With one classic punk album under his belt, Social Distortion frontman Mike Ness seemed like a safe bet to die before he turned 25. Instead, he cleaned up and kept the band going through its 40th birthday. At 57, he’s still in fighting shape—literally—and his band have no end in sight.
Social Distortion will celebrate their 40th birthday with a festival-caliber mega concert Saturday, Oct. 26 at California’s FivePoint Amphitheatre. The hand-picked opening acts are Joan Jett, the Distillers, the Kills, Frank Turner, Eagles Of Death Metal, Black Lips, Plague Vendor, Bully and Mannequin Pussy.
Ness is a candidate for the punk Mount Rushmore, an iconic figure with stature to rival Glenn Danzig, Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye and Brett Gurewitz. (Gurewitz is technically Ness’ boss as the owner of Epitaph Records, which Social Distortion signed to in 2010. He’ll start recording a new album for the punk citadel in early 2020.) Decade after decade, Social Distortion have remained a niche rock institution, with a rabid core fanbase and top-tier admirers.
The band helped set the template for the do-it-yourself punk experience in the 1984 rock documentary Another State Of Mind, which documented a 1982 tour. After some hard times, Ness and his remaining bandmates were quick to move beyond the punk look and sound. Their controversial and long-delayed sophomore album, 1988’s Prison Bound, saw the group evolve into “Sick Boys” mode, playing country-influenced originals and covering a vintage Rolling Stones cut. American Hardcore author Steven Blush called Social Distortion “the Rolling Stones of hardcore,” which means they got in the game early, outlasted most of their peers and only got bigger.
In the 1990s, Social Distortion became a gold-certified major-label act. They broke into MTV rotation, toured with Neil Young, covered Johnny Cash and steadily accumulated widespread respect. Rock god Bruce Springsteen called 1992’s Somewhere Between Heaven And Hell “a great rock ’n’ roll album… ‘Born To Lose’ is great stuff.” The group still perpetuate the oldest roots-rock traditions: outlaw country attitude, electric twang and early Elvis swagger, all informed by the Clash’s social justice ideals and sneering vocals.
The California quintet’s sound, look, catalog and concerts have made them one of the definitive lifestyle bands. In 2019, the group are a touring juggernaut whose itinerary is still governed by Ness’ punk-rock ethics. The band pointedly stick to smaller venues, keep ticket prices affordable, avoid easy cash grabs and practice strict quality control. After four decades, Social Distortion have recorded a mere seven studio albums. Their last record, 2011’s Hard Times And Nursery Rhymes, has many career highlights as anything they’ve ever released.
Social D’s hot-ticket concerts are multigenerational punk-rock communions, all about the singalong anthems, with little if any slam-dancing, but still pulsing with true danger. Ness remains a hands-on punk who’s willing to scrap: In July 2018, he waded into the crowd at a Sacramento show and confronted a pro-Trump heckler. Video of the episode is inconclusive, but the fan told police Ness left him with two black eyes, a busted lip and a concussion.
To his sorrow, Ness is the face of Social Distortion. He became the sole remaining original member in 2000, 22 years into the band’s run, when lifelong friend and guitarist Dennis Danell suffered a fatal aneurysm. After a brief deliberation, Ness put the band on his shoulders and soldiered on, splitting his life between dutiful road dog and homebound Orange County husband and dad.
Ness called AP before a show at Indiana’s Ford Idaho Center. He recalled his never-ending rock ’n’ roll weekend. While his crew banged around in the background, he talked about cleaning up, surviving hard times, fighting Agnostic Front, allegedly punching a heckler, beating a lingering health challenge, choosing therapy, preparing the group’s forthcoming album, drafting the lineup for Social Distortion’s imminent birthday bash and more.
Social Distortion meant something to me when I was 13, and it means something to me now.
MIKE NESS: That’s always good to hear. Sometimes I run into people, and they’re all, “I used to listen to you in college!” And I’m like, “Why did you stop? What do you listen to now?”
Social Distortion are turning 40, and you only have seven albums. That’s not a lot. But at least we’re not talking about a run of three terrible records you made in your 40s.
