Social Distortion’s Jonny Wickersham on His Punk Rock Evolution
They Weren't Born to Follow
Social Distortion, commonly referred to simply as “Social D,” is often credited with helping spark the American punk rock movement. Following the likes of Brit punk greats The Clash and East Coast natives the Ramones, Social Distortion brought a new Southern California flavor to the genre. And for almost 30 years now, lead singer Mike Ness has been manning the helm of his now legendary punk band. While many might carry some preconceived notions about the definition of punk-the words loud, snotty, abrasive, and raw come to mind-Social D defies the stereotype by penning a repertoire of songs infused with raw energy and littered with melodic tunes. Their catalog showcases a wide array of inspirations, ranging from blues and country greats like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams to the band’s more obvious punk predecessors. But whichever genre people decide to use in describing Social D, the band has a definitively distinct sound that truly is all their own.
The band’s tale is peppered with stories of tragedy, personal strife, struggles with addiction, and numerous lineup changes, yet marked by musical and personal growth and evolution that serve as the underlying theme in many of their songs.
Ness formed the band in 1979 and recruited Dennis Danell, a classmate and fellow punk fan, as his bassist, despite the fact that Danell had no tangible training or experience with the instrument. The duo persevered through shared drug dependencies, along with Ness’s short stint in jail; the turbulence caused numerous lineup changes in the band, and Danell eventually ended up on guitar. In 1981, Social Distortion released their first single, and by 1983, the band had finished their debut album, Mommy’s Little Monster, which helped to secure their place on the national punk rock map. Another milestone occurred in 1988 with the release of Prison Bound, a rollicking gem of an album that first highlighted the band’s wide range of influences. Their self-titled album followed in 1990, simultaneously marking Social D’s first major-label release. Classic tunes like “Story of My Life” and their cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” further propelled the success of the band, earning them their first gold record. By 1997, Social Distortion had co-headlined a tour with the Ramones, become a headliner for the Vans Warped Tour, and released another well-received album (1996’s White Light White Trash White Heat). In 2000, tragedy struck when Danell died suddenly of heart failure. Jonny “2 Bags” Wickersham, formerly of the Cadillac Tramps, Youth Brigade, and U.S. Bombs-who had also filled in for Danell over the years-stepped up as a temporary guitarist when the band held a memorial concert for Danell and his family. Shortly thereafter, Wickersham’s aptitude and impressive resume helped him gain a permanent spot on Social D’s roster.
I had the chance to talk to Wickersham before he and the band embarked on a string of sold-out shows in L.A. and Orange County. Remarkably humble, the talented Wickersham has had the opportunity to play for bands that represent a substantial piece of the history and evolution of punk music. And while both Social Distortion and Youth Brigade have been at the forefront of the California punk scene since its infancy, it’s obvious in conversation that Wickersham doesn’t quite see it that way. When I mentioned this, Wickersham replied with a shy laugh and indicated that he had really just been in the right place at the right time. Needless to say, having been a loyal Social Distortion fan for as long as I can remember, I found Wickersham’s candor incredibly refreshing-proving that he was one guitar icon who refused to embody the attitude of the stereotypical rock star.
So Jonny, when did you start playing guitar? When you learned, did you know that you wanted to be in a punk band? My dad showed me a few chords on the guitar when I was 12, and I guess I didn’t really take it that seriously until I joined the Cadillac Tramps. I liked punk, but I joined the Cadillac Tramps because a friend asked me to join. It just kind of happened.
Obviously it wasn’t just sheer luck that got you there-or got you where you are now. You have been recruited into some well-known bands that people of my generation literally grew up listening to. [laughs] Yeah, I guess.
You play a pretty diverse collection of songs that seem to be inspired from equally diverse genres of music. Was that a challenge, or did it match some of your own personal musical influences? There’s not much I won’t listen to. I like old country and Delta blues, punk, roots music-pretty much anything. I love the Beatles, and I’m a huge Rolling Stones fan.
You joined Social Distortion in 2000, following the untimely death of Dennis Danell. I’m sure it was a mixed bag of emotions for you. Can you tell me a bit about that? Dennis was part of the band since it started. There’s so much history there that just can’t be replaced. I used to fill in on occasion for Dennis at shows when he had other commitments, so to make myself more at ease, I tell myself that I’m just doing more of a long-term fill-in.
Other than a common love for Social Distortion, what is it that the current lineup shares? What does each of you respectively bring to the table? We’re all open to different kinds of music, so on that level we are able to experiment and work together. We all have the same vision of the band having its own sound, not necessarily trying to be part of one specific genre. But on another level, we have all been through our own struggles, so we’ve brought our personal gains and experiences to the band. It’s pretty much a chemistry thing, though, and that can’t be specifically defined or explained-it’s the dynamic of the band that is some kind of secret ingredient.
You co-wrote “Angel’s Wings” with Mike Ness for Social D’s 2004 album, Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll. What was the creative process like? It’s not so much of a specific process. I had some ideas for the song, and brought them to Mike. He liked them, and we worked together on making it work.
There are rumors of a new Social Distortion album-can you confirm them? Well, of course we’d like to.
Punk legends Social Distortion stop by the Majestic Ventura Theater for a one-night-only show with Hollywood’s The Chelsea Smiles on Wednesday, January 9. Visit venturatheater.net for details.