Mark C. Horn
In the song "California (Hustle & Flow)" from Social Distortion's Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, singer Mike Ness professes, "Life gets hard and then it gets good / like I always knew it would."
Ness, the one-time Fullerton, California, street punk and lone surviving member of the legendary So Cal punk band Social Distortion, is as recognizable for living the life he portrays in verse, both the bad and good, as he is by the shades, tattoos, classic punk snarl vocals and cautionary tales.
In short, he has gone from survival mode, having been kicked out of his childhood home at 15, to living life on his terms as a the band's leader, owner of Black Kat Kustoms (est. 2003) clothing line and car and bike parts, and having a solid marriage, two sons, a ranch, and most of all, happiness.
But unlike a movie storyline where rags to riches happen overnight, Ness's turn-around took time. He had to earn it the old-fashion way, hard work and of course, hard times.
It has been 37 years since Ness began a nascent punk band with high school classmates. The litany of obstacles he has overcome is the nothing short of amazing — he's gone through 26 different band members, survived the death of four of them, kicked drug addiction, served jail time, learned from heartbreak, weathered two band breakups, and produced seven critically-acclaimed studio albums.
Ness and his band find themselves at a familiar cross roads with a four-year absence from the recording studio, brimming with a fistful of original songs waiting to strike again.
Ness has a variety of projects waiting in the flanks, including a new Social D album, a new solo album and even a bio.
"When the book does come out, it's not [gonna be] your stereotypical rock book. It's more about my struggle to become a man at 52 years old , and I am still trying to figure that out," Ness admits. "So much of your adult life is shaped and defined by the time you are 12 years old. You bring stuff with you that you don't even know you have. You don't have a lot of tools in your tool box, and so I have had to learn along the way. Fortunately I have a family and we are close, and we can talk about things."
As for the new musical material, Ness is taking his time to determine what direction a new release will take.
"I am still kind of figuring that out myself," Ness admits. "I've written some great root songs that could very easily have been on the last record. But I wouldn't say I've gone back to the punk roots so much. Part of me wants to play around with some primitive garage, dirty grooves, like early Sonics or Kinks, because I love that style of music and there are good melodies, so I don't know."
The success of SD's most recent release, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes from 2011, has provided the band time to add to its rich catalog of tunes. While the punk attitude was still there, the real success of the album which charted as high as number four on the Billboard album chart, came from a vantage point of "been there, done that, lesson learned" wisdom. There was a diversity of songs that owed as almost more to a rhythm and blues underlining, as it did punk rock.
While the band's first single and video from the LP was the full-throttle "Machine Gun Blues"; a popular animated black-and-white video for "Gimme the Sweet Low Down" came a few years after the album's release. The video, created by Olya & Vera Ishchuk, known as "The Mad Twins" from the Ukraine, tells the life story of Ness's adolescent struggles and the musical influences that lifted him up.
"What's funny about that is the artists who did that, they just did that on their own. No direction, I really think that they found some deep dual meaning in there and very perceptive. I thought it was fabulous. I was so blown away by that."
Despite being made thousands of miles away, the animated video actually was submitted by the Ishchuk twins and won the award for Best Animation at last year's Arizona Underground Film Festival in 2014.
"On Hard Times, I had to challenge myself," explains Ness. "I felt if I had to be careful and if I made this record too autobiographically that I was going to get pigeon-holed into that (style), and I didn't want that. So, I just experimented around with some character writing and "Sweet and Low Down" is the perfect example. The minute I removed myself from it I had options. "
The Story of My Life is the autobiography Ness has toiled over in recent years, writing how he and the band have persevered, survived and become a veteran rock 'n' roll mainstay.
The band began in Fullerton, California, in 1978, with Ness recruiting guitarist Dennis Danell, who became the only constant band mate in the line-up for nearly two decades. Social Distortion blazed forth with raw locomotive guitar and rhythm section inspired by the likes of the The Clash, Sex Pistols and the Rolling Stones. It cut its recording teeth on its first single "Mainline/Playpen" on pioneering punk label Posh Boy in 1981. It would be legendary patron of the punk arts and DJ Rodney Bingenheimer who would give early and steady airplay for the young band on his infamous KROQ-FM show.
