On Family, Music & Motorcycles
Randy Twells Interview with Mike Ness
Photos courtesy Mike Ness/Black Kat Kustoms
I had the chance to speak with Mike Ness recently in a phone interview, and get his thoughts on a variety of things. Playing at the Lost Highway event May 30th, who knew he rides a ’53 Pan? – it has “Social Distortion” on the tank. But as with all bikers there’s a story to go along with it. The bike is just the vehicle, carrying us with all our lifetime of ‘stuff ’, along on the journey.
My perspective as I told Mike is, back in the 60’s, I would sit in my room like folk singer Janis Ian, playing my acoustic guitar and making up songs or playing ones I heard on the radio. One song I liked for its raw energy & message, ‘I Fought the Law,’ a Bobby Fuller Four cover of Sonny Curtis/Crickets’ song.. 3 chords to play and sing along. Then one day in November 1999 I heard it again, in a whole new way, by Mike Ness. The rich, driving, almost monochromatic locomotive rhythm just reinvented this song. Then later, I also heard his re-arrangement of Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’, again in a whole new light. It was like a lightning bolt. What was his perspective on doing those songs?
He said, “I would play in my room and make the song my own as in, I wanna play it, what can I bring to it that’s different, so people who love the song can recognize it but- a full rock arrangement and a bit of country twang made it just a bit different. Every song I cover has a personal connection.” He added his thoughts at the time were, “I gotta cover that, I love that [song] so much.”
So I asked him about that personal connection. “At 5 years old, my parents were alcoholics, and I spent a lot of time with baby sitters. One elderly woman who baby-sat me had a Hi-Fi (Ed. Note: Old English for you kids, it stands for “Hi-Fidelity Stereo”), and I would get lost in the radio listening to 1967 Creedence, Beatles, etc. It was an escape. I “knew”, at that age. I grew up around my biker Uncle & greasers. By the 3rd grade I had a record collection: Lou Reed singing about heroin and transvestites; and my parents had a lot of records around the house. My Dad was from North Dakota, he listened to Cash & Haggard; my Mom was more a liberal – she listened to rock & roll/folk music like Joan Baez. Music that was primitive, with a lot of emotion behind it.”
“One Uncle was a white Low Rider driving around Lynnwood & Lakewood (CA), not Hispanic, these were the white kids with Pendletons on driving around, Wow I wanna be just like them. My other Uncle the biker was gay so I learned about that culture too. And I had posters of Peter Fonda & Dennis Hopper on choppers, Bruce Lee, the Marx Brothers, Frankenstein, and I even had a life size picture of John Dillinger on the door of my room. My friends when we were punk rockers are older now too, and their interests have changed. My generation has gone through a natural progression.”
I asked about what it’s like playing to a biker event compared to a general audience. “It’s so crossover now, it’s not much different really, playing biker events or a general event. It’s a mixed crowd, parents bringing kids, kids bringing their parents. Rockabilly type things, car shows. And the Hells Angels have been coming to our shows since the ’80’s. But I guess when we play a biker event there’s a bit more leather than a typical Social D show.”
I also had let my daughter Tamara in Vienna, Austria (who has covered Vienna Harley Days for us in Quick Throttle) know that I was going to be interviewing Mike, to see if she or her friends/Social D fans had any fan questions for him. Her first response, “OH I LOVE Social D!!!” Yes, she and friends had questions.
• Was ‘Ball and Chain’ (released March 1990 on their self-titled album Social Distortion) about someone in particular?
• And what about being vegetarian, is his whole family vegetarian? Does he run into any conflict being vegetarian?
• Who are his biggest influences musically and personally?
• Has fatherhood changed him, and if so, how?
I could hear Mike’s smile on the phone, and he addressed the question on being vegetarian first, that was easy. “Our kids have grown up vegetarian, it’s never really been a problem, dinner is easy. Our friends know we are vegetarian so, it’s never really been a problem.”
“On ‘Ball and Chain’—it’s not about ‘us’. I meant it almost like a prayer. Reflective of getting clean and surrendering; not religious, but seeking help from a higher power. Some people think it’s about a marriage. But when writing it I kept it ambiguous; it’s about what it meant to me at the time. People can get their own interpretations from it or, a universal emotion. I didn’t set out to do a song to help people get through a tough time, I don’t know that I have the power to do that. I just write songs and if it’s able to touch people on that level…”
Apparently he touched Bruce Springsteen though. Mike didn’t bring this up but, the Boss has joined Social D onstage (2008) playing ‘Ball and Chain’ & ‘I Fought the Law’ among others. Springsteen also has brought Mike on stage at his (Springsteen’s) shows, to perform the 1992 Social D song ‘Bad Luck’ together, in 2009 and 2012. Speaks to the Boss’s opinion of Ness.
Influences: “Non-musical would be, people who made changes like, Gandhi & Malcolm X – not afraid to take a stand for what they believe, and make the world a better place. Musically, I would say the Ramones, Stones, Hank Williams. People who were innovators. Tom Petty. Storytellers.”
“Fatherhood, made me grow up. We’re empty nesters now; now it’s changing the most. I grew up in a bad environment, then became a parent. It’s a common misconception that, if you love ‘em, how hard can it be? But not having tools/coping skills? My father was an angry guy, you can say you will never be that way but if that’s all you know…. So it takes soul searching and trying new things. When you see something works and you keep doing that, it’s incentive to keep doing that. I waited years & years to ask for help, and realized nothing would change til I got through the healing process with my own childhood. I’ve been clean 30 years, but 25 years I had to ‘learn’.”
“So my professional & music relationships are all fine. But I learned you can’t run your family like you run a crew. Once I started to get outside help, it opened doors, mind & heart. Done some 12-step & therapy. Due to alcohol & addiction, I had to acquire survival skills which were great at the time but those survival skills in the real world of your suburban home with a family? — they don’t mean anything. They’re actually a deficit. You have to learn a whole new thing. I put on the right shoe first my whole life; now, I gotta put the left one on first.”
Somehow we got on the subject of collecting old stuff. He used to end up with a lot of antiques he could sell, so a friend asked if he wanted space in their store for his antique collection overflow- then to keep it going, would go out & find stuff to put in store – so Mike calls it “another boat anchor to pull around.” But he also started Black Kat Customs in 2003 offering mainly a clothing line of shirts, jackets etc. and accessories that sells mostly online and at shows.
Mike says, “Maybe I should have a “What was I thinking” sale, bowing out of antiques. An estate sale to liquidate. But meantime you can check out Black Kat Vintage on FB, you never know, you might find that one of a kind you gotta have. Mike also has many beautiful old cars that he’s restored, customized & brought back to life. Check ‘em out on his site, www.blackkatkustoms.com . Along with that gorgeous ’53 Panhead Harley.
Mike Ness, a man of many facets and experiences, all of which contributed in some way to the man and musician he is today. He could write a book… And Mike will be on stage playing & singing his heart out with his band Social D, at Lost Highway’s inaugural event at San Manuel Amphitheater May 30th in San Bernardino, California.
As of this writing, Tamara our Euro Correspondent with the fan/friend questions at start of this story, is jumping up and down as their show will have played in Vienna April 21 as we go to press with this story in the May issue!