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Mike Ness is more on solo effort

By Brian Baker, June 1999

Mike Ness has long been making a shambles of conventional musical agendas as the songwriter, guitarist and voice of the Southern California punkabillycollective known as Social Distortion.

For over two decades, Ness and Social D have been at the center of an American punk scene that spawned such notables as The Germs, X, The Blasters, The Cramps, and Dead Kennedys.

Even as Social Distortion evolved from a pure thrash outfit to one incorporating more rootsy overtones, Ness still felt the void of ignoring the earliest influences in his art. His parents' love of Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Creedence Clearwater Revival made a lasting impression.

"I was into music at an exceptionally early age," says Ness of his introduction to music. "It was listening to everything from country to folk to rock and roll, long before I heard the Sex Pistols. The yardstick I was using for my record was similar to how Creedence or the Rolling Stones brought country or blues to their music and still made it rock and roll."

With Social D on hiatus, Ness has exhibited those early influences with his first solo album, the countryesque punk stomp of "Cheating at Solitaire."

With classic covers (Bob Dylan, Williams, Cash) and amped up country originals from Ness, Solitaire is a fascinating document of a punk approaching middle age and coming to grips with the elemental reasons for making music in the first place.

"It had been an idea as far back as maybe seven or eight years ago," Ness says. "I thought that I needed to concentrate on what I was doing with Social Distortion, and I'm glad that I did. At the same time, though, I was really putting this on the back burner, and I couldn't wait any longer. And now, having done it, it's very apparent to me that I must do both. This has provided the balance. I love what I do with Social Distortion, but I always wanted to do other styles of music as well, and for some reason felt that I couldn't, whether it's the stigma attached to punk or alternative or stereotypes or whatever. What was neat about this was being able to go into the studio and not have any rules or barriers, and just go crazy."

Ness sniffed in this direction with Social Distortion, but always pulled back for fear of alienating the band's core fan base. "Prison Bound was a major step, and even on the first two Sony records, I played with country and rockabilly. But I also felt that only a handful of fans appreciated that. So I felt that I could bring roots to Social D, but only so far. And it wasn't the band. However - and I don't say this negatively - I don't think those guys really share this affection as much as I do. I've been saying at the shows that it's no surprise to people who know me that Hank Williams is just as important to me as Sid Vicious, and Johnny Cash as important as Johnny Thunders."

The reference to Cash is slightly ironic, as Ness reveals that he wanted Cash to guest on the album, as well as his wife June Carter Cash. But both were on extended break in Jamaica, Johnny recuperating from his recently disclosed neurological disorder and June nursing him back to health.

Ness' eventual guests have similar marquee value. Living legend Bruce Springsteen sings melodies and contributes guitar on "Misery Loves Company," recent Grammy winner Brian Setzer offers guitar to "Crime Don't Pay," former X guitarist Billy Zoom thunders through "Dope Fiend Blues," and members of the Royal Crown Revue lend authentic support to the proceedings nearly throughout.

"Everyone we picked on the record was picked because I knew that they would bring something special to my music," Ness says. "I knew that 'Misery LovesCompany' was perfect for Bruce Springsteen because I knew he was a Social Distortion fan. And I knew that if he liked Social D, he'd really like this, because it's much more his thing. So when it came time to do it, his enthusiasm was overwhelming. These people wanted to be a part of this, without even thinking about it. It was very flattering. It makes me feel like I have some credibility."

When he began the process of actually conceptualizing his solo album, Ness says that Social D's previous label, Sony, expressed some interest in the project, but the band left the label before the talks could go any further. Eventually, the band signed with Time Bomb and released last year's "Live at the Roxy" collection.

"We decided that we could do this better ourselves," Ness says of the decision to part with Sony. "We were probably the first punk band to walk off a major label in a long time, and it felt pretty goddamned good. Now it's just so obvious that it was the right decision."

As Social Distortion mulls over its next steps, Ness finds himself working dual shifts to accommodate both his punk history and his country passion. As difficult and time-consuming as that may seem, Ness is ready for the challenge.

"I put so much into this ("Solitaire") that I need to follow up and tour it and try to get some longevity out of it and sell some records," Ness says. "I've got to tell you, I'm having the most fun that I've had in a long time. It's just such a different dynamic. It's just as much hard work. It's so nice to be able to go out and really sing. It's a sad fact, but people come to punk shows for the wrong reason. People who are coming to this are the music aficionados. No one's there to prove they're a man."

Ness has gone a long way with "Cheating at Solitaire" toward blurring the line between his punk days and country nights. By introducing these elements into Social Distortion's sound in recent years, and committing solidly to it for his solo album, Ness has effectively married the two, even though he will keep them separate in the future.

But he is quick to point out that he's merely following a long established lead.

"The first wave of punk music was doing exactly what you wanted to do," Ness says. "You could go see The Germs and The Blasters on the same bill, and nobody said anything. I think what a lot of people forget is that roots music was the first voice of rebellion. That's why I always saw it as a connection to punk. It was honest and heartfelt, and it was the working class singing about working class issues. Now it just seems to be lost."

While Ness has managed to dip the peanut butter of punk into the chocolate of roots music, and vice versa, he will endeavor to keep the two facets of his career as separate as possible. He sees the delineation rather clearly and simply.

"I almost think that this album is punk rock, because it's defying what everyone thinks is punk rock now," Ness says of his solo effort. "With Social Distortion, I was trying to bring roots to punk. With my thing, I'm trying to bring a punk attitude to roots."