November 1, 2010
By David Huff
The Survival Truth Behind Social Distortion
Exclusive Interview: Mike Ness Discusses, His Life, Their Music and His Many Addictions
When Social Distortion releases its next album, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes on Jan. 18, 2011, it will be the band's seventh studio album in the last 32 years. But that's not the story here. The very fact Social Distortion is still alive and kicking going into its fifth decade of cowboy punk is a story all into itself.
Mike Ness and company were the kings of the Orange County hardcore punk scene in the early '80s as glam, spandex, makeup and hairspray bands were making major inroads at the music clubs up and down Sunset Strip in neighboring Hollywood. With the 1983 release of their now classic punk anthem, Mommies Little Monsters, Social Distortion made a defining statement that stands the test of time today.
The heart and soul of this punk rock outfit is its mercurial founder, Mike Ness. His story of survival epitomizes the very attitude that has enabled this legendary Orange County band to survive countless lineup changes over the years. It's also a telling tale on why Social Distortion is still relevant and beloved by thousands of fans the world over.
JAM: It would be an understatement to say your life has been anything but boring. It seems like the first ten years Social Distortion was a band, Mike Ness was on a never ending rollercoaster ride of drugs, alcohol, fist fights and jail. Why?
Mike Ness – Well it was the inevitable outcome of a life style we chose back then. Basically my substance abuse battles where the consequences of the punk life style I wanted to adopt. If you want to choose that lifestyle, there are prices you have to pay, whether you play music or you don't. I know people who went through the same things and they weren't even musicians.
JAM: Where you a product of the environment you grew up in?
JAM: That seems to be an odd answer since you grew up in Orange County, California.
Well, despite the Conservative image Orange County is known for, there is many layers to the people that live there. We just happened to be the rebelling outcasts no one quite understood.
JAM: When you first started getting into music, the punk scene was pretty radical. Did Socials Distortion perhaps take it maybe one step too far?
That's hard to answer. When I was 17, I saw punk as a way out. It was a way for me to act out my anger – the violence was an excuse to take that aggression to the next level. The drugs were accepted, the sex gratuitous, and it all made sense in the punk lifestyle. In fact, punk itself became a lifestyle more than a style of music. There's a difference between the college kid that dresses in black and goes to punk shows, as opposed to the kid out in the alley bumming change for beer. Once he gets tanked up, he'll go inside and beat up some innocent kid, or vandalize the club, something like that. The destructive tendencies are the difference if you really want to know. I got involved in the lifestyle first, the music second. Today I fully understand how unreal it all truly was.
JAM: Here is what I don't understand Mike. Isn't your music supposed to be a release valve for the aggression that's building up inside you?
JAM: So why take the emotion one step further were violence becomes the overriding factor in your life instead of the music?
I was an angry kid. You also have to take into consideration I was in my late teens and punk rock, or new wave, or alternative music, was not acceptable back then.
JAM: So you were rebelling in a sense against music like The Knack?
You bet I was! If you wanted to walk down the street sporting a flat top and wearing a black leather jacket, blue jeans, white socks and black shoes, you had better be willing to put up a fight for that look.
JAM: I would have thought that '50s James Dean look was cool back then?
Well, for us it was. It just wasn't acceptable to look that way in Orange County. I was fighting angry, grown blue collar men like construction workers. I was fighting leftover hippies from the '60s that didn't want to see change. These people were threatened by us. Then punk got so big, you had the West Side Story thing going on where gangs of punk kids were fighting other punk kids over territory. It was pretty unreal back then.
JAM: Was Michael Ness in the wrong place at the wrong time?
No absolutely not. I was exactly in the right place at the right time when everything was supposed to happen. What happened to me was all a part of growing up. Obviously I'm not doing that stuff anymore. It's been so long since I saw the inside of a jail cell, it's like a buried memory. As far as drugs, my heroin addiction has been buried as well.
JAM: Are there any remnants of 'mommies little monster' inside of you.
Not really. Once I cleaned up my act, and proved to everyone it was for real, my mom was very proud to stand behind me.
JAM: Was the emotional gauntlet you put yourself through early in your career necessary for Mike Ness to experience in order to write about it?
Let me answer your question this way. I think it would be very hard for a rich white kid to sing the blues. However, I can sing the blues, because I have felt it, I have experienced it, I lived it. All the angst, all the aggressiveness I have felt in my life had to come from somewhere, because it certainly wasn't the result of me playing a guitar.
