Energy. Attitude. Catchy one-liners. These are the common characteristics of punk rock. Since 1977, widely considered to be punk's year zero, witty lyricists such as Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer, and Ian MacKaye have provided clever and poignant lines of verse. But few punks ever used their songs to tell stories. Unlike country or rap, the genre seemed lyrically more predisposed to slogans, whether political or personal, than narration.
But there is one major exception: Social Distortion.
Started in Southern California in 1978 by a teenaged Mike Ness, Social Distortion was inspired by the Sex Pistols and the Rolling Stones. Listen to the band's catalog of seven albums, released sporadically over the past 34 years, and you'll hear the rebellious spirit of those influences. But lyrically, Social Distortion takes an approach that's different from that of those two British acts. Ness sings less about emotions and spins yarns about losers, misfits, and those whom life has kicked in the face. He does what every hackneyed creative writing teacher tells their students: He shows rather than tells. And it doesn't take getting to Social Distortion's rocking cover of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" or Emmylou Harris' "Making Believe" to recognize that the band's most obvious influence are the troubadours you're likelier to hear in old-time country music, albeit sped up on amphetamines.
Some of Social D's lyrical tales are obviously taken from Ness' checkered past, when he struggled with addiction and the law. But there's also plenty of imagination in his songs. Just as the Man in Black sang about how he "shot a man in Reno just to watch him die," Social Distortion gets into dark and homicidal fictional territory in "99 to Life": "I'm broken-hearted, I'm a broken man/Driven by anger, on that night I ran/I had me a woman, I thought that she'd be true/Now she's gone and left me, you know her life is through/Lonely weekends, baby, lonely nights/The judge, he gave me 99 to life/I wish she could be here, Lord, if she only could/Instead, she's laying in a puddle of blood/She was my baby, I thought she'd be my wife/I killed my baby, I killed her with my knife."
Most punk-rock lyrics are confessional. By those standards, an uninitiated listener might judge Ness as a sick, murderous fuck after hearing that song. But fans know and appreciate him as an imaginative storyteller who crafts his tales with the backing of drums, guitars, and bass.
For a family-friendly version of this kind of storytelling, look no further than the band's most famous song, the upbeat downer "Story of My Life." Using four chords and the basic rock template of alternating verse and chorus, Ness taps alternately into regret and hope: "And I went down my old neighborhood/The faces have all changed, there's no one left to talk to/And the pool hall I loved as a kid/Is now a 7 Eleven/I went downtown to look for a job/I had no training, no experience to speak of/I looked at the holes in my jeans/And turned and headed back."
That's an eye for description and succinct detail that would make Raymond Carver proud. Social Distortion just does it more punk.
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