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Mike Ness's Solitaire blues

By Carly Carioli

APRIL 19, 1999:  Mike Ness was ahead of most in declaring punk to be a kind of postmodern folk idiom, and among all who've made that claim, he's by far the finest example of it in action. Long before the release last week of his first solo record, Cheating at Solitaire (Time Bomb), which finally tackles country music head on, Ness claimed C&W and blues and raw, renegade rock and roll -- from Johnny Cash and the Rolling Stones to Willie Dixon and obscure rockabilly Ersel Hickey -- as Social Distortion's birthright, as a vehicle for his own outlaw self-mythology, and as the true path of the rebelliously righteous. The last round of tours by Social Distortion, mounted in support of 1996's White Light, White Heat, White Trash (Sony) and captured on last year's Live at the Roxy (Time Bomb), might have represented Ness's finest and most dramatic moment to date. Like Herman Melville or an episode of Springer, this was about, y'know, big stuff. Bedrock American struggle writ large, Heaven and Hell, sin and redemption, crime and punishment, bad luck and good fortune. He echoed all manner of archetypal vistas: Lefty Frizzell writing "I Love You a Thousand Ways" to his wife while in jail for statutory rape; Brando, cold and cool on his motorbike, a jukebox mirage on the big screen; junk and strippers and the Stones (honorary Americans if there ever were ones); Johnny Cash, goosed on dexadrine, detonating sticks of dynamite in the desert just to watch the brush burn.

The set I remember most vividly from that tour began with the Stones' "Under My Thumb" -- in which the singer uses his lover's affection against her, being casually malicious, barely interested, at best amused by his control over her -- and ended with Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," in which the tables are turned and the singer's love consumes him. Framed thus, what happened in between seemed some kind of passion play, a song cycle that suggested sins both ordinary and unthinkable, and redemptions almost always heavily compromised. More immediately it registered as a guy simply trying to hold himself together while everything falls apart.

As bullet-point encapsulations of country music go, that ain't bad. And after all, Ness has been writing country songs since almost the very start -- "Like an Outlaw (For You)," off 1988's Prison Bound, which reintroduced him as a buff, tattoo'd-and-pompadoured icon after a five-year absence due, it was reported, to a life-threatening junk habit (see Solitaire's absurdly blunt "Dope Fiend Blues") and a brush with the law that nearly resulted in serious jail time. Or "99 to Life," off 1992's Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell (Epic), a Ness composition that sounded just as authentic as that album's cover of Jimmy Work's country standard "Making Believe." On Solitaire, then, he's faced with translating punk spiked with the essence of country into the thing itself.

But before he gets around to that, he's out for a little respect. Not that he's ever been denied a seat at the table of critical acclaim; but even those who've granted him tenure as a punk hero haven't ever ascribed to him the willfulness of purpose to work out something as considered as what happened on those last SD tours, or offered to put his name up in lights as an Important Artist. When they drew up the guest list for Johnny Cash's tribute/re-emergence, they invited Chris Isaak, not Mike Ness.

Ness has never been one for subtlety, and in case you didn't catch the significance of this album, there's a Dylan cover -- the first single, "Don't Think Twice (It's All Right)" -- and a guest appearance by Bruce Springsteen within the first three songs. This ought to cue you that he has, at the very least, read Mansion on the Hill. Let me not be misunderstood: Ness does a fine neo-rockabilly version of "Don't Think Twice" -- if there's a criticism to be had here, it's that his version is a little too nice, that his "It's all right" connotes a literal forgiveness where Dylan's reeks of venomous irony. "A lot of people make it a love song," Dylan once said of it. "But it isn't a love song. It's a statement that maybe you can say to make yourself feel better. It's as if you were talking to yourself."

The version on Solitaire is pure Ness -- literal to a fault, a stylistic limitation that he's somehow found a way to turn to his advantage time after time. It's this literal streak that led me to wonder whether he wasn't headed for hoky Junior Brown-style self-parody when, touring after Heaven and Hell, Social Distortion wore poker faces while playing an unreleased song called "I'm in Love with My Car." The song shows up late on Solitaire, but this time it comes with a smirk: Ness, playing an announcer for "radio station KOCK," reacts incredulously as he introduces the song in drive time: "Is this right? He's in love with his car?"

