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Tragic Kingdom

Social Distortion’s Mike Ness leaves his grief behind.

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It’s like starting over. Two years ago when Social Distortion guitarist Dennis Danell died suddenly of a brain aneurysm, it was like Mike Ness took a bat to the gut. Danell was only 38. His death knocked Ness on his ass. He didn’t know what to do. Danell was the only guy besides Ness who had been around since the beginning. Together they’d survived two tumultuous decades that included everything from a parade of rhythm sections to the death of L.A. punk to Ness’ own battle with heroin. Without Danell, things didn’t seem right. It just didn’t feel like Social D anymore. Ness even began to question whether to keep the band together.


“I lost more than a guitar player,” the frontman confesses. “I lost a childhood friend. I had to do a lot of soul-searching. For a while, I didn’t know if I could keep the band together. But we started this band together in a garage 24 years ago, and I don’t think he’d want me to throw in the towel.”


Continuing on isn’t always the easiest thing to do, though. Sure, Ness went about the business of rebuilding Social D, bringing in new guitarist Jonny “2 Bags” Wickersham and drummer Charlie Quintana at the end of 2000. There were intense practice sessions to get everything in order. The group even performed some gigs here and there, fine-tuning things in front of a crowd.


But it was all just a coping mechanism: Shove it way down and bury yourself in the kind of stuff you don’t have to confront. That didn’t even do it, though. Ness’ emotions wouldn’t let him hide. There were moments when little memories and realizations would pop up unannounced, usually when Ness and the band were on stage. “When you’re playing, you’re working. But every now and then I’d forget we were playing a show and I’d realize what I was saying and why. It would be really painful,” Ness says. “I’d have to quickly regroup, try to not let things overpower me. I’m not one to suppress anything, but sometimes that’s what you have to do just to get through the song.”


Those memories also made it difficult for Ness to write new songs. Sure, there was some material floating around from before Danell’s death, enough to satiate the fans’ appetite during the shows. But trying to work out his grief with his guitar proved too much for Ness. “I just couldn’t bring myself to do it for a while. If I wasn’t fully dedicated to it, I didn’t feel it would be right,” Ness says.


And the reason Ness couldn’t focus was because he’d—maybe purposefully—found himself the perfect distraction. He had bought an aging California villa, “a real fixer-upper,” as he puts it, even though he didn’t know how to do much of it. Even so, for months Ness took refuge remodeling and refitting projects. He bought a hammer, hired some subcontractors and went to work, transforming the home back to its original state. “It’s like writing a song, really,” Ness says. “It’s very creative and painstaking, if you get the guys to show up. But I really enjoyed it. It helped me figure out some things and get my personal life in order.”


But for someone like Ness—a gruff, caustic and vulnerable showman who’ll punch his way through your rib cage to pull at your heartstrings—you can only hide for so long. You have to bleed on your guitar. You have to pump out songs that are more cathartic than a year’s worth of shrink sessions. You have to be in front of people. You have to feel the crowd. So, new songs are being written. The band has booked its first real tour in years. There’s even talk of a record, the first studio disc since 1996’s White Light, White Heat, White Trash, though Ness isn’t in any hurry.


“Realistically, if we get two months in the studio by fall it will maybe be out by next spring,” Ness admits. “The new band and the new dynamic are great now. Everything is working. It wasn’t a year and a half ago. If we would’ve tried to do an album then, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. It’s still hard sometimes now. I use the experiences of my life in my songs, and losing Dennis, I can’t ignore that. That’ll find its way into some songs, and that makes it difficult. But it’s time now and I’m ready.”

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