the House of Blues – Chicago
There comes a time when you’ve arrived…the dues are paid and all the bullshit you endured just for being yourself lifts away. The walls you previously encountered melt away, and you find yourself in the midst of a massive group hug of fans, (and if you’re lucky, money). Social Distortion has been kicking away since 1978, refining the art of just being. Their spin through Chicago landed three sold-out House of Blues shows. For as much as I wished that I caught them at a dirty little venue back in the day, there were upsides to their playing at more mainstream venues. The sound, for one, is halfway decent. I didn’t feel horrible for forgetting earplugs. The trade-off of suffering through the tchotchke covered lobby and a large selection of booze you can’t afford is that you can hear the difference between the bass guitar and the bass drum.
As part of a calculated decision I arrived in the middle of Mest’s set. I took a stab in the dark and figured their MTV-ready polished pop-punk style would shave a few years off my life. Their blend of Incubus-Sum-Blink-(41+182)=223 seemed out of place in the context of Social Distortion’s gritty honesty. Despite mentioning that they were personally invited by Mike Ness, you had to wonder how many of the band members still had sold their souls to Satan just for that second opener slot.
I met a couple who had traveled from California. The bleach-blond girl was from Orange County and had been listening to Social Distortion since she was six years old. At the end of our conversation, when she turned away to face the stage, I realized the tattoo on her shoulder was the same dancing skeleton banner that hung over the stage. Like post-punk deadheads, she and her boyfriend had driven halfway across the country to hit a few shows. How many punk groups have super-fans that are prepared to go to hippie-like lengths to see a band? It’s this sort of rabid fandom sets Social Dostrtion apart from the other bands.
At 43, Ness is looking slightly rough around the edges, a bit like Swedish actor Peter Stormare tattooed up to the Adams apple. (Remember the quiet guy from Fargo?) As the years catch up with him, his charisma remains his strongest asset. Unlike Paul Banks of Interpol who struggles to mutter a single “Thank You” live, Ness understands the necessity of Rock ‘n’ Roll theatrics. He’s learned the value of endearing himself to the audience with friendly banter and a charming grin. There was a special charm to hear it coming from his mouth live. Like when that girl who’s out of your league starts hitting on you, you know Ness is going to say the same lines at the next gig in the next city, but for that moment you feel like you’re sharing in something special.
Older songs like “Mommy’s Little Monster” and “Sick Boys” drew the most enthusiastic crowd responses. “Don’t Take Me For Granted”, off the recent Sex, Love, and Rock & Roll played well, showing how the simplicity of Ness’s songwriting works best. There’s common ground for everyone in lyrics like “I’m your worn in leather jacket / I’m the volume in your fucked up teenage band / A bag of smokes and a six pack / I’m the dreams you had walkin’ down the railroad tracks” even if you’ve never owned a leather jacket. Even if the song is written for the late guitarist Dennis Dannel, the song rings of themes that most everyone can cling to. Like much of Social D’s catalog, they simply find joy in the act of wiping that bit of blood off the corner of your mouth, pulling yourself up out of the dirt, and just walking away from the fight alive. After qualifying that his love of America, Ness dedicated a fiery rendition of “Don’t Drag Me Down” to our lovely president.
They returned to the stage for an encore, ripping into their finale with a cover of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire. Ness stands as one of only a few people up to become a neo-Cash and the crowd’s energy verified that. For a finish, they played the fantastic ode to lost time, “Story of My Life”. Looking around at the crowd’s reaction, you could see what makes these shows special. I saw the Orange County girl I had met earlier, singing her heart out. Next to her stood a guy in his early 40’s, rounded glasses and stomach; punching his fist in the air, just as involved as the person half his age. This is the ultimate charm of Social Distortion, the basic themes of the music are universal enough that everyone can get completely involved. Even if so many of the songs deal with failure, you’re still left with an uplifting feeling. I found myself completely lost in their finale; screaming my favorite lyrics “Life goes by so fast / You only want to do what you think is right / Close your eyes and then it’s past / it’s the story of my life” along with everyone else in the house. I knew my reasons for getting so lost were different from everyone around me, but we all had a moment of common ground. As with Ness’s own life, there’s a joy in the fact that we all made it to that moment.
Previously published on Loose Record