Sick Boys: our article on social distortion from 1991


This article originally appeared in the March 1991 issue of TOURNAMENT.

It was like a scene from Penelope Spheeris’ punk documentary, The decline of western civilization. Social Distortion descended on the stage as shattered glass and a burst of blood covered the dance floor. Big goony bouncers grabbed the kids by their mohawks, or in the case of skinheads, their necks, and threw them out the door.

As the general chaos of the slam dance erupted near the stage, bassist John Maurer paced with a minnow, not because of a backstage rumble, as most spectators thought, but because earlier in the day he had surrendered to the notorious body of San Francisco. piercing palace, the Gauntlet, to get your navel done. As he sat on the table informing the mistress of ceremonies that he wanted the bottom flesh to be pierced, she told him it would hurt a lot less if he had done it on top. No, John knew what he wanted and was determined to get it. As she turned to the table after retrieving her tools, he glanced at the tray full of needles and antiseptics and passed out, falling from his perch and hitting the ground hard enough to blacken his eye, his bad boy image has put shame.

But this audience didn’t know it, and as the band launched into “Sick Boys”, a track from their latest album, a chair was thrown halfway through the club…. Some things never change.

John Maurer, left, Mike Ness, center, and Dennis Danell of Social Distortion perform live at the Rosemont Horizon in Rosemont, Illinois on February 3, 1991 (Photo by Paul Natkin / Getty Images)

Since the social distortion born in 1979 in Southern California, guitarist, singer and founder Mike Ness has seen a nasty heroin habit, inside a few jail cells, and a reputation as a hardcore punk that he just can’t seem to get. to shake.

“Just because we’re from the Orange County punk scene, that doesn’t mean that’s what we play until we die,” says Ness. “We were learning back then, but even now we can’t seem to lose the label. “

Even at first, it was obvious that there was more to Social Distortion than most other two-chord slam outfits on the stage. It wasn’t necessarily that they could play well, but there was an underlying bluesy-rock energy that only needed a little time to surface. And when they sang their 1983 anthem “Mommy’s Little Monster”, the words weren’t so much “fuck the world, I want to get off”, like a lot of other 30 second songs, as “check it out, this generation is being fooled. “Most of the bands that came out of that scene are gone,” says guitarist Dennis Danell, who has been with the band since the early 1980s.

“Either that or they do some rubbish and meaningless stuff,” Ness adds. “I see some of these guys from time to time, but there’s not much to say. Many things have changed. Back then, the kind of girls I hung out with were junkies and lowlifes. Now those we hang out with have jobs, money, direction in life.

“So much has happened in five years in all of our lives. To me, in particular, it almost seems like I’ve started life all over again. I feel totally grateful.

Social Distortion Mike Ness
Mike Ness of Social Distortion leaping through the air (Photo by © Gary Malerba / CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images)

Orange County, just south of Los Angeles, is one of America’s most conservative and wealthy counties. With rows of sprawling homes inhabited by high-income families, it’s easy to see why this area has earned the nickname “Reagan County”. In the early 1980s, this idyllic location spawned one of California’s most violent and self-destructive punk scenes. The Germs, TSOL, and the Circle Jerks have taught Orange County kids to snap, but the consequences, in most cases, have been crash and burn.

To some people, it seemed that while their English counterparts had unemployment lines (or at least art school courses) to deal with, the Orange County punks had nothing more to worry about than the smog. But the general feeling of this flourishing scene was that wealth was a facade, a way to numb your thinking, and any night of the week you could go to Cuckoo’s Nest in Costa Mesa, the club where this network of bands was playing, and spitting in the face of the adult convention. There was Opposite side, the magazine that identified all the OC punks worth their weight in safety pins on the scene. And the parties – which were held in homes abandoned by parents on vacation in Europe – where, more than likely, some form of physical disintegration would take place. Mike Ness knew a lot about it. He was on the verge of developing a bad heroin habit and was often seen in the parking lot with a bottle of alcohol in his hand. “I was very pissed off at the time,” says Ness. So pissed off that during the band’s first concert, he was taken to jail for spitting in the face of a plainclothes cop.