JAM: Would you like to be 17 years old in today's world starting out in music?
No, I wouldn't. I don't need to go through that again.
JAM: From listening to you speak, and what I know of your past, Social Distortion seems more suited for today's musical environment than the one you actually survived.
You have to remember that we had the Ramones, The Clash and the Sex Pistols as our role models. I was 17 and part of a wayward youth movement. And you know what, it was fun. Yeah, I had bouts of trouble with alcohol and drugs through the years, but at the same time, it was a lot of fun for a long time. It wasn't until like '83, '84 when I started getting into real trouble. The band went downhill along with me.
JAM: Is this why the band disappeared from 1984 to 1987?
Yeah. It was like a vortex sucked us into oblivion back then. I am lucky I lived through it.
JAM: What pulled you through?
Basically it's hitting a bottom that was pitiful and incomprehensible.
JAM: Do you ever really know what the bottom is?
Well, it's not really a situational thing, it's an emotional thing. It all came down to me being sick and tired of being sick and tired living with the pain. There is an intense emotional struggle with pain that comes with heroin addiction. Your craving for the next fix becomes so intense, you'll do anything to get rid of it. Instead of falling deeper into drug addiction to battle the hurt, I was willing to submit myself to rehab. As a result of that decision, I'm alive and talking to you today.
JAM: With the release of Mommies Little Monster in 1983, then Prison Bound five years later, what changes did you make internally, or did you make any at all?
That's a wide open question. Lyrically, I wasn't an angry teen lashing out at the world any more.
JAM: Let me put it to you this way. On the Little Monster album, you were reliving your every day life in the lyrics you wrote. On Prison Bound, it seems as though you were talking about your learned experiences?
Maybe subconsciously I was. Either way, they were both my experiences. Prison Bound was an album about the direction I was headed toward if I hadn't changed my ways. Mommies Little Monster was exactly what was happening at the time.
JAM: And then Social Distortion finds itself being courted by a major label, and you sign with Epic Record. How did that affect you?
Well, I took all the energy I used to put into a reckless lifestyle, and concentrated it on what it was supposed to be utilized for – music. Let's face it. The shock value of what we did was long gone. I stopped rebelling against mom and dad, the cops and society in general. As far as fashion, well fuck punk became fashionable again in those days. When Social Distortion finally signed our major label deal, I could finally concentrate on the music, the songwriting, and just getting better overall at my craft.
JAM: Do you think the people, the fans I should say, that followed Social Distortion over the years grew up with you?
Honestly, I think the majority of them have, I really do. The kids that grew up with us starting at 18 are still into us today. Listen, we were a punk band when we started out and lived the lifestyle that came with it. So did our fans. We thought punk had all the answers to the world. Well, it didn't, but I can safely say we all grew up and realized our lives turned out the way we thought, despite the rebelling we did at 17, 18 years old.
JAM: When you talk about rebellion, are you talking about fighting authority or rebelling against responsibility?
When I was a teenager, rebelling meant going against everything. Hell, I was even rebelling against things I didn't know anything about.
JAM: Then what does growing up mean?
Growing up to me means accepting responsibility for your own actions, desiring better things in life and working to acquire them. I mean I could go on and on. I find myself doing things today I used to put down in my youth as not being cool. When you're 18, you are looking at life with a narrow perspective.
JAM: Have you been surprising yourself a lot over the years?
Definitely! I wasn't supposed to live this long. The changes that I have gone through were awesome to me. The things that I have in my life today I'm grateful for.
JAM: So you literally were on a path of self-destruction?
That is an understatement.
JAM: Don't most people in life sometimes find themselves going down that uncharted path and simply call it self discovery?
Yeah, of course they do. My life is not unique from anyone else's. However, I believe I was more extreme with my excesses than the beer guzzling college kid who gets hung over from a night of partying.
JAM: What was extreme to you?
Well, I was a dope fiend man. I hung out in barrios and ghettos and shot up dope. I committed crimes to support my drug habit. I lied, cheated and stole at random. I was an extreme case.
JAM: How in the world did music ever enter your life?
I was into music before I was into drugs. Literally, I have loved music since I was five years old.
JAM: Did music make you respectable?
No, not really because I didn't get much support from it.
