Once upon a time, a framed black and white photo of a young Mike Ness and Dennis Danell, surfboards in hand, sand beneath their feet, and the Pacific Ocean in their sights, hung in Danell’s apartment. Now, more than 30 years since the angsty surfers with a taste for rock ’n’ roll started a li’l punk band and helped birth a genre of music that — for better and worse — would come to define an entire region, Social Distortion and, perhaps more accurately, Mike Ness, still rules the So Cal music scene.

When Danell died suddenly in 2000 following a ruptured aneurysm, Ness became the only remaining original member. That Ness, who survived a nasty heroin habit by the skin of his teeth — and, at least once, by the hand of his best friend — would outlive the athletic, all-American Danell, lent a cruel twist of irony to the story of their lives. (Danell’s replacement, Jonny “2 Bags” Wickersham is still part of the lineup.) It was a dark time and a pivotal moment in the journey from there to here — itself an E-ticket ride through the spectrum of human emotion, rumbling through poverty, wealth, failure, hope, despair, joy, grief, loneliness, love, destruction and finally redemption — with a soundtrack to match.

The latest addition to that soundtrack, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, which officially released just days ago, finds Ness et al. predictably more mature but surprisingly diverse, revealing a breadth of talent and influence that was previously touched on but never exposed to this degree. Perhaps it’s all the firsts associated with this record — first full-length with bassist Brent Harding, first record for the band’s new label, Epitaph, first record produced by Ness — or maybe it’s the merciful passing of time, but whatever the reasons, Hard Times is easily the band’s best work in more than a decade. It’s also a potentially risky record in its myriad departures from formula Social Distortion. But even while less open-minded fans might criticize the record, others will give kudos — it’s rare, after all, for an old-school punk band to continue to produce new material at this stage in its career, let alone raise the bar for creativity.

f“I didn’t get to where I am today by not taking risks,” says 48-year-old Ness. “If I still cared what people thought, I’d still be pushing a mop. Yeah, it was ballsy to put two songs on the record with soul singers, but you know what? I saw Johnny Thunders do it once, and if you’d said anything, he would’ve broken his guitar over your head. The main thing I got from punk rock is individuality and that means doing what you want to do, even if your best friend says it sucks.”

Social Distortion has been coming to Ventura for decades, and will return next week for a sold-out night of sweaty mayhem, the kind of fun the band, its rabid 805 following and the men in blue have come to expect. “The thing about Ventura that I love most is, I can always guarantee that the crowd is insane — always,” says Ness. “They do all the things people in L.A. are too cool to do. They’re not inhibited. Every time we ever go to Ventura, it’s always a high-energy crowd. I don’t care what anyone says, 50 percent of the show is the crowd and your reaction to them, and their reaction to you. It’s interaction. It’s like a small-block Chevy — you start it up and you know it’s gonna go.”

An avid collector of all things vintage, Ness has been known to treasure-hunt in downtown Ventura, one of his more memorable procurements being a pre-war, glass-eyed child’s mannequin. “Really creepy. It didn’t make it into the house,” he says, laughing. “It’s in my shop with all my other junk.” Another of Ness’ great Ventura finds is bassist Brent Harding. While opening for Ness’ solo tour some years back with Deke Dickerson and the Ecco Fonics, Harding was asked to step in for Ness’ bassist, who was injured in a skateboarding accident. Harding and Ness shared similar influences and often discussed American roots music. When the tour ended, Ness returned to active Social Distortion duty, and Harding continued on with the Ecco Fonics. But when longtime Social Distortion bassist John Maurer announced his plans to retire in 2004, it seemed the stars began to align once again in Harding’s favor — though it would take a little time. At first, and for reasons unclear to Harding, Rancid bassist Matt Freeman took over, but his availability for touring was potentially sketchy as his wife was pregnant.

“They asked if I’d be willing to learn the set and be [on call] just in case,” recalls Harding. “It was [Freeman’s] first child, everyone was excited, beautiful amazing thing. I said, ‘Of course.’ ” As the tour progressed, Harding practiced the material in his living room. “My son was like, This isn’t what you usually listen to. This isn’t old music by dead guys.

‘This sounds different.’ ” Intrigued, Harding’s son expressed an interest in seeing the band perform. With the tour winding down to only six days at the Wiltern Theater, Harding figured he wouldn’t be filling in for Freeman after all, but decided to call the band and arrange to take his son to L.A. for one of the final shows. Father and son arrived at the concert, went backstage to greet the band and got comfortable in their excellent seats. “We’re watching the opening band and they come down and say, ‘Brent, Matt’s wife just went into labor.’ ” Once again, Harding was Ness’ pinch hitter and once again, he hit a home run. The best part, of course, was having his son there to witness it all. “It’s one thing to see your dad play at Zoey’s or whatever little club he could get into at the time, but this was a big rock show.”

