. Ness' life is just begging for a VH1: Behind the Music special.
Cheating at Solitaire is a great record (Ness still calls CDs "records"), easily the best, most complete-sounding thing he's done. That's mainly because he delves into roots-music terrain, putting aside the assault of Les Pauls that have always been Social D's signature. Right away, on the lead track, "The Devil in Miss Jones," a moaning pedal steel guitar lets you know that this ain't the Mike Ness record you're used to. He gets deeper into country on "Rest of Our Lives," which, in a better world, would get played on country radio as often as Garth Brooks' songs. The title tune is one of those classic Ness tales of constant existential pounding, what life is like when you're full of nothing but bad, bad luck. There's an oozy, boozy, barroom cover of Hank Williams' "You Win Again." "Ballad of a Lonely Man"-well, just that titletells you what kind of song it is (Johnny Cash was supposed to have sung it with Ness, but he's not in the best of health these days).
"I've always loved country music; it just never crept into Social D," he says. "When you think about it, if you put a pedal steel on 'Ball and Chain,' it's a country song. I mean, I love what I do with Social D, but I sometimes feel restricted, and I'm not the type of person who likes limits or boundaries. So this balances things out a bit. When I get tired of doing this, I'll put on some New York Dolls or Ramones and get psyched up for the next Social D."
Ness was a bit apprehensive about how people would see this move away from his punk roots. But he'll tell you that, in a way, this album is more of a return to his rock & rollroots than anything, since he grew up listening to old folk and country records. He was more concerned about the response to covering classic Hank Williams and Bob Dylan tunes like "You Win Again" and "Don't Think Twice." "But I just had to put myself in the same position where I was in 1979-just say fuck it. I didn't get to being where I'm at today by worrying about what people thought. But I'm not gonna lie: when it came time, I couldn't put the Les Paul down. It was like Linus' blanket or something."
Cheating at Solitaire, though, is not a country album. In other places, Ness explores cool jazz and deep, dark blues. And there's still enough snarling, badass rock & roll on the album to keep everybody happy. "Misery Loves Company" is a pumped-up burner about, well, being miserable, with Bruce Springsteen doing guest vocals. "Crime Don't Pay," a slow 'n' sleazy, bumpin' and a-grindin' rockabilly tune, is bound to get plenty of spins on the jukebox at Linda's Doll Hut, with its horn lines from the Royal Crown Revue and the Brian Setzer-picked lead guitar.
"We wanted guest appearances on this record just because we could," Ness says. "Social Distortion? We're great at what we do, but sometimes it's very one-dimensional. The main objective with this record was to show other sides of me, that I can do other things, not just the Les Pauls."
It also shows Ness' continued growth as a songwriter. Yeah, it's loaded with a lot of the same themes he's covered over the years: loneliness, isolation, anger, misery, rebellion and bum luck. Take the opening lines from "Rest of Our Lives": "Eighteen years in a traveling band/Seen a lot of one-night stands/And still I feel so very much alone." More than ever, they show Ness' sensitive side, an actual beating, feeling heart inside the tough guy's chest.
"Yeah, well, it's about my life, really," he says of the song, "about finally realizing that life without love is pretty empty. A lot of this record says that. Now, you're not ever gonna hear a bright, happy love song from me. But I hate to say it: I'm a romantic at heart.
"The way I grew up, my concepts of love were very distorted. I tried sex, drugs, everything imaginable, and I basically associated love," he says, showing the tats on his knuckles, "with pain."
There's pain aplenty in the Solitaire track "Dope Fiend Blues." It's the first song Ness has written that deals directly with his notorious heroin binges and run-ins with the law during the mid-'80s. It's also one of the best songs Ness has ever penned: "In a police car, feel so very small/I see my lover's face, and I watch her teardrops fall/And I try to figure out where I'd fallen off the track/ Well, I sold my soul to the devil, and then I stole it back/And in the end, you know a dope fiend ain't got no friends/ And a junkie is a junkie till the bitter end." Several lines later, there's this: "Aren't you tired of the detox/And the places in the mind?/Aren't you tired of the misery/Aren't you tired of doin' time?"
"I wanted to write a song that someone like [Stone Temple Pilots front man] Scott Weiland could hear and maybe just go, 'Man, I believe him; he's been there, and I don't wanna go there'-a song that shows people which way the wind really blows on heroin."
