Carrying on after the death of a lifelong friend and band mate, Social Distortion's Mike Ness discovers another state of mind
By Tom Lanham
If there's one granite-solid rule in contemporary rock & roll, it's this: Don't fuck with Mike Ness. Period. Recently, that lesson was lost on a certain loudmouth who dared to challenge the muscular Social Distortion bandleader from the thrash-pit crowd.
"I was onstage saying something about Bush, just trying to spread a little awareness here and there," smirks Ness, scratching his heavily tattooed neck that's roughly the size of a small redwood. "And this guy was spoutin' off in the audience, until I was like, 'All right--you got somethin' to say? Here--say it!' And I held the mic out to him. And he said something like, 'You say one more bad thing about my president, and I'm gonna lay you out, nigga!'" Big mistake.
Next thing Ness knew, he was flying off the stage "and just poundin' that guy into the ground."
Afterward, Ness felt horrible about losing his temper. And then and there, he decided three things:
(1) He was far too old for fisticuffs; (2) as a married family man, he had too much to lose from such testosterone escapades; and (3) he was a grown man, supposedly past the face-pummeling age. "It takes a bigger man to walk away from a fight than it does to actually fight," he now believes. "So I've learned from that incident, I think. And life's just too precious to me now--I'm tired of fucking around. The things in life that matter now are friends, family and health. And if you ain't got that, you ain't got shit."
It's a message that was hammered home for Ness back in 2000, with the sudden passing of longtime Social Distortion guitarist Dennis Danell. The band's latest slugfest, Sex, Love and Rock 'N' Roll, is dedicated to the late musician, with one track--the proto-punk anthem "Don't Take Me for Granted"--providing an especially eloquent tribute. The set is classic Social D--a fluid melding of punk, garage and vintage rockabilly styles. But the lyrical undercurrents are tough-guy Ness at his softest and most vulnerable.
"Compared to our last studio album, White Light, White Heat, White Trash, this new one's definitely not as dark," reckons Ness, who first hit the post-punk scene back in '82 with the bratty Mommy's Little Monster. "Eight years have passed, I'm a little older, a little wiser, hopefully, and not so much in the problem, maybe a little bit more in the solution. I'm definitely in a different place now."
So conjuring up elegiac images for "Don't Take Me for Granted," he adds, was remarkably easy. "I just reflected Dennis and I walking down a railroad track, each of us has got a six-pack, we're drinking and we're talking about starting a band. And 25 years later, we're a band, but unfortunately he and I aren't together anymore."
Danell has been replaced by Jonny "2 Bags" Wickersham. But his spirit lives on in the thunderous, amp-scorching guitar leads that have become Social Distortion's trademark, just as recognizable as its drink-swilling skeleton logo. Years ago, Ness relates, a pal sketched the bony icon on a New Year's party invitation, then donated it to the singer; now, a tattoo of it adorns one of his beefy forearms, just beneath the stay-clean 12-step mantra 'Thy will, not mine.' Although his former lifestyle is documented in many a Social D rabble-rouser, Ness hasn't partied for years. In fact, when he isn't beating the holy hell out of anyone stupid enough to cross him, he lives a decidedly sedate SoCal life.
Ness is also an unapologetic gearhead--he's been busy restoring his '79 shovelhead bike, '54 Chevrolet and a classic three-window '36 Ford coupe. He also has his own auto shop in Fullerton, Black Kat Kustoms, whose line of ultrahip merch is sold alongside skeleton schwag at SD shows. By day, he goes longboarding with his two sons. And at the end of every tour, Ness happily returns to ... a farm? Yup, he grins. It's true. "I don't have any money in the bank, but I've got three acres and a fuckin' tractor. So fuck it. And I want chickens, a coupla pygmy goats. I want a horse. And I wanna have cows as pets, not to send 'em off to get butchered.
"So it's like, make each day count. Basically live it like it's your last, because it just might be. It could be terrorists, it could be a mosquito. You just never know."
Social Distortion, plus Dead 60s and The Johns, play Friday, Nov. 11, at 9pm at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz; ages 21 and over, $25; 831.423.1336.
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