Story of My Life: Mike Ness Talks 25 Years of 'Social Distortion'

As band prepares to play 1990 breakthrough album live on tour, the singer reflects on recovery and the risks he took to survive

A quarter of a century ago, punk firebrands Social Distortion modded out their sound with country swagger and rock & roll looseness on their influential self-titled, major-label debut. Songs like "Story of My Life," "Ball and Chain" and "It Could Have Been Me" found bandleader Mike Ness parsing past relationships and abandoned addictions, while the group's cover of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" showed how far they were willing to push. The risk earned Social Distortion a gold plaque from the RIAA and their first record on the Billboard chart.

Now Ness and his bandmates are celebrating the legacy of that release by playing it in full on their summer tour. "Anniversaries don't come around that often, but this was such a pivotal point of our career," the singer says, when asked about the tour. "It's like you're playing a period of time in your life. And fans get a chance to get a glimpse of it and other people get to revisit it and figure out like, 'Wow, I've been listening to this band for 25 years now, how awesome.'"

For the frontman, who is in the midst of writing the follow-up to Social Distortion's 2011 LP, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, looking back also provides a chance for him to reflect on how much has changed since Social Distortion came out, from the 2000 passing of longtime guitarist Dennis Danell to the ways in which recovery from drug addiction helped him become a better songwriter. Rolling Stone recently caught up with Ness to discuss the tour and how the album holds up for him.

Why was Social Distortion a pivotal record for you?
For me, personally, it was taking some risks. The songs I was writing at the time were not your typical punk-rock songs. I wanted to bridge genres and styles, and I didn't want to just play in front of one particular crowd. From my early experience with the first wave of punk, I thought it was supposed to be very diverse and individual, but by the mid Eighties, the bands frankly started to sound the same.

Was it easy to get the band on board with the new direction?
Yeah. Dennis in particular. He saw the connection of bringing American roots into this rebellious fray, because we weren't the first ones to rebel. There were a lot of rebels. Hank Williams is just as much a rebel as Sid Vicious.

What was going on in your life around the time you wrote this record?
I was still early in recovery, so I was reflecting on almost going to prison, almost dying, my drug use. And then at the same time, I was realizing all of the things I liked in my life: cars, old music, tattoos and motorcycles. It was just wanting to express that.

How autobiographical was "Story of My Life"?
One hundred percent. But what I didn't know when I was writing it was that it was also universal. I don't know how but I captured a simple human emotion in a song that is universally relatable. I try to write songs like that today, but it doesn't come around that often.

What inspired "It Could Have Been Me"?
Watching my friends die or go to prison. At that point, I was just really grateful to figure out that being a junkie was a horrible life and that nothing was gonna come of it but misery. So it was also a song of hope and gratitude. It could have been me. In the first six months [of recovery] I realized that I was lucky and that now I just had all this energy that can go to a positive thing: I could play music. But it's very important to remember where you come from and that you can easily go back.

I imagine that's also the theme of "Ball and Chain."
Yeah. That one is almost like a hymn or a prayer. It's asking for someone to remove something from you that you're struggling with, whether it's an addiction or pain or fear. I didn't want to write a preachy song. I just wanted to write one that was an accurate look at where I had been at times in my life, and still am sometimes.

Do people ask if it's about a woman?
Yeah, but I like that it might mean something completely different to someone else than what it means to me.

"I got a lot of slack for covering Johnny Cash."

Why did you cover "Ring of Fire"? Was Johnny Cash considered cool in 1989?
No. As a matter of fact, I remember getting a lot of slack for that. It was the punk-rock police, like, "Oh, it's not very 'punk rock' if you're covering that country song." But we had covered Johnny Cash songs as early as 1983, so it was really nothing new for us.

Social Distortion was your first major-label record. Was there much controversy with the booze and guns you put on the album cover?
Those were all photos that I had found. Back then, we would have these art meetings with these fucking people who are middle-aged that you don't even know. Like, "You don't even know what this band was six months ago and you're telling me what you think the artwork should look like?" And they're like, "Well, we're just worried that Kmart isn't gonna carry it." So the cover was the only thing we ever compromised, being on a major label. We decided for some reason if it was illustrated, it wouldn't be as harsh or we wouldn't have to get licensing. But the cover is the same as the photos I picked and I think it still came across very effective.

Did Social Distortion fit in on a major label?
It was a little confusing. I'd seen it work with bands like the Clash. But here we were on Epic Records – Sony Records – with Pearl Jam, Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson. So it was like, where do we fit? I remember going to a Grammy after-party and hanging out with Coolio and Lemmy from Motörhead. We were the oddballs. We just didn't feel that they really got us or knew how to market us.

