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Photo by Jeanne Rice"When the Angels Sing," a benefit for the family of Social Distortion guitarist Dennis Danell featuring sets from the Offspring, X, Pennywise, TSOL, Agent Orange, Social Distortion (with former Cadillac Tramp Johnny Wickersham in place of Danell) and others, will take place Saturday at Verizon Wireless (formerly Irvine Meadows) Amphitheater. For the first time since Danell's death in February of an apparent brain aneurysm at the age of 38, Social D founder Mike Ness spoke at length withWeekly music editor Rich Kane about losing his longtime friend and musical comrade:
It's a privilege to talk about a good guy. Once the shock of losing someone wears off, it's important to turn that loss into gratitude, a celebration, in a way. I think people are put into this life to bring certain people whatever they need, and they're not here forever. I had Dennis for 23 years, and I feel I just need to be grateful for that.
I was at home when I first heard the news, and my reaction was just . . . shock. Dennis was one of those people you thought was going to live to be 110 because of his luck. The last time we spoke was just a couple of weeks prior, just touching base, letting him know where I was at with the new Social Distortion record, letting him know what was going on in my life. And he was letting me know what was going on in his. I told him I was assistant-coaching my son's Little League team, and he just thought that was the funniest thing in the world. He thought it was so cool but so ironic.
We lived in the same neighborhood growing up, but we never really talked until we were at Troy [High School in Fullerton] together. When I was a junior and he was a senior, we had a class together, and we both had the same affection for this new style of music that was happening, this fresh, new, indifferent-to-the-masses music. His brother was working sound at the Starwood in Hollywood, so we started going to shows together. It would be a Tuesday night, and we'd take his dad's car, go get a 12-pack of beer and sneak into the Starwood to see bands like Fear, the Blasters and the Germs. Back then, since it was a revolution, so to speak, there was a sense of unity, and that's what brought us together. We were mentally and emotionally at the same place at the same time.
I wanted him in the band just for his presence. If you saw Dennis in 1979 and 1980, he looked like a young Billy Idol, just a good style and a fun guy to be around. Back then, I didn't think about auditioning drummers or bass players or guitar players—it was much easier just to bring in friends. If I gotta work with someone for the next 20 years, I thought, it should be someone whom I'm already friends with.
I taught him how to play. The best thing was that he always respected that I'm the leader, and he didn't have a problem with that. He was perfectly happy with being a sideman. Dennis was just as committed to Social Distortion as I was—at that time, we didn't have anything else.
We set out to change things because we were dissatisfied with the way things were, and I feel we did that. Twenty-three years ago, Orange County was a very dull place. I think we made it a little more interesting.
Although we did a lot of crazy things together, Dennis wasn't nearly as extreme as I was. He'd get up after a rough night and have a healthy breakfast and go surfing, where I would just keep going for seven or eight more days. I obviously needed more help with that, and once I did get help and started making changes, he was definitely there. After I got help, he was pleased because I wasn't stealing any of his stuff anymore. He could rest and stop chasing after me.
There were a couple of times during the '80s when I died, when I overdosed, and he was there for me. But we were at a different place then. Had I gotten around the wrong people, I probably would have ended up doing a higher degree of crime than I was doing and probably would have ended up dead or in prison. Although Dennis wasn't really helping me by giving me money when I needed it, he just really felt bad for me; he didn't like to see me hurting. Back then, it was a lot easier to give me 20 bucks to get me out of his sight—"Awright, here, go on, get outta here!" That's a buddy.
Dennis had a family much sooner than I did, so he was at a place before me where he realized that it wasn't just him anymore, that if he was going to be out of work with Social D for two years, then he'd better go and figure something out. I respect that so much because that's being a man, taking care of your family. So he was also doing real estate and just had a knack for being around people, being in the right place at the right time. He was doing very well for himself. Probably making more money than with the band.