The more things change, the more they stay the same. Eight years to the month
after the last Social Distortion record (White Light, White Heat, White Trash),
Mike Ness and pals cough up the painstaking labor of love entitled Sex, Love
and Rock N’ Roll. Let’s think about just how long it’s been, shall we? In
1996, Bill Clinton was running virtually unopposed for his second term, the
world didn’t even know his intern’s name, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was
in the 5,000 range, and the name Osama bin Laden had yet to pass our lips. For
Mike Ness’s part, this new record is no doubt a reflection, a heart-felt ode to
days gone by and fallen friends. Since the last studio endeavor, this gritty
punk rocker from Orange County has lost fellow musical outlaws like Johnny Cash,
the Ramone brothers and, most notably, Social D’s founding guitarist Dennis
Danell, who died tragically of an aneurysm in 2000.
At the time it was difficult to imagine a Social Distortion album or tour
without Danell flanking Ness front and center. Time wore on, Mike Ness had done
the therapeutic solo album thing, and Social D eventually started playing random
club dates, mostly in southern California. There was still barely a hint of the
new record until late last year when Ness assembled longtime bassist John Maurer
(who recently stepped down after completing the record) with drummer Charlie
Quintana and new guitarist Jonny Wickersham. The result, while way too long in
the making, is pretty damned good.
The album title alone hints at how Mike Ness’s rugged attitude and hard-core
outlook have been softened a bit by his aging and recent loss. Though don’t
expect to find anything sappy here! “Reach for the Sky” unwraps the new package
in vintage Social Distortion style, with double-time drums giving chase to that
burning Les Paul riff ala Mike Ness. “Reach for the sky ‘cause tomorrow may
never come” displays the first of many reflective tones throughout this
collection. Just about every song, in fact, pays tribute in its own punk rock
way to history and love. “I believe in love now with all of its joys and pains,”
Ness confesses in “Highway 101.” Both “Angel’s Wings” and “Live Before You Die”
are equally potent in paying homage to Danell, but the extraordinary “Don’t Take
Me for Granted” is Ness’s personal dedication. “I’m the blood on your guitar,
I’m that wave you caught back in 1975,” he snarls to the lifetime friend he’s
loved and played rock n’ roll with since junior high school.
I would argue that some tribute albums get weighed down in emotion or allow the
words to suffocate the music, thus becoming diluted musical projects that miss
their mark altogether. Sex, Love and Rock N’ Roll, however, works on
every level. Initially, at least, a few of these songs were in the making while
Dennis Danell was still alive. What’s more, the music here is pure Social
Distortion -- there’s no pussy footin’ around the topics of love and loss.
Instead, it’s done with a sweat-soaked guitar and an Orange County mindset.
Thank God we’ve come to expect nothing less from our idols.