Fedoras Off to Mike Ness and Social D.
So yesterday, late afternoon, I got a call from my good friend Brian Regnaert, who asks if I'm up for going to see Social Distortion; he had an extra ticket. I hadn't made any plans for the night yet and it had been months since I'd hung out with Brian so I said sure.
I am a casual fan of Social D. I only own their two most popular albums, Social Distortion and Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell. But I really dig them. Mike Ness and company's brand of punk rock is heavy on the roots rock side of things, perhaps owing more to Elvis and Johnny Cash than to the Pistols or Dead Kennedys. I hear a pretty strong Ramones influence in Ness's "simplicity rules" songwriting ethic and penchant for simple, anthemic choruses. The songs are durable. It's honest music that sticks to your ribs.
I've always found Ness's super-earnest lyrics to be a bit clumsy and sometimes downright corny. But I embrace him all the same. After all, who am I to judge? -- here is a guy who has survived drug addiction, prison, various degrees of self-destruction, the death of friends, and all kinds of heartbreak. He's just writing about his life, and the believability factor more than makes up for the occasional lack of elegance in his verses. His heart-on-the-sleeve sincerity and conviction are endearing and, ultimately, inspiring.
So Brian and I did our usual pre-show tradition of throwing down Heinekens at his apartment on E. 27th street while listening to mix tapes, followed by a pitstop at the Rodeo Bar for a couple more rounds, then off to the gig in a cab. Last night's show was the first in (I believe) a four-night stand for Social D at this brand new music venue, the MTV-owned, unimaginitively named Nokia Theater, in lovely Times Square. We braced ourselves.
Predictably, the Nokia Theater was an obnoxious joint. As if the depressing recent trend of giant corporations naming rock venues after themselves weren't enough, the Nokia folks are taking things one unctuous step further: inside the venue, the walls are covered with shiny, glass showcases featuring dozens of attractively lit Nokia cellular phones. Ugh. That was nearly enough to kill the mood. But fuck it, we were there to have a good time and hear some rock n' roll. So we took out a small loan, bought a couple of Heinekens at the bar and headed into the performance space.
It was a nice enough room, both wide and deep, with wood floors and maybe a 1,500-person capacity. When we first walked in, some tepid opening band was onstage polluting the air with the kind of watered-down pop punk that you hear on K-Rock. It is no more compelling than wallpaper. I think they were called Mest. They were unendurable. Brian and I hastened back to the outer area to drink in peace until the coast was clear.
When it was nearly time for Social D to go on, and we descended into the recessed floor area, in front of the sound board. We had a good view of the stage. A steady stream of Ramones favorites poured out of the PA system, warming up the crowd and washing away the lingering bad taste of the previous band.
Finally the lights went down, and the members of Social Distortion -- sans Ness -- walked onstage, all tattoos and Brylcreem. A few beats later, Ness himself strolled out, sporting two full sleeves of ink, a fedora hat and smudged black eyeliner. Apparently he's not too "punk rock" to make a big showbiz entrance. That's cool. He looked a good deal thicker than I remembered, but no less authentic.
Ness strapped on his Les Paul and the band tore through a ballsy set of greased-up, rock and roll survivor anthems: "Mommy's Little Monster," "Prison Bound," "Sick Boys," "Bad Luck." They did some songs from their latest album, the charmingly titled Sex, Love and Rock n Roll. The new stuff sounded good. The old tunes sounded classic.
Meanwhile, I couldn't believe how much fun I was having; I couldn't stop dancing and smiling. You just can't help but get behind a guy like Ness -- his spirit is contagious. Toward the end of the set, he introduced "Story of My Life" with the kind of groan-inducing cliche you would expect from Jon Bon Jovi: "this next song is about a poor ole boy from Orange County who started out with nothin' but a beat-up guitar and a whole lotta dreams."
Ick!! Yeah, that's a sappy thing to say but Ness gets away with it somehow -- he's earned the right, hasn't he? I was certainly in the mood to let him slide last night. On the first downbeat of "Story," I was bouncing up and down, fist in the air, singing along: "naaa-na-naaa--na-na-naaa!" What a blast.
After the expected encore of their revved-up cover of Cash's "Ring of Fire," Social Distortion walked offstage and the crowd of rockabilly types, punks and old-school rockers filed out of the theater, pleasantly drained after a satisfying night of release, joy and good old rock and roll redemption.
Brian and I quickly evacuated Times Square, returned to Rodeo Bar and carried the celebration well into the small hours, tucking away far too many Heinekens and yapping about rock and roll like the goofy fanboys we are.