Punk & Hardcore

Social Distortion's Mike Ness Hit Rock Bottom Before Reaching the Top

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While the band's first single and video from the LP was the full-throttle "Machine Gun Blues"; a popular animated black-and-white video for "Gimme the Sweet Low Down" came a few years after the album's release. The video, created by Olya & Vera Ishchuk, known as "The Mad Twins" from the Ukraine, tells the life story of Ness's adolescent struggles and the musical influences that lifted him up.

"What's funny about that is the artists who did that, they just did that on their own. No direction, I really think that they found some deep dual meaning in there and very perceptive. I thought it was fabulous. I was so blown away by that."

Despite being made thousands of miles away, the animated video actually was submitted by the Ishchuk twins and won the award for Best Animation at last year's Arizona Underground Film Festival in 2014.

"On Hard Times, I had to challenge myself," explains Ness. "I felt if I had to be careful and if I made this record too autobiographically that I was going to get pigeon-holed into that (style), and I didn't want that. So, I just experimented around with some character writing and "Sweet and Low Down" is the perfect example. The minute I removed myself from it I had options. "

The Story of My Life is the autobiography Ness has toiled over in recent years, writing how he and the band have persevered, survived and become a veteran rock 'n' roll mainstay.

The band began in Fullerton, California, in 1978, with Ness recruiting guitarist Dennis Danell, who became the only constant band mate in the line-up for nearly two decades. Social Distortion blazed forth with raw locomotive guitar and rhythm section inspired by the likes of the The Clash, Sex Pistols and the Rolling Stones. It cut its recording teeth on its first single "Mainline/Playpen" on pioneering punk label Posh Boy in 1981. It would be legendary patron of the punk arts and DJ Rodney Bingenheimer who would give early and steady airplay for the young band on his infamous KROQ-FM show.

The band's first venture beyond the West Coast tour circuit came in 1982 and was documented in the now infamous Another State of Mind video, but was not released until 1984 with Ness playing with guitarist Dennis Danell, bassist Brent Liles and drummer Derek O'Brien.

The film chronicled the excitement of hitting the US and International road, and the despair and initial breakdown of Social Distortion and fellow touring band Youth Brigade.

From that experience came Social Distortion's first album Mommy's Little Monster with title song and "Another State of Mind" on the band's own 13th Floor Records label in 1983. Due to the familiarity gained from the initial tour, Mommy's Little Monster put Social D on the map.

"Believe it or not, I didn't think we were going to live this long, but if we did I wanted to be successful at this," he confesses about the humble first days which were filled with Ness being strung out on heroine. "It wasn't a hobby for me. When I started this band there was ninety-percent of society was telling us we couldn't do it. I had to fight hard and I had something to prove, and with a brutal determination, I wasn't going to give up."

But before he could make a true impact, the drugs took over and prison time for Ness, and a band hiatus put the aspirations on hold.

"I attributed hitting bottom a lot to being young; when I hit rock bottom I was 23. And, I attribute hitting bottom so young because of a painful childhood. So, to live a painful life as an adult didn't make sense to me. I had already been through alcoholism and divorce and foster homes and welfare workers, and all of that as a kid. I didn't want to go through all of that as an adult."

Ness explains in retrospect that once he did clean up, he was nearly willing to give up music for good because for him the lifestyle of a young punk musician life consisted of alcohol, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.

"That almost killed me," he says openly. "I put it on hold [the music and band]. I learned a trade, I got sober, having been at the bottom of the barrel and going through detox.

"I realized that I had all of this energy that went into drinking and using and trying to get more. Now, I had all that energy to put into the music that I loved, and so by the fourth or fifth year of painting, I got us some airtime that led to us getting signed to a major label. I got to quit my day job, and then I really had a lot of energy to put into music."

After a 1986 rejoining of the band, Ness and company went about the business of putting together what would be the next release, aptly titled Prison Bound in 1988. Somewhat of a departure from the first LP, the second release on Restless Records, saw Ness's country Johnny Cash influences come through in cathartic fashion..

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Mark C. Horn
Contact: Mark C. Horn