Happy Birthday to Mike Ness, the legendary leader of Social Distortion. In honor of his birthday, enjoy this 2007 interview conducted by our colleague Troy M. Meier, my former bandmate in The Belvaderes. Cheers.
By Troy M. Meier
While members of Green Day were still in grade school watching the Smurfs, Social Distortion was tearing up punk rock clubs in Southern California – paving the way. Years before The Offspring had sprung, the Dropkick Murphys had even thought about teeing up, Blink-182 first blinked, or Pennywise was being minted, all these big-time, tour-bus, new-skool punks were taking lessons from Mike Ness, Social Distortion’s founder and front man.
Ness lit up American audiences as far back as 1980 and blazed a trail that would allow other bands to be saddled up on the Vans Warped Tour, MTV videos, documentaries, and subsequent fame and fortune. In fact, when Ness and Social Distortion were featured in the 1984 punk rock documentary Another State of Mind, the producers could’ve easily coined it: “How to be a punk rock musician.” Apparently many of the bands that would follow in their footsteps were watching – and taking notes.
Critics have lauded Ness and Social Distortion as one of the most important bands of the last thirty years. Even while riding well beneath the radar of the pop mainstream, devoted fans let their comments fly on Internet sites: “Best band I’ve ever listened to,” “Is it bad that more than half the times I’ve seen these guys … my dad came … lol. He loves them!” or “Social D were rockin’ before I was born.”
Ness has a penchant for writing timeless songs and covering roots rock classics, all performed with a dripping, independent snarl that has been his calling card for over two and a half decades.
Ness grew up roaming the booming suburbia of Orange County, California, but it was not the OC portrayed on television. His was the darker, seedier underbelly that lay beneath the surface of the posh metro depicted on the tube. From an early age, Ness found himself without the advantages one would expect a kid from OC to possess. Instead, he substituted those expectations for a vision of a misunderstood musician with an axe to grind.
We meet in Ness’s “hobby shop,” a nondescript, depression-era brick building in the barrio of Santa Ana, California. It is a place where he is comfortable – not just the vintage-chic building, but also the humble locale. He concedes great artistic influence to his barrio roots. Besides his love of music, this is where his other passions are kindled – vintage cars, motorcycles, rattan furniture, and lots of other anachronistic paraphernalia that adorns the warehouse innards.
Ness is in full-blown welding regalia when I arrive. Helmeted by a welder’s lid and protected with thick leather gloves, he is finishing a bead that his rat-rodding fans would be proud of. It’s a straight, professional-looking welding bead along the frame of a ’34 Plymouth that he is making his own. This is Mike Ness: a tinkerer, a perfectionist, and a man who knows how to get his hands dirty in the grit called life. But as I learn, these hobbies are not just “things” that come with a successful climb out of the dingy clubs, neighborhoods and prison cells. These are projects of restoration – the central theme in the life of Mike Ness.
Troy M. Meier: Why do you do what you do? What attracted you to the whole rock ’n’ roll lifestyle? What drives you?
Mike Ness: I was already listening to the Stones and Credence Clearwater. By seventh grade, I had Lou Reed’s Transformer. So it was a natural progression from glitter to punk rock. I already had my blues foundation with all of that earlier music, and then when I heard punk rock, basically, it sounded like how I felt inside. By then, I was 17 and didn’t want to be passive any more. I was tired of being passive
You wanted to take it to the streets a little bit?
That’s right. In seventh grade, I was friends with the Chicanos, and in eighth grade, we weren’t. You know, this kid punched me in the nose in front of the whole school, and I got a bloody nose and I didn’t do anything about it. By the time I was 17, I wasn’t going to take it any more, I wasn’t going to be passive any more.
Did you feel that you had, up to that point, been a follower and would go along with whatever life threw at you?
Yeah, but I wasn’t following the kids my age, I was following the older kids. I was 13, hanging around with 18-year-olds.
Did you have any desire to play baseball in the front yard or anything with the kids your age?
Well, there was a little bit of that. But I was always a little off. I remember all the kids in the neighborhood were welding the handlebars and making them into speedway bikes. They would speed around the sandbox and the concrete and put sand all over and then motocross bike. But I had a second-hand Royce Union that had long forks. So all I could do was make an Easy Rider chopper out of it. So I was always a little off. In junior high, people were calling me a f-g because I liked KISS and David Bowie when they all had every Elton John record. So I was always a little off from everybody else.