We’re scheduled to go in the studio in January. We’ve done some rough arrangements of 23 songs. Some of them are demos dating [back] 15, 16, 17 years ago that never got finished. People always ask why. It doesn’t take eight years to make a record for me. We are such a prolific touring band, [and] it’s difficult for me to write and tour at the same time. When I get home from tour, the last thing I want to do is pick up a guitar. I have a feeling this time we’re in that weird space and time [where] we might put out two records in two years because of this.
In 1999, you dropped two solo records. Now, 20 years later, you haven’t released any more. That’s not fair, Mike.
I know. I can’t be in two places at once. I’d be on tour with the Mike Ness band if I could. But I can’t do both. Same thing: I’ve got a lot of material for that. The songs accumulate. And they sit. And you just sit on them for a while. And you think about them. We’ve got a lot of material, and it’s going to be tough to pick the best 12 for an album.
Do you have less to say now that you’re older and you make fewer mistakes in life?
I don’t know if I make fewer mistakes. They’re just different kinds of mistakes. I guess they’re more adult mistakes. I haven’t been in trouble with the law in over 30 years. That’s not an issue in my life anymore. I still have plenty to write, because I’m still trying to figure out what it is to be a man and navigate through life.
You left home as a teen. Did you ever get to reconcile with your dad?
For years, I had become distant with both of my parents in my late teens and early 20s, even into my 30s. I had to figure out everything again on my own. I got sober when I was 23, and I thought, “As long as I’m sober, everything’s good.” It wasn’t until almost 20 years into my marriage that I realized my upbringing and stuff that happened to me as a kid was affecting my adult behavior and relationships with the people immediately close to me—my wife and kids. So I had to really confront that.
And that was a monumental thing to do. It was something I successfully ran from, even in recovery, completely avoiding the past and those feelings attached to it. It was ugly. And I still feel [after] a couple [of] years of therapy and a couple [of] workshops, I’ve changed, but it’s still there. It’s something I need to be conscious of. A lot of it was learned behavior: My father was an angry man. That’s how I dealt with stress, [with] anger.
Are you allowed to talk about the fan who said you beat him up at a concert last year?
All I can tell you is: It may have appeared it was about Trump to that person. But for me, it was about racism. Because I was introducing “Don’t Drag Me Down” as I introduce it every night: “Social Distortion’s gonna make racism wrong again. We’re an anti-racism band. Our fans are anti-racist. And if you’re not, there’s the motherfucking door, because you’re in the wrong fucking place.” I can’t help it that Trump is synonymous with that. And, yeah, personally, I don’t like him as a human being. And I might have said that. But really it was not about… I never want to divide my fans or tell people, “You’ve got to do this,” or “You’ve got to do that.” I just want people to vote. I’m not going to tell you how to vote.
When you got into this, what did you want?
Look, I wanted to be a rock star since I was 5 years old. It was clear to me what I wanted to do at that age. Even when it wasn’t considered cool to become successful in any way, I said, “That’s bullshit.” I was watching the Clash. They had tour buses and roadies. They dressed up cool. I wanted to be like them and 999 and Johnny Thunders. The Ramones. They took pride in showmanship. Well, Johnny Thunders wasn’t always the most tight with his band, but they sure put on a show. Iggy Pop.
These are the people I wanted to be like. I didn’t buy these stupid little rules in punk. Like, “You can do this and be successful.” There’s nothing wrong with that. What, you want me to keep painting houses during the day and playing music at night?
How often do you think about Dennis Danell?
That’s so weird you asked that. I was at a café having some oatmeal in the morning yesterday at the show in Missoula. And one of the fans had gone in to get some coffee and was wearing a commemorative shirt we did from that show for Dennis. I wasn’t real talkative, because it was the morning. I said hi. I meant to comment on his shirt, because it meant a lot to me.