The band's first venture beyond the West Coast tour circuit came in 1982 and was documented in the now infamous Another State of Mind video, but was not released until 1984 with Ness playing with guitarist Dennis Danell, bassist Brent Liles and drummer Derek O'Brien.
The film chronicled the excitement of hitting the US and International road, and the despair and initial breakdown of Social Distortion and fellow touring band Youth Brigade.
From that experience came Social Distortion's first album Mommy's Little Monster with title song and "Another State of Mind" on the band's own 13th Floor Records label in 1983. Due to the familiarity gained from the initial tour, Mommy's Little Monster put Social D on the map.
"Believe it or not, I didn't think we were going to live this long, but if we did I wanted to be successful at this," he confesses about the humble first days which were filled with Ness being strung out on heroine. "It wasn't a hobby for me. When I started this band there was ninety-percent of society was telling us we couldn't do it. I had to fight hard and I had something to prove, and with a brutal determination, I wasn't going to give up."
But before he could make a true impact, the drugs took over and prison time for Ness, and a band hiatus put the aspirations on hold.
"I attributed hitting bottom a lot to being young; when I hit rock bottom I was 23. And, I attribute hitting bottom so young because of a painful childhood. So, to live a painful life as an adult didn't make sense to me. I had already been through alcoholism and divorce and foster homes and welfare workers, and all of that as a kid. I didn't want to go through all of that as an adult."
Ness explains in retrospect that once he did clean up, he was nearly willing to give up music for good because for him the lifestyle of a young punk musician life consisted of alcohol, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.
"That almost killed me," he says openly. "I put it on hold [the music and band]. I learned a trade, I got sober, having been at the bottom of the barrel and going through detox.
"I realized that I had all of this energy that went into drinking and using and trying to get more. Now, I had all that energy to put into the music that I loved, and so by the fourth or fifth year of painting, I got us some airtime that led to us getting signed to a major label. I got to quit my day job, and then I really had a lot of energy to put into music."
After a 1986 rejoining of the band, Ness and company went about the business of putting together what would be the next release, aptly titled Prison Bound in 1988. Somewhat of a departure from the first LP, the second release on Restless Records, saw Ness's country Johnny Cash influences come through in cathartic fashion..
The launching pad from notorious up-and-coming to acclaimed arrival would come with the band's eponymously-title Social Distortion in 1990 on Epic Records, with the veteran production direction of Dave Jerden. The album would define the band's mastery rockabilly-infused cow punk. On the strength of "Ball and Chain,",= "Story of My Life." and a tour-de-force punk rendition of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," Social D reached the Billboard Top 200, peaking at 128.
Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell would follow in two years later and would be the third album Ness played with the same line-up of Danell, John Mauer on bass and Christopher Reece on drums.
The single "Bad Luck" would put SD on the rise among radio stations and record stores beyond the punk and alt rock crowd. The song would peak at Number Two on the Heat-Seeking chart giving the band its highest position on any chart.
Ness and band are no strangers to tour stops in Arizona, and in fact have been coming to the likes of the Valley for years on and off from their very beginning.
"We just always had this little trip of Orange County, San Diego, Las Vegas, Arizona, San Francisco. In 1983, 1984 when I was strung out on drugs, I didn't want to get too far out there. We started by playing warehouses there back in the day for 200 kids. so we have firm roots planted in Arizona.
Since those humble beginnings, Social Distortion has played all over the world, and the band's appearance at the Arizona Bike Week in Scottsdale March 25 will be its first performance of the year, and its apparent first bike show to headlined.
"We've played car shows for years, but we've never been asked to do any motorcycle shows," says Ness, adding, "We love riding and although I haven't built a bike in years, (I) still love looking at them, and talking about them.
"Seemed like someone figured out it was a natural fit… Good music and riding bikes. Sounds like it's going to be a great day!"