There’s a legend around Mike Ness, lead singer and founding member of Social Distortion. It extends from those early do-or-die years on the West Coast hardcore scene (if you’re a young musician and you take nothing else from this, watch Another State of Mind). There’s also the outlaw aspect of his persona, the music he chooses to make– undeniably punk with a hillbilly bloodline. With his worn leather voice, Mike Ness can growl out hardcore anthems or barroom laments with equal credibility. He believes every word, every time– and so do we.
In 1988, Social Distortion released Prison Bound, a clanking, gritty, searing tattoo that, for me, heralded the arrival of Mike Ness as punk’s Man In Black. Over the next decade, Ness and Social D would release three thick, genre-snubbing/career-cementing albums, including what many consider to be their pinnacle, 1992’s Somewhere Between Heaven And Hell. SBH&H is the album that Johnny, Luther, and Marshall might’ve made if they’d come together in Orange County circa ’84 instead of Memphis in ’54.
There’s thunder and white lightnin’ in the opening track “Cold Feeling”, while on “Bad Luck”, Ness and his Les Paul soar, talon’s out, over Dennis Danell’s roaring rhythm and John Maurer’s rib rattlin’ bass. In Social Distortion’s realm, there’s nothing hipper than the threat of desperation– except the will to defy it.
Mike Ness is perfect and without irony on Jimmy Work’s country classic, “Making Believe” as well as his own beer-soaked honky tonk-er “This Time Darlin’”. The semi-autobiographical “Born To Lose” refuses to take itself too seriously, trading the band’s signature attitude (only just) for a splash of wry humor that nevertheless maintains its rebel spine– a rather polite kiss-my-tattooed-ass to any and all actual or potential detractors
“Bye Bye Baby” is standard issue Social D, mommy’s little monster that refuses to grow up or trade in their Johnny Thunders albums. Snarling along with Ness as he declares “The radio’s playin’ a sad song” is blunt force catharsis.
“When She Begins” (like The Clash’s rendition of “I Fought The Law”) is simply as good as anything gets– punk, country, pop, rockabilly, blues– all bases are stomped— and the cut of Ed Bruce’s “King of Fools” with drummer Christopher Reece’s fired-off “Do You Want To Dance” intro is both Texas dance hall or Bowery appropriate.
If “When She Begins” somehow manages to make heartbreak sound cool through a fire-with-fire prescription (It does. On the outs with someone? Put it on, killer.), then the forlorn anger of “Ghost Town Blues” instead careens toward the broken bottle edge, howling with harp courtesy of Eric Von Herzen. It’s a subtle outlier in the Social D catalog, but a provocative one that beautifully foreshadows Mike Ness’s ’99 debut solo outing Cheating At Solitaire (which deserves its own RL).
I’ll make this statement and defend it with my fists– Merle Haggard should have cut “99 to Life”.
Hell, just writing this, I’m imagining the Highway Men doing nearly every track from Somewhere Between Heaven And Hell! Listen for yourself and tell me you don’t hear Johnny, Kris, Waylon, and Willie singing “Sometimes I Do”… Go ahead, I’ll wait.