As for the Springsteen duet, "Misery Loves Company," it's a harmless novelty, the kind of studio compromise (B-side-worthy Social Distortion riff; overtly E Street Band-like sax arrangement) that often results from such intergenerational summits. Five years from now I'm sure no one will begrudge it to either of them. Can't say the same, though, for "Crime Don't Pay," the one where Ness does the Stray Cat Strut with Brian Setzer and the Royal Crown Revue horns. Setzer's sin -- a pantomime of sleaze that comes off way too slick -- rubs off on Ness, who throws in a couple of exclamatory wows that telegraph his limited crooning capabilities.

Like Dylan and Springsteen, Ness is by no means a born singer -- his voice, raspy and nasal, comes off as the perfect foil to Social Distortion's ragged jolt, though he's got to force it into shape to deal with country's loping phrase modulations. It was for singers like Ness that pedal steel was invented: it cries so you don't have to. Enter Chris Lawrence, who plays steel for Cisco, a lauded Bakersfield honky-tonk dude whose 1998 debut, Wishing You Well from the Pink Motel, was produced by Ness and James Saez (the same team responsible for both Solitaire and Live at the Roxy). It's on the disc's stripped-down country tunes, with Lawrence's full-bodied crocodile-tear sobbing as enabler, that Ness really sinks his teeth into things. His covers tend to travel similar territory. Aside from "Don't Think Twice," there's "Long Black Veil." Heavily influenced by Lefty Frizzell's version, it's the story, narrated from the grave, of a man falsely accused of murder who goes to the gallows rather than reveal his stone-cold alibi, which was that he was bonking his best friend's wife at the time. But it's Hank Williams's "You Win Again" that gets to the heart of Ness's favorite role: the tough guy betrayed by a weak heart, the outlaw as mortally wounded romantic who oughta know better but can't help himself. He croaks his way through the opening pathos -- "The news is out all over town/That you been seen out runnin' round/I guess I should leave, but then/I can't go, you win again" -- and deftly follows the song's emotional twists through the acidic condemnations of her betrayal, the you'll-get-yours spite, and finally back to the howl-at-the-moon conclusion, the leathery surrender of loving her still.

Solitaire also harks back to Social Distortion's earliest days and "Another State of Mind" (the writing of which, during SD's first tour, is chronicled in the fabulously hilarious documentary of the same name), perhaps the earliest inkling that even as a pimply, un-tattoo'd teenager, Ness had internalized a few country records. It was a punk love song at a time when such things weren't real popular; it was simple enough, a kid stuck far from home yearning for his girl ("I'm bruised and I'm bloody/There's tears in her eyes/If I make it back I'm gonna show her/She's the only one for me"), but it already had a heroic determination to it, and the big "If" that drives cornstalk dreams. The two Ness-penned country tunes on Solitaire, "Rest of Our Lives" and "If You Leave This World," imagine a couple different ways the kid in "Another State of Mind" might end up. In the former, he finally makes it off the road after 18 miserably lonely years and realizes that after all the one-night stands and all the places he's been, she's still the one for him. The punch line is that he's singing from jail -- shades of Lefty again -- and there's no one to put up his bail.

And though "Rest of Our Lives" is a stellar tune -- Social D's grainy distortion ceding to upright bass and pedal steel -- "If You Leave Before Me" is the kind of tune they put your name in lights for, critically if not commercially. It's got a friggin' mandolin on it, for one thing. But its pledge -- not eternal love, 'cause the singer's not so sure he believes in an afterlife, but simply that "these last years of loving you/Will be the best years of them all" -- rings with a warmth and an understated grace, devoid of cowboy posturing or outlaw martyrdom, that bodes well for the long and storied career Ness undoubtedly has in front of him. "For if I were to live here without you/That'd be the greatest sin of them all," he sings. Ness is the sort of guy who pulled a pseudo-Robert-Mitchum-in-Night-of-the-Hunter and tattoo'd the words "Love" and "Pain" on his knuckles -- indicative of his story, which has always been about the paths less traveled of men who play games they know they were born to lose. On the cover of Solitaire, he shows only one hand -- the hand he has the courage to play -- and he shows it knowing the deck's always been stacked against him.

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