PERMANENT RECORDS: LIVE FAST, TELL A LIE, AND BREAK A HEART
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
05. SOCIAL DISTORTION - SOMEWHERE BETWEEN HEAVEN & HELL (1992)
Personnel: Mike Ness, vocals & guitar; Dennis Danell, guitar; John Maurer, bass; Christopher Reece, drums
Producer: Dave Jerden/Label: Epic
I was already a Social Distortion fan when Somewhere Between Heaven & Hell was released. I had also started writing Cut My Hair and had made them the favorite band of my main character, Mason. They seemed like a perfect choice for a band that the other guys in the book could make fun of him for liking. The thinking was that as time had progressed, and with the release of their self-titled third album a few years before, they had gotten a cleaner sound than the Mommy's Little Monster days and achieved some crossover success as a result. If you were one of those prickish hardcore punk bastards who noted every dollar someone earned so you could be their with a pointing finger at the selling-out point, "Ball & Chain" would be a convenient accusation to swing at Mike Ness and crew.
Somewhere Between Heaven & Hell was, however, the album that came out when I was in the early stages of that book, and it confirmed that Social Distortion was not only a band I could stand behind on behalf of Mason, but also an excellent choice for him.
The thing that sets Social Distortion apart from a lot of the hardcore punk pack, particularly of the Southern California variety, is that they can be both tough and sensitive without having to sacrifice one for the other. Perhaps it's the country influence--Ness is a big fan of old country, and even did a solo album of C&W covers years later--but there is a self-deprecating, self-loathing streak that runs through the band's music. Mike Ness hates himself as much as he hates you or the establishment or the whole goddamn world. "Cold Feelings" opens the album on that note--a man caught up in thoughts that he can't control and doesn't want. "I try to separate/ Try to separate my body from my mind," he says, the purgatory of living being the middle ground between what we desire for ourselves and where we end up. It's a song riddled with doubt, with sneering anxiety, and most of all, helplessness. "Cold Feelings" is a far-cry from the smartass posturing of most of the other guitar bands of this kind.
Mike Ness is an expert at this kind of anthem. The single "Bad Luck," "King of Fools," and "Born to Lose" are anthems to what a crummy guy he is, warnings to stand clear. Having a pretty troubled history up until that point, it's more than a cultivated outsider image, it is sentiment honestly felt. That's why it's fitting that the band's breakthrough was with a song about Ness' struggles as a junkie. His unadorned lyrics deal in cliché--"Bad Luck" is a string of them, ranging from black cats to eight balls and cracked mirrors--but that's the country music sensibility again, and really, the encompassing pop music outlook. You need not write like Byron to be a Byronic hero. In fact, I'd say the straight-ahead simplicity of the writing is why Ness can get away with a song like "99 to Life," just in the way Johnny Cash could pull off songs like "Folsom Prison Blues." If you speak in the language of the common man, you don't come across as putting on airs. Instead, you sing with the voice of experience.
Beating behind all of this, of course, is the heart of a romantic. Show me a guy who desires real love with another, and I'll show you a guy who can't stand the sight of his own face in the mirror. Many of the songs where Ness tears himself down are really pleas to an honest woman to leave him alone because he's no good for her. If he's "Born to Lose," than all he can do is bring you misery. Like Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past, his previous misdeeds spell danger for his current lover, and he can only truly be with her if he can ever stop wrestling with those faults. Given how fat a chance that is, better to bail than to stick around and keep her in harm's way.
This leads Ness to numbers like "Making Believe," a plaintive, honky tonk wail sung over desolate and crunchy guitar lines. "Making believe/ That you still love me/ It's leaving me/ Alone and so blue." Turn down the amps, put a Southern accent on it, and you've got a Hank Williams song. Elsewhere, "Sometimes I Do" is a good-bye song that basically says, "We both should have known we'd end up here, because we both know how I really am."
