Interview: Tenacious D: Mike Ness on 30 years of Social Distortion

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Mike Ness, pictured here rocking faces off.

Island Packet — For a number of extremely appropriate reasons, the music of Social Distortion serves as a particularly effective antidote — or at least an accompaniment — to adolescent-era small-town near-panicky Friday night restlessness, which is why theirs was generally the first cassette Aaron Bradshaw would snap into his tape deck on our regular, mostly pointless semi-excursions into northwest Indiana nights (usually the one with “Ball and Chain,” the band’s definitive kiss-off to a tortured relationship that either of us would have sold the other out for without a second thought).

Mixing Springsteen’s factory-overalls ethic with Southern California punk energy and outerwear, Social Distortion boiled all the wordiness and loftier ideals out of “Born to Run” and redrew the map so the highways all ended basically in the same town they just left. And they did it with a metaphorically impeccable chain of iconic dusty punk images, ideas and inventions: the albums had names like “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell,” they cooked Johnny Cash songs into fiery punk rave-ups and they starred singer Mike Ness, a mess of tattoos and broken-down proclamations whose voice sounds like he’s dragging it behind the truck on a chain. (“I’m a Cadillac tramp at the end of the road/I’m a guitar gangster without a tune” — damn right you are!)

But in the 30th year of their career, Ness and Social Distortion have managed to do one of the most un-punk things you can do these days: They failed to burn out. They’ve never become obsolete, never released a single featuring a rapper and never transmogrified into some sort of Frankenstein monster riding the rails powered by scrap parts and nostalgia T-shirt sales. This year alone has seen Ness turn up at a Springsteen concert in California to do one of his own songs (“Bad Luck,” see below); the band leaves Hilton Head Island to open for Pearl Jam for two nights in Philadelphia alongside fellow enduring punk godfathers Bad Religion.

“It’s still a rush, no matter what, when you’re walking out there,” Ness said by phone last week from New York City. “You spend the whole day sometimes toiling, and you walk out there and it’s like, ‘Oh yeah. This is why I’m here.’ ”

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This is a believable quote, because Social Distortion in 2009, for all intents, sounds like Social Distortion in 1983 or 1990 or 1992, which is why the band still finds itself somewhere between heaven and hell. “It’s crazy, you look in the crowd or the line before the show, and you see a kid bringing his dad or a mom bringing her son or daughter,” Ness said. “It’s cool that we are worth enough for people to want to share with friends and generations. You never really expect that.”

Indeed, Social Distortion is one of those bands that kids know they should know before they technically know them, like the Misfits or Bad Religion. “I think we’re a band that people grew up with and became a part of their lives,” Ness said. “We weren’t just a song on the radio. With us, you’ve got people who were going to see us when they were 18, and now they’re older and passed us down.”

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‘The global message’

There is a bit of cognitive dissonance about the band’s show at the Shoreline Ballroom on Hilton Head, an island not generally known for shows by punk godfather types, a little thing I bring up to Ness.

“What’s it known for?” Ness asks, with what I believe to be some concern.

Well, gee, I reply, there’s the golf, and the tennis. Nice beaches. At this point, I’m serving as a one-man Chamber of Commerce for Social Distortion.

“Well, we just recently played in Palm Springs, that’s a very similar place and a great show,” Ness said. “You think, ‘What’s this going to be like?’ but it ends up being one of the best shows ever. There’s really no rhyme or reason.”

Ness says the idea was to hit those different parts of the country this time out. “This tour is hitting markets that either we haven’t been to or we haven’t been to in a long time,” he said. “They’re just as important as Chicago or New York or San Francisco. I wouldn’t say we have the global message that the Clash had, but the Clash wanted to reach everybody, and that’s kind of how we feel.”

Ness says Sunday’s show will work in new tracks from the band’s upcoming seventh record, which he said will be “about as signature as you can get” and will be recorded at the Foo Fighters’ studio in California this winter and is due out next spring or summer.

But for now, the calendar looks the same as it has for decades. “In Social D shows you’ve got 30 years of songs, and (people) want to hear this, they want to hear that,” he said. “No matter what you do, people are always like, ‘Why didn’t you do this song? Well, we didn’t have time.”

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About Jeff Vrabel

My writing has appeared in GQ, Men’s Health, Success, the Washington Post, the official BruceSpringsteen.net, Indianapolis Monthly, Billboard, Modern Bride and more. View all posts by Jeff Vrabel

9 responses to “Interview: Tenacious D: Mike Ness on 30 years of Social Distortion

  • ubermilf

    A friend and I went to see them at the (Chicago) House of Blues a few years ago, and their was an EXTREMELY uptight-looking woman there with her boyfriend. She was dressed very conservatively, with what I can only describe as Republican hair. I believe she wore some sort of loafers on her feet.

    Anyway, she sat there looking bored and angry with her arms crossed in front of her, and I assumed her boyfriend/husband had dragged her unwillingly to the show. Then, when Social D played their cover of “Ring of Fire,” she stood up on her chair and started whooping and hollering and dancing and acting like a maniac.

