The Social Distortion Network
The moment the lights dim on My Chemical Romance, signaling the end of one set and the transition to the next, an excitement builds in the crowd. Spectators who had stepped outside for a break start to file back in. No one wants to miss the next band. A three-syllable chant carries through the expanse of Gibson Amphitheatre.
“So-cial D! So-cial D! So-cial D!”
It’s nearly 10:30 on a clear night in early December when the stage begins to spin, shielding the band from sight, while bringing a motionless trio center-stage.
Radio personality Lisa May’s disembodied voice introduces the second-to-last set of Night One of KROQ’s annual holiday charity concert: “A group that’s no stranger to Almost Acoustic Christmas . . . Orange County’s hometown boys—Social Distortion!”
The founder and only front man the band has ever known, Mike Ness, struts out from stage right, wearing a thigh-length black coat and matching fedora. A stagehand helps to remove the coat, revealing a pressed white shirt and black suspenders; the wing of a sparrow tattoo peeks out above his collar, like ivy growing up a wall.
Ness is presented with his signature instrument, a Gibson Les Paul Deluxe. The chants cease, replaced with deafening screams.
The set begins with “Machine Gun Blues,” a single from their soon-to-be released album, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes. It’s a hard-and-fast rocker that takes off like a dragster. Guitarist Jonny “2 Bags” Wickersham, bassist Brent Harding and drummer David Hidalgo Jr. set the pace.
With his head tilted back and the lights still low, Ness saunters to the front of the stage. Looming large over a mass of screaming fans, he takes a wide stance and joins the hard-rocking intro.
The stage illuminates, and Ness’ eyes open. Thousands stare back at him. He’s a picture of poise, holding a sightline with the back of the room. From the time he founded Social Distortion in 1979 in Fullerton, he has faced hundreds, if not thousands, of crowds—teenagers fueled on energy drinks and angst; longtime fans jumping, their arms swinging; haters hurling expletives.
His slicked-back hair shines blacker than the Firestone tires on his 1936 three-window Ford Coupe. Most of his tattoos are hidden, save for “L-O-V-E” on his left knuckles, “P-A-I-N” on his right and a small anchor below his left eye. The eyeliner of earlier days is long gone, as is the leather vest. The voice remains, with its 60-grit sandpaper rasp.
After finishing “Machine Gun Blues,” a fictional account of a gangster on a crime spree, Ness passes along a bit of holiday cheer. “Merry fucking Christmas, Happy New Year, all that shit,” he says, a smile on his face, and then he transitions into the classic “Sick Boy.”
By the time he gets to the fourth song of the set, the fedora is gone. Sweat pours down his face, beads clinging to his substantial layer of scruff. He’s singing “Ball and Chain,” a Social Distortion staple and fan favorite since its release in the early ’90s. No one seems to mind that Ness is singing about despair and rejection, even though he and his fellow punk rockers are on the verge of 50, that Ness is now a married father and multimillionaire who is about to embark on a nine-day vacation in Hawaii. The music, ranging from their 1983 debut album, Mommy’s Little Monster, to the new one due out Jan. 18, resonates with the throng of listeners.
Over the years, Ness says, he has often been approached by fans who want to thank him and the band for music that has gotten them through hard times. “Me, too,” he tells them.
Before the good times, Ness had bad ones, as well—really bad ones, from getting booted from his parents’ house to flat-lining from a heroin overdose. Despite the fame and success, Ness remains a troubled teen at heart. Which is why, before presenting the final song from the new album, “Still Alive”—a song that feels like a battle cry for where the band are today and where they’re going—Ness asks for the lights to be turned up.
“I’m looking out at this crowd, and I’m seeing survivors,” he says. “You don’t grow up in this world and not be a survivor.”
The life story of Social Distortion is a case study in survival. It’s a band who should have shattered into pieces on a number of occasions. And yet, album No. 7 is coming—finally. And, Ness says, the group feel like a band for the first time in years.
