“You beat us up when we’re alone come back later and then you’re gone. Now you’re tucked away in your bed and I’ve got stitches in my head…”
I am standing in the middle of the NorVa. Social Distortion frontman, Mike Ness, is stripping himself raw onstage. Sandpaper timbres of heartache accumulated through a lifetime of pain. Translated through vacuum tubes and capacitors and six steel strings with a voice rubbed bloody with struggle.
I’m exhausted from white hot anger. My bones are sick and my head is ugly. A courageous, beautiful woman is three days dead in Charlottesville and I am blind with fury.
Land of the brave homes of whatever. History books lousy with lies on how we killed the Nazis off way back in the forties. Before my father was born. And yet here they are. Freshly shorn. Clad in polo shirts and khakis. Faux veneers of respectability obscuring the rotting tumor in the soul of our hearths. Born again. Bearing tracts, they are knocking on our doors. “Excuse me, sir? Have you’ve heard the bad news?” The results are back from clinic and it confirms the worst. We’ve tested positive for Nazis. It’s going to take more than a shot of Penicillin to run them off.
And so I do what I do when it feels like if I feel any more my head is going to crack open, letting out dark thoughts that will end up burning down everything in reach: I give myself to the music. I surrender to the music and I fucking rage. Rage until I can’t move anymore. Until I’m completely drained and the icy calm fogs my subconscious like smoke dissipating into tenebrous air.
And then? With cold clarity, I can assess the actual social distortion all around me. And plot a path through to the other side of all this human sewage.
. . .
And I’m down on the world again”
There’s no way Mike Ness could have had any idea how prescient a term Social Distortion would eventually become when he first coined it back in ’78. Fifteen and drunk more often than not, Ness somehow managed to lay down a blueprint for SoCal Punk that endures from the halcyon days before the Internet was much more than an idea.
Re-visiting that first album — Mommy’s Little Monsters, I’m struck by a few basic points as regards this band. A Social D song is always pretty much a Social D song. You might get a bit of variance with the attack. There might be some musical seasoning in the form of an added organ or whatever Mike feels like throwing in that day, but the deconstructed tone of his songcraft has generally stayed the course from beginning to end. This man, the only consistent member of the lineup, finds himself in the role of grand elder to a host of baby punkers who say OI!
In a new millennium? It’s a hat that fits him well.
Given the success his years-ago cover of “Ring of Fire” brought down — it’s perhaps too easy to refer to him as the Johnny Cash of Punk Rock, but there you have it. Much like Cash, his is a soul who has, by all appearances, outlived his demons. Addiction. Depression. Self loathing. Whatever. As a fan of the band since my own teens, I’m happy to see him thriving.
. . .
“No one’s exempt now
from a world of pain.
That’s the way that it goes
when you’re down here with the rest of us..”
There are hundreds of stories about Ness beating the snot out of racist assholes who were stupid enough to bring it to his shows. In Punk circles there are clear lines drawn around white nationalists. The genre has always had a problem in this area, but Social D has never tolerated that crap.
For all the talk over the past few days about what the role of violence should be when it comes to confronting this kind of evil, Mike has never seemed conflicted about the idea of punching Nazis in the face. One imagines Johnny wouldn’t have shied away from the notion either, but maybe today is more complex than 1978. Or 1954. Maybe things have changed too much to solve them with a solid thrashing. I don’t know..
On the other hand, if your first instinct when you see the kind of hate rally the Alt-Right put on display in front of UVA last weekend — inbred, no-chin-having motherfuckers wrapped in the regalia of mass murderers as though they were the most clever shitstains in all of human history — if your first impulse isn’t to just start beating these useless people half to death with whatever you can get your paws on?
There might be something deeply wrong with you.
I’m not saying you should follow through on the urge. I’m also not saying you shouldn’t. That’s entirely your decision to make. But if you take the pacifist’s path? It should be a tough choice to make if you’ve got any blood at all.
. . .
This has been a kickass show. You should, of course, never miss an opportunity to see this band live. Going to see Social Distortion very quickly starts to feel like you’re visiting extended family. There are bonds here for some of us that stretch back decades. I myself have been a fan for over thirty odd years. That Mike is alive and well is a bonus. That he hasn’t lost a fucking step onstage is more than any of us deserve.
Most of the gray-heads gently swaying because we’re too damn old to slam dance anymore have survived the same pitfalls and bad decisions Mike made to get here. We all have awful tales to tell, but we lived. And he knows it. He knows us. We know each other. Maybe not by face or name, but by the experience. When he sang “Story of my Life” tonight, he was singing the stories of all our lives.
We fucking lived.
Not everyone gets to. We should remember that.
And make it count for those left behind.
. . .
“At last we meet again, dear God.
Hear the angels sing.
The funerals are nicer when we know you’re there.
When the angels sing.
I try so hard
the things you do..”