By Jim Schutze
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There is no good way to interview Mike Ness. He dodges questions by answering different ones, then answers them again. It's like having a conversation with a press release, as he reads through a series of quotes that don't necessarily even match the questions asked; you get the feeling that any series of questions would elicit the same responses. ("What's your favorite kind of ice cream?" "I wasn't supposed to live this long, you know.") He'll mention his bout with drug addiction and stints in jail, but Ness' willingness to talk about everything only serves to mask his inability to talk about anything.
He might as well be Adam Sandler trying out his routine on Jay Leno's couch -- you can either guide him through it or let him lead you. Either way, you're going to end up in the exact same place. Ness has nothing new to say anymore, and after reading some of the interviews he has given in the past decade, one may believe that maybe he never did. Even onstage, he relies on the same anecdotes that he tells interviewers, identical stories about his love for Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and growing up punk when that meant you had to be ready to take on all comers. He doesn't even bother to change the words.
Ness has been giving the same answers for so long, he could probably do it in his sleep. Which is exactly what it sounds like he's doing this morning, sitting in a Red Roof Inn in Washington, D.C., discussing the band he's been in for two decades, Social Distortion, as well as his first solo album, Cheating at Solitaire, released in late April. Every answer is a preemptive strike launched in a cigarette-stained voice desperately in search of a cup of coffee, a reply that begins somewhere in the neighborhood of the query and quickly speeds off in the opposite direction. He gets to the questions before you do, even the ones you hadn't planned on asking, filling in nonexistent blanks. Don't worry if you can't keep up; just check the printed transcriptions in Rolling Stone or Spin or the between-song banter on 1998's Live at the Roxy. At least he's consistent.
The problem is that, for a long time, Ness was answering the same questions. For years, Ness was expected to be the same 21-year-old tragedy that appeared on 1983's Mommy's Little Monster, a punk-rock James Dean with a Gretsch in one hand and a needle in the other. Even though he quit heroin for good two years later, Ness has never completely escaped from its effects. Maybe it's because he's always looked just like the kid on Social Distortion's debut -- the same cold, hard stare peeking out above a torso disappearing in a sea of ink. But everything else has changed for Ness: He's a family man now, a respectable member of society.
Still, if journalists aren't painting him as an aging rebel without a pause, he's often forced into the role of the somber 12-stepper, making anonymous apologies for his squandered youth, atoning for sins that were forgiven more than a decade ago. He knows the script better than anyone else, never misses his cues to bring up the nights he wasted in jail and the days consumed by heroin. Ness has been explaining his past longer than he lived it, the handful of years he spent dying overshadowing all the years of living since then.
"I've dealt with that for the last 15 years," Ness says, on the verge of an actual discussion about his treatment by the media over the years. But then he stops himself, changing the question until it's one he wants to answer. "I think that the majority of fans respect Social Distortion because we're not afraid to evolve. [We] defied a lot of the stereotypes and stigmas that came with punk, because we were really from the first school. By the mid-'80s, a lot of that had just really become a big stereotype. We fought hard to find our own way. In the beginning, it was a big revolution, but no one had really talked about an evolution. I feel that we've gone slow and gradual and evolved, and most of our fans have evolved with us."
Social Distortion's staying power is obviously a source of pride for him, especially since many of his contemporaries burned out or faded away a long time ago. Ness realizes he could have ended up like Keith Morris, the former Black Flag singer and occasional Circle Jerks frontman, paying the rent by waiting tables at a coffee shop in Los Angeles. And he knows he probably should have ended up like The Germs' Darby Crash, who quit heroin only after he quit breathing. Social Distortion has outlived them all, finally receiving its first gold record -- for 1996's White Light White Heat White Trash -- almost two decades after forming. So it's no surprise that the fact that Social Distortion is still around, and that he's still alive to be in it, is Ness' favorite subject.