A man with slicked-back hair, a salt-and-pepper beard, knuckle tattoos, neck tattoos, and an anchor tattooed on his cheek strides into GiGi’s Antiques in Red Bank, NJ. One of the old women at the counter, perhaps GiGi herself, clutches her chest, and the other reaches for the cash register. Respectfully, Mike Ness takes off his sunglasses and in a sweet and low voice says, “Good afternoon, ladies.” He looks back to his equally tattooed entourage juxtaposed next to priceless art, china older than the People’s Republic, and other antiques, and says, “I never get tired of that reaction.”
By now what the delicate purveyors of the antique shop can best surmise is that a motorcycle gang of ruffians casing the joint has made its way to the thimble sets and tapestries. The boldest of the women scampers after the gang, watching her inventory.
“Excuse me, miss, you wouldn’t happen to have any old watches?” Ness asks.
“We do, but they’re behind glass, so I’ll have to look at them with you,” she answers, with the emphasis on placing herself in proximity to the product.
The two go to the corner of the store that houses the watches, and Ness immediately starts identifying them by make, model, year, and quirk—his knowledge and charm shows that he isn’t a scofflaw and puts the woman at ease. The discussion of art deco watches only interests Ness and the seller, so the entourage disperses throughout the store to sift through baseball cards, old magazines, or prewar toys. But word hasn’t gotten around that the guys in leather jackets are safe, and the boys are met at every shelf with treasures from bygone years and the steely gazes of octogenarian men—the other woman has called in the muscle. A stand-down finally occurs when the first woman brings up a watch from the back to hold at the register for Mr. Ness.
“The great thing about touring is that I have the opportunity to check out antique stores in places I’ve never been before,” Ness says during the short walk to the next shop. He still has a few hours before the sound check for Social Distortion’s concert in central Jersey. Walking into another of the many Red Bank stores selling secondhand wares, the group is again greeted with uneasy looks and, this time, a small dog that thinks it’s a pit bull. The tattooed crew passes the terrier’s sniff test, but the clerks are beyond leery. The man running the shop lets his curiosity get the best of him and comes over to point out some of his pieces. Ness meanders around a collection of clocks and lamps, his eyes landing on a traffic light in the corner.
“You like the traffic light?” the man asks.
Ness gives him an opening: “I think so.”
“I know it comes from the City,” he says, meaning New York City. “I think Brooklyn.”
“Does it work?” Ness asks.
The man shows him that it does in fact function, and they discuss the finer points of traffic lights. Then, when the price is revealed, Ness informs him that he wants the piece, but regretfully he can’t see paying the quoted amount. The man explains that he is actually selling it for a friend of his and if Ness wants to come back later in the week, he could talk to the owner. “See, I’m only in town today,” Ness says nicely. “I’m from California.”
“What brings you here?” the man asks.
“Me and my band are playing a rock ‘n’ roll show tonight,” Ness explains. Then he throws it out there to see if it rings a bell: “Social Distortion.”
It doesn’t. It’s not like Ness is looking for a handout, but in the antique world the lead of one of the most prolific rock bands might as well be a janitor. Ness takes one last look at the traffic light, tells the owner that if he wants to call his friend with the offer he may stop back in later, and then leads his crew out the door. Is Ness bothered by the way the antique sellers react to him? “If I really cared about what other people think, I wouldn’t have pursued rock ‘n’ roll music—I’d still be pushing a mop,” he says.
The same dance between Ness and the proprietors occurs at the next den of antiquities. Ness picks up a Virgin Mary statuette and says, “I’m really into religious iconography because it seems important to people—the object meant something to someone.” He moves on to another area and thumbs a license plate from the ’30s. “I also really like the Gasoline Alley stuff,” he says. “Back then there was a craftsmanship to everything.”
By “everything,” Ness means everything. He’s a true craftsman as well—someone who puts out only a quality product, be it an album or a performance. Social Distortion’s new release, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, is the band’s first in over six years. It was originally supposed to come out last fall, but Ness wanted to tinker with the record until he was proud of it. “I’m not for deadlines when it comes to creativity,” he explains. “I’m not going to sing a song a day just because I’m on fucking deadline. I remember taking some time away from the studio, and then I came in and absolutely killed ‘Bakersfield’—it was so much better than the prior version. Luckily I had management and a label that was 100 percent behind me, telling me that I could do what I had to do.” In fact, this album marks the first time Ness has taken control of producing. “I always co-produced Social D’s stuff, but this time I wanted us to do it ourselves,” he says of the band, whose current lineup includes bassist Brent Harding, new drummer David Hildago, Jr. (who has a wolf tattooed on him in honor of his father, the singer for Los Lobos), and guitarist and Ness’s longtime friend Jonny “2 Bags” Wickersham. Ness emerges from a stack of advertisements with a schoolboy’s grin and a present for Jonny 2 Bags—a vintage vegetable crate label from the company Gay Johnny.