Once, Ness was just another pissed-off teenager, with a single tattoo on his left forearm and a troubled soul. He was living on his own, broke and starting in with drugs and booze. He turned to punk because that’s where all the angry, rebellious kids went in the ’70s. It was the scene for swearing and screaming and being a musician, despite minimal musical talent.
That was more than 30 years and countless tattoos ago. Over that span of time, he reached the depths of heroin junkyhood and the heights of music stardom, sharing a tour with the Ramones and the stage with Springsteen.
Aside from his career with Social Distortion, he has also released two country-inspired solo albums. He is the founder and owner of Black Kat Kustoms, a project that serves his passion for graphic design and rebuilding old cars and motorcycles. And he’s a family man, a fair-weather surfer, who by some miracle of the gods still has his health. “He’s the luckiest guy I know,” says John Maurer, a former Social D bassist.
The groundwork has been laid for 2011 to be a big year for the band. On Dec. 6, they appeared on national television for the first time, performing “Machine Gun Blues” on Jimmy Kimmel Live! By the time the new album appears in stores, they will have already starteda jaunt through the U.S., after which they will fly across the Pacific for their first tour in Australia, beginning in late February.
Days before press time, the band played the House of Blues in Anaheim for the venue’s 10-year anniversary. More than any band, Social Distortion were qualified to help celebrate the milestone—it was their 70th time headlining the venue.
* * *
In many ways, Ness’ life and career reflect those of his longtime musical hero, the oft-troubled Johnny Cash—early success, drug addiction, jail time, an awakening (with the help of a good woman) and a revitalized career. They both even have a popular song about going to prison—Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and Social D’s “Prison Bound.” One of Social Distortion’s most renowned songs is a cover of Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”
Born in Massachusetts, Ness came with his family to East Fullerton at 3 months old. The home he grew up in was across the street from a park, near the corner of Malvern Avenue and Harbor Boulevard— not a troubled neighborhood. But Ness found trouble anyway.
“I was getting into drugs and alcohol and doing bad in school, lying, and my parents just weren’t going to just sit around and watch that,” he recalls. “I came home one day, and my stuff was on the porch. I was about 15 and a half.”
In junior high and high school, while classmates went to weekend parties or the movies, Ness was sneaking into music clubs to see the Cramps, the Blasters, the Go-Go’s and the Germs. He’d catch a ride with his friend Dennis Danell and his older brother, who worked as a light man at the Starwood Club off Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles.
Ness would walk the streets of downtown Fullerton wearing a leather jacket and motorcycle boots, his hair colored and often spiked—the typical punk-rock uniform. “A carload of jocks or construction workers would drive by and call you ‘faggot,’ and you flip them off, and they turn around, and they come back, and you had to fight,” Ness says of those days. He was in more fights than he could remember.
When he stepped into the punk scene, it was already in its second wave. It started in London and New York City, but quickly spread to cities throughout the United States, United Kingdom and even Australia. News of bands coming to town was passed through fliers or word of mouth.
Punk bands and the fans they played to were social outcasts. They were angry or hurt or confused, using abrasive beats, anti-establishment lyrics and violent shows to let it all out.
It drew Ness in. He thrived in it. People were drawn to him, says Maurer. “He just had this thing about him: He was a natural leader, and you wanted to follow him,” he recalls.
Ness didn’t start out as a singer. He fell into the role almost out of necessity—and partly dumb luck. With his first band, vocals were done by a tall, gangly guy named Tom, who looked a bit like Mick Jagger and was a frat boy and basketball player at Cal State Fullerton. The band played covers of the Sex Pistols and the Cars at keg parties. From there, Ness joined another band, with a lead singer he believes was partially tone-deaf. It wasn’t until a night when the guy couldn’t make a gig and Ness had “drank about nine beers” that he stepped up to the mic. The band didn’t tell the other singer about future shows.
