Mike Ness, the lead singer/guitarist of Social Distortion has been a hero of mine since I first heard the self-titled Social Distortion album my freshman year of high school. Mike sings with raw honesty about real life. His songs about love, heartbreak, addiction, and being a punk trying to find his/her place in the world could have been a soundtrack for my high school years. When I saw his solo tour this spring in Denver, each song he sung gave me a story idea and I wished I could take notes and dance at the same time. My first novel, I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE, opens with lyrics from “Don’t Take Me For Granted,” a Social Distortion song that Mike Ness wrote as tribute to Dennis Danell after he passed away in 2000. Dennis was founding member of Social D and one of Mike’s best friends and the song is about their boyhood dream of rock ‘n’ roll. I wrote I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE as a female counterpart to that song, so I was thrilled when Lauren of Shooting Stars offered me the opportunity to interview Mike Ness right after my book came out this summer. I did the interview via phone while Mike was on the road on his solo tour. As I told him, I’m a novelist not a journalist, so my questions were from the perspective of a storyteller and a fan.
Stephanie Kuehnert (SK): What are some of your favorite books or what are you reading right now?
Mike Ness (MN): Well, I’m a very horrible reader. I don’t have very many regrets, but one of my biggest regrets is not really giving school a chance. So for me to read it takes extreme discipline. So I have to find books that are kind of, I hate to say it, but easy reading like Bukowski or I just finished this book about the New York Dolls called TOO MUCH TOO SOON about their tragic career. I’m able to read various crime books, just not too many Italian names. Right now, I’m trying to get through Dr. Laura’s BAD CHILDHOOD—GOOD LIFE and I brought another one with me [on tour] called THE DEVIL’S MUSIC, which is about the history of the blues. I’m not as well read as I would like to be. It’s something I’m trying to work on.
SK: I had this really amazing teacher in college, Joe Meno, who really taught the connection between song and story. He brought a boombox to class one day, had us listen to Johnny Cash and really look at those songs as storytelling. Your music has that characteristic too it, too. So, the stories you tell in your songs, do you draw inspiration from your own life or are there books, movies, or other songs that have inspired certain songs?
MN: Mainly it’s from my own life. I like to write fictionally and non-fictionally. In the recent past, I’ve learned that I can grab inspiration from positive stuff, not just negative stuff. That’s been enlightening for me because I always want to have a positive message, so I think it’s imperative to grab inspirations from positive things that you either experience or observe. But I look at being a songwriter as being a reporter. You report what you see and what you experience.
SK: You’ve got a lot of awesome tattoos. My tattoos have stories behind them. Can you tell us about some of your tattoos and the inspiration for them?
MN: Well, I have a really nice chopped ‘50 Mercury on my stomach and underneath it it says ‘Sick Boy’ and up above it is a Christ with a halo around him and on the left side of the chest is a devil woman on the right is an angel. And it’s kind of like some of my life stories and I’m not finished yet, but it means something to me.
SK: Are there any bands that have cited Social D as an influence that make you particularly proud?
MN: We’ve become good friends with Billie Joe from Green Day and I know the guys in Offspring and they’ve mentioned Social Distortion and [so has] Rancid, but one of the most surprising [fans of Social Distortion] was Bruce Springsteen. To be acknowledged by someone that huge—he’s one of the best storytellers there are—and that was just a big deal for me. Even though we come from different styles of music. I think that if you are always looking for differences you are going to find them, but if you look for similarities you’ll find them too.
SK: When I saw you on your solo tour in Denver, you acknowledged that three-quarters of Social D was on stage with you. So what’s the different for you playing as Mike Ness or playing as Social D, aside from playing different songs?
MN: I think Social D has a little bit more of an aggressive stance. I think this shows a different side of me, a little more sensitive. What I like about this is that people are there to see the songs and not just be king of the mosh pit. [With Social D] sometimes you get people coming for the wrong reason. If you’re coming to a show to show off how tough you are why don’t just save the money and do that on the street for free and find a worthy opponent? So this is refreshing to me, but it’s harder to play songs slow than it is fast, contrary to popular belief, so it requires a bit more concentration. And I don’t think we’re as loud so it gives me a chance to really sing more. But I don’t know, I love them both equally.
SK: One of my favorite solo songs is “I’m In Love With My Car.” My boyfriend is a fan of yours as well and in love with cars, too, and he’d kill me if I didn’t ask you about yours. How many do you have, what is your favorite, and why is it so special to you?
MN: I think I have 8 or 9 and I am unable to pick a favorite because each one of them is unique in its own way. I designed them and me and my friends built them. Some of them are radical customs. Some of them are mild customs. For me building a car and designing it is like writing a song. It’s another form of self expression.
SK: Last, I have the official Shooting Stars Magazine question for you. What you would wish on a shooting star for?
MN: I wish that our country would take tips from other countries, learn from them, and maybe we can become a better country that way. The John Wayne approach isn’t working anymore.