Anger management

Mike Ness has been guilty of many things — more than he’d like to remember, or even can remember — but holding back on his emotions isn’t one of them.

As the singer, guitarist and all-around force behind the three-decades-strong punk band Social Distortion, the man has summoned plenty of personal demons in hard-charging, college-radio hits like “Ball and Chain” and “Story of My Life.” He had no shortage of material to draw from: kicked out of his home at age 15, self-destructive hell-raising, a lengthy battle with heroin addiction.

But even angry young punks grow up. Ness, who turned 50 last month, has been clean for more than 25 years. Married and with two teenaged sons, the guy who once sang that he was “Born to Lose” is chums with Bruce Springsteen. Ness still might boast the tattoos of his youth, but he is glad to admit he’s no longer mired in its darkness.

“I’ve changed a lot since then, and become older and hopefully wiser and more mature,” he said. “There are still things that make me angry and there are plenty of things to write about, but it’s not only the angry stuff anymore.”

Ness was determined to prove that with Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, Social
Distortion’s first studio release since 2004. The group’s trademark
sound remains evident, a roar of muscular guitars and barrel-chested
hooks, but the tracks don’t necessarily sound as if you’ve stumbled into
a punk-rock confessional.

“I didn’t want to get pigeonholed into any one set style of writing.” he said, adding that in Hard Times, he
unshackled himself of the constraints of autobiography. The result,
Ness said, was a song like “Sweet and Lowdown,” in which the band offers
a surprisingly upbeat take on being dumped.

“Because
I didn’t put only myself into it, it became very tongue-in-cheek — a
satirical look at that lifestyle instead of just being more serious,” he
said. “It makes it a lot more fun because it’s not only about me.”

Even so, the personal nature of his lyrical concerns always have wielded universal clout.

“I
would say the most common thing I hear, it doesn’t matter where I’m at,
is that, ‘Your music really got me through some hard times,’” said
Ness. “Part of me doesn’t know how to respond to that, but the part that
does, I just reply, ‘Me, too.’”

Phil Bacharach

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