In the late ’70s, along with Danell, Ness formed Social Distortion. The early years are well-documented and well-known: Original band members the Agnew brothers left and started the Adolescents; an early Social Distortion song, “Mainliner/Playpen,” got some play on up-and-coming, LA-based FM-radio station KROQ; Social D and their makeup-wearing, hard-drinking lead singer were unveiled to the punk world in the documentary Another State of Mind; Mommy’s Little Monster made the band known in punk circles across the country; Ness developed a heroin addiction, then flirted with stints in jail and rehab; three years after a temporary hiatus, the band put out Prison Bound and, two years later, in 1990, released a self-titled record, which went gold and garnered the band a tour invite from Neil Young (along with Sonic Youth on the Ragged Glory tour); the following album, Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell, also went gold and led to a co-headlining tour with the Ramones; White Light, White Heat, White Trash was released in 1996, and hit No. 27 on the Billboard 200 album chart, the band’s highest-ever rating.
Then, on Feb. 29, 2000, Danell, Ness’ best friend and the band’s original guitarist, died from a brain aneurysm in his Costa Mesa home.
The morning of Danell’s death, Maurer recalls, he drove by the guitarist’s home and saw his truck in the driveway; he thought about stopping, but opted to get to his office. In the aftermath, Maurer, among others, thought the band were done. “Dennis was the catalyst that held it all together,” he says.
After a period of mourning, a memorial concert was held in June 2000 at then-Irvine Meadows to benefit Danell’s family. Along with being a goodbye to Danell, it also served as introduction for Social D fans to an angry-looking new guitarist, Jonny “2 Bags” Wickersham. He wasn’t completely unfamiliar, having had occasionally filled in for Danell during previous tours. At the time, Wickersham was playing with the U.S. Bombs.
The show was tough on a number of people, especially Wickersham. For once, the Social Distortion spotlight wouldn’t be on Ness; it would be shining brightest on the spot Danell had occupied for nearly 20 years. Wickersham recalls Danell’s wife, Christy, approaching him before the show and saying, “Boy, you must really feel like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders today.”
It came as a relief. “At that point, for her to even consider, ‘How’s the guy who’s filling my husband’s shoes feel?’ Man, it was gnarly,” he says. “There were 16,000 people there; she was the only one I was concerned with.”
Not much later, Ness asked if Wickersham would be interested in joining the band full-time. He was still with the U.S. Bombs when that call came. “I tend to be kind of loyal, almost to a fault, and not many people in this business are,” he says. His fellow band members made the decision for him, he says, telling him, “If you don’t [take the opportunity to join Social Distortion], we’re going to kick your ass.”
* * *
Six years after leaving Social Distortion, Maurer still looks like a punk rocker. He’s sitting in a Costa Mesa café, sipping coffee while talking about his days with the band. He’s animated with his hands and does voices; he’s funny, and at times, he seems a bit unhinged. His hair is slicked back; he’s handsome and clean-shaven, with no visible tattoos. He’s wearing a navy jacket over a black hoodie, with cuffed jeans and heavy-duty brown boots completing the ensemble.
In 2004, after having his second child, Jessa, and facing an upcoming touring cycle, Maurer considered his options. The bassist through five albums since 1984, he decided to leave the band and devote his time to being a better husband and father.
With a great sense of pride, he talks about his son, John Jr. (everyone calls him “Jack”), who’s a freshman at Newport Harbor High and on the water-polo team. Ness’ youngest son, Johnny, also attends the school. Neither talks about his dad, but word has already gotten around that the progeny of Social D is on campus.
Maurer says he was a relatively straight-laced kid growing up—until he met Ness and Danell in high school. Ness was mysterious, but cool; Danell was a loudmouth. Other kids found the two weird; Maurer was drawn to them.
It would be years later, in 1983, just after the release of their first album, that Maurer would join Social Distortion.
As he talks, Maurer shows signs of having mixed emotions about his decision to leave the band—like he knows he did the right thing, but there’s still maybe half an eye on the road not taken. When he talks about projects he’s involved with now, he stumbles a bit. When he describes his days with the band, he lights up. He gets a faraway look as he says, “it was a fluke thing, but I was blessed to be a part of it.”