Harding finished the Wiltern dates and eventually came on board full time.

f2With the addition of the band’s newest member, David Hidalgo Jr. (the son of Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo), Ness couldn’t be happier about the current rhythm section. “I surround myself with great musicians now,” he says. “I used to just have my friends join the band, and musicianship was secondary, and that was great in the early days but I’d always be unhappy after the show. Now, I give it a little more thought and have musicians that are accomplished, and then we become good friends because of our mutual love and respect for it.”

Sage words from the original Sick Boy who, in the most iconic moment of the punk documentary Another State of Mind, showed us the correct way for a man to apply eyeliner. The once scrubby punk with Aqua Net encrusted hair and a goofy laugh has grown into an insightful gentleman with pricier hair product and an impressive collection of cashmere overcoats. (He still has the goofy laugh.) When the old song “Anti-Fashion” is mentioned, Ness laughs. “I was just thinking about that song the other day! I was walking through the mall going to the sales, and it was like, ‘Wow! I sure have changed — buying Ralph Lauren sweaters on sale and Allen Edmunds shoes, and I have this guy make me nice high-waisted pants.’ ”

He may be more polished, personally and professionally, but make no mistake, Mike Ness is as punk as ever, and Social Distortion still tears it up. “I like to tell people Social Distortion is rock ’n’ roll punk-style. If you had to put a label on the band, that’s how I would do it,” Ness explains. If you listen to a Dead Boys record, it’s rock ’n’ roll with just this crazy punk style to it. But it’s still blues-based and that’s what people forget about the first wave of punk, the most significant period of punk. It was very rock ’n’ roll. It had a fresh look and attitude and style, but these people grew up with Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones. The Ramones are just the Shirelles with loud guitars. That’s why, who’s gonna tell me this isn’t punk rock? You’re gonna tell me what is and isn’t punk? First of all, were you even there? I love just challenging that.”

It’s an attitude that’s garnered Ness both respect and disdain, but as one of the pioneers of the So Cal punk rock scene, he has the authority to back his words – plus age has tempered him. The difference between punk and other rebellious movements, says Ness, is that punk lacked direction. “We would always give the hippies grief, but really I think they were more punk rock than we realized. They at least had an agenda. They were trying to change the world.

Punk rock was a little bit more like, let’s destroy everything, but in my opinion you can’t destroy something if you don’t have a vision of what’s going to replace it,” he says.

While Social Distortion will always be a punk band, as a creative pursuit it has avoided stagnancy and Ness would rather not limit its scope with labels.

“I think it would be silly if we were still doing what we did 30 years ago. Don’t you think it would be ridiculous doing songs about mom and dad and the cops at 48? We’ve always been known as Social Distortion California punk band, but I always wanted people to know we are more than that.”

There is much to be said for longevity these days, but as difficult as it is to stay in the game given the current state of the music industry, the true measure of a band’s worth is in its ability to grow artistically. “We’ve never been afraid to evolve. You have to evolve, and our fans have evolved with us,” says Ness. “It’s what I wanted to do with this record and this band: be acknowledged in music history as, ‘Wow! They started as a garage punk band but look what they ended up becoming — that and so much more.’ ”    

Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes is available on iTunes and Amazon as well as on CD and vinyl (with two extra tracks and a poster) at major retailers and local record stores. The Jan. 25 concert at the Ventura Theater is sold out.

 Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes

coverTrack by track with Mike Ness
Social Distortion’s first release on the veteran punk label Epitaph marks the most notable shift in Mike Ness’ approach to songwriting since 1988’s Prison Bound — both albums having been written during times of tremendous personal growth for him. Recording is not a new process for Ness, who has made seven full-lengths with Social Distortion and two solo records. Although he’s co-produced all his records, this is his maiden voyage at the helm and he says it was “an amazing experience.” The freedom it afforded him, along with his willingness to draw from previously untapped influences, has created a sonic reflection of the many facets of Ness’ paradoxical personality. “I wanted the record to take people to unexpected peaks and valleys, unexpected places.” Fueled by his desire for unforced vocals and a thematically lighter record, Ness not only proves his mettle, he justifies the band’s longevity. “On the past two records, especially White Light, White Heat, White Trash, this producer had me singing really angry, even though it wasn’t really an angry song. One of the main focuses on this record was to go back and just sing it and not be aggro man. And I think it’s so much more effective,” he says. “I’ve got enough attitude for six people, OK, so it’s gonna be in there no matter what.” Known to be a bit of a control freak, Ness taking the wheel in the studio was inevitable. “I drove my band crazy. It was like, ‘God, he’s not only the leader of the band, now he’s the producer of the record, too.’ (Laughs.)But at the end of the day, they’re stoked.”