JAM: Your journey of discovering who Mike Ness is has been rather extreme.
Yes, and surviving them have been miraculous.
JAM: When you say you should be dead now, that's a powerful statement of admission you're making about yourself.
When I was caught up in the world of drugs, I thought I was a fucking gangster. I thought it was cool to do all that bad shit. Nowadays – and I don't want to become a preacher or anything like that – but jumping off the drug train was clearly a warning that if you want to play, you had better be prepared to pay. The changes within me were subtle once I jumped off the train and never looked back. If you listen to the lyrics of my songs back then, you'll pick up on what I'm saying. I definitely didn't glamorize the life of a junkie in our songs.
JAM: Did you suck the rest of the band into your spiral downward, or were you alone in your self-destruction?
The band was sort of a participant, but no where near the extreme as I was. They were there to catch my fall, to make sure I didn't go too far. In a way, the guys, particularly Dennis Danell, were my babysitter.
JAM: I am surprised Dennis never bailed on you.
Well I am sure there were times he wanted to. I guess the music we were creating was something he wanted more of. And he had a little bit of faith I'd finally pull myself out of it as well.
JAM: Has music been a bonding force in your life?
Well, I would like to think that one day I woke up and said it's either this drug life or the music, but it didn't happen that way. Towards the end of my bottoming out, music wasn't even an option. I was either going to die, go to prison, or end up in a nut ward. Those were my only three options. Music was slowly losing existence within me.
JAM: Did it help surrounding yourself with band members who understood the ever evolving world of Social Distortion?
Well, those guys definitely witnessed the hard times I put myself through. John (Maurer) and Chris (Reece) joined Dennis and I right in the middle of my chaos. Fortunately, they thought what I was doing was supposed to be that way. They slowly figured out something was terribly wrong. "There goes Mike shooting up dope. Great, all the equipment is in the pawn shop again. Okay, why are the police looking for Mike this time?" Seriously, for a while there, John and Chris really thought that's what it was like to be in Social Distortion. When my attitudes changed after I cleaned myself up, so did every one else's in the band. We got serious about the music and our fortunes changed. Finally, Social Distortion had done all its partying and now it was time to pursue the music seriously.
JAM: What was Social Distortion's 'coming to Jesus moment' where reality actually set in for everyone?
Seriously, getting signed to a major label was a big awakening for us. It was a very real 'wow' moment because for the first time, we all realized the band had a chance to take our music further than we ever had. The band quickly learned to separate work from play because signing to a major forced us to be responsible. I can promise you that nobody was going to drink a 12-pack before they hopped up on stage to play. We started working hard at rehearsals and I started to work hard on the music I was writing. I am learning every day something new when it comes to playing guitar chords or writing lyrics. The year we traveled opening for Neil Young was very cool because he had been down the road I went and it certainly didn't hurt his career.
JAM: When Roger Klein signed Social Distortion to Epic Records, it was a giant leap of faith on his part, especially with your dysfunctional past.
It was kind of cool that someone of his stature believed in this band that much. He was an old school rocker who kept his integrity all those years. He never bought into the mega star limos, 5-star hotels, stuff like that. He would wear a flannel shirt and jeans with holes in them. I respected him for that.
JAM: About the time Epic signed Social Distortion, Guns N'Roses was taking off. Now, of all the bands I've ever interviewed, Mike Ness and Social Distortion come the closest to living the drug infested, decadent lifestyle that band did. Where you ever concerned your band would be a G'n'R type of thing for Epic?
I don't think so, although a band like us was good for Epic's street image. The music industry is very slow in finding out what's cool. Once a label discovers a "cool" thing, then all the other record companies launch their own search for the same thing. I think the record company learned about our similarities after they signed us. They weren't looking for a Gun' N'Roses clone band.
JAM: Well, the definitely didn't have one in Social Distortion.
To be honest, this band experienced far more troubling things than Guns N'Roses ever imagined. When I sing about life on the streets, drugs, you name it, that's because I really lived it. I was far more extreme than Axl Rose or those guys ever thought they were doing. It's hard for me to even picture any of those guys ever walking into a barrio looking for a heroin fix. It's even harder for me to believe a lot of the things they sang about on their first album. They just aren't convincing, but that's just me. I always considered that band too Hollywood, a product of the hairspray bands on Sunset Boulevard. So what if they got a lot of money and shot up dope. Look what it did to their careers, you know what I mean? I was doing the drugs before Guns N'Roses were even a blip on the radar screen. Hell I was doing heroin and it had nothing to do with music. With them, they sort of glamorized the whole drug culture that in the end, proved to be their demise.