Let’s skip ahead a few years. When you hooked up with Dennis [Dannell, Ness’s now deceased best friend and band mate] and started going to clubs and hanging out and watching bands, were you playing guitar at the time in high school?
Yeah. I started in sixth grade.
Was your first band Social D?
Yeah, pretty much. You know, it was me and Casey Royer [Social Distortion’s first drummer] in his bedroom on Friday and Saturday nights with a little cassette recorder.
Did you ever have any idea that what you started out doing with your buddies in your garage or bedroom somewhere would turn in to this?
No, not to this degree. I mean, back then, we just had money enough for a pizza or two.
Did you want to be a rock ’n’ roller? Did that lifestyle appeal to you in terms of going on the road on a tour bus and all that business?
Yeah, definitely. You know, even when it wasn’t considered cool to become successful, we were lookin’ at bands like the Clash. They had guys tuning their guitars; they had a light show and they had a tour bus – they were like rock stars. I wanted to be a rock star my whole life.
So besides the whole punk rock speakin’-out-against-the-man component, was there desire for fame?
Of course. Along with loving the attention, it wasn’t until many years later that I realized how much I loved it when everyone is in sync, when the band’s been playin’ together, and you’re on fire, you’re improvising and you’re making jokes, and it’s like butter.
You had mentioned that you were just a little off, a little different than the kids your age. You know, through a lot of the ’80s and ’90s, you were a little off musically, and then it came back around, and you kind of got rediscovered. You made people in the industry sit up and say, “This guy’s been doing this all along, and he’s stuck to his guns.” So in those terms, that being off a little bit really paid dividends, didn’t it?
It did and I had to look at the people who inspired me, they were all off too – whether it was Johnny Cash or Johnny Thunders or Johnny Ramone. I picked up on, I guess maybe a little subconsciously, people who make up things rather than follow things. They do what pleases them and hope that it pleases other people. It’s kind of a self-indulgent thing. I guess, somewhere along the way, I picked up on that.
You had a record titled Under the Influences. For a guy perceived as a punk rocker, you have a really wide range of influences. How did you discover guys like Johnny Cash and Bill Monroe?
There was the stuff that I picked up around home. My mom was more into the Rolling Stones, my dad was into the Dillards and Buck Owens and Johnny Cash, and somewhere in the middle, there were some folk box sets where I heard the Carter family or some of that older stuff. When I heard the Carter family, I really related to that sense of desperation and despair. It’s just that tone, I related to it. Then it was years later that I revisited it, and I think it was after I got cleaned up off drugs that I really started listening to American music again. So I really felt the need to go back to the beginning because maybe I was searching for my identity, and you know, I’m an American, and I have all this roots and culture that I want to find. That’s when I really started listening to a lot of doo-wop, rock ’n’ roll, blues, country, rockabilly, bluegrass, and all of that.
If you search through musical discussion groups on the Internet – including rockabilly, blues, and punk groups – your name comes up on all of them.
By 1985, hardcore punk rock hit pretty big and, in my opinion, there were a lot of bands all sounding the same. We wanted to be more than that.
You’re kind of like an elder statesman of punk rock now. What do you think about that?
It’s pretty flattering, pretty cool. I’d rather be that than someone who survived it, but was not being recognized.
It seems like you kept your roots, and the culture caught up.
And you know, let’s face it, I grew up in a pretty messed up home, and my views of love were very distorted. My wife calls me Miracle Boy.
Is this living your dream? Is this what you thought it would be?
Yeah, of course. Oh, it’s better than I thought it would be. First of all, I wasn’t supposed to live this long. I never knew this [his family life], and I searched for happiness in all these other places like sex or drugs or alcohol or spending money, but maybe it worked for a while, but it just stopped working. You ultimately end up with this or you end up alone.
So there was definitely a void that you were searching to fill?
Yeah, music has filled it for sure, but I don’t think it’s enough to fill it completely.
There was always a social commentary in your writing, but it really took a turn toward life, death and redemption at the time of Prison Bound. What clicked?