The title
“Nursery rhymes are what calms a child, entertains a child, exercises a child’s imagination, allows them to escape. To me, that’s all our music really is: nursery rhymes of the streets with louder guitars. It’s maybe still a little bit of refusal to completely grow up. During every single period of hard times, people still needed entertainment. That’s what we wanted to do with this record.”

Road Zombie
Begin with an instrumental? “Personally, I don’t know where else you’d put an instrumental. The sequencing was very important to me, too. I just wanted to write a kind of soundtrack to something that didn’t have lyrical content — just painting a picture with guitars, music.”

California Hustle and Flow
“I love the Rolling Stones and Exile on Main Street, and I love the Black Crowes and other bands that use these girl background singers. I tried it just out of curiosity and it blew me away. It took the song to a completely different level. This song is kind of a light chronicle of my life in music. Starts off with the snotty-nose punk and goes into wanting to learn to play the blues, kind of like, rock ’n’ roll’s been good to me and I hope I’ve been good to rock ’n’ roll. It’s about California and how much of an influence it had on us.”

Gimme the Sweet and Lowdown
Brilliant, clever, fun. Lyrically and melodically the biggest departure on the record and the most radio-ready. “I didn’t want this record to pigeonhole me into any one style of writing. Writing this song was really fun because I had images and played with them, and the song just kind of came together. It’s an untapped style of writing for me that I plan to go back to in the future. It captures angst in a real stylish way. It’s kind of tongue in cheek, too.”

Diamond in the Rough
“It’s written about being raised in really bad situations and how, even though you don’t want it to, it gets carried into your adulthood, and how challenging it is to overcome that. But it is possible. It rings very true to home.”

Machine Gun Blues
Fairly standard Social D fare. Why make this the first single? “That’s a song I would have picked [previously] and the label would have said no to. But this time it was the one that the label picked. I think it’s very signature but also has some new stuff in it. It’s stepping away from nonfiction and going back to [storytelling] similar to how I wrote “1945” when I was in history class and failing miserably, ready to drop out. But I saw an opportunity to write a song. I interjected myself into that situation, which is for me a fun way of writing. A lot of my idols, like Johnny Cash, have written that way. He never spent a day in prison but he wrote “Folsom Prison Blues” and became the voice of the men and women in there.”

Bakersfield
“It’s kind of the “Prison Bound” of the album. Just a ballad, a singalong ballad. I wrote that song when we were coming home from a long tour, crossing the California state line, almost home. One show left to do in Bakersfield and wanting to be home with your loved ones. You’re so close . . . it’s Friday night, not necessarily wanting to be there in that moment, and the feelings behind that.”

Far Side of Nowhere
“I’m a huge Tom Petty fan — most people don’t realize that. To me, once again, White Light, White Heat, White Trash was a very dark album, and I wanted a song that wasn’t heavy or dark. I wanted to write a song that might help people escape a little bit.”

Alone and Forsaken
Hank Williams cover. “Late ’40s country, dark — and that’s why I like it. He doesn’t write many songs with minor chords and this is like that. I was listening to this in my living room one day and I thought, ‘Social Distortion’s gonna do this, and this is how we’re gonna do it.’ ”

Writing on the Wall
Poignant song about Ness’ relationship with his teenage son. “It was really difficult to write. I felt like I had to do it. I didn’t realize at the time that I was kind of exposing myself, but in the past I’ve done it and people appreciate it because they relate. I haven’t played it live yet. That might be tough.”

Can’t Take it With You
Balls to the wall rawk ’n’ roll. “We did it and it was like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute, it’s outta control!’ It’s faster than we normally play, it but it became a barn burner. It’s really just 12-bar blues, but it ended up coming alive in the studio, and last minute we said, that one’s going on the record.”

Still Alive
“It’s kind of a reflective ending. It’s about being a survivor, but it’s also a little bit of a snub to the people who said we couldn’t do this. Not only did we survive, we became successful at it and now they’re buying our CDs (laughs).”

michel@vcreporter.com