30 years of distortion
Social Distortion’s frontman gives up the story of his life
“We are living in a time where image is everything and background is nothing,” says Social Distortion’s Mike Ness. “Punk rock, just like anything, had its misconceptions, and through the years it gets homogenized and misrepresented.”
Ness should know. It’s been nearly 30 years since the seminal punk band blasted through raw sets of teenaged fury in thrashed suburban apartments; now Ness can’t avoid seeing his band’s name emblazoned on ready-to-wear punk accessories in most mall outlets. “Since punk is an attitude, just how you look doesn’t matter. Individualism is a big part of punk. Punk rock is being yourself.”
Ness has come a long way since Social Distortion’s first cross-country tour in 1982, a turmoil-laden road trip that was documented in the film Another State of Mind, which was recently released on DVD.
“Part of me, when I see myself [in the film], is like looking at a complete stranger,” Ness said. “But the other part sees that it was the beginning of my career. That was the shaping of my songwriting, the whole development of my style.”
Back then Ness’ self-destructive nature found him brawling with rival punk rockers, hospitalized from drug and drink excess, and enduring stints in jail. After several self-released albums and rotating lineup changes, Ness checked himself into rehab. Social Distortion’s 1988 release Prison Bound asked hard questions about wasted lives and consequences of immature impulses. In 1990 the band was signed to Epic, and successful albums like its self-titled and 1992’s Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell brought Social D from backyard skateboard parties to rock journalists’ glowing approval.
The band released White Light, White Heat, White Trash in 1996, and Ness released two solo albums in 1999, Cheating at Solitaire and a collection of covers with Under the Influence.
“I wanted to show people and myself that I could do something else, that I wasn’t one-dimensional,” Ness explained. “It was very liberating to play with pedal steel guitar and fiddles. Songs of Hank Williams are just as significant to me as songs of the Ramones.”
Social Distortion’s last release goes back nearly three years with 2004’s Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll, which was the first recording made after the death of guitarist Dennis Danell from a brain aneurysm.
“Dennis was my best friend,” Ness recalled. “He was my partner in crime.”
Now a happily married family man, Ness has two sons, 15 and 11, who favor surfing and skateboarding to playing music.
“I don’t push them on that,” he said. “I share with them that I have very few regrets. But one of my regrets is that I didn’t stay in school and get a better education.”
Ness abandoned school in the sixth grade.
“There are these blocks of time that I don’t know what happened,” Ness said about things he might have missed in history and social studies classes. “Then again if I hadn’t dropped out of school I might not have been able to start this band. I have learned a lot that they obviously don’t teach in school, not even in the best universities.”
Social Distortion has been touring practically nonstop for more than two years with the current lineup of Jonny “2 Bags” Wickersham on guitar and Charlie Quintana of the Cruzados on drums, both of whom joined the band in 2000. Brent Harding, who played on Ness’ solo efforts, became the band’s bassist in 2005.
“There is a great momentum we’ve built by doing that record and touring, and it’s really hard to turn that off once its going. We feel very creative and strong right now. It won’t be long before the next album. We feel very inspired right now.”
When asked what advice he might give a young musician, Ness joked, “Don’t do it! It is a long and often still a discouraging road. You have to be willing to take that with any good times you grab along the way. A lot of times people ask me, ‘How did you do it?’ And I say, ‘I’m stubborn!’ That and I don’t know how to do anything else.”