Story of My Life: Mike Ness Talks 25 Years of ‘Social Distortion’
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.