Story of His Life
Social Distortion’s Mike Ness rocks on in an older and wiser key
By Scott Martelle / Photograph by Danny Clinch
For more than 30 years, followers of Social Distortion—punk pioneers whose longevity has made them one of Orange County’s best-known musical exports—could be sure of one thing: A new album would mean a mix of slashing guitars, tattooed frontman Mike Ness’ snarling vocals, and a cathartic release of frustrations large and small.
The early songs, with titles such as “It Wasn’t a Pretty Picture” and “Mommy’s Little Monster,” were a rejection of, and aggression toward, the perceived Orange County ethos of conservative conformity.
At 48, Ness is in a different place now, and “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes,” the band’s new album and its first of original songs since 2004’s “Sex, Love and Rock ’n’ Roll,” shows it. Though far from conforming, he’s been clean and sober for more than two decades.
In the last few years he has relocated three times. He and his wife moved from one house in Santa Ana to another, and then to a 4,000-square-foot home in a gated Lemon Heights neighborhood. “It was beautiful for us, but far too remote for the kids,” says the father of two, so they moved again to Newport Beach’s Balboa Peninsula. “Right now it’s fine, but I don’t know that I want to be paying that high property tax for the rest of my life.” In late fall, Ness had both properties up for sale, destination unknown.
Like Orange County itself, Social Distortion has been shaped by continual flux and growth. With 17 former members, the band’s only constant has been Ness, who found salvation in music after getting kicked out of his family’s home at age 15 and embarking on a self-destructive spiral of drugs and fights (“I’ve got society’s blood running down my face,” he sang in the 1996 song “I Was Wrong”).
The new album is the most upbeat collection of songs Ness has recorded. For the first time, he was sole producer, taking ultimate control of the band he co-founded decades ago in a rundown Fullerton apartment. “It was a new challenge. I was able to just take charge and say, ‘OK, this isn’t working, let’s try this,’ ” he says, describing the experience as “awesome” and “perfect.”
The sage rocker still looks at the world from the outside in, as does his latest album. In many of the songs, Ness finds a silver lining in the usual clouds of rejection and failure—and survival, as in the concluding “Still Alive,” a radio-ready shout against the darkness. It’s the anthem of an angry young man evolving to the cusp of a settled middle age. Settled, of course, being a relative term. “I do like to think that now I’m older and wiser, and maybe it’s OK to acknowledge the problems,” he says. “But we’re also living the solution a little bit.”
Scott Martelle is the author of the forthcoming “The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial” (Rutgers University Press).
This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of Orange Coast magazine.