In a sense, he and I were not so different.
Sure … one of us had sagging gauges, a belligerently drunk wife, and the stale breath of 50 years of cigarettes on his lips. One of us stood out among the rest of the crowd as unscathed and seemingly innocent. No, let me clarify: one of us stood out as SUPER vanilla … a dainty flower in a pit of post-punk survivors 30 years older than her.
But we both, in a sense, were exactly the same.
I was bitching in advance about writing this review of the Social Distortion show at Berkeley’s UC Theatre on March 18 to my friend Rosie—B-Side PR Queen and UC Theatre intern—at the venue’s merch table during the opener, citing the all-too-real facts that I’m too stressed and emotionally unstable to be writing for fun (or even free tickets) right now. Immediately someone tapped me on the shoulder; he was the “I survived post-punk type” – still tatted and lit, but also someone who definitely drove to the show in a Toyota Camry and spent his last four weekends at soccer complexes all around the East Bay.
“It’s ‘instable,’ baby,” he said, offering his clenched fist out for a friendly bump. “Innnnnnnnstable.”
Fistbumping him back and smiling, I laughed at the unlikely parallel and shared distance from bourgeoisie values. We just wanted to violently mosh to Ball and Chain and forget about the world’s more pressing standards – the meticulous and the cosmic.
“Without the integration of black and white music, there would be no rock and roll.” -Mike Ness
This is what The UC Theatre does. The proud “sticker-free” venue hosts an intergenerational audience, where on March 18 hundreds of punk vets (and their kids) gathered to push and shove, hug, make out, and smoke weed under crystal chandeliers and gold trimming.
The grunge to class juxtaposition was comical; yet in a sense, nothing has really changed.
The intersection of the 1978 California native punk band and Berkeley—a political activist hotspot and post-punk mecca—on the day of the God of rock and roll, Chuck Berry’s, passing and in the wake of a tumultuous election was both inspiring and jarring.
Opening the show with a tape of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ I Put a Spell On You and closing with an encore of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire, and playing Chuck Berry classics in the intermission after the opener, Social Distortion’s set was a gospel, paying homage to a long, brutal history of rock music on a day when the world was reminded of its roots more than ever. This was a show of and for rock and roll survivors. The set was a display of the endurance of the genre, even amidst brutal change and the sobering wear and tear of time.
Maybelline and Reelin’ and Rockin’ played over the speakers after the opener, serving as a preamble to the scream that was about to come. Suspended in a dreamlike, alternate dimension between the comfort of grassroots rock and an impending artistic revolution, Chuck’s music ignited the bittersweet thought: Maybe it’s time for another one.
Frontman Mike Ness, who was decked out in Blues Brother-esque threads, with suspenders, a Newsboy cap, and polished shoes that stamped the immortal rhythms with faith and tenacity, addressed the higher political implications of music in an emotional tribute to Chuck Berry and elevated the meaningfulness of the show.
This type of punk is not sponsored by Vans or dominated by 14-year old boys; this punk is more matured, curated, and highly political. Ness used the stage to deliver an appropriate tribute to the umbrella genre that revolutionized the world over 50 years ago, and an invitation for another generation to listen, rise up, take the stage, and pay their dues—just as everyone has done before—and further alter, add to, and increasingly radicalize the discourse of rock and roll.
“Without black music there would be no white music,” Ness said in an emotional eulogy to the Father of Rock and Roll. “And let’s be honest. Without the integration of black and white music, there would be no rock and roll.”
But still, this came late in the show, as a preface to the band’s new song When I Lay My Burden Down.
By the end of the set, however, I witnessed a thrilling showcase of a matured, appreciative strain of punk rock activism and a demonstration of mutual respect and love.
What initially appeared as a sleepy floor scene proved to be capable of much more. It morphed from three-man hug circles into what at times resembled a mesh between a line dance and a circle pit, creating a space for classic punk physical aggression while also fostering a dancey, celebratory arena that paid tribute to the greater art of rock and roll.
This is what music is supposed to do, and this is the higher responsibility of the artist: to educate, galvanize and mobilize.
And The UC Theatre, of all places, was the ornate shell of this artist-created space.
“I’m from the school where it’s patriotic to question the motherfuckers at the top.” -Mike Ness
The intergenerational venue is a palace for those from all walks of life. An eight-year-old with a spiked green mohawk and a studded faux leather jacket walked to the bathroom—which, by the way, is the best in the biz— and received a fist bump and a “Rock on little dude!” from a woman with an identical haircut.
The theater, which seats around 13,000, serves as the unlikely venue to bring all of these types of people together and base a new army of the angry, woke music lovers. It is a launchpad — a place for the young ones in the crowd to finally see others with greying, tatted, and studded dads, and the site that facilitates exposure to the real fight; with every “Rock On!” fist bump, or gentle shove in the crowd comes the microscopic transfer of antibodies against bullshit.
In these ways, nothing about punk has changed, and some of it never will. And just as Ann Wilson discussed with me in an interview last week, Ness used his stage to remind the crowd that music, and the vehemence it engenders, is more important now than ever.
At the end of the set he prefaced a savage political rant by saying, “We’re living in dark times.” Then he launched right into it. “I love my country!” he declared, and immediately excited the predominantly white male crowd.
Here we go, I thought as the singer paused.
“But I come from the school where it’s patriotic to question the motherfuckers at the top,” he continued, and was responded to with an even louder cheer, but only after a shared look of surprise spanned the faces of everyone in the room, including my own. That damn misdirection.
“What I would really like to see is for the U.S. to stop acting like it’s a fucking John Wayne movie.”
The crowd went crazy. And then the band launched into its encore.
In the end, we are all still the same. We’re feeling the same relentless anger, singing the same songs, drinking the same beer, and doing the same old shit. Punk rock has immortalized a celebratory aggression—a moshing, hugging, make-out type of anger, serving as an anthem for the revved-up youth and giving a massive middle finger to the man in charge.
And that is something we should take advantage of, now more than ever.
Written by Natalie Silver
Photos courtesy of Social Distortion