When Ness’ heroin habit hit rock bottom in ’85 and the group started to flounder, it became increasingly clear that unless he got his act together, he wouldn’t live for the to say. He went into a drug recovery program and came out with music in his body instead of chemicals. “I’ve always been very determined about what I wanted to do with the band,” he says. “I mean, I thought that was pretty much my destiny, whether it was success or failure. I was just supposed to be a musician. At the time, there really was no alternative. Even though now there are other things I could do for a living, it’s like, “Why would I do it?” “

In 1988, the LP bound prison came out with Danell on guitar, Maurer on bass and Christopher Reece on drums. The album showed Ness wearing his struggles on his sleeve. “bound prison was immediately after I got clean, ”he says. “Things are much clearer for us now in terms of where we want to go and what our main influences are. When back then, we were just coming out of a fog, the first record in five years, we were like, “Hello, what’s over there? “

Social Distortion hit the road, building a consistent following that included old-time fans. Ness said: “We did a lot of live shows and we tried a few projects that didn’t go exactly the way we would have liked, so we chose not to release them, and that was an expensive lesson. for us. . “

“We had been getting calls from guys at some indie labels and they spoke the language,” Danell explains. “At the time, we didn’t know anything about the industry and they said, ‘We’ll meet you at the Harley Davidson store and buy you four new Harleys. And I called my manager saying, “I want a bike so badly.” And he says, “No, don’t settle for the instant gratification. “

“Sometimes you have to wait, and it’s difficult,” adds Ness.

“We would have been in good shape for about six months until the bikes started to break down,” Danell continues. “And then we should have sold them to pay the rent, and three years later we wouldn’t have any motorcycles and had to make three more albums.”

Patience paid off. In 1990, 11 years after the group’s first concert, Social Distortion entered the studio and recorded their first release on a major label for Epic Records, then hit the road again. Everywhere the band went, fans waited, some who obviously thought the slam pit days were still in action, but others who came for direct, sweaty rock’n’roll.

“I think we have a good number of followers,” says Ness. “Like we don’t see them for a few years and then they show up and say, ‘Hi’ and they’re still crazy.”

“We are not inaccessible to people,” says Danell. “I like to make new friends. I’m not going to give anyone an attitude that wants to come and ask me questions about the band or myself or anything else.

“We like to have fun,” adds Ness. “There are times when you want to be alone, but none of us are reclusive. You have to have people to have fun. “

“Yeah,” Danell laughs. “No fun just hanging out with yourself. “

Social distortion
Social Distortion Show (Photo by Joe Hughes / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

After finishing a North American tour with Neil Young, the Social Distortion team will release a new album, after which they will go to Europe and Japan. During this busy schedule, Ness must return home to Costa Mesa so that he can drop off all the collectibles he has picked up on the road. It’s his hobby. In every town there are at least a few antique and thrift stores waiting to be looted. In one case, he found a life-size deer head he couldn’t live without, so he bought it and set it in the backseat of the bus, taking up an entire seat. And there he stayed without anyone being allowed to approach or disturb him. Other favorites from the Ness collection: antique dolls, ceramic figurines and lamps.

“Maybe one day I’ll open a showroom and stage it all,” Ness suggests.

“I would love to have a workshop where we could work on our cars,” Danell says. “And do all kinds of boy-type things, you know.”

“Where we can rehearse too,” adds Ness. “And all the people we know in cross country with cool cars and shit can come visit us.”

The group has come a long way since the days of sleeping on the floor and fighting for his salary at the end of the set. “We’re now at a point where we can actually think about other things besides how to make ends meet,” says Ness.

“Because we had our share of shitty jobs,” adds Maurer. “When we weren’t playing and there were bills to pay, I learned a trade.”

“Yes. We’ve paid our dues as far as it goes,” says Ness. “We know what it’s like to be blue collar workers.

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