Article By: J. Ken Konte
Originally Published In The June 2015 Issue Of Cycle Source Magazine
When I think back on watershed moments in my life, there are few. At 12 years old, I saw Van Halen on their 1984 world tour with my neighbor. It made an impression, with smoke and women throwing their bras on stage, but something felt manufactured— exciting but cheap. Shortly after that, I moved, and my buddy who’d taken me to the Van Halen concert sent me a mix tape with band names I did not recognize. I was in a new school, and I had to make friends. I could recite every line from The Outsiders, and a Thrasher magazine was never far from my grasp. I skated everywhere. Billy Ruff, Lance Mountain, Tony Hawk, and Gator were my idols. When I put that tape in, everything changed. It featured TSOL, MDC, Article By: J. Ken Conte JFA, The Dead Kennedys, and Social Distortion, among many others.
When I heard the first guitar riff of Social Distortion’s “Mommy’s Little Monster,” I was hooked. I’m not sure if it was the antiestablishment lyrics or the music, but songs like “Telling Them” were an anthem for my early teen years. As I grew older, I kept listening to the band, and the 1990 self-titled release took me by surprise. The first time I listened to it, I connected with it in a very different way than I had with Social D’s early music. The sound had matured, and yet it elicited the same visceral reaction as the early stuff. The first time I saw them, in 1998, Mike came out on stage, spit on his amp, and proceeded to shred the room. There were maybe 50 people, but you would have thought they were playing to a sold-out crowd at the Roxy. They never disappoint live. They are entertainers, in the best sense of the term.
Shortly after that I met a guy named David Parker. He had a broken leg and was walking with a cane after being curb stomped, and we both had Rottweilers. I was looking for a roommate, and we bonded over the struggles of being in our twenties, lost love, being misunderstood, tattoos, motorcycles, and Social Distortion. We were roommates for several years, and we took my little brother to his first concert, a Mike Ness solo show in the early 2000s, during which Ness stood up to a racist bully and beat his ass on stage.
David became an OTR truck driver, but we always kept in touch. We rode to Sturgis several times. He was there when I got my Social D tattoo in the late nineties. He was a groomsman in my wedding. He always made me laugh, but when neither of us had much to say, we’d just crank Social Distortion and sit on the couch. We were brothers with a common bond. But he was complicated, and he let it get the best of him. It was no surprise that “Angel’s Wings” by Social Distortion played at his funeral. I’d bitten my lip up to that point, but I lost it then.
So what is it about a song that can open the emotional faucet? When I got to interview Mike Ness, the only person I really wanted to tell was dead. I know Dave would find a way to get to Sturgis this year to see them if he was alive. Before the interview, I had a hard time reconciling the fact that I was going to talk to someone who’d composed the soundtrack of my life. I’ve met and talked to a lot of famous people over the years, and I’ve been let down on more than one occasion. But this is the only person I’ve interviewed whose picture hangs on a wall in my office. I didn’t want to be let down, didn’t want a reality to corrupt an ideal. I had no idea what to expect, and I was apprehensive.
I was apprehensive. I got on the phone with Mike Ness, lead singer of Social Distortion, and I’ll admit: I was a bit of fan boy at first. I told him about my 30-year relationship with his music. But he was appreciative, and it definitely started things off in a positive way. When I asked if he’d previously been to Sturgis, he said, “I have not, in all these years. As a matter of fact, I have only been to South Dakota once. I’m excited to see that part of the country.” So I had the opportunity to tell him a little bit about The Legendary Buffalo Chip, where Social Distortion will perform on Wednesday, August 5, with John Fogerty (an early influence on Ness, who will play solo material along with songs from the Creedence Clearwater Revival catalog). The thing I’ll take away from my interview with Mike Ness is how down-to-earth and personable he is. We talked for about half an hour, twice as long as the fifteen minutes I’d been promised, about a variety of topics, ranging from punk rock to motorcycles to his commitment to health and wanting to “live to be 100.” I’d like to think my friend David Parker was listening, from somewhere beyond the grave, as I talked to one of our heroes, who didn’t disappoint, didn’t let us down, but raised us up, like his music’s done for the last thirty years.
Excerpts From Mike Ness Interview by Ken Conte:
On his first bike: “My first bike was a ’57 Triumph, when I first got clean in 1985. Back then I wasn’t making much money playing in the band, so I learned a trade. I learned to paint houses. I would ride that little Triumph to work every day, and some days that was the highlight of my day.”
On Black Kat Customs: “I was going to car shows and bike shows. I found myself wearing those shirts. I decided to make my own, because I didn’t like the cotton [and thought] the graphics could be better. I wanted it to be a lot more, [so] in the last few years [we’ve] retained the car and bike stuff but also produced a wider selection of designs.”
On the Early Years: “We started in 1979. I was still in High School. Back in the mid-to-late 80s, punk still had a stigma attached to it. It really wasn’t until Nirvana broke that the rest of the world realized it was a significant movement and was here to stay. We didn’t tour a lot because I was strung out in jail or in detox.”
On working on bikes/cars: “Just like graphic arts or writing songs, building bikes or building cars [is] just another form of self expression—especially the custom car or the custom bike. I love working with my hands and learning.”
On the bike that got away: “My uncle was very influential in my life. He introduced me to The Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival . . . him and his friends [were always] there, with their white [tees] and Pendleton shirts. He restored a 1953 Panhead twenty years ago, and I bought it from him. I was going through a phase where I was married and a [new] Dad, and I sold it to a guy who owns a tattoo shop in New Jersey. I wish [I’d never] sold that one.”
Social Distortion plays Wednesday, August 5, at the Legendary Buffalo Chip in Sturgis, South Dakota. If you have not listened to all ten Social Distortion albums, I encourage you to, so you can hear the full scope of their music: www.socialdistortion.com. You can hear the complete 30-minute interview with Mike Ness of Social Distortion at: www.4Ever2Wheels. com.