After the record came out, you hit the road with Neil Young and Sonic Youth. What was that tour like?
It was good and it was bad. For us, it was a great opportunity to play in front of some crowds that maybe weren't around during the punk scene. The problem was if we were at, for instance, Madison Square Garden, if we did have 300 fans there that night, we'd have never known it because it was arranged seating and our fans aren't used to that. On the good side, I was becoming very groove-oriented at that time and I would watch Crazy Horse turn their back on 10,000 people and walk back up to the drummer and lock into the groove, and I was realizing that if the song doesn't have a groove, you're just bashing through chords. So it really reinforced the foundation of music I had grown up with prior to punk, from the third grade on: the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Bad Company and ZZ Top, all those bands had thick grooves. It was a schooling for me.

You also toured with Gang Green, who were kind of the poster boys for anti–straight-edge life, around that time. Was that difficult for you, being in recovery?
Back then, it was tough anyways. Most of my band members were still partying and I just stayed in my hotel room on off-nights and wrote songs. I would end up feeling good about myself because I was doing something positive while everyone was getting wasted and feeling like shit the next day.

One story I read about your tour back then was that you purchased a deer's head and traveled around with it on your bus. Was that weird?
What's funnier is that it wasn't a bus; it was a van. And it was on a bench that we were all sitting on and slowly, boxes of antiques accumulated back there. The deer's head on top was kind of like the final straw.

Your band got mad at you?
If we started too fast, someone could have been impaled.

How did you get along with the rest of the band then? You have a completely different lineup now.
It was tough. I was watching artists like Neil Young and saying, "Hey guys, we got to step this up a little. We're getting paid like professionals." I was not happy after the shows. It was like, "Why aren't we sounding how I envisioned us sounding?" It's hard to get four guys on the same page.

Dennis was such a good friend. He wasn't in the band because he was a hot guitar player. He was in the band because him and I were partners in crime when we were young and we started this thing together. But it was definitely a tough time.

Dennis remained a Social Distortion member until his death. What do you miss most about him?
He was the kind of friend that if your car wouldn't start, he'd come over and help you get it started. He'd drop what he was doing. He loved to help people, and he was always there for you.

What about Social Distortion makes you think of him?
The back photo. It was taken in our studio. That's his guitar I'm holding. But the whole record reminds me of him. It's just part of the reflection.

Since you've been rehearsing for this tour, have any of the songs taken on a new meaning to you?
It's different. It's definitely been interesting revisiting them from a songwriter's point of view, because I'm writing right now. I think it's a good exercise to go back to the past and pump some old blood back in.

Speaking of revisiting the past, you told Rolling Stone in 2011 you wanted to make your own version of the 1983 film Another State of Mind, where many people first saw you. Is that still in the works?
We wanted to do a documentary about the history and inner makings of the band but I wouldn't say it was another film like that. We were in that film, but we didn't make that film. So I want to do a film that we make that tells the history of the band, but once again, it's been on my list of things to do for probably seven years now. We spoke to a few people recently about doing it, so it is getting started.

"I was just such an angry kid."

On the topic of Social Distortion history, is it true that in 1980 you were at a party where you were arrested for spitting on a cop who tried to break it up, and then your mom bailed you out and brought you back to the same party?
Yeah. I was a fucking asshole kid, man. I let this guy into this party, and he ended up busting us and I was like, "You fucker!" So I spit on him, got arrested and went to jail. I think I was still 17, so my mom was going to come down and get me, and the party was at my house so arresting me didn't really do anything. I mean, I was just such an angry kid. I remember getting released from juvenile hall one time and the judge said something and I said, "Yeah, well you're going to die before I do." It's like, "Wow, where does that come from?" Just another day.

Where are you at with the new record?
I've written a lot of songs, and I've got a lot of songs for another solo record. Once the summer tour is done, I can start figuring out the direction for the next record. It's not as far along as I'd like it to be. Unfortunately, for us to do a new record, we have to stop touring because it's pretty hard for me to write on the road.

So when do you expect to put out a new Social Distortion record?
We're banking on 2016. It's funny because I have the songs in my head but then I forget about them, and a couple came to mind the other day in rehearsal. These were songs I thought might be like filler songs. I showed them to the band, and they were just like, "Dude, that song's fucking awesome, man." So that made me think, "Maybe I'm further along than I realized." So that was cool.