The treasures that Ness keeps for himself are filling up his house in northern California and starting to get on his wife’s nerves, so he’s building the “man cave of man caves” to house his prized possessions. When asked if it’s the hunt, the haggle, the acquisition, or filling his space that drives Ness’s antique collection, he contemplates the question and answers all of the above. “I like to surround myself with this stuff because it inspires me. It’s another way that I express myself.”
The primary way he expresses himself is, of course, music. Like his desire to dust off old, thoughtfully composed items, Ness draws on truely classic rock to inform his sound. Social Distortion is a thoroughly modern band but, as Ness admits, they draw on the sweet sounds of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, the Rolling Stones, and The Ramones. Even non-fans have heard the band’s rendition of Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and the Stones’ “Under My Thumb.” In Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes you can also hear the echo of Ness’s friend and fan Bruce Springsteen. “I wanted to write a rock ‘n’ roll album that had parts of country, punk rock, blues, and rockabilly all spread equally,” Ness says. The result is patently Social D, at times loud and brash and on other tracks brutally honest and ballady. “A good portion is autobiographical, but because I don’t want to be pigeonholed creatively, some songs are light,” he says. “I wanted a nice variety so after you listen to the album you aren’t sure what happened but you enjoyed the journey.”
Ness is in yet another antique shop scrupulously examining a watchband to determine if it’s original or a distressed replacement. The fluorescent lights of the store bounce off the wrinkles in the leather band and illuminate his knuckle tattoos. He has a soft spot for art deco–era watches and ink. Some say that people who amass as many tattoos as Ness are collectors, picking up a tattoo here and there to represent that they were here and there physically or emotionally. “In the way that music and the stuff I pick up help me to express myself, I guess tattoos do as well,” he admits. His favorite is the anchor that he recently got tattooed under his left eye. “It’s very symbolic,” Ness says. “It means that I’m anchored—I’m in a spot where I know who I am. I am anchored spiritually; I’m anchored with my family; and I’m anchored in my place in rock ‘n’ roll.”
Ness’s future tattoo plans include finishing up his “shirt.” His body of work is an amalgam of black-and-gray and color with no particular theme, but he’s inked himself with symbols that echo his penchant for collecting automotive antiques and religious iconography. He’s contemplating how to blend the Jesus on his chest with the car motif on the rest of his body. “I don’t suggest doing what I did and getting a bunch of little tattoos, because then you are stuck trying to blend them all together,” he says, adding that he doesn’t regret any of the ink as he puts one of his sleeves up the business end of a dusty ventriloquist dummy. He’s smitten with the little guy, but age has caught up to the dummy’s clothes, and its mouth doesn’t move with the ease it should. Someone in his entourage says it looks a lot like the dummy on the cover of the D album White Light, White Heat, White Trash. Ness turns his head and the dummy’s so they meet eye to eye and smiles, thinking about the hit record. Then, because some think the only time a troubadour has something to say they sing it, one of the entourage asks how Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes follows up from Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll. “As a person and musician, I think you need to reinvent yourself every time you put out an album,” Ness says. “I don’t see any album as a continuation of the next. I’ve fallen on hard times, and nursery rhymes are soothing. At this point I’m not grown up, but I’m not immature.”Ness decides to check in about that traffic light before hauling ass to the concert venue for sound check. Back at the antique shop, he’s greeted by the dog and clerks with great fanfare; looks like someone Googled “Social Distortion” over his lunch break. The proprietor already has the light ready to go and says the owner has agreed on Ness’s price. The leader of the band pulls out a wad of cash, peels off a few hundred, and hands it over. The midday excursion is a success.
Later that evening, as Ness and 2 Bags wail “Road Zombie,” the all-instrumental track that opens up both Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes and their concert, the antique traffic light sits stage right, flashing an electric red, yellow, and green glow. Ness turns his back to crowd, marvels at his purchase, and mouths, “That’s awesome.”