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Please Don't Like Me

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.

 

How did Ness feel there? "Like a whore in church. I don’t appreciate the festival vibe. Rock & roll is a nocturnal thing."

"It smelled like trouble," says Quintana, who played the ’94 Woodstock behind Joan Osborne and who has also toured with a former Woodstock resident named Bob Dylan. "Seeing Elvis Costello being booed and pelted with mud, you figure, ‘Man, I’m in the wrong place.’"

Greaves amplifies. "When you’ve got a kid with, like, green hair throwing an Evian bottle filled with dirt at Elvis Costello, you just go, ‘You wouldn’t even have green hair if it wasn’t for people like him.’"

Does it seem at all strange to hear Mike Ness’ band demanding respect for one’s elders? Well, there’s a story behind that. Maybe it’s best just to let the man talk awhile.

"I wanted to be a rock star probably by the age of 5," says Ness. "I learned to play air guitar to Kiss."

His parents, with whom Ness says he’s currently trying to break down old walls, met while his father, a Navy man, was stationed in Boston. His mother got pregnant with a child who turned out to be Mike. "They got married and moved to California. My father had country music around the house, and he played guitar. I went to sleep with him playing ‘Wildwood Flower.’ So I would hear the Dillards and Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash from him, and my mom was more liberal and liked the Rolling Stones. From third grade, I was handed Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater albums by my uncles, who were my mother’s brothers. They were leftover greasers, building Harley trikes in the garage in Lakewood. Those albums were measuring sticks for me when I was making Cheating at Solitaire and Under the Influences."

Ness figures his voice got its distinctive grate from his smoking habits in junior high school. "I had P.E. first period with this bastard teacher — Sergeant Carter flattop, he hated me. P.E. was at 8. At 7:30, me and my friend were smoking high-grade sensimilla. Wiped out. Went into class — the coach just knew."

Though today Ness wears Catholic scapular medals and sings Hank Williams’ devotional "House of Gold" without irony, his tangential exposure to religion as a youth resulted from his father’s desire to get laid. "When I was about 14, my father remarried and wanted Sunday mornings alone with my stepmother. There was an Eastside Christian Church bus that would come to the neighborhood. My old man wanted to screw my stepmother, but all he needed to have done is give me a five-spot — I would have disappeared! When I got to the church — my friend lived right around the corner — we’d just split, and meet the bus back at the church."

This Fullerton kid was ready for punk rock. "The whole punk thing in ’79 was so liberating for me. I was a junior in high school. Dennis [Danell] — my rhythm-guitar player in Social Distortion — and I would jump in ã his car and get a ride to the Starwood on Tuesday night and see Fear and the Blasters. And we’d go to the Masque — the second Masque. I’d just cut the top part of my hair off, and I had a leather jacket that was my mom’s in the ’50s, and I would see these Hollywood punk rock chicks and this Hollywood punk rock scene, and these bands at that period of time were so neat. I think one of my first shows was the Cramps and the Go-Go’s, and it was like, ‘Wow, this is awesome.’ It sounded like how I felt inside.

"Punk music was, in a way, very similar to a gang. I loved the music, but I also saw it as a way that I didn’t have to work. I could fuckin’ drink and do drugs all the time, and I didn’t have to conform. I had years of suppressed rage. I wasn’t allowed to talk back to my father. I wasn’t allowed to swear. So by the time I was 17, that suppressed rage, combined with alcohol, was the perfect Molotov cocktail."

At the time, X heroes like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash represented Dad to Ness, so they were the enemy. "I renounced a lot of those roots when punk came along. I couldn’t sit through a five-minute blues song. I remember being at a party once at X’s house, and they were playing Muddy Waters or something. I said, ‘Throw on some Sham 69.’ Top Jimmy said something, and I threw an empty charcoal briquette thing on top of his head and got him all black. I was a little bastard."

 

What the hell — he couldn’t have paid homage to Muddy if he wanted to. "I can’t really play blues guitar, because I thought I was Sid Vicious, and I almost cut off a finger on my left hand hacking myself up with a knife. I ended up going to the emergency room at 2 a.m., handcuffed to this girl, and hence my three-day stay in the psychiatric ward. They told me, ‘You’re not getting out of here.’ I’d just turned 18."

Ness released all his festering rock-star ambitions through Social Distortion. "When I first started the band, I didn’t sing. I didn’t really think I had a singing voice. I just played guitar. And then all of a sudden I drank six beers and went up and sang."

The band has served Ness well for two decades. "I love what I do with Social Distortion, but there’s part of me that always wanted to do something else," he says. So the solo act was finally born.

"It was tough finding musicians, because I didn’t want this to be a hair-curled, gabardine retro act, so I needed to find players who had backgrounds in American roots music, but also had backgrounds in punk music. I wanted this to rock. During auditions, it was just what I suspected: The rockabilly guys couldn’t rock, and the rock guys couldn’t rockabilly."

That dilemma may have been solved, but plenty of other dilemmas remain. For all the wrong reasons, Ness’ famous body etchings have become one of ’em. "My reasons for getting tattoos were purely antisocial. Now it’s cool to have one, and it’s a drag when a housewife in the market is touching you: ‘Oh, I love your tattoos!’" Damn, it’s hard to be a rebel.

Given the tug between outsider pride and junkie self-loathing, it’s not surprising to hear Ness downplay the glamour of heroin from the stage, but it’s genuinely touching to hear him wax wistful over missed classroom time. "I’m a high school dropout, and probably the only thing I regret is not getting the education that I could’ve, because I feel I would be a better writer if I read more. It’s fun, just like listening to music. And I feel like a slacker because I don’t fuckin’ vote. How am I gonna make changes if I don’t get involved?"

Not that he’ll abandon the road so he can attend community college. Ness says touring and recording is the only way he can imagine making money. But constant travel has a price: "Sometimes I feel I’m missing out on my kids’ lives. And it’s hard being away from my fiancée."

With two sons at home, does he see any Mike Nesses in the making? Does he see any rebelliousness in the older one, who’s 7? "I don’t think that’s gonna happen, because he has a lot of love. He sees what I’m wearing that day, and he goes in and puts on the same thing. We’re best friends, y’know? So I feel that the cycle has been broken."

Considering that Quintana is the same age and shares the same punk background, it’s natural that he’d be thinking about family and education too.

"My proudest production," Quintana crows, showing off pix of his 10-year-old girl and cataloging her academic achievements.

Hell, the kid sounds more mature than her jokester old man, even if he does say he’s listening to a lot of jazz now. Evaluating new bassist Wood’s progress in learning the set list, Quintana says, "He’s pickin’ it up."

"And we’re pickin’ on him," guitarist Greaves chortles. "We’re telling him that later he’s gotta go on a bus with us. And he says, ‘Well, what do I bring, man? Do I gotta bring a sleeping bag?’ So Charlie goes, ‘Yeah, you gotta bring two of ’em. And a lantern, so you can read at night.’

Quintana runs with the rest of the story: "‘And you’re gonna need some flares, and a canteen, and bring a Thermos — buy a big one for the long trips, and a water cooler. And buy, like, a tarp, and you’re gonna need a length of chain, with a good lock.’ That happened just hours ago, and I’m still laughing."

On the road with the Mike Ness band, Wood may not have to battle needles and cops, but clearly he’ll have to deal with more than just memorizing a few dozen songs. The lucky stiff.


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