BY ARTHUR SHKOLNIK Friday night I arrived at the Electric Factory and saw gray-haired grandpas, hawked and studded teens, and everyone in between standing side by side; three generations of concert-goers with one thing in common – an abiding faith in Social Distortion – a legendary band that, for over 30 years, has both defined and transcended the rebellion and attitude of punk rock while remaining fearlessly unabated in the face of its own evolution. This is undoubtedly due to the hardships a now 48-year-old Mike Ness has faced on his long and arduous path through love, loss, and drugs, compelling audiences with crunchy riffs and gritty lyrics filled with personal experience and raw honesty.
Outside of the sold out show, marooned fans stood shivering from icy blasts of wind, as they hoped and pleaded with passers-by for spare tickets.
During the Sex, Love, Rock n’ Roll Tour of 2004, I was the one without the ticket, gambling on the kindness of strangers. Back then I was fortunate enough to run into an individual who sold me his drunken girlfriend’s ticket, as she was apparently passed out in his car. I’ll never forget that, and found myself hoping, in very much the same way, that everyone who showed up without a ticket in their hands this time around somehow managed to get inside to see the show.
Mike Ness has become a brand unto himself, even pioneering his own clothing label, Black Kat Kustoms. Before lunging forward into the standing room, I decided to stop by the merch booth, but decided to pass on the $25 tour shirts – a little rich for my tastes.
I was lured forward by the sound of a sardonic, joyful, acoustic-wielding Englishman named Frank Turner, who opened the show backed by a merry band of misfits fresh out of Winchester. This five-piece quickly won over the audience with heartfelt and extremely fun folk tunes inspired by and rooted in a lifetime spent consuming all things punk rock. I was blown away right from the start by the stage presence and endurance of a band that I thought would simply be standing between me and Social Distortion, and would venture to say Frank Turner was one of the best opening acts I have ever seen.
Immediately following his set, Turner manned a now highly congested merch booth, taking the time to shake hands, take pictures, and talk with each and every fan. I had a hard time choosing one of his albums, but Turner recommended his first one, Love Ire & Song, stating that I should start at the beginning and we could “grow together.” He then went on to say that it would be “ten of the finest American dollars I’ll ever spend.” Frank Turner would indeed be a hard act to follow.
Next up Lucero, a five piece outfit straight out of Tennessee, took the Factory stage with lead singer Ben Nichols sporting a black ten-gallon hat. The band performed a solid set, covering “Kiss the Bottle” by Jawbreaker, and getting right down to business, hardly speaking at all between songs. Organ effects on the keyboard added a tinge of distinctiveness to the melodic blend of whiskey-swilling cowpunk and country soul.
As soon as Lucero had finished up their set, I knew it was ‘now or never time’ to move up to the front if I had any chance of navigating my way through the dense and growing crowd. After making my fair share of enemies, I found myself a dozen or so feet from the stage for what turned out to be a seemingly eternal wait as song after song blared on the house speakers and the mob, filled with restless anticipation, expressed their disappointment both audibly and physically, as slurred speech and a few drunken fists flew through the air. A fight here and there was quickly silenced as the bouncers played one of their most favorite games – toss the drunk.
Finally, scarlet lights beamed upon the stage, as a contrastingly hokey “olde tyme” ditty introduced Mike Ness and company, decked out like old-school gangsters. Craziness erupted in the pit as soon as the band strummed out the opening riff to their 1983 release, “Mommy’s Little Monster.” Ness went on to play “Don’t Drag Me Down,” sarcastically calling it a song which, “believe it or not, is about racism right here in America.” Show-goers thrashed about and old head’s threw one another high-fives as the fierce energy and driving force of the performance summated in a built-in suspense and tension which nearly drove my skeleton to jump out of my throat.
I always considered Social Distortion’s radio hit “Ball and Chain” to be a pretty tame song overall, but I’ll never make that mistake again. As the chords rang out and the gritty sincerity of Ness’s vocals thundered through the Factory, a massive, outward push from the center of the room widened the mosh pit, and soon the entire floor was engulfed in chaos. I had to double-take to my left when I saw a person bound to a wheelchair crowd surfing his way across the room.
Ness undoubtedly knew he was in the City of Brotherly Love, stating “You’ve got to be a survivor to grow up in this motherfucker. It’s sink or swim.” He even switched up the lyrics to “Ball and Chain” for the occasion, substituting “Been drinkin’ since a half past noon,” with “Been drinkin’ on South Street all afternoon.”
Ness took a brief trip down memory lane to 1982 and his first Philly show before jumping into “Through These Eyes,” off of his 1996 release White Light, White Heat, White Trash. The band then slowed things down with “Bakersfield,” off of the upcoming January release, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, but not before explaining the origin of the song. “Have you ever had the misfortune of being stuck somewhere you just didn’t want to be? Like, maybe a Creed concert, where your only choice… is to take a revolver and blow your head off – because it’s all over,” Ness caustically declared.
The band then followed up with one fist-pumping anthem after another, playing “King of Fools,” “When She Begins,” and “Making Believe,” all from the 1992 studio release Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell.
A dying breed of raconteur, Ness dissed New Jersey time after time during the set, calling Atlantic City “a place where good times go to die,” and even referencing TV’s “Jersey Shore” and The Situation, clearly appalled that someone could become such a huge tool in such a short period of time.
The band encored with “So Far Away,” and “Prison Bound,” a personal favorite of mine, for which Ness took the reins, as he plucked, pinched, and bended his way through an inimitable guitar solo. Ness then told the audience he was “going to play an old song in a new way,” and then broke into a rockabilly rendition of “Down Here (With The Rest Of Us)” a lyrically heavy, partially autobiographical song performed by a visibly and audibly bemused and reflective Ness. He then jumped into “Cold Feelings,” after which he asked the stage crew to set a more sensual tone with some mood lighting.
“Fellas, we’re gonna slow it down and I’m giving you five minutes, to grab your girl, or if you don’t have one, find a girl in the audience, and whisper the right words in to her ear, so that she’ll speed home tonight and not be able to wait to take you to bed,” explained Ness. “Now, some of you will say something really stupid, and fuck it all up; you’ll be sleeping on the couch, and she’ll throw you the Jergens. I’ve been in the doghouse before… and I’ll probably be there again,” Ness quipped. “You’ll thank me later.”
The band closed out their set with June Carters’ “Ring of Fire,” and Ness gave two solid chest pumps with his fist as he exited stage right.
Social D’s seventh studio album, and the first to come out in the past six years, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, is set to surface in January 2011, and features a new line-up, consisting of David Hidalgo Jr. on drums, Brent Harding on bass, and former Youth Brigade fellow Jonny Wickersham on guitar. Mike Ness is the only original group member still remaining after three decades, and through countless change-ups — the last one as recent as 2010 when drummer Scott Reeder left the band — Ness has uncompromisingly continued pouring his life into his music. He would be the first to tell you that not a day goes by that music hasn’t saved his life.
Here’s to another 30 years.
[Mike Ness illustration by Wacky Cracka]