Throughout his entire childhood Social Distortion vocalist-guitarist Mike Ness said he never really had a voice. But he finally found one in music, only to then have most of society let him know it wasn’t going to tolerate the loud, rebellious punk rock music he and his friends were playing at backyard parties and in abandoned warehouses.
“Everyone was telling me that I couldn’t do it, but I was like, ‘Over my dead body,’” the 57-year-old said during a recent phone interview. “I’m going to do this even if I die doing it.”
It was a rough road for many years, but four decades later Ness is still standing.
“That was really my mentality going into all of this … I’ll die trying,” he said. “To still be doing it 40 years later, it’s kind of like we got the last laugh.”
The band, which formed in Fullerton while Ness was a junior at Troy High School in 1979, has been out on the road celebrating its 40th anniversary, but reserved a special gig for its hometown. Social Distortion will headline Sounds From Behind the Orange Curtain with special guests Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, The Distillers, The Kills, Frank Turner, Eagles of Death Metal, Black Lips, Plague Vendor and more on Saturday, Oct. 26 at FivePoint Amphitheatre in Irvine.
“As the year has gone by, I’ve had time to acknowledge this anniversary and in every set we do, every show, we try to encapsulate something from every record so in a way that’s the 40 years right there,” Ness said. “So, when I’m up there playing, I’m also reflecting, but a lot has happened in 40 years. You can’t help but be in reflection mode and yeah, we wanted to acknowledge it, but you need the fans to do that. You don’t just want to party with the guys. That would be so boring. We wanted to provide something that doesn’t generally happen in Orange County and put together a combination of bands that’s like ‘Wow, I can see all these bands all in one day.’ It’s really just to make it more fun.”
Social Distortion will celebrate its 40th anniversary with Sounds from Behind the Orange Curtain at FivePoint Amphitheatre in Irvine with Joan Jett, The Distillers, The Kills, Eagles of Death Metal and more on Saturday, Oct. 26. (Photo by Jonathan Stark)
Back in the early days of the band, Ness took “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” very literally. The band almost self-destructed before it had a chance to actually become something.
“I’m lucky that when I was in the midst of my drug addiction and alcoholism, we hadn’t had much success,” he said. “We were still pretty underground, so I didn’t have handlers. Let’s just put it this way, I wasn’t shooting dope at the St. Regis, you know? I started at the bottom and ended up lower.”
Ness’ painful childhood translated into a painful adulthood. Though the band was gaining traction, he was still roaming the streets of Santa Ana looking to score. At one point he said he was so low, drug dealers didn’t even want to mess with him.
“I hit an emotional rock bottom a little bit earlier than a lot of people,” he said. “There were the situational bottoms, like kicking it cold turkey in the county jail and having guns pointed in my face, but the emotional bottom is what got me. Pain is a great motivator and I just didn’t want to hurt anymore. That’s when I was able to really turn the band around because it’s amazing how much energy you have when you’re not out committing petty crimes and hustling all day. I developed a work ethic and took it very seriously.”
He now takes pride in the spotlight and seeing his band’s name on venue marquees all of these decades later is proof that hard work — on yourself and your craft — pays off.
“Thank God, really,” he said. “Because really, I should have just been a little paragraph in an underground fan zine, you know, ‘This talented singer-songwriter died in a motel room in Santa Ana.’ So sad, but, whatever.”
Ness said he played his first show sober in 1985 when Social Distortion opened for English punk band 999 in Los Angeles.
“I hadn’t been sober since I was 12,” Ness said. “I was scared to death, but about 30 or 45 seconds into it, I said ‘I think I can do this.’ I got paid that night and stayed with friends in Venice and I bought a pair of high-waist baggy pants, a leather jacket and got a tattoo and made it home Sunday for my meeting.”
Ness said has a lot to be grateful for. The band has done well, releasing seven albums and touring around the world and throughout North America on a constant basis. People still crank up songs such as “Mommy’s Little Monster,” “Story of My Life,” “Ball and Chain” and Social D’s rocked out version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Listening to the radio and cruising around Southern California in traffic, it’s hard to escape a Social Distortion song.
Though the last few albums have been slow in the works, Ness said a new record will be coming out in 2020. He was in the middle of pre-production and writing for the album, Social Distortions first since 2011’s “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes,” when the ideas starting flying around for the 40th anniversary, so a bit of it was put on pause. However, it is on its way. He swears.
“We’re scheduled loosely to go into the studio in January,” he said. “But after this October show, we get back into pre-production and the good news is that in the last 15 years, there’s songs that didn’t get used but feel like they’ve just been written, there’s new songs and I think we came up with 23 songs right now. I have to go through those and pick the best 12 or pick the ones that work best together. The other good news is that we might shock everyone and put two records out in two years. People aren’t going to know how to act.”
Social Distortion has never really been a political band, though its songs contain a lot of social commentary, but in recent years at shows Ness has made sure to include the group’s 1996 song “Don’t Drag Me Down” in the set. The song is about ignorance and racism and those are two things Ness said Social Distortion can’t and won’t be quiet about, especially right now.
“Politically, I have to be a little more tolerant and I’m not going to tell people who to vote for or anything like that, but I urge people to get an education on what’s really happening out there,” he said. “But when it comes to racism, that’s where I have zero tolerance. I’ve been basically introducing (“Don’t Drag Me Down”) on this tour by saying that Social Distortion is an anti-racist band, our fans are anti-racist and if you’re here and you’re not, there’s the … door. We don’t have time for that and that’s what really gets me going because I am sick of Americans sitting back and being quiet while all of this stuff is going on. How can you be quiet right now?”
A lot of that has seeped into Ness’ latest works, though he’s been more thoughtful about it since political songwriting isn’t exactly in his wheelhouse.
“I’ve had issues with anger,” he said. “I was raised with anger and I was taught anger. It was how I learned to deal with things that were frustrating and it had affected my personal relationships in a bad way, but at the same time, it’s what keeps this band going and what keeps me writing. I have to be upset about what’s going on and right now I am angry and I am fearful for the future. I feel almost a certain responsibility to, in a clever way, write about it. Not in a preachy way, but in a way that’s evocative. I want people to really think about it.”
Ness said he’s still working on his book. It’s a project he started putting together nearly a decade ago but has had to put on hold for tours, music writing and other personal reasons. He did, however, say he was inspired to keep working on the book by going to see “Bruce Springsteen on Broadway.” He saw the stripped-down, one-man-show inside the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York City twice. Springsteen has popped up at Social Distortion shows in the past and he’s even had Ness come out and join him on stage during some of his tour stops as well.
“It was life-changing,” Ness said of Springsteen’s show. “Not because of how good it sounded, though it was pretty epic seeing him in a small theater with just an acoustic guitar, wailing those songs. The show was more about his struggle just being a man and trying to do the right thing and battling with inner conflicts. I just left with such a new respect for him because although it takes you through the real history of his music, it really was just so honest and vulnerable and it takes a lot of courage to become that vulnerable in front of people. I have a completely different level of respect for him now.”
Social Distortion’s Sounds From Behind the Orange Curtain
With: Joan Jett, The Distillers, The Kills, Eagles of Death Metal, Frank Turner and more.
When: 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26
Where: FivePoint Amphitheatre, 14800 Chinon, Irvine
Tickets: $59.50-$178.50 at LiveNation.com