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Please Don't Like Me 

Mike Ness' social contortions

Wednesday, Nov 17 1999
photo by F. Scott Schafer

Mike Ness has to roll the dice a few more times before he can converse. He’s pitted against a friend, throwing the cubes on a coffee table backstage at San Juan Capistrano’s Coach House.

"He’s got a four that I need to beat," explains Ness in that gravelly whine. "Need to beat." After a few minutes, the need remains unsatisfied. The friend scoops up about 100 bucks and swaggers off, grinning. "Old habits are hard to break," Ness deadpans.

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A veteran of alkie blackouts, psycho wards and rehabs, Ness should know. "A junkie is a junkie to the bitter end," he sang on "Dope Fiend Blues," from Cheating at Solitaire, released earlier this year, but he’s doing his best to undermine the literalness of that statement. While for the moment claiming continued devotion to his 20-year-old punk rock band, Social Distortion, Ness has thrown himself into a parallel solo career as a hillbilly rocker, having toured steadily for six months with his new group and cut two CDs, the second of which, the covers-dominated Under the Influences, has just come out on Time Bomb Recordings. This is something of a new Ness, at a new artistic peak and committed to a family, so his status as a role model is hogging his thoughts.

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"I don’t drink and do drugs and go to jail and overdose anymore," says Ness. "I try my goddamn best to stay out of altercations, deal with my road rage." Aside from a bit of recreational gambling, his biggest vice now seems to be shopping: vintage music, furniture and cars. And his rabble of tattoos — hearts, babes, Jesus, a devil, an angel, a chopped 1950 Mercury across his stomach — rests on a healthy-looking Hollywood tan.

Pretty good personal checklist. And musically, the man is fixed like an obelisk. Cheating at Solitaire, packed with strifeful-hopeful Ness tales such as "Misery Loves Company" and "Rest of Our Lives" and littered with guest appearances by the likes of Brian Setzer, Billy Zoom and Bruce Springsteen, got great notices for its songwriting and noisy power. Add Under the Influences’ collection of obscure and classic American country-roots gems (plus a honky-tonk version of Social Distortion’s "Ball and Chain"), and the whole grainy but beautiful picture has come into focus.

Send extra bouquets to the band, which was assembled to tour after Cheating and had fully bonded when the time came to record Influences. Ness stands center stage with foot forward like Washington on the Delaware, grinding his Gibson and rasping out the rawest vocal strains this side of Shane MacGowan. On one side of the stage, in tight jeans and cowboy hat, Pennsylvanian-Texan-Burbanker Chris Lawrence switches without a blink from rockabilly Telecaster on Marty Robbins’ "Big Iron" to sweet plaints of pedal steel (an instrument built in 1963 for Loretta Lynn’s band) on Carl Perkins’ "Let the Jukebox Keep on Playing." When Ness says he wants to bring some of the dirt back into country, he must have old friend Sean Greaves in mind; the craggy axman hulks over, ripping out filthy licks on Wayne Walker’s "All I Can Do Is Cry," or taking the pliers to your short hairs with his slide solo on Ness’ "Charmed Life." New bass player Eric Wood (replacing Brent Harding) stands taller than his upright and confidently plucks the tunes he learned yesterday. Behind, under and through it all is Chalo Quintana, whom Ness first saw when they were both punk rock kids and Quintana was drumming for the Plugz at the Starwood; he whacks every beat like it’s his last, and his legacy. As Lawrence puts it, "His sense of timing is like an atomic clock. He’s not just a rock drummer, he’s Charlie Quintana."

In case the point might be missed: This band rocks. Not only that — it pays the bills, selling out shows all over two continents, including five nights at the Coach House (in Ness’ original Orange County home base) and even playing the big stage at this year’s Woodstock, where rock this rooted seemed like an exotic apparition.

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