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.’ ”
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.”
‘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.”