JAM: What was it that Roger Klein said that made you believe he understood what Social Distortion, and especially Michael Ness, was all about?
Just the fact that someone of his stature believed in us was enough. The only thing this band ever wanted was a little respect from the industry. In the early days when it wasn't even considered cool to become successful, Social Distortion wanted to become successful. We were looking at bands like The Clash, and thinking "Fuck, that's what we want to do!" We figured if they could do it, then we could too. Getting signed with Restless was the first step toward achieving our goal. With Epic it was "Whoa, now we really are getting the fucking respect we deserve!"
JAM: Why do you think that the bands you grew up admiring broke up? I mean the examples you referred to that influenced the band really had no staying power?
I don't know. That's a tough question. I am just grateful that Social Distortion has remained relevant. Back in the day, it was trendy for a lot of the L.A. bands to jump on the bandwagon after one of them had made it. Eventually the trend would wear itself out and take those bands down with them. That's part of the answer. The other is this. The only thing all those Sunset Strip bands were actually doing with their music was having a fling with the public. Once the affair was over, it was really over for them. They no longer had staying power and their moment in the sun set on them permanently.
JAM: Let me put the question to you this way. Did you pattern Social Distortion after the punk lifestyle more than the music?
It was both. And it still kind of is. Even though I'm not doing the alcohol, the drugs and the fighting anymore, I still carry a lot of the musical ideas with me from when we started the band. Even though the albums have been few and far between, the energy and aggression is always there. You seem to be a little confused about the two.
JAM: To be honest with you, that period of music didn't interest me. I was into Journey, Tom Petty, REO, John Cougar and the Police. You lived a lifestyle that absolutely did not interest me. The only way for me to understand where you came from is to delve into what made you tick.
It is important to me that you understand where I came from. One of the most frustrating things in life is to be misunderstood, and being a punk definitely fits that category. I want Social Distortion to be understood by people like you. In no way have I ever wanted this band's legacy to be songs about drugs. We don't want that to become our identity. We aren't a fucking public service band if you know what I mean. There are things in life that have affected me just as powerfully as drugs and alcohol abuse, or as much as violence has. I want to write about broken homes. I want to write about broken hearts. I want to write about falling in love. I want to write about hot rod cars.
JAM: Where you incapable of experiencing those emotions at one time?
Absolutely I was.
Because I was in a fucking fog thanks to the drugs. I don't know if you've ever known anyone who has been a drug addict. But here's the thing. When you are caught up in that world, everything loses its meaning to you – your hygiene, your family, your self worth. Everything goes out the fucking window. You practically become a slave to the euphoria drugs create.
JAM: Did substance abuse problems transport you into your own happy world, and if it did, why didn't the band members try to pull you out?
Well, to answer the first part of your questions, yes. And second, there really is no stopping someone from spiraling out of control once the disease has gotten its clutches on you. There is no human power that can stop someone from self destructing.
JAM: What power stopped you?
Will power saved me. I realized drugs had taken me to a place I never wanted to go back to again. I had been given a precious gift, and it was all slipping away unless I replaced the drugs and alcohol. So that's what I did. I stopped the drugs and the alcohol and concentrated on the music.
JAM: It was that easy?
Absolutely not! I went through hell beating my addictions. I drank and used drugs for 12 years.
JAM: I'm guessing after a period of time, the highs became nothing but lows?
That lifestyle was fun for about the first six years, and there you have it. The drugs stopped doing what they were supposed to do for me.
JAM: What was that?
I started taking drugs and drinking heavy to take away the pain and the fear that had cropped up in my life. When something you are using to take away all those anxieties stops working, you are in trouble. No matter how much dope I shot up, my anxieties seemed to intensify for me. My options were limited once the drugs failed. There was suicide; there was insanity or the next phase, a derelict. I was on my way to becoming a hip, slick and cool dope fiend turned wino by the age of 35. And that was after a long prison term. This is reality I'm talking about here, not speculation. It is the inevitable outcome in the life of a dope fiend, and I had all the characteristics of turning into one if I didn't get help.