    As soon as the song was over, she sat back down, stony-faced, as she was before.

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  • Dan-Scriptomatic-Cinematic-Telematic-3D

    Great piece! That second paragraph unleashed hell on my misbegotten head and blasted me back to my twenties in NYC going to see Bad Religion and Rollins Band live at various venues. I never got around to seeing Social D but I’m a big fan and still play the heaven and hell record; Bad Luck is an unbelievable single — still remember seeing that video where they’re playing pool and hearing that pick slide and buying the cd the next day.

    So you say Bad Religion and Social D are opening up for Pearl Jam? Damn, I gotta get on that but I probably already missed the west coast shows. (and if you have any articles on Pearl Jam’s Target ads, please point me to them, I almost fell off the couch when I saw that commercial).

    Thanks for the youtube; I didn’t even know Bruce and Ness were friends; been out of it for too long. But seriously, why can’t a single new punk/hard rock band (if there are any) write a song with more than one riff? The “Limp Bizkit-effect,” I suppose, still ruling rock radio (and I use the term rock radio loosely, if you can call limp 80s New Wave homages to be real rock).

    And good to see Bruce still isn’t a very good soloist but it doesn’t matter because he’s Bruce! 🙂

    (hope I don’t sound too negative, this was inspiring and really well written, so thanks.)

    I’m a movie/tv/screenplay guy but I’m proud of my blog so please check it out if you get a minute…
    http://actfourscreenplays.wordpress.com

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  • Bryan

    While I do like the music of SD, I fail to see the relationship to the band Tenacious D, featuring Jack Black, which was the enitre reason I read this post. It appears to me that you are very well versed in the music scene, and your lack of foresight puts me off your blog.

    Either that, or you knew you’d get hits from people like me, and hoped we’d stick around.

    On the off chance it was entirely accidental, I highly suggest you proof-read.

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  • Jeffrey Pillow

    Mike Ness & Social D just came through Richmond, VA, stopping to play The National and when I heard they’d be in RVA, I immediately began to reminisce you could say.

    This is simply from a fan’s perspective: Social Distortion is timeless for me. Fourteen/fifteen years ago when I was entering highschool and a “rebellious” teenager, they were the soundtrack to that rebellion along with Bad Brains, dK, Black Flag, Operation Ivy, etc.

    Now that I’m older, married, and my blood has slowed down tremendously, I still find myself tapping my foot along to Story of My Life or 1945, whatever. Just as I used to pull my dad’s old Black Sabbath and Jimi Hendrix records out and dust them off, I can see my own son (when I have one) doing the same with my Social D albums.

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  • Nicholas Collard

    Oh my God, where was I when this happened!!

    I am the biggest fan of Social Distortion I know. Saw those guys play half a dozen times throughout California and they are absolutely amazing!

    Mike Ness’s raw power on the guitar and rough-around-the-edges lyrics hits you right in the stomach when you see them live. Or maybe that’s the big guy in the wife beater with the shaved head pitting the wrong way? One or the other, the point is that band is awesome.

    And playing with The Boss? How could I let life go by me like that? Thanks for providing the video, it makes me feel a little less lame when I watch it. I’m going to miss seeing them every year at the House of Blues in Hollywood.

    Cheers!

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  • invertedsoapbox

    Uh Bryan, it’s called a clever headline. And I think the inclusion of the words “Mike” and “Ness” in the rest of the headline should have tipped you off to the subject matter of the article before you read the whole thing.
    *hugs*

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  • Stnmikita

    Jeff,

    Awesome article.

    I last saw Social D in Chicago at a small venue. They blew the doors off it and these guys have GOT to be close to 50. One of my all-time favorite bands and great to read about them even at this late stage of their game.

    The jealousy I feel knowing that you have a job that allows you to interview Mike Ness, write about it, then receive close to $17.00 in recompense cannot be adequately measured.
    Thank you for this and I hope that your time with Mike inspired you to get a neck tattoo of your own.

    As to ‘Bryan’: Sir, you are a moron.

    Why?

    Let me tell you:

    1. You clearly do not understand sarcasm or cleverness in copy.

    2. Even after realizing the article was not about your intended topic, you read it through, completely failed to comprehend it, and then took the time to comment negatively and erroneously on it.

    3. You were searching for information about Tenacious D.

    I could go on, but why? I am sure you have long since returned to playing World of Warcraft in your mother’s basement. If you DO happen to ever read these words, please go and buy yourself a Social Distortion album. Listen to it, then attend a concert and let Mike Ness or anyone in the audience kick your a**. Although painful, this will give you new insight into the world, different types of people and music, and very likely a sorely-needed dose of reality.

    Regards,
    BB

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  • الرامبوهات « إنت بتقول إن المسلم ب

    […] Tenacious D: Mike Ness on 30 years of Social Distortion […]

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  • barrybad

    Seen them once at the Olympic auditorium. Went to see PIL, the butthole surfers opened, freakey bastards they were, then S.D. named.Seen them again a year or two later at oOscars corn husker. Never heard or saw a bad show, no matter his condition, very professional.

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