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Still Punk After All These Years

The men behind Bad Religion and Social Distortion are older and wiser but just as persistent.

July 29, 2001|RANDY LEWIS | Randy Lewis is a Times staff writer

Punk rock exploded with raw energy, adolescent anger and primitive musical passion, but there was one thing it was never supposed to have: longevity. Yet a quarter-century after its shooting-star arrival, punk bands old and new are still putting out records at an undiminished rate.

Who would have thought two decades ago that Social Distortion, which formed in Fullerton in 1979, or Bad Religion, the Woodland Hills band that played its first show the following year as Social D's opening act, still playing punk music more than two decades later?

Both influential groups are at work on new albums. Bad Religion's "The Process of Belief" is due in October, and Social Distortion's untitled effort is targeted for next spring.

And both are dealing with significant transitions: Social D's album is its first since the death of member Dennis Danell, and founding member Brett Gurewitz is returning to Bad Religion full time after a 61/2-year absence, during which he transformed Epitaph Records into an industry heavyweight, bringing the Offspring, Pennywise, NOFX, Rancid and other punk groups to the world.

Social D leader Mike Ness and, separately, the six members of Bad Religion sat down recently to talk about the fine art of survival and what it's like to be punk rockers approaching middle age.

Anger is one of the driving components of punk music, and it's Ness' anger at lots of things that has kept him writing and singing incendiary music with Social Distortion for 22 years now.

At the moment, he's angry that some people don't think one of his recent songs, "Rest of Our Lives," is, well, angry enough.

"People would say, 'Well that's not very punk,' " says Ness, 39, of the song that celebrates what he calls "the bliss of having a lovely wife and two beautiful kids. I hate when people tell me what's punk and what's not.

"To me, punk is about honesty and individualism and expressing yourself," says the man whose avenues for self-expression include the gallery of tattoos covering his body. "It isn't always about abolishing the government. I don't feel it always has to be about rebellion. . . . There's a whole world of good and bad to sing about."

Noting the good in the world as well as the bad may be the biggest difference between the Social Distortion of 2001 and the band that started in Fullerton in 1979.

Back then, it was all about rebellion and what he found wrong with a world full of repressive parents, teachers and institutions that tried to rein in his budding need for self-expression. Battles often centered on the punk music he fell in love with as a Troy High School junior who would sneak off to L.A. clubs on weekends to hear such seminal punk groups as X, Fear and the Circle Jerks.

Once he formed Social Distortion and joined that scene, Ness quickly became one of the heroes of Southern California punk music for songs that depicted the alienation felt by teens in general and punk rockers in particular.

Social Distortion's 1983 debut album, "Mommy's Little Monster," is a punk classic that inspired legions to take up the cause. Among them was the Offspring, spawned when singer Bryan "Dexter" Holland and bassist Greg Kriesel were shut out of a Social Distortion concert and decided that night to start a band of their own.

Beyond simply channeling adolescent alienation and anger, Ness also was able to express the toll that the pursuit of individual freedom could exact when left unchecked. Ness paid that toll in the many friendships and musical opportunities he lost in the mid-'80s because of drug abuse. His songs consistently employed discernible melodies and catchy guitar hooks, all of which helped set Social D apart from many of its one-dimensional, bash-and-thrash peers.

"Mike is one of the few people I know who has used his hardship to create a stepping-off point for actually growing up," says Jim Guerinot, Social Distortion's manager for nearly 19 years. "A lot of people never get comfortable that they are not what their job is, that it is merely one aspect of who they are. Mike never confuses the fact that he is Mike Ness first, the singer of Social Distortion second. He is able to express with equal clarity anger and alienation of his youth as well as grief or joy he is experiencing as an adult."

Over the years those qualities have endeared him not just to punk aficionados, but to fellow musical mavericks including Neil Young, who drafted Social D as an opening act in 1991. Further, Bruce Springsteen sang harmony and played guitar for a song on Ness' "Cheating at Solitaire" solo album, and Johnny Cash has invited Ness to sing with him at a future recording session. (Cash's 1963 hit "Ring of Fire" has long been a staple of Social D's repertoire.)

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