Social Distortion rallies from a tragic loss to rediscover its purpose
In 1991, at the height of a different Iraqi War, Social Distortion played to their biggest-ever San Antonio audience at the since-demolished HemisFair Arena. At the time, the Orange County punk band was touring with Neil Young and Sonic Youth in a well-intentioned but awkward bid to bring together two generations of rock fans. Although Social D leader Mike Ness fondly recalls that Young's guitar tech helped him discover the tone he's used ever since, he files the entire experience in the dues-paying category.
"It was brutal," Ness says. "I love Neil Young and I've always been a Neil Young fan, and it was a great opportunity for us to play in front of some people who'd never heard of us. But it was strange because it was in an arena setting. Even if we had 500 Social D fans there, it was arranged seating, so they were spread out all over the place. There wasn't that immediate audience response we feed off when we play."
While Social D were viewed by most attendees as the upstarts on that tour, in fact they'd already been knocking around the club circuit for more than a decade by that point. A 17-year-old Ness - who'd been kicked out of his parents' house two years earlier because of his violent behavior and increasing drug use - formed the first incarnation of the band in 1979 with drummer Casey Royer and brothers Frank and Rikk Agnew. Early in the group's development, Ness encouraged his school friend Dennis Danell to join the fold as a bassist, even though Danell couldn't play bass. The rest of the band quit in a huff.
The last four years have given Ness plenty of motivation to reflect back on those days. In 2000, Danell, his old friend and longtime bandmate, suffered an aneurysm and died at the age of 38. The shock of Danell's death palpably hangs over Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll, Social Distortion's first release in eight years. In fact, the band's very existence in 2004 owes a lot to Danell's memory, particularly because Ness had become absorbed by a budding solo career in the years leading up to his friend's passing.
"The first instinct was to throw in the towel and say, 'We've just got to end this,'" he says. "The more I thought about it, all of a sudden it became very important for me to keep it together. I think that would have been his wish. I tried to turn the loss into some sort of inspiration."
It's been said that the greatest difference between archetypal rock 'n' roll and country is that rock 'n' roll depicts Saturday-night hedonism but doesn't deal with the Sunday-morning consequences, while country music inevitably confronts the consequences. For Ness, the tattoo-covered child of a dysfunctional alcoholic family, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash were always as important as the Sex Pistols. As a result, he's made a career of examining the effects of his own actions, whether on "I Was Wrong," a 1996 apology for the hurtful behavior of his youth, or "Don't Take Me For Granted," his bittersweet new tribute to Danell.
"It's not just country music that does it," he says. "It's definitely old blues and jazz. You hear Billie Holiday talking about living the life, whether it's bad men, bad whiskey or bad heroin. It's just the honesty and simplicity that I always appreciated. It's working-class music, singing about that class' type of issues."
Though the new album doesn't carry an explicit theme, many of its songs revolve around mortality and the aging process. While many rock songs have celebrated the concept of living to the extreme, they were usually written from the angle of someone for whom death was a distant concern. But with such songs as "Reach For the Sky" and "Live Before You," Ness is preaching the importance of living in the present precisely because he now recognizes that it could all end tomorrow.
"He got married, he had kids and then I slowly followed. A lot of it was that I had all my sober friends and Dennis still liked to party every once in a while. He thought my friends were douche bags, I thought his friends were douche bags, even though we never said it. Part of me wishes that I hadn't let that happen."
As if to remind himself of the punk idealism that connected him with Danell, Ness puts himself back in his teenage shoes for "I Wasn't Born to Follow," proclaiming that he's going to start a band and change the world. According to Ness, the song also doubles as a message to the next generation of punk rockers.
"Part of the reason I wanted to write that song was to show these kids that this was not always a format of music that was on the radio, that we were part of a revolution, that we wanted to make a change and had to fight for what we believed in," he says. "It was very neat for me to have that reflection, to put me back in that situation."
With regard to the current spate of MTV-ready pseudo-punks, Ness says: "Some of it is a little too cute or a little too whiny. You can't help but wonder what it is they're talking about. But on the radio there's always going to be homogenized versions of the real thing. That's the way it's been since music began." •