Probably just the life that I was leading was … I mean, I almost died a half a dozen times. I almost went to prison. I don’t know how many brushes with fatality I had through violence or a car accident or whatever. I think it just makes you kind of aware. But I have also learned along the way to get inspiration from positive things because there are plenty of things to complain about.
What’s your opinion about an afterlife?
Well, it’s funny how you go through phases because it seems like years ago, I had a lot more faith. I really believed that everything is for a reason, and I still do, but it seems in the last six months, I’ve been a little skeptical or jaded a little bit. My dog got killed, and I was so angry at God. I hadn’t felt pain like that in a long, long time. So all of a sudden, it was like I was afraid to let my kids go in the ocean by themselves. At the same time, I also look back at my life and see how there has been some sort of divine intervention because I should have been a statistic years and years ago, but something was workin’ in my life when I learned to channel it and go with it. So that’s still a part of my core. I’d like to think that our time here on earth is maybe a lesson.
Do you think that there’s a heaven and a hell and that something lives on inside of you beyond this life?
I believe there is someplace for your soul; there’s got to be because to me, I think that whether you’re a cow or a cat or a dog or a human, you still have a soul, and that there is a spiritual side of us, and our physical bodies are just here doing things, and there’s got to be a spiritual calling. I think it’s important to find it while you are here, but I’d like to think that that is to prepare you for where you go after.
Are you swayed by any particular belief system?
I try to keep an open mind. I don’t find it in a church regularly like some people do. I find it at the oddest times, the weirdest times, when it hits you, it hits you. You have to hold on to it when it does.
Do you pray?
Let me read you some of your lyrics. “At last, we meet again, dear God, hear the angels sing; funerals are nicer when we know you’re there, when the angels sing. Sometimes I try so hard to understand the things you do. I like to question you. When it all comes down, hear the angels sing. Stand up strong, feel the pain when the angels sing. Love and death don’t mean a thing until the angels sing.”
What inspired those words?
I think I wrote that soon after my grandmother died, and it was just like an awakening. Kind of like, when it’s my time to go, I’ve done everything here that I was supposed to do, right? The line is, “Who am I to question You when it all comes down to it?” Instead of, “I’d like to question You,” it’s “Who am I to question You?” That’s basically having faith that God or whoever knows what He’s doing.
Right, that His knowledge is beyond our knowledge.
Exactly, and that we’re mere mortals.
Have you had a “religious experience” or has it been an evolving thing?
I call it a spiritual awakening.
When was that?
That was when I got cleaned up in 1985. I was forced to basically try someone else’s way. My way almost killed me, it got me into the back of police cars, and the way that they were suggesting was that you might want to find some sort of God, but they were suggesting it to me in a manner that you would suggest to someone who is parachuting to know where their [rip cord] is, and fortunately I was at an age where I was still teachable, and I was open-minded, and I found something that worked for me. I realized it was already working in my life, and I ended up in this town, in this place, with these people in my life for a reason with these strings of coincidences. I looked at it, and it hit me one day that it was like, wow, the script is already written. I couldn’t hustle this on my best day of hustling, and I still feel that.
Has your faith taken on a different look, feel, or meaning as the years have gone by?
Yeah, because it’s turned out to be so much more. In 1985, I wanted a $6-an-hour job, and I wanted to be able to play music, and I wanted to stay clean. That’s all I wanted out of life. I didn’t know that all this other stuff existed. I’d never had it. I didn’t know what it was like to have self-esteem. I didn’t know what it was like to have a promising career. I didn’t know what it was like to have a loving family. I didn’t know what it was like to have a God. I didn’t know what it was like to have real friends. It was all new. It has definitely evolved. That would be the right word. It grows – that concept, that connection.
It almost seems like a lot of the stuff you write is a foretelling of what would have happened to Mike Ness if he had kept going down that same path.
How do you perceive your career?
I am grateful. I have a nice house and a nice view, and every night, I look at the hills and see the lights. In the winter, it’s beautiful, and it’s like, Wow, I’m pretty lucky to have the things that I have in my life today, and my career is one of them, but like I said earlier, it’s not the only one. It’s everything collectively that makes my life what it is today.
© Troy M. Meier. This interview appeared in July/August 2007 issue of Risen.