* * *
On a rainy Tuesday in December, there are a few people sitting at the bar at the Pike Bar & Grill in downtown Long Beach. The wall decorations range from nautical to old-time California to rock & roll. Social Distortion memorabilia appears throughout: the skeleton logo on the floor mat at the entryway, a concert poster from a KROQ-sponsored show with the Ramones at the Palladium, another poster from a show with the Vandals in New York City.
Since 2002, Chris Reece has owned and operated the Pike. In 1983, around the time Maurer was brought into the band to play bass, Reece moved down from San Francisco—where he was playing with the Lewd—to play drums. Unlike Maurer, Reece doesn’t speak with a sense of longing about his days with Social Distortion. He tells some stories, like about the time Ness rolled up to a show in a new Porsche with a couple of “scurvy-looking guys,” or about, during Ness’ drug days, when Reece and Maurer were driving through Fullerton and saw Maurer’s amp in the window of the local pawn shop. He also dishes, comfortably, on the source of the original sound. “It was a lot of tricks with the tuning,” he says. “Before computer nerds, there were electronic nerds; they kept old amps going and were able to find the sweet spot.”
And he’s not shy about giving credit to whom it’s due: “If not for KROQ and the DJs there, we probably wouldn’t have made it.”
Reece left the band in 1993, but he never left music. There’s a small stage in the corner of the Pike’s main room on which live music is played almost every night. On occasion, Maurer’s current band, Five Alarm Fire, play there. The first Tuesday of every month, Reece grabs the brushes to play a set with the Long Beach Caravan Trio.
When talking about the early years of Social D—the still-developing scene, the lack of a label, touring the country out of the back of a van, dealing with Ness and his vices—both Maurer and Reece echo the same sentiment: No one expected the band to thrive, but no one seemed too concerned with failure either.
“It was really only for that moment,” Reece says. “It wasn’t planned. There was no longevity built in; it was very spontaneous. We didn’t know about the future. We didn’t feel there was one for us, a group of uneducated kids coming out of wherever.”
* * *
When he’s onstage, so much of what makes Ness such a compelling figure is the energy and conviction he brings to every song, every set. His fans know his story, know he’s been to both ends of the spectrum. Whether he’s singing about having “Bad Luck” or being “Prison Bound” or “Faithless,” it always comes off as a firsthand account—and Ness is a credible witness.
That conviction was present at the Almost Acoustic Christmas show. But it presents a paradox. He’s intense and abrasive onstage, yet very much not so off it.
Sitting at a booth at Mother’s Market Café in Costa Mesa two days later, Ness is hunched slightly forward. He’s wearing a navy-blue cardigan over a white T-shirt, and the whiskers in his thick layer of scruff are a mix of black and gray. His eyes have a slight droop and crow’s feet. When he speaks, he seems meek; the gravelly voice is there, but his temperament is subdued. Can this soft-spoken vegetarian who’s talking about the benefits of Bikram Yoga actually be the Mike Ness?
But then there’s the facial tattoo. It’s hard to not to come off as a badass when you’ve got one of those.
But every badass has an expiration date. Ness used to believe his would come before 30. He was in his late teens and “looking at life through a straw,” he says, never imagining owning a home or having a career or a family.
Ness doesn’t cite a turning point, but turn he did. He stopped the substance abuse. He changed the way he ate and, in recent years, the way he maintained his body. Thirty came and went. He’s now 48, and he claims he’s trying to live to 100.
It all might be working. When he removes his cardigan, he reveals toned, tattooed biceps. The yoga and boxing have helped. His chubby stage, which wasn’t long ago, has passed.
“For some reason, bikers and cholos, they can age, and they can get fat, and they can still look okay,” he explains. “But for punk rockers, it don’t work.”
He lives with his wife, Christine, and two teenage boys, Julian and Johnny, in an impressive two-story home near the Wedge on the Newport Peninsula. Julian, at 18 years old and 6-foot-3, is occasionally a sparring partner for his dad. Ness had been losing his motivation for boxing, he says, until his son started being able to knock him around.
