Were Social Distortion ever on The Simpsons? I can't remember, really, but it seems that somewhere among Smashing Pumpkins, Cypress Hill, Sonic Youth, R.E.M., the White Stripes, Metallica, the Who and Dolly Parton, the band that most cartoonishly epitomizes American punk rock (and, more specifically, California hardcore) would make at least a brief appearance on the show. Now (and sort of always) haggard and worn-in, the archetypal punk band from Fullerton are inextricable from their 30-year-long dramatic narrative that has crystallized around the group and their singer/founding member Mike Ness. Marked by trouble--and not the kind that most bands get into on the road, in the studio and with punk bunnies--Social Distortion have battled through darkly epic rock & roll circumstances.
Ness pins his initial interest in punk on classic teen angst. "When I heard punk rock, it sounded like how I felt inside. It was probably the [Sex] Pistols, and I was probably more angry then than any of them ever will be."
While his anger was channeled into aggressive and aggressively emotional music, it also apparently flowed inward: The band's history is pockmarked with periods of time lost to Ness' drug abuse and incarceration. Several band members--Social D went through numerous lineup changes over the years--have died. Living hard wasn't so much a concept, a punk ethos to pull from when shit got boring, as it was existence. "Back then, it was dangerous to run the streets of Newport Beach or Fullerton or Huntington Beach as a punk rocker, so society's volatile reaction to us only fueled it," Ness says. "You've got people telling us, 'You can't do this,' and we just said, 'Not only are we gonna do it, but we'll bury you and still be doing it.'" Heavy.
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Then everything else happened, and punk rock stuck. From their hardcore beginnings, evidenced on 1983's Mommy's Little Monster (a basically perfect gem), Ness led the band into a honed musical expanse of Johnny Cash-style country and rockabilly and bluesy, crunchy punk. This included a now-famous, grimly optimistic cover of Cash's "Ring of Fire" on their self-titled third release that stands up as the quintessential Social Distortion track, despite the fact that Ness' oeuvre contains legions of painful and affecting rock songs. Reinforcing his gritty cowboy iconography, Ness created and maintained a defined sartorial code, which was also more Man in Black than NOFX. The bad-dude look was purposefully evocative of an era (the 1950s, or, more accurately, a mythical point in Americana when mechanics' shirts and wifebeaters meant something) and a class distinction (lower to middle, the soil of most notable American artists). His overall cool was, and remains, palpable.
After an eight-year span of little recording activity, 2004's Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll (the most recent studio album) nodded at Mommy's strict punker margins, suggesting that the possible new record--set for 2008, according to the wilds of the Internet--might stay the course of traditional Californian hardcore. The distance between records, though, and the release of a greatest-hits collection last summer, intimate that the band might be through. Are Social Distortion capable of creating a new punk-rock frisson, or is their standing in the rock canon pretty much decided? Ness is confident in the import of punk. "Twenty-five years later, society has an open mind, and more people now will hear what you have to say, provided you have something to say," he says. It's not clear yet whether Ness still has something more to say.
Something significant can, in fact, be said lately for punk rock proper: It has burrowed back into the underground after a long period of cultural misappropriation. The core of punk, the big ideas, have primarily been fostered by the old guard, among them the stalwarts of Orange County's music scene, though not necessarily scary granddaddy Ness. Surprisingly tenacious (and maybe tough out of necessity: Bad Brains surely have less financial freedom than other same-age rockers who were half as crazy), punks exhibit an inspiringly dogged ambition to play live and keep recording. Whether Ness shares this attitude remains to be seen. "The term 'punk rock' to me always meant the beginning of something," he says. "People ask me all the time, what's the punk-rock scene like in Orange County? To me, it was a period of time that was 20-some years ago. It was the beginning of what is now. It's just another label."
Social Distortion perform with Time Again, the Mercy Killers and Donita Sparks, respectively, at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583; www.hob.com. Fri.-Sun., 7:30 p.m. $27.50. All ages.