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Clean Living

Group sees rock 'n' roll as saving grace

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Even in polite surroundings, Mike Ness tends to speak with a forceful, streetwise bluntness. On this particular day, however, he’s speaking as sharply and directly as possible. He’s backstage at the enormous Reading Music Festival in England, where his band, Social Distortion, is playing later in the day. Having commandeered the only phone available, he apologizes for the circumstances, adding, “I shouldn’t be on this phone.” He’s been trying to honor our scheduled interview for several days, but he’s also been hightailing through Europe on a concert tour. He hadn’t even planned on calling from the concert site, but when the time came, that’s where he was.

In the past, he would have just said “Fuck it” and blown the interview off. But, at 34, Ness has begun to accept responsibility. He’s grown up considerably since 1983, when Social Distortion recorded the classic California punk album Mommy’s Little Monster. He’s no longer a junkie, he hasn’t been in jail in years, and he understands that his hostility and self-destruction had as much to do with being uncomfortable in his own skin as with his loathing of suburban America.

“I look back at who I was then, and I don’t recognize that guy,” he says. “I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about that guy, about what he was about and why he was like that. Mommy’s Little Monster was about blaming everybody. In the end, it was the music that saved me. That was my saving grace. I’m grateful for that.”

Ness still sees similarities between the little monster and the man he has become. Now as then, rock ’n’ roll is more than simply entertainment for him. And he still struggles with many of the emotions and doubts that brought out the demons in him as a teen. Getting off drugs, he explains, doesn’t end the troubles that made escape so attractive in the first place. “I don’t have it licked yet,” he says. “Life is still damn hard. I still feel like there’s a time bomb ticking inside me. I’m still down on the world. Getting clean only makes the feelings you have inside a hundred times more intense. The rage doesn’t go away. Only now I’m trying to deal with it instead of trying to numb it or kill it.”

He cites this inner tension when discussing White Light, White Heat, White Trash, Social Distortion’s relentlessly rocking new album. “We wanted a dirty, nasty, fuckin’ hard-slammin’ record, but one that was also full of soul. I think that’s what’s lacking today, soul. Music today is so goddamn trendy. It’s about look and image and production. We’ve seen a half-dozen trends go by in the last 15 years. We just ignore them. We defy all stereotypes. Punk, to me, was about individualism, not about doing what everybody else is doing. The last thing we wanted this album to be was a cute alternative record.”

Ness cites his bandmates—cofounding guitarist Dennis Danell, bassist John Maurer, and new drummer Chuck Biscuits—for prodding him to create songs that matter. “They made me dig deep inside, past self-imposed limitations. Making this record was really the best experience I’ve ever had. I know that sounds like some stupid bullshit, but I’m really proud of it, and I’m not going to be shy about saying it. We just made the record of our career.”

Ness is right: White Light, White Heat, White Trash burns with a passion rarely heard in rock ’n’ roll; it’s an unapologetic punk rock album for adults. There are no sweetened harmonies, no wistful ballads, no twang of a slide or steel guitar. But unlike albums by Green Day or The Offspring, the record reflects the concerns and experiences of a grown man. It rings with the unrestrained passion of a modern rock ’n’ roll classic, as resolute, intelligent, and focused as the Clash’s first album or Hüsker Dü’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories. Jackhammer riffs crescendo with anthemic melodies while Ness’ voice cuts through like a grinding gear in a roaring engine. A scratchy, damaged voice, it’s the perfect vehicle for Ness’ lyrics.

Sensitive like a raw nerve, and as reflective as an addict on his first day of recovery, Ness sings of loneliness, anger, and regret with an unbending honesty. He wants to show that, despite everything, he’s determined to live with pain rather than die from it. Witness the clearheaded self-evaluation of “I Was Wrong,” the album’s first single: “When I was young, I was so full of fear, I hid behind anger, I held back the tears,” he sings in a composed voice that builds with urgency. “It was me against the world, I was sure that I’d win, the world fought back, punished me for my sins.... They tried to warn me of my evil ways, but I couldn’t hear what they had to say.” Ness pauses for a couple of beats before seething, in a heated blast of indignation, “I was wrong!” He stretches this last word out like a soul singer, as if he were trying to erase his mistakes by shouting his admission as loudly and openly as possible.

Illustrating the push-pull forces at work inside every addict, “Pleasure-Seeker” further examines the bad man that Ness once was. Here, the singer talks himself out of fighting the temptation and then beats himself up for giving in: “It feels so good, like you know it would. There’s damnation and disgrace, and guilt rears its ugly face, yet you beg for more, just a little more.” “Down on the World Again” paints a brutally accurate portrait of the pathology that causes a man to hurt himself and others, while “Don’t Drag Me Down” is a slashing critique of society that eschews discussing politics or economics and instead takes America to task for the way it treats those it views as losers.

Of the album, Ness says, “The whole thing is based on sin and redemption.” Indeed, while much of the record screams anger, several songs show a man battling to turn in a better direction. “I try hard now to do the right thing,” Ness sings in the album-closing “Down Here With the Rest of Us.” While this one line best sums up the singer’s outlook, “Untitled #2” is probably the turning point of the record, a song that suggests Ness has found a love that makes him feel secure in ways he has never experienced.

Perhaps the most redemptive, and resonating, message of the record surfaces in “When the Angels Sing,” a song that suggests Ness wants to maintain a life that’s not only straight, but also meaningful and good. “When the angel of death comes looking for me,” he sings with an exhilaration not evident anywhere else on the album, “I hope I was everything I was supposed to be.” It’s a particularly powerful line, especially considering the fact that there was a time when his friends didn’t think he’d survive his destructive ways. And it affirms that if rock ’n’ roll helped save Mike Ness, then White Light, White Heat, White Trash is a powerful payback.

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