I first got into Social Distortion in the late ‘90s while living in Chicago, not through a purist punk rock crowd, but through an alt/insurgent country show I put on there. Following this, I quickly came to like the more rockin’ stuff off of 1983’s Mommy’s Little Monster as much as the band’s love of classic country showcased in songs like “Ball and Chain” and covers such as “Big Iron” on 1999’s Under the Influences and Cheating at Solitaire, both released as solo albums by frontman Mike Ness. I’ve never thought Ness was a wordsmith, but I’ve always appreciated his talent for writing melodic songs with a social edginess to them (in the tradition of Johnny Cash but with a shot—no more—of punk), enriched by his steel wool vocals. The line of songs from “Sick Boys” to “Born to Lose” and “I Wasn’t Born to Follow” form a consistent identification with those folks who are down on their luck, born on the wrong side of the tracks, or wake up on the wrong side of the bed. Indeed, Ness has been a kind of punk “Man in Black” ever since Social Distortion set out their rootsy stall in the Los Angeles hardcore wilderness in 1983 and subsequently became the inspiration for thousands of burgeoning punk bands. I have great respect for this band and its frontman, and so I awaited this concert with much anticipation.
The Bataclan is a medium-to-big old theater, holding about 1,500 people, probably 800 of which were on the ground floor, below sea level, so to speak, from the stage for this show. Because it’s big, and flat, it’s very hard to see the stage unless you’re right in front of it. I honestly don’t like the venue at all. Tickets for the show were not outrageous at 28 Euros. But once inside, I found that there was no air: No air conditioning, no fans, certainly no windows—no air whatsoever. People looked like they had been working out, or moshing, before the show even began, sweat cascading down cheeks, beads dropping from all the black T-shirts and glistening tattoo-ed arms and legs, onto the floor where they brewed with the slopped, over-priced beer. Everyone was maneuvering for drinks around the small bar, but they didn’t serve pints. In fact, by American standards they offered what looked like Dixie cups of low-grade pilsner for 6 Euros. I was beginning to worry about this unfolding concert experience.
On my quest for a view of the stage, I passed the merchandise stand, and considered getting a T-shirt. I’ve always loved the Social Distortion logo—- a skeleton clutching a martini. However, I was astounded to find that the band was charging sixty Euros (about $85) a pop for those things! They may sing about the tough life, but they sure aren’t selling T-shirts to people who live paycheck to paycheck. I’m not challenging Ness’s tough street cred (he was kicked out of his parent’s home at age 15 and struggled with drug addiction). I also realize the business is complicated and Ness is forty-seven without a pension, but this just seemed a bit much for a band that lathers itself in working class imagery.
The place was packed, and my friend and I gave up trying to muscle our way to the front after finally getting our refreshments. We opted for a side view, getting a spot fairly close to the stage, but one that sacrificed a view of the bassist for most of the show, even if we had a clean shot at Ness. Social Distortion blasted off the set with “The Creeps”, taking us back to their 1983 origins. The song, like so many to follow, was competent, but seemed to lack energy and a little TLC. It set the tone for a very good but mechanical set. Maybe Ness and Co. were hot and tired. Ness didn’t say much in between songs. I have no idea how representative of their usual shows this really was, but when he said he saw “a lot of criminals out there” who looked “like they should be in prison,” it just fell flat, and not just because most of the French-speaking audience didn’t understand him. In fact, they seemed to like him more when he spoke because they gave him the linguistic benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, I got every word, and I’d preferred he just taciturnly rocked out.
But they didn’t really rock, not that this is a band that really runs with the punk horses anyway. Ness writes good, catchy, twangy but fuzzy, dark songs and delivers them in a gruff tone of perpetual sore throat. On record, it’s great. But live, at least this time, it seemed lacking in vigor. I wanted to sit down (but to be fair, I also wanted some air and a pint of non-French beer). My reaction was not shared by a lot of the other audience members, who seemed thrilled to bask in the shadow of the Social Distortion pedestal. I can’t blame them. The music was good. But the performance added little to the recordings I enjoy hearing in a less sauna-like ambience.
The band drove through their classics, including “Mommy’s Little Monster”, “Ball and Chain”, and “Sick Boys”, coming back for a competent-to-the-end three-song encore that included a catchy, relatively new song, “Still Alive”. It’s a good pop song made typically edgy by Ness’ vocals. They rounded out the encore with “Prison Bound” and “Story of My Life”. Though Social Distortion emerged from the LA hardcore scene, this is not hardcore. These days they include a kind of E-Street band keyboard that gives it even more of a roots rock feel.
All this was fine, but next time I’m only going to see them if they play an air conditioned venue or somewhere with really big beers. I guess that means I should see them in Germany.