THE YEARS OF SOCIAL DISTORTION
Photo and Story: Michael G. Plumides, Jr.
Over the many decades of my jaunt into the now dying format of Rock-n-Roll, I have experienced a multitude of legendary bands, changing music trends, and devoted fans who have influenced this writer’s perspective. I have watched with a keen eye as the times change and when they stay the same – and watched music acts come and go. One of the few constants in my sojourn has been Social Distortion; the group has transcended many of their contemporaries from meager and tumultuous beginnings to continue to mesmerize a crowd. I caught their sold out live show at the Fillmore – Charlotte, November 10, 2012. Interestingly, Social D. and I have some history, as a fan, a promoter, and now as a music writer.
When I transferred in 1984 from University of South Carolina to UNC- Wilmington, I met this guy named “Death Skate” from Va. Beach, a pock-faced punk rocker with wisdom beyond his years. One of Death Skate’s many astute observations as he sat in the dirt in front of the student union smoking cloves (or maybe doing an Ollie – I can’t remember) was, “Cats are Anarchists. They do whatever they want” referring to the feline lack of ability to take commands.
Death Skate’s name was Brian. He was real. While I was living in Wrightsville Beach jamming to The Replacements, The Smiths, and English Beat, Death Skate was dropping the needle on Crass, Government Issue, and The Vandals. In an infinite moment of clarity circa 1985, Death Skate hand-painted the moniker of the now legendary So-Cal quartet, Social Distortion – with a skeleton holding a martini glass, on the back of his leather motorcycle jacket. Back then you didn’t have all this contrived merchandise everyone wears today, you made your own.
1983’s album entitled, Mommy’s Little Monster had already become the stuff of legend among punkers – but due to front man, Mike Ness, and his addiction to heroin at the time, Social Distortion was one of those unattainable bands live. They were a rumor. You rarely had a chance to see Social D, unless of course, you lived in California and even then their appearances were sparse. Ness spent a lot of his time in-and-out of institutions and flopping on friend’s floors; factors which contributed to the band’s on-again off-again status.
Punk took a surmountable dedication to be authentic, and most of the good stuff wasn’t on the record rack at the mall. If you wanted to be in the know, you bought Maximum Rock-n-Roll or Flipside and those were hard to come by too. Early on, to acquire Social Distortion’s music, you had to order the LP from your local Record Bar and wait several weeks to get it. Punk rock and hardcore wasn’t about fashion but more about attitude – to fly in the face of an overreaching and stifling federal government, i.e. the PMRC, and music ratings hearings spearheaded by the Reagan Administration. The dissention was by-and-for an alienated and disenfranchised suburban youth with scenes burgeoning in every locale: DC, Boston, Chicago and especially Orange County.
But Ness’ band had tapes with songs like “1945” (which had garnished the attention of long-standing West Coast radio staple KROQ as far back as 1982), “The Creeps”, and the Rolling Stones’ “Under my Thumb” floating around like Dead shows, with great hooks and unique vocal-styling; all would become anthems for the socially outcast.
After working at the fabled “Cable-FM” station in Wilmington, the lost but lauded WLOZ-FM (incidentally the station shut its doors in 2001), I transferred back to Gamecock Country in 1986 and signed on with WUSC-FM. Upon my return, I had adopted an outward skate punk ethos in my Dog Town t-shirt and Chuck Taylor’s with a “Suicidal Skates” sticker on the back of my Celica. I was also busy with my Sunday radio show at WUSC, and filling in for the host of “Raucous Waves” (The Gnashing Chicklet) and the request line would always light up with teen punker’s suggestions of a Social D. play, along with Dead Kennedys and Suicidal Tendencies. Social D.s’ Prison Bound EP had made its way into heavy rotation by the spring of 1988, after the band had signed to Restless Records (The Cramps, The Dead Milkmen, Flaming Lips). Ness had spent some time in County and acquired a taste for Johnny Cash, prompting the recording “Ring of Fire”, with Social Distortion adopting a “Cow Punk” sensibility that would become the band’s driving element in their music for some years. It would also appear the band was arriving. This would pave the way for what was to come – the quartet signed to a major label, and my involvement and subsequent show promotions of Social Distortion.