Naturally, those warning songs also lead to the other side of the coin. If Ness can't date the right woman, he's going to end up with the wrong one. "Bye Bye Baby" is a kiss off to "you and your evil ways...cuz maybe I got better things on my mind." On another single, "When She Begins," he talks outright about his need for love, for a place to settle his weary soul, but it seems where he ends up is as uncontrollable as the impulses in "Cold Feelings." As he explains it,
"Well round and round she goes
Where she'll stop nobody knows
Y'know that woman put a spell on me
But if you start me, start me, start me
You can't stop me, stop me, stop me
When she begins to rock, honey, I begin to roll"
This doubt, this feeling of being somewhere (between heaven and hell) you don't belong and wishing for the perfect love to come and take you out of it, it's not too far from a lot of what Cut My Hair is about. If your favorite band is the one you put on your headphones when life is getting you down, and the familiar sounds take you out of your own misery, then I could easily hear Mason retreating to Somewhere Between Heaven & Hell when the chips are down. In fact, he probably could have used it in the latter half of the book.
I went and saw Social Distortion at the Hollywood Palladium on the tour for Somewhere Between Heaven & Hell. I got there early and sat in line for hours so I could get in front. It turned out it was the night they were filming the "When She Begins" video. I saw them shooting all the outside scenes with the girl, and if you had a fancy computer like on TV crime shows where you can blow up pictures and see small details amazingly clear, you'd see me in one shot, fourth or so back from the front of the line. You can watch it here, but you won't be able to tell which is me:
I didn't last long in the front row. There were two opening acts. One was Best Kissers in the World, one of the many execrable Subpop acts they tried to foist on us in the wake of grunge, and a ridiculously bad choice for this particular bill. The second was Pegboy, a hardcore act with a mental age you could use a single hand from a Simpsons character to calculate. One of their songs was called "Pull My Finger." That's about all I remember. It got so violent up there, I knew I had to get out of the mix or I'd not enjoy any of the main set. Cindy, the girl I was with, didn't want to go, she thought she could tough it out, but I finally said, "I'm going. You can stay here if you want, but I'm out." I signaled to the bouncer to hoist me out, and over the barrier I went. She soon followed.
At that kind of show, it's actually better to have a vantage point from the back, anyway. Crowd surfing actually looks kind of cool from the back, when you can see the bodies bobbing around without any of the boots that go with them kicking you in the back of the head. Social D. put on a good show. It was a fun night.
The reason I'm telling you this, though, has to do with before the concert, before the video shoot, before we were even in line. Cindy and I had just arrived, and we were walking through the parking lot of the Palladium when a giant, blue, American-made cruiser drove onto the site. We stepped out of the way as the car approached, and as it passed, I looked in the passenger window. There was Mike Ness, his arm resting on the door, his hair slicked back and up, the dark sunglasses. He nodded at me, and I nodded at him. Inside, I was all giddy and coquettish, but at that moment, in that nod, I was macho and hardcore.
And in that nod, Mason and I melded. It's the nod that made it into the book, into Chapter 12, "Like an Outlaw (For You)," named for a track off of Prison Bound. It's one of the few times in the book that one of the events in the story actually happened. It was the perfect moment for me and the character, the go-ahead and acknowledgment from Mike Ness. Again, I had made the right choice. It was all there. Mason and I were good to go.
NOTABLE B-SIDE: I have a promotional copy of "Cold Feelings" released to promote the tour (according to the dates on the back, I must have seen them on April 23, 1992). In addition to the main song, it has a second track not on the album, a cover of Hank Williams' "Alone and Forsaken." I had never heard the original, but the Social Distortion cover was immediately a favorite and ended up on a ton of mixed tapes I made, often as the beginning of side 2 (back in the days when you could think in sides). This version is sparse and dissonant. Ness' vocals are turned up louder than the instruments, and the instruments that are there are pared back. The guitar works a solitary groove, more noise than melody, an electric cry of anger and despair. The rhythm track is mainly bass drum and tambourine, with the bells pounding pounding steadily so that they feel like the plaguing thoughts of "Cold Feelings" that you just can't shake. Ness sings with resignation, accepting his sadness, accepting the loss of love and the onset of time. It's the sound of a man resolved to his dark fate, and if you hear it once, it will haunt you forever.
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Current Soundtrack: Jarvis Cocker, Jarvis
Current Mood: they call us lonely when we're really just alone
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich