Music: Social Security

Social Distortion don't have to jump the reunion train, because for the past 25 years they've been plugging away

Christine Marie

Mike Ness has helped Social Distortion remain vital for almost 30 years.

With music such a commodity these days, it's no surprise that former bands, once popular, are now reuniting in waves. Why not sharpen your chops, comb over the gray hair and hit the lucrative tour circuit again?

That's why it's unique to see a band like Social Distortion, who after 25 years plus in the club trenches, is still taking no prisoners in concert. They're touring in support of their first greatest hits compilation this summer.

This Orange County, Calif.,-based Punk band has endured drug addictions, the death of a founding member and waning popularity, all the while holding true to their original vision: Punk blended with a roots influence. Envision a hybrid sound of The Clash and Johnny Cash, and you're not far away from the inspiration of group founder Mike Ness.

Ness began Social D in 1979 in a Southern California suburb and released their debut, Mommy's Little Monster, in 1983. Like The Ramones, Social D has changed band member lineups multiple times through the years, but their initial sound has stayed much the same.

Spools of images swirl through my mind when thinking of Social D: Rockabilly on steroids, crew cuts and tattoos, biker black, Mike Ness's thick, thunderous guitar tone and a freight-train onslaught of tight originals with cool covers charging down the tracks.

In my recent conversation from L.A. with Jonny "2 Bags" Wickersham, Social D's second guitarist, he's able to provide an unusual perspective on the band's history.

He's not only a full-fledged member now but he was a fan of Social D for years before Ness asked him to replace Dennis Danell, who had recently died of heart failure.

"I joined in 2000, and replacing Dennis was hard," Wickersham says. "When I was growing up and seeing Social D play around Orange County, you know it was Dennis and Mike. They were inseparable and they were the band. Back then Dennis was just as prominent a figure in Social D as Mike was. He was a friend of mine, too. Replacing him under those circumstances was pretty uncomfortable. He asked me one time to fill in for him on the leg of a European tour, when he was home for the birth of his son. That's one thing, but to come in and take over his position — it was difficult."

It's easy to understand how precarious a time this was for Social D. Ness, in particular, struggled with the premature death of his high school buddy. But he decided to keep forging ahead; it's what he does, after all. With the additions of Wickersham on guitar and Charlie Quintana on drums seven years ago, Social D feels like a new band with a renewed sense of purpose.

"I was absolutely a big fan of Social D," Wickersham says. "I came up watching them play around town, you know? Eventually, I got to know them while playing in a bunch of my own bands back then. Mike is the fulcrum of it all. I think I can speak for Mike and myself on this — I don't see either one of us doing anything else. This has been my primary interest since I was a child — Rock & Roll music."

It is one thing for dinosaurs like the Stones or The Who to keep trudging on literally decades past their prime, but with Social D, you can't help but admire their longevity. These guys aren't playing in stadiums or arenas for millions. Instead, they're still packing small clubs, semi-oblivious to time's toll.

While L.A. fostered a thriving Punk scene in the late '70s and early '80s, Social D was one of the few original bands to embrace Roots and Rockabilly music then. Citing Johnny Cash or Jerry Lee Lewis as influences has become de rigueur now, but it wasn't always that way. Believe it or not, a person's "hip" quotient wasn't always defined by a love of Hillbilly/Roots-raw music.

"This is before there was any kind of obvious Roots influence like there is now," Wickersham says. "Back then I was really into bands like Generation X and California bands like the Adolescents and Social D. Those were the bands you'd go see. But Mike always liked guys like Cash, Hank Williams and Carl Perkins — besides the Punk stuff."

If you've ever seen Social D perform, you know Mike Ness radiates a powerful stage presence. In fact, Ness might have been influenced more by Johnny Cash's bad-ass charisma than by his music.

Wickersham agrees.

"This is from the perspective of a fan that I'm coming from right now," he says. "I remember (Social D) stood apart from the other bands because they possessed a swagger that a lot of hardcore thrash bands didn't have. They were a guitar-swinging, Rock & Roll band, you understand? They could be playing in a backyard keg party and they could seem like they were playing at a huge amphitheatre somewhere. They just had that thing."

When I ask Wickersham about the contemporary Punk scene, he's very generous with his appraisal.

"There are a lot of great bands still flying the Punk Rock banner," he says. "Obviously, there's this whole issue of whether to call it Punk Rock or not. Can you still call the Blues the Blues? Yeah, I guess so. There's a lot of really lame contemporary Blues music out there, but there are bands that are just killing it, really good ones keeping the tradition alive. I think the same thing can be said for Punk Rock bands, for kids in the garage."

This is the kind of attitude that sustains good bands, no matter how much of a road-weary vet you might be. It's easy to be disillusioned with the selling of music as product nowadays, as well as with the younger generations who buy into that manipulation. We're all guilty of nostalgia, of saying, "Things sure aren't what they used to be," whether musically or otherwise. So it's good to hear someone step up and praise what's also happening now.

"There are bands out there that are very real and this music means as much to them as it did to us," Wickersham says. "The difference, obviously being, that they're not new — it's not as threatening as it was. But what are you gonna do?"

SOCIAL DISTORTION plays Bogart's Wednesday night.

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