There’s a scene in the documentary Another State of Mind, which chronicles the ups and downs of an early ’80s Social Distortion tour with fellow punks Youth Brigade, where a teenaged Mike Ness intensely explains his “look” while going through his morning routine of applying mascara and hair gel over a breakfast of Budweiser.
It’s one of my favorite moments of punk captured on film: Any self-awareness is distilled into a split-second wry smile that disappears in a blink of smeared makeup and an obsessive sense of self. It manages to open a window into someone who’s both extraordinarily sincere and just a bit full of himself—a guy whose entire young life has been constantly clawing forward, head down, while everything behind him is pretty fucking ugly. Call it "Portrait of the Rock Star as a Working Schlub."
Thirty-five years, multiple albums, plenty of addiction, and a dabbling in any number of working schlub-type musical influences later, Ness’s Social Distortion (he’s been the sole original member since the death of longtime guitarist Dennis Danell in 2000) still has that same mix of sincerity and obsessiveness, that do-it-because-and-fuck-the-rest. Just trade the overstuffed piece of shit cargo van for a tour bus and a semi that, once empty of gear, turns into a mini-boxing gym, Social Distortion is still Social Distortion, and Ness is still, well, Ness.
Opening last night’s show at the Palace Theatre was Jade Jackson, a singer/songwriter not much older than Ness was back in ’82, who (with backing band) churned out a solid set of twangy alt-country that straddled that old Nashville-Bakersfield line like a woman three times her age, while still showing the slight nerves of a self-possessed newbie. Her tour with Social Distortion comes out of Ness being her mentor and her prime corner man: He even came out on stage between songs in her set to plug her record. According to her bio, his guidance included instructing her to listen to listen to nothing but Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road for three months. That amount of wearing your influences on your sleeve walks a fine line between a jumpstart and a broken axle, which just speaks to her mentor’s obsessiveNESS.
I can’t help but see that same approach in most of Social Distortion’s musical choices over the years, and it was clear in this show. Their set was mostly a mix of newer material and fan favorites from 25 years ago, when they first added roots-rock influences to the punk of the early '80s. Songs like “California (Hustle and Flow)” and “Scars” were pure Rolling Stones-cum-Hold Steady, but Ness knows how to be catchy. His hooks are solid enough to keep the crowd going while waiting for older hits from their most popular early '90s heyday, although the set skimped on anything before that era.
The occasional rambling story or easy speech dissing President 45 (which got a huge round of sympathetic boos, though I’m guessing a few people in the room were booing for other reasons) interrupted the flow of the set, but Ness didn’t seem to care. At the end, he offered to play any song people wanted to hear, and after a minute or two of shouting, he just shrugged and said, “Fuck it, I’m just fucking with y’all, we know what song we’re playing next” and predictably ripped into their staple cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Much like that mascara moment 35 years ago, it was arrogance mixed with resignation; being a rock star is hard, especially when you’ll always be more Seger than Springsteen. But Mike Ness is still clawing forward.
Critic's bias: I liked Social Distortion a lot in the years between 1989 and 1996. Given the set list choices, apparently so does Social Distortion.
Random notebook dump: Almost ramming into St. Paul’s mayor because you’re rushing to the urinal while taking notes on a tablet is SUPER AWKWARD.
The crowd: Baseball hats and dad bods are the new pomade and rockabilly tattoos.
Overheard in the crowd: “Some guy in a pink button-down shirt just called me a soccer mom. I don’t even have kids.”
99 to Life
Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown
King of Fools
Ball And Chain
Another State of Mind
When She Begins
When I Lay My Burden Down
Don’t Drag Me Down
Story of My Life
Ring of Fire (Johnny Cash cover)