JAM: Speaking to you reminds me of a conversation I had with Paul Westerberg of the Replacements. For years he was caught up more with alcohol than he was drugs. He had to get away from the band in order to get his head on straight. Once he had cleaned up his act, he returned to the Replacements with a fresh, sober perspective. You however, kept Social Distortion going, almost like it was your only link to sanity. Did you ever want to walk away and come back?
Yeah, there was a period where I thought I might have to give this up, because I was struggling with a life or death battle going on inside of me. It wasn't that I was drinking too much and waking up in a jail cell, then getting out and I have a gig the next night. It was like I was dying on the inside, because I was staring both life and death in the face.
JAM: Had you inadvertently, in your mind, linked drugs and alcohol to music?
Hard to say
JAM: Was your personality so powerful and strong that the guys in the band couldn't compete with it to even try and save you from yourself?
Absolutely! That is how I was and still am. One day I just stopped doing all that stuff and got a life.
JAM: Once you cleaned up your personal act, did you notice music was no longer a struggle and it flowed out of you a lot easier?
Yes it did. I started thinking clearly. Admittedly, the 12 years I was abusing myself with alcohol and drugs caused a lot of damage. However, I can think fairly clearly today. I wake up every morning looking forward to whatever challenges await me. Until you have been to the places I've been, it's hard for you to understand how grateful I am to wake up and put on a clean set of clothes. I like knowing my refrigerator at home has food in it. I like not worrying about my electricity being turned off. It's cool to have a nice car and a pet. These luxuries in life most people take for granted, but you see, I lost all that stuff. Drugs caused me to lose my integrity, my self esteem, my freedom, everything. Until you have actually lost all of that stuff people take for granted, until you have been to that point and find yourself given a second shot at life, it's hard for you to understand how grateful I am to be alive every single day.
JAM: Was Roger Klein your second chance?
Sobriety was my second chance.
JAM: When did you bottom out at?
It was in early 1985. I couldn't go any further. The pain just got too great.
JAM: Were you in jail?
No, I was living on the streets, the band really wasn't playing any shows, and when we did play, the group was floundering on stage. I was in this empty void, a sort of nothingness. I had absolutely no life whatsoever. On Christmas Eve I was strung out on heroin, and withdrawing at the same time, because I haven't had a fix yet. I'm wondering how I am going to lie, steal or cheat my way into the fifty dollars I need for my fix. That's just one example of a day in my life back then. Normal people are having an awesome family Christmas dinner and presents. For Mike Ness, dope fiend, he was just thinking about how big a dose he needed in his system to feel just right without getting sick.
JAM: Where did you go to clean up at?
I went through a couple of hospital programs. It didn't come easy. It took me a while.
JAM: When did you know it was going to work?
The last time I was in the hospital, I knew that if I could pull myself together, I had a good chance of succeeding in stopping the insanity my life had become. A lot of it was filling that anxiety void with a new approach to my life, and that was concentrating on the band and my music.
JAM: Did the band ever give you an ultimatum?
No, not really. They weren't in a position to.
JAM: Why, because you were both the creative, and destructive force, behind the band?
JAM: When did Mike Ness know he had really overcome the problem that had haunted him for a dozen years?
Well I don't ever think I've overcome the problem, I learned to control it rather than the other way around. I got totally clean in October 1985. I was guided in the right direction from recovering dope fiends that I looked up to. They weren't musicians, just recovering gangster types that were living life without the use of drugs or alcohol. That impressed me and I followed their suggestions on how to overcome my addictions. Today I don't even think about drugs and alcohol. Life is still difficult for me on a daily basis, but drugs and alcohol are not a feasible solution for confronting my issues any more.
JAM: I've often heard it said that people who go down the wrong path are often the victims of the environment they grew up in. Does that hold true for you?
Well, growing up and hanging around Hollywood probably wasn't the best place for my addictive personality. At the same time, Social Distortion wouldn't have gotten to where it's at today without me going down that wrong path.
JAM: Sounds like a classic Catch-22. Damned if you do, damned if you don't!
I'm a realist. Social Distortion wouldn't be as big as it is today if we had come out of, let's say Arkansas. It just wouldn't have happened. Like I said earlier, everything happened, when it happened, because it was supposed to. I personally don't feel that anything that's occurred in my life happened by mistake. It was all meant to be.