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Working Class Hero

Social Distortion’s Mike Ness flies his country flag high on his latest solo tour

If you’re someone who only knows Mike Ness through surly Social Distortion anthems like “Ball and Chain” and “Mommy’s Little Monster,” you might be surprised to punch up this 46-year-old punk rock icon’s MySpace page and find that he describes his solo material with a single word: country. Not cowpunk, mind you, nor even rockabilly, but straight-up, truck stop-ready country music. As Ness’ stauncher fans will tell you, the man’s fondness for twang has been evident since Social D’s sophomore album, 1988’s Prison Bound, but the southern accent is all the stronger in his solo work, which casts Ness as a star-crossed troubadour in the tradition of Johnny Cash or Hank Williams. And hey, let’s face it: With his well-documented history of drug addiction, incarceration, violence and alcoholism, Ness is more than qualified to portray himself as a hard-livin’ man of constant sorrow.

While Ness, now sober and considerably less volatile than in days of yore, assures GT that Social D is still going strong, he’s also excited to take a break from the band and play some solo stuff at The Catalyst this Sunday. “If people like Social D, they’re gonna love this show,” he says. “It’s the same energy, the same passion put into this. If people are curious, it’s something they should definitely explore, because it may not be for a while that I can do it again.”

A lot of people probably wouldn’t expect a punk guy from Orange County to be influenced by folks like Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. How do you feel country music and punk are related?

I see a connection of all kinds of American roots music to punk, whether it’s Depression-era folk music, blues, jazz, bluegrass, straight-up Delta blues, Chicago blues. It’s basically working class music and working class issues. A lot of the ’60s revival folk was protest music, you know? And punk music was supposed to be about gettin’ off your ass, doing something and making changes, or you can just sit on your ass and complain.

So, do you consider punk a revolutionary movement?

I did, yeah, and I still do. I was dissatisfied with the way that things were and sometimes, obviously, still are. When you have a platform to write and sing about that stuff, I think it’s important to take advantage of that. I mean, rock & roll’s supposed to be an escape, and it’s supposed to be a fun time, too, and I don’t want it to lose that. I’ve never been a flag-waver. But I think that Social Distortion, as we’ve evolved, has tried to put a positive message in our music, and I think that you do have to kind of be an example at times to younger generations.

What role did your parents play in your becoming a musician? Did they encourage you to play music?

Yeah, they did in the beginning, but towards the end, it was kind of destructive, so it was kind of hard for them to encourage that when they saw me going down a negative path with the drugs, alcohol, jail, hospitals and fights. It’s kind of hard to get behind that with your kid, I’m sure.

Do you think punk rock encourages kids to go down that path?

I don’t think it has to. I mean, I had plenty of friends who dressed in black and went to punk shows, but they went to the university during the day and got good grades, you know? (Laughs.) I think I was an extreme example of being from a broken home, and I think kids from broken homes are more susceptible to that kind of lifestyle. I think punk rock is an attitude that you have inside of you, and you don’t have to be a fuckup. I have a friend who’s a judge, and [others] who are professionals, and they still have that rebellious spirit in them. You can still make changes in the world and not be an antisocial asshole.

Well said. In the song “Prison Bound,” you sang, “They say I can be reformed, but someday I’ll return. Did they really think that this time it would work? You knew all along it wouldn’t.” Do you feel it’s possible to get anything positive out of serving jail time?

I think that the prisons and jails nowadays are offering a newer message of rehabilitation, but for the most part, most people go to jail and come out worse: You go in there and you make contacts; you learn new angles. They don’t provide you with the rehabilitation that you need, and therefore it’s a revolving door. You’re sent out with no tools to do the job, and you fall back on your old ways. It’s inevitable that you end up back there.

Another thing about you that might surprise some people is that you’re a vegetarian. What prompted that decision?

It was a combination of health and moral issues. I feel better, I feel healthier, and at the same time I feel good that I’m not killing cows and chickens, because I look at a cow the same way I look at a dog. Would these people eat their pet? So that’s a personal journey that I’ve embarked on and that I enjoy. I belong to several organizations that promote it, and I just feel that’s another way of making changes. It all goes back to that same punk rock thinking: If you don’t like the way things are, you make changes.

 


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