I don’t think about people I’ve lost very often. Because it’s like…I learned as a kid to make it a shut-off valve kind of thing. But with this 40-year thing, I can’t help but be reflective. When I look out into the audience, onstage every night. Or when I’m doing an interview. Or if I’m writing. It puts you in a reflective space. And it’s a great space to be in when you’re writing. Because all of a sudden, you’ve got 40 years of experience. It’s like a looking glass. For instance, when I wrote “Don’t Take Me For Granted,” which is about Dennis, I literally wrote it in 10 minutes. Because all I had to do was close my eyes and grab a few visuals, and it was done. It was painful. But it was also really easy.
I think that’s going to be an important thing to tap into now, writing this record: I’ve got 40 years of visuals. I’ve actually got 57 years of visuals. This journey of 40 years has been quite interesting. There’s a lot to write about.
Another State Of Mind is one of the great punk documentaries. But I’ve also heard it’s not the most accurate document of that tour.
[The filmmakers] missed a lot. They were traveling in a nice vehicle and staying at hotels.
On one night the directors didn’t shoot, did you really break [Agnostic Front singer] Roger Miret’s kneecap with a bottle you threw?
No. That was [AF guitarist] Vinnie Stigma. I didn’t break his knee. But I did get in a fight. It was a night off in New York City, my first time in New York City. The band were playing down in Alphabet City. And I get into a fight inside. I got taken outside. Some friends of theirs jumped in. I went across the street and threw it at the whole crowd of ’em. And I got the shit knocked out of me that night. Yeah. But we’re friends now. [Laughs.]
Do you have any regrets out of those days?
No. That was just another day in the life. The thing that was unfortunate was: It was rough enough fighting people on the street who didn’t like us. I didn’t want to go to shows and have to fight, too. But that’s the way it became.
I didn’t realize you got sober that early.
Yeah. I was 23. I started really early. By 17, I was in full-blown alcoholism, a really fucked-up kid, damaged. And I was really, really lucky to have [gotten] pulled out of that. I could easily have just been a small paragraph in Flipside magazine, saying, “We lost him. He was the singer of Social Distortion.”
Was there a turning point, a single incident when you decided to get sober?
Yeah. I was always in jail. I got caught during a burglary, and I went to jail. And I think because I had a painful childhood, that made it worse. Like, “Man, I am miserable.” I hit an emotional bottom early on, and I’m grateful.
I was lucky. Here’s the thing: I was not successful with the band yet. I didn’t have handlers. I wasn’t shooting dope in the St. Regis or in the back of a limousine. But I’m grateful for that, because those people end up enabling you or covering up for you. I had nothing like that.
I started at the bottom. And ended up even a little lower. I had to commit petty crimes. And I had to lie, cheat and steal to support a habit. After you burn those bridges and you’re out on the streets of Santa Ana and the dope man doesn’t even want you around because you’re such a pathetic mess… it’s a very lonely existence.
On the 2004 live DVD, Live In Orange County, you didn’t look healthy. You seem like you’re in much better shape now.
The early 2000s, I had hepatitis C from all the way back… And back then, the only medicine was this fucking gnarly interferon. And, yeah, it was probably after that. I probably wasn’t exercising. Now, I did the hep C treatment, and it’s gone.
How are you taking care of yourself now?
I’ve been boxing for 10 years. It does so much for me. I’m always learning and perfecting a craft. You’re always trying to tweak it more and make it a little better. It releases all the dopamine in my brain. I spent all these years chasing drugs, and it was all right here the whole time. I feel fantastic. I train for, sometimes, 90 minutes before a show. It gives me energy for the show and opens my lungs up. And my mind is right, and I’m relaxed. I was just banging with my tour manager, knocking each other in the head.
Who do you look up to at this point? Are you still a Stones fan?
Yeah. I saw them last year. And to see them at this point in my career, I was in fucking heaven. Dude, I saw Kiss the other night. I was a huge Kiss fan when I was a kid. People don’t realize my music foundation really is in classic rock. Fans of Alternative Press might cringe, but it was Kiss and Bad Company. And then the glitter stuff. And then punk. It was a natural evolution.
Can you believe how far punk has come, things such as Warped Tour and Green Day?
I look at it optimistically: It’s been accepted by the masses, so maybe more people will hear what you have to say.