Blame punk rock or his upbringing in an alcoholic home (living with a hard-hitting dad who was a real SOB), whatever. Sometime after 1983's Mommy's Little Monster, Ness became a criminal, a hardened, pathetic junkie, and friends of Ness-like Jim Guerinot, his longtime manager and head of Laguna Beach-based Time Bomb Recordings (his new label after a seven-year stint with Epic)-aren't shy about telling you so. The Ness stories from that era are the stuff of legend. The arrests. The burglaries. The drugs. The sex. The gunplay. The fights. The overdoses. The near-death experiences. Heroin stole what should have been Ness' most productive, creative years and explains the six-year gap between Mommy's Little Monster and 1988's Prison Bound. The Pulp Fiction scene in which Uma Thurman gets an adrenalin shot in her heart? That really happened to Ness, who OD'd at a party and collapsed on a bathroom floor.
"He was about 22 seconds away from being brain-dead," Guerinot says. "And right after he got the needle, he immediately sat up and asked where his leather jacket was, as if nothing had happened."
Right before a gig at the Olympic Auditorium, Ness, in need of a fix, pawned all of Social D's gear for drug money. Desperate, they borrowed equipment from one of their opening bands. A few days later, that band came to pick up their gear, only to find out that Ness had pawned that, too.
Once, a friend picked up Ness hitchhiking on Harbor Boulevard. He had a gun and a paper bag and was talking about how he had just robbed somebody. "He was a junkie, and junkies are assholes," says Guerinot.
No single incident inspired Ness to clean up, Guerinot says; it was just the harsh, accumulative unfolding of many, many disasters. "At a certain point, you just have nowhere to go, no one left to rob," Guerinot says. "He was dope-sick. After all the things he did, it's kind of hard to believe anybody still talks to the guy." Ness has been clean for 13 years. He doesn't even drink, he'll tell you; he just smokes the occasional cigar.
Sometimes, though, he admits, he misses the drugs, "but only when I can't sleep, like last night, which is why I'm fuckin' cranky. Stress is my No. 1 enemy these days. But it's hard to come to grips with stress when your life is hectic because of scheduling and promotion and stuff that revolves around a new record. Being on the road now, it's like, 'Aw, fuck, man-planes, trains and fucking automobiles!' I'm working on it, though. I'm not about to go to a yoga class or anything like that. But I do notwant to die of a stress-related illness, especially after surviving all that other stuff. I think about the time when I should have been shot in Anaheim, or the times I OD'd. So to die of something like stress would be pathetic. I have road rage back in SoCal, and I've been trying to put it in check."
Hmmm. . . . Mike, have you ever thought about seeing a therapist? Ness laughs. "Yeah, oh, yeah," he says. "I'm about due. At this point in my life, there are probably a lot of unresolved issues and inner conflicts still pending. I'm open to it."
But Ness did not follow the typical junkie's story-either die or substitute faith in horse with religion. "No, there were two things that I did not try: religion and the military. Because, once again, if you try to put those restrictions on me, I'm the type of person who would wanna fight the sergeant. I'd throw a hand grenade in his tent."
You get the feeling that Ness will also start hurling explosives when the subject of punk then vs. punk now comes up, which he says is what the Solitaire tune "No Man's Friend" is about. "Punk rock and tattoos and hair grease, they're the cool thing now," he says. "But it's a whole image thing, and your background doesn't really matter. I see people who were listening to Guns N' Roses six years ago, and now they're sleeved and greased and driving old cars, and they think they're fuckin' cool. They're even in a little fuckin' band or they have a clothing line or they're a tattoo artist. They don't know what the fuck they're talking about. So that song's really about poseurs. I felt the need to ventilate that in a nondirect way. I wanted people to wonder, like, 'Fuck, man, is he talking about me?'"
Ness is on a roll: "The whole thing about punk was doing what you wanna do, regardless of what even your best friend standing next to you is gonna say," he says. "It wasn't about fashion. I used to turn on MTV, and I'd want to kick in my television over Kajagoogoo, and now it's the same thing. Just because this motherfucker has blue hair doesn't mean he's credible or real. The whole thing about punk was to break that whole youth marketing tool of radio and stuff back then. But now the music has becomea big marketing tool. I mean, I got tattoos purely for antisocial reasons. I needed to create a barrier between me and mainstream morals, ideals and society. And now tattoos are mainstream, and there's a tattoo shop on every corner. It's all image, and background means nothing."
Then Professor Ness starts teaching class. You, of course, will listen. "Punk music really opened the door for everything," he says. "It closed the door on this standard, conceptual, self-indulgent, limousine, Led Zeppelin/Pink Floyd/ Phil Collins shit, the thinking that you had to take 10 years of music theory before you could be in a band. Punk was young and fresh. And that-combined with society saying 'No'-was like: 'Fuck me? No, fuck you!'