By 1989, I was booking bigger acts than just your local fare at the 4808 Club, with a little help, of course. One can’t have too many friends. I started co-promoting with a guy named Chris Bojonavic, a scrappy, punk rock Clemson grad with a thick New York accent – a so-called “silent partner” of mine, a little on the shady side. “Bojo” had just inked some backing from legendary concert promoter, Cecil Corbett, which later he would come to regret. Chris and I promoted a number of shows together: Bad Brains, Corrosion of Conformity, Soundgarden, Danzig, and of course, we did Social Distortion – it was a glorious time for headbangers and punks.
So Bojo and I promoted a Social D show early in February of 1990. Recently signed to Epic Records, they played songs off of their upcoming effort, “Ball and Chain” and “Story of My Life” and of course “Ring of Fire” of which, they would re-record for their self-titled album. The band liked to play their new songs for a live crowd to test them out before they recorded them.
I used to love to take the bands to eat. It was the moment you could examine them. Before the show, I took Ness and the others to eat at Ty’s on 7th Street. Ty’s had a “Cajun Ribeye” steak with a loaded backed potato, salad and beverage for eight bucks (and the buyout was ten) so I always took the bands there, and if I was strapped for cash Ty would take a check. I became fast friends with Dennis Danell, founding guitarist for the band. Dennis was just a sweetheart of a guy; he and I talked about a sandwich shop he had opened in Newport Beach, the tour, and the new record deal. We all made mostly small talk, but they were a genuine group of guys – you could tell they were elated about taking their SoCal punk to the next level. But there was also an underlying apprehension.
The then line-up of Social D, Ness: Danell, John Maurer, and Chris Reese almost had a fear of the unknown after knowing only the indie world since the band’s inception in 1978 – but they also knew it was time to get their shit together. Of the band, Mike was the quiet one, who didn’t say much as he sat at the head of the table. He would mutter occasionally, in his raspy voice, and laugh as he pushed the food around on his plate. Ness did say, “This is a great steak. Could I get another glass of tea?” But when he did speak, everyone listened.
That year, Social Distortion would release their first album on Epic, entitled, Social Distortion, recorded by engineer, Dave Jerden (Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Alice in Chains). The album was certified “Gold” – which was unheard of for a punk act. I would promote one other Social Distortion show in August of 1990 at the new incarnation of 4808 on 5th Street (the other was shut down after fire code violations following an L.A. Guns show the previous April). Dennis and I were out all hours of the night after the show getting into trouble, but not as much trouble as we would have liked. Sadly, Dennis died of a brain aneurism in 2000. Of the experience, Ness expressed, “I am saddened beyond any possible form of expression. Dennis and I have been friends since boyhood, starting Social Distortion together while we were in high school. My deepest regrets go to his family.”
After the infamous GWAR bust in September of 1990, I moved to Myrtle Beach, SC, and started promoting shows again at different clubs up and down the East Coast to moderate success. My main venue was The Purple Gator. It was right around the corner from my house and a great venue, way before House of Blues arrived. Another was in Wilmington called Jacob’s Run – a club that had taken up the mantle of the Mad Monk when it burned to the ground in late 1991. I did tons of stuff in the Southeast since Bojo had split the country with the gate receipts after a Megadeth debacle (incidentally I broke my nose after I got roped into working security – somebody’s ass came over the barricade and landed squarely on my face) at the Grady Cole Center – Bojo hasn’t returned since.
So, I took his place as the new indie promoter in the South. That summer I did: Widespread Panic, Helmet, Testament, White Zombie, Bad Religion, Agnostic Front, Colonel Bruce Hampton, L 7, and I grabbed a couple of Social Distortion shows, with openers Reverend Horton Heat and Paw, for Savannah at Congress Street Station and in Charleston at the Music Farm. The band was supporting their new release aptly entitled, “Somewhere between Heaven and Hell” which was exactly where I was about to be.
Savannah was always a little troublesome, promotion-wise. You did have the art school there but when you promoted shows in the summer, everyone moved to work in Hilton Head forty-five minutes away, so surfers and skaters would have to travel. Now that Live Nation has a monopoly and rock’s appeal is definitely more selective (and with $10 canned beer), its commonplace that shows start around 8 PM but back then club shows usually started around 10:30 PM and ran until about 2 AM so the bar could sell some booze.
