There probably hasn’t been a worse time in the history of rock’n’roll for guys like Mike Ness and Tom Petty— aging white men with guitars just asingin’ and astrummin’ about the meat and potatoes of life: love, shame, disappointment, cars, having a drink or two. Caught somewhere between Nashville’s country club, where only card-carrying members even get a chance to play the course, and the narrowcasted straits of pop radio, where new material by an old standby like Petty has been all but formatted out of existence in some markets (in favor of old material by old standbys like Petty on classic hits stations), they can’t help but seem hopelessly outmoded. Like, I dunno, an innocent little Pong machine blipping away in the corner of one of those evil virtual-reality video arcades that supposedly helped bring Colorado to its knees. Not that it’s the end of the line— Petty’s faithful will eventually push his new Echo platinum and fill the seats for his summer shed tour, and Ness’s Social Distortion pedigree has earned his solo debut, Cheating at Solitaire, a slot on alternative playlists. But, relatively speaking, that’s a kind of subsistence living.
What’s interesting is that Petty, a smart Florida stoner who cut his teeth playing Stones covers in the early ’70s and then relocated to L.A., and Ness, a veteran Orange County punk who ended up covering “Under My Thumb,” would find themselves planted in the same shrinking piece of plowed-over turf in the late ’90s. After all, once he’d cleared up an early misunderstanding that he was some kind of new wave punk, Petty was already living large on Respectable Street back when Ness wanted nothing more than to give respectable folks the creeps. But somewhere along the line, Ness traded the Night of the Living Dead mascara-smeared eyes of his youth (the line “You look like Boris Karloff and you don’t even care” from Petty’s 1985 tune “Zombie Zoo” was a fair description) for neck tattoos and reinvented his punk as a kind of folk idiom, a rock with some of the same rebel roots (Stones, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, and of course the young Elvis) as Petty’s pop. Though, come to think of it, even in the formative 1982 Social D tour chronicled in the film Another State of Mind, Ness came across as a kid who wasn’t sure whether he was born to lose (like New York’s Johnny Thunders Heartbreakers) or born to run (like New Jersey’s “Thunder Road” Boss).
Cheating at Solitaire provides the answer we already knew, in the form of a rather humorous vocal cameo by bruised old Bruce on the blunt rocker “Misery Loves Company.” “Happiness is a funny thing,” growls a gravel-throated Springsteen, as saxist Mando Dorame from the Royal Crown Revue prepares to do a little Clarence Clemons honking in his general direction. But the punch line is that Ness, with his first-person account of junkiedom (the, um, cleverly titled “Dope Fiend Blues”), is the kind of blue-collar antihero Springsteen usually sings about, not with. Ever the first-person literalist, Ness croons the chorus of a two-steppin’ cover of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” like he means it, when it’s really meant to be mean. And he doesn’t just pose in front of some black ’50s-Chevy-
looking automobile on the back of Solitaire, he serenades his sidewalled sweetheart with the chug-and-strum of “I’m in Love w/My Car,“ a gearhead’s fantasy that turns Bruce’s motor metaphors around with this cute little couplet: “My baby likes to run/Run as fast as you can/And when I’m in her/I feel like a man.” (He really is singing, as the intro points out, about his car.) It’s not even the disc’s best driving song— “Charmed Life,” with its world-by-the-balls swagger and massed powerchords, is the one that makes the tiny engine in my ’92 Ford Escort feel like a V-8.
Petty’s not as burly or literal as Ness, and Echo‘s a gentler album (more Byrdsy jangle and Beatlesque melodies) than Solitaire, which is solid Social D rock dressed up in Bakersfield beats, pedal steel, acoustic guitars, and, on one tune, a mandolin. At his prickliest, Petty’s still built for comfort; Ness, even when he slows things down, sounds like he’s built for speed. But the two Dylan-loving dudes’ paths do inevitably cross when Petty and his Heartbreakers dig their designer cowboy boots into the rugged three-chord rock of “Swingin’.” (As in, “We went down swingin’.” As opposed to John Anderson’s country-club meaning, which was actually about riding a front-porch swing; coincidentally, Anderson had covered “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” himself on an earlier album.) Petty’s “Swingin’ ” is just the kind of stoic and romantic loser anthem Ness was born to sing, especially when Petty starts dropping the names of old-school swingers like Benny Goodman and Sonny Liston. And it’s not a bad driving song either.
Still, what the allusions to Cadillac coupes and tumblin’ dice in “Swingin’ ” are really driving at is a nostalgic vision of Americana almost as quaint in the digital ’90s as Saturday night swing parties. Ness, who has apparently never met a down-and-out cliché he didn’t like (from empty pots of gold to hearts full of rage), merges onto the same lost highway with his blatant references to “teenage cruisin’ ” and feeling “like Marlon Brando.” Sure, it’s corny— that’s sorta the point. And as with most “roots rock,” there’s a certain irony in the fact that it’s rooted in populist notions of a type of working people’s music that’s really not all that popular anymore, especially with working people. Like the characters in their songs, Ness and Petty have little choice but to motor off into the sunset— back to a virtual past where aging white men asingin’ and astrummin’ about life’s meat and potatoes actually meant something.