During the 30-minute sit-down with Ness, the band’s manager, Shane Trulin, sits three tables away and keeps an eye on the time. With the new album coming, Ness has a full schedule—print media, radio, Internet video, everyone wants a bit of his time. In 2010, the band signed with renowned alternative-music label Epitaph Records, which keeps tabs on all the scheduling. Aside from his busy schedule with the band, Ness has last-minute preparations for his family’s holiday trip to Kauai, where he’s hoping to do some snorkeling, surfing and chowing down on fine local eats.
He also hopes to make some progress on the book he’s just started reading, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
* * *
Since the passing of Danell, Social Distortion have looked and sounded like Social Distortion, but it’s really an altogether different band.
Wickersham joined in 2000, and Brent Harding was added to the lineup soon after. Harding had played with Ness during his solo tour and fell into the bassist role by fluke. On the eve of his wife giving birth to their child, the previous bassist had to leave a show early. Harding happened to be in the crowd with his oldest son and was asked to fill in. He never left. David Hidalgo Jr., whose father is in Los Lobos, took on the drummer’s spot this past August.
While the rotating lineup has lately been a part of Social Distortion’s culture, as Ness says, “Unfortunately, this is a band with a boss.” It’s Ness’ vision that drives Social Distortion, and that was never more evident than in the new album, which Ness produced. He’d been a co-producer on previous albums, but this was his first as the man with all the power.
As with previous albums, Ness has been the one piecing together the music, writing songs from his couch at home while strumming on his 1939 Gibson J-35 acoustic guitar. In recent years, Wickersham has also been a part of Ness’ songwriting process. “Jonny ‘2 Bags’ has been the person I felt the most comfortable collaborating with since Dennis died,” Ness says.
Even though the four men are relatively new to playing with one another as a band, the camaraderie is already present. At the photo shoot for this story, while Wickersham, Harding and Hidalgo are going through practice shots with the photographer, Ness coasts up in his silver SL500 Mercedes, rolls down the window and asks, “Are you guys models?” Everyone laughs.
Fist bumps are shared when the group come together. Between shots, they discuss an afternoon rehearsal and the new clothing rack for the tour bus, which should open up space for everyone. Based on Harding’s hardy grin, the news about the wardrobe storage seems to be a highlight of the morning.
With just one song remaining in the Almost Acoustic Christmas set, Ness seems slightly winded, yet his energy has also increased.
“We’re just getting warmed up, but this is almost over—this is bullshit!” he yells. The crowd screams its approval.
Despite their tumultuous past and shifting roster, Social Distortion remain punk-rock royalty in Orange County. Beyond the borders of Southern California, they’re known and can pack a venue, but there are bigger names. They’ve never had a record go platinum. But then, neither did the Ramones or the Sex Pistols. And Ness never wavered from the sound he wanted for Social Distortion: something that combines Hank Williams’ rockabilly and Bob Dylan’s rock with the band’s punk-rock roots. It’s what he felt worked, though not necessarily what critics and record producers called for.
Social Distortion always seem to have been sitting on the cusp of stardom, even as one generation slips into the next. “We were door-breakers; we were front-line,” Maurer explains. “The front line gets broken down, demolished and eventually rubbed out, and then you have this wave that’s coming behind you—in our case, other bands.”
Ness doesn’t appear concerned about what Social Distortion didn’t get or never achieved. There’s still time, he says. He has no intention of calling it a career right now; he still loves what he does.
He’s onstage, not being paid for his time or having to be talked into playing this show; and at that moment, it seems like it’s exactly where he’s supposed to be.
“One of my favorite things to do in the world is be up on that stage in front of a bunch of people, and everything is working out right—people are digging it, the band’s digging it,” he explains later. “That’s one of the best feelings in the world for me.” He then launches into an OC-based simile: “I’m sure it’s similar to Laird Hamilton catching that 60-foot face. At that moment, you can’t think of anywhere else you’d rather be.”
It’s time for the last song of Social Distortion’s set. There’s only one that the crowd wants to hear.
“This one played on the radio for a long time,” Ness says, “you may know it. After all, this is the story of all our lives.”
This article appeared in print as "The Social D Network: Mike Ness and crew embark on a new chapter in the story of their lives."
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