When I arrived on July 24, 1992, the city looked abandoned. I was worried to death. And the band was touring with this Samoan sound man – charging me an extra $500 for monitors. I remembered this guy. He was a real pain in the ass and loved to start shows way too early so he could load out at midnight even after I objected and gave him the set times. The Samoan did the same thing to me on a Testament/C.O.C./White Zombie bill at the Purple Gator – I lost money on that one too. That afternoon I popped my head inside Vinnie Van Go-Go’s while the band grabbed some pie. The employees assured me that the show would do well which, for the moment, put my mind at ease.
Paw hit the stage at 8:45, Reverend Horton Heat at 9:40, Social D at 10:30 – and I got creamed. People were showing up at 10:45 and Social Distortion was already playing. They had missed Horton Heat, who had a good buzz at the time and easily seventy-five people turned away. I don’t think it was the band’s fault. They just show up and play when the Samoan tells them to.
I was frantic – about $1200.00 short at the door plus I had no reserve cash and no way to get any on a Saturday. Back then, there wasn’t a cash machine on every corner and I doubt they were gonna take a check. I remember sitting in the Congress Street manager’s office and the Reverend was bitching at me in a drunken stupor, “Why don’t you pay us our money, man?” After some interrogation, Quincy, one of the club owners, agreed to loan me the $1200.00 as he placed his fire arm on the table. Quincy, with his mustache, mullet, and gold chain, alongside a 6’ 4” goon named Larry, would then follow me in his Sedan Deville to Charleston with the intent of collecting his cabbage after the next show. It was a scene right out of Burt Reynolds’ Gator.
The Charleston show was a whole ‘nother ball a’ wax. I made sure the show started later – but since it was a Sunday night show, the club had advertised it as an early show. Needless to say, Social Distortion packed it – the show was a huge success with the support of the Music Farm, and WAVE-FM. In the wake of the Battery being rebuilt, Charleston was also manufacturing an involved and supportive local music scene. So I paid Quincy off, and got him off my back –then I drove back to Myrtle Beach with $13 dollars. I barely had enough gas to get home.
Fast forward some twenty years later. Social Distortion had come through town last year as the opener for Foo Fighters at Time Warner Cable Arena – I guess this is one of the stories where the times have changed. Then I heard they were coming around again. So, I contacted Andy Somers, their long-time agent and he put me on the list (I occasionally have to remind him of my sufferings those many moons ago) and when I arrived, there was a ticket, an “After Show” and a “Photo” pass. I take pictures with either a digital camera, or screen capture from my Flip – I love being in the orchestra pit with the hoity-toity photographers and their big lenses because they always look at me peculiarly, wondering how I got there.
Lindi Ortega and the Biters ably opened, a three-piece conjuring feigns to P.J. Harvey, and Jucifer with hints of The Del Fuegos and maybe the more contemporaneous sound of Heartless Bastards. After running in to a handful of old school punks mixed in with the crowd of transplants, I took my position stage center in the orchestra pit and got settled. Mike Ness came out wearing a suit, tie, red suspenders, and a fedora – and boy did he rock the house. I forgot all about the $20 I just spent on a beer and jagermeister and happily contemplated my youth. With that undeniable, souring guitar sound that would wake Les Paul from his grave, Mike Ness played with all the intensity and angst of a teenager sneaking out on a warm summer night to the sold out Fillmore crowd.
The band opened with “Far Far, Away” followed by “Bad Luck”, “Highway 101” don’t take me for Granted” and Machine Gun Blues”. The show was breath-taking – and loud. Ness continued to woo onlookers with favorites like “Cold Feelings”, and the perennial “1945” – “Telling Them”, “Bakersfield” and the jangly-hillbilly tune, “Sometimes I Do, and Sometimes I Don’t”. The band continued with songs like “Black Magic”, “Company C” and with Ness’ rendition of “Ring of Fire” it was evident my sojourn had come full circle.
Social Distortion continues their tour through December and January, returning this week to where it all began; Orange County – playing five shows in Anaheim, then to Las Vegas, West Hollywood, and San Diego.
I think this quote from one of Ness’ latest entitled, “Still Alive” sums it up: “With a guitar in my hand I stand a little taller, and I’ve been to hell and back. I ain’t falling off this track, from the back to the front page, from the gutter to the stage.” I don’t long for the good old days, but I do reflect on them fondly. And as for these “cats” – Social Distortion are among those “Anarchists” I spoke of. Mike Ness did whatever he wanted, and it looks to me like he has a great time doing it.