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Sleep talking

Mike Ness didn't expect to live this long. Or maybe you already knew that.

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.

 

However, the truth is that Ness isn't as satisfied with the way that Social Distortion has evolved as he would have you believe. He doesn't have to say it; the existence of Cheating at Solitaire says enough for him. Why else would the man who wrote and sang almost every Social D song want to strike out on his own? Cheating at Solitaire is Ness' way of breaking up the band without having to. Even he will admit that Social Distortion has become "one-dimensional," stuck on the same note for a dozen years. Cheating at Solitaire was his only means of escape.

Since 1990's Social Distortion, Ness has had songs -- many of them just ideas -- he didn't feel would work with his longtime band, songs he didn't think they would get. Ness grew up listening to Woody Guthrie, but no one else in Social Distortion had a clue who he was. They preferred to stick with the familiar, playing slight re-writes of Social D faves such as "Sick Boy" and "Bad Luck." Ness didn't believe his new batch of songs would work with Social Distortion's fans either. They expected something from the band that Ness didn't want to give them anymore. With his solo album, he didn't want to -- and didn't have to -- give anything to anyone but himself.

"Well, I knew I wanted to do a solo record about seven years ago, but you know, it's just kind of been put on the back burner, patiently waiting," Ness explains. "I just really felt that now was the time to do it. I put everything I had into Social Distortion the last 10 years, hard work, and I really felt like I needed to do something for myself. It was definitely a risk, a leap of faith, you know? But it was something that, before I was even halfway through with the making of the record, I was convinced that I made the right choice. And now, I'm even more convinced. Now, it's very apparent to me that it's imperative, from here on out, that I do both. It's definitely provided a missing balance for me."

It's a balance Ness has been working on finding for the past few years, starting with his music and continuing with his personal life. On Social Distortion's last studio album, White Light White Heat White Trash, Ness opened up for the first time, spurred on by the sudden death of his grandmother, Louise Elliot. (The album's "When the Angels Sing" is dedicated to her.) After years of projecting his anger onto other people, he took the blame on his own shoulders. He spoke plainly about the mistakes he had made on songs such as the three-chord confession "I Was Wrong," finally owning up to all the mistakes he had made over the years.

He continues the pattern on Cheating at Solitaire, singing about the "Dope Fiend Blues" and how "Misery Loves Company" (a duet with Bruce Springsteen, no less). It's not hard to see Ness in all of the songs, most of them told from the perspective of a desperate loner who does bad things because he doesn't have a choice. If the subject matter isn't exactly surprising, the setting is. Armed with a crack new band (including members of Royal Crown Revue), Ness' sad songs take on new forms, diverging from the generic punk sound that plagued White Light White Heat White Trash. With a nod to the music he grew up listening to, Ness dabbles in country and blues and straight-ahead rock, joined at times by Brian Setzer, Springsteen, and X's Billy Zoom. The album is so straightforward, it wouldn't be a stretch to call the album his Petty Sounds.

"A lot happened when I wrote White Light White Heat," Ness says, stifling a yawn. "It was like I realized that at this point in my career, you can't just whip out a record when it's time to whip out a record. Each record needs to somehow stand out from the last one. It was really just the beginning of the record-making process for us. And yeah, this definitely followed that. This record is 37 years of influences. Whether it's Depression-era folk music or rockabilly or traditional country or punk music or blues, I think it's important that they all come out equally."

After a few false starts, Ness also is trying to treat everything else in his life just as well. Ness recently reunited with the mother of his 7-year-old son, Julian, after splitting from her a few months before Julian was born. When his two-month tour supporting Cheating at Solitaire ends in a few weeks, Ness will return to California to the house he now shares with her, and Julian will be right there with him, after joining his dad on the Houston stop of the tour and riding home with him on the bus.

 

Later this year, Ness will reunite with Social Distortion bandmates to record an album of covers just in time for the Christmas season. Other than that, Ness doesn't know what the future holds for him -- maybe a new Social D album of original material, possibly another solo record. He doesn't have any idea, because -- surprise -- he never thought he would make it this far.

"Well, I wasn't supposed to have lived this long," Ness says, answering a question that was supposedly about Springsteen. "But I'm grateful that I have, and I'm grateful that I've been able to do this for this long. A lot of people ask me, 'What would you hope for the future?' And I would say just to be able to continue, because a lot of bands can't. A lot of people have success, and they come in and make their millions of dollars, but they can't deliver another record that's of equal significance. I may not have been commercially correct, but you know, I feel that I've done it."


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