The only sellouts are the shows

Social Distortion remains a big draw while staying true to its punk roots.

By Scott Martelle, Times Staff Writer

Mike Ness wishes he could point to some sort of game plan that made it all happen, but the truth is, he's as mystified as anyone by the staying power of his band Social Distortion. For a musician, it's a good mystery to have.

Ness' band, now older than many of its fans, on Sunday begins a string of 29 dates at the House of Blues venues in Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Diego and Las Vegas. By midweek, all but eight of the shows were sold out — including 17 of the 22 L.A. and Anaheim shows — a remarkable feat for a band with no new album to push or new material cropping up on radio.

There's just Ness, his bandmates and a catalog of songs about marginalized lives, personal loss and the persistent longing for some sort of human connection.

"He's talking about stuff people can relate to — being an outsider, not having anybody like you, things going wrong in your life," says longtime fan Carl Lofgren, manager of the Scene bar in Glendale. "They're kind of like the punk-rock Stones — they just keep doing it."

Last year, when Social Distortion booked into the Wiltern LG for six November nights, Lofgren hit three of the shows. "The fact that the same people would go to the same show that many times just goes to show you how powerful they are," he says. "They epitomize [Southern California] punk. Everything about them — the tattoos, the cars. That's just them, that's Southern California."

For Ness, it's the lucky payoff of more than 25 years of hard work — and nearly that much hard living. Ness' difficult childhood and past drug problems infuse his lyrics and his media image. Few profiles fail to mention the personal trials, or the dense web of tattoos that peek out from his collar and cuffs, making Ness something of a punk cliché incarnate. Yet in a business that seems to produce more has-beens than hits, Ness has maintained both musical relevance and an uncharacteristically strong fan base, defying the other part of the punk cliché — fast and furious careers.

"I wish I could take credit and say this is what we did, we had a meeting" and designed a counterintuitive path to punk longevity, Ness says, finishing up a deli sandwich inside a private Santa Ana auto shop he and a friend run. "Honestly, I would say we're lucky.... We've never been commercially correct or prolific. Fans still look at us as an underground thing they have been a part of creating."

Ness still lives in Orange County, a family man now with two sons. The garage in which he and a friend refurbish vintage cars is a grown kid's playhouse, an old beer distribution center in an industrial section of east Santa Ana. Advertising posters, beer lights and old floor radios dating to the Depression era fill the space not taken up by mechanics' gear and cars Ness has restored.

"I like to mix it up, a little religion, burlesque — the juxtaposition of good and bad," Ness says of the collection. "I love old advertising, the art work is just so animated."

The common thread between the old cars and the tube radios, he says, is devotion to the craft of making them in the first place, something largely lost in a disposable culture. That embrace of a job well-done is blue-collar ethic showing through — something Ness believes lies behind the band's connection with its fans. "We've always taken pride in our live shows," Ness says. "We come from that old school of showmanship. We work hard. We rehearse, and we want to give people their money's worth."

Social Distortion came together in the late 1970s, merging hard-edged roots rock with punk swagger somewhere near the intersection of '50s hot rodders, Link Wray, Johnny Cash and the Clash. It was James Dean cool bumped ahead a couple of decades, retro-hip in a place — Orange County suburbia — known for its blandness. As the music moved toward hard-core and ska, Social Distortion developed its own sound, eventually landing gigs opening for the likes of Neil Young.

"We took a lot of flack in the late '80s for getting a little bit of success," Ness says. It was a "small circle of people that felt that way," but in the sometimes cannibalistic outsider world of punk, to succeed was to lose a veneer of cool.

"We never bought into that — I wanted to be a rock star since I was 5 years old," Ness says. "We were always looking at bands like the Clash and the Ramones, who had a tour bus and had guys tuning their guitars."

Although the band never gained wide national prominence, Ness maintains a curious position of being an elder statesman in a youth culture, a survivor in a realm of flameouts, even while producing new material at an exasperatingly slow pace. The band has released eight albums, including one live collection, with a lengthy gap between "White Light, White Heat, White Trash" in 1996 and last year's "Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll." (Ness also released two solo albums in 1999).

"We're a local band that's never been accused of over-saturation, so when we play, it becomes an event," Ness says. "The home shows are always the best."

The band's shows at various House of Blues venues through

January:

Sunday, Sunset Strip (sold out)

Monday, Sunset Strip (sold out)

Wednesday, Anaheim (sold out)

Dec. 22, Anaheim (sold out)

Dec. 23, Anaheim (sold out)

Dec. 26, San Diego (sold out)

Dec. 27, San Diego (sold out)

Dec. 29, Sunset Strip (sold out)

Dec. 30, Sunset Strip (sold out)

Jan. 2, Anaheim (sold out)

Jan. 3, Anaheim (sold out)

Jan. 4, Anaheim (sold out)

Jan. 6, Anaheim (sold out)

Jan. 7, Anaheim (sold out)

Jan. 8, Anaheim (sold out)

Jan. 10, Anaheim (sold out)

Jan. 11, Anaheim (sold out)

Jan. 13, Las Vegas

Jan. 14, Las Vegas (sold out)

Jan. 15, Las Vegas (sold out)

Jan. 17, Sunset Strip (sold out)

Jan. 18, Sunset Strip

Jan. 20, Sunset Strip

Jan. 21, Sunset Strip (sold out)

Jan. 22, Sunset Strip

Jan. 25, Anaheim

Jan. 27, San Diego

Jan. 28, San Diego

Jan. 30, Anaheim

Price: $25 to $28

Info: http://www.hob.com

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