"It's hard for me to see that period of time ever repeating itself. Punk music today is very . . . cute.I don't want cute. The last thing you want is to pull up at a red light in your car and have the guy next to you say your car is cute. Punk is supposed to be fucking evil. Cute went out with the Bay City fuckin' Rollers, y'know? Fuck cute."
Ness left Fullerton long ago and now lives in Costa Mesa. Lately, though, he's been thinking about a move to an older part of LA because, he says, he feels the need for something to satisfy his "old soul," a place where history is preserved, away from the mini-mall culture of OC.
"At this point in my life, I'm wanting a little bit more out of a neighborhood. I want something with more history," he says. "I mean, Costa Mesa just tore down one of the last old buildings in the city, and they built a boat dealership. They tore down the old Mesa Theatre, which, if I had the money, I would have bought and turned into a coffee shop that showed cult films and B-movies in the back for 5 bucks. I want something that has a vibe when I walk into it instead of just some place that's trying to sell me something."
He admits he's still fond of his old Fullerton hood, where a lot of his growing up-for better or worse-took place. Social D still rehearses there, though Ness has mixed feelings when he goes back. "Fullerton's a little eerie for me because there are a lot of memories there," he says. "I'll drive past the methadone clinic and remember all that. I'll pass the spot where the detectives picked me up for commercial burglary and the place where I OD'd. But at the same time, there's the railroad track that Dennis [Danell, Social D's longtime guitarist] and I walked down at night with a 12-pack to go watch the Mechanics rehearse. So it's a very romanticized period, too."
Somehow, Ness survived it all- Fullerton, heroin, alcohol, arrests, band shake-ups, even Social D's three-album stint with a major label, which alone would be pretty miraculous. ("The music industry seems to be one of the last forms of white slavery," he says about the years on Epic.) Cheating at Solitaire is the story of that life, punctuated perfectly by "Charmed Life."
"I've been introducing that onstage by saying that every day aboveground is a good day because I probably should have been dead at 23-technically was dead a couple of times," he says. "The fact that I survived that and all my brushes with fatality is what makes me grateful for what I have instead of bitter about what I don't have. I'm able to play music, travel, build custom cars and Harleys, go to the boxing gym, go to the flea market and spend time with my kids. I'm very fortunate I didn't die in a shitty motel room or spend 15 to 20 years in the prison system or become a derelict on the street. Unfortunately, that lifestyle got the better of a lot of people I knew back then."
Once again, the cops are hassling Ness. It's almost midnight in Austin, and outside the Continental Club, where Ness is supposed to play his South by Southwest set (with the Reverend Horton Heat backing him up), half a dozen squad cars are parked on the street outside, their party lights going full-tilt. Several cops are decked out in riot gear, waiting for some shit to happen. Apparently in Texas, tattoos, greased hair and leather jackets are still a threat. The cops are here because the club was severely overcrowded, and they're keeping watch while everybody spills out onto the sidewalk, lining up to get back in. People are pissed. Some drunken football-player types, exactly the sort to pick a fight with a punker like Ness back in the old days just because he dressed differently, start chanting: "MIKE! NESS! MIKE! NESS!" Eventually, the throng is allowed back in, only this time, the doorman keeps count. Ness and the Reverend Horton Heat take the stage about a half-hour late.
"Sorry about the riot squad," Ness says. "I didn't invite them." He's cloaked completely in black, and the cowboy shirt he wears has funky silver stitching. The band goes quickly into "The Devil in Miss Jones." Then it's "Don't Think Twice," with Ness hitting sad, lonely notes that make this punk for life actually seem tender and vulnerable. After two false starts of "Misery Loves Company"-technical difficulties-the tenderness disappears, and Ness' anger comes spewing out. He yelps, "Fuck!" and looks mighty pissed, but he keeps going-there's nothing else to do. Someone in the crowd hollers, "Orange County '82!" as if he wanted to hear "Moral Threat," "Telling Them" or some other Social Distortion song. But not on this night. 1982 was a very, very long time ago, a whole other lifetime, really. Ness ignores the shout-out, thrusts his left leg forward-his usual stage stance-and rips up the room. By "Dope Fiend Blues," he's quite a ball of sweat. By the end of his 40 minutes, his black eyeliner is slowly trickling down his face, just like it used to when he was 20. The crowd goes apeshit. The cops have cleared out. Country music and eyeliner, man-that's the realpunk. SCORE: SOCIETY 1, NESS 1.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.