Social Distortion: for the love of the road

Jonny “2 Bags” Wickersham speaks to Cult MTL about the sad circumstances by which he came to play guitar with Social Distortion back in 2000, and reflects on a dozen years on tour with the California punk legends.

Social Distortion, playing tomorrow night at Metropolis

When Jonny “2 Bags” Wickersham was growing up in Orange County, he wasn’t banking on a future, let alone one that involved playing guitar for Social Distortion at 45.

“When I was 17, I didn’t have any kind of a future in mind, to be honest. My life was so different,” he says. “I was living in such a manner that wouldn’t suggest I’d be here now. […] I was pretty reckless.”

It was around that time that he first met Social Distortion founders Mike Ness and Dennis Danell, though he only joined them in 2000, after Danell died of a brain aneurysm. In the interim, he played in U.S. Bombs, Youth Brigade and the Cadillac Tramps. Wickersham still reflects on the circumstances in which he became part of the team with more than a hint of sadness in his voice.

“It was a super bittersweet period. If anything felt awkward [about joining the band], it was filling Dennis’s shoes. How do I do this in a way that shows respect to Dennis?” he says from a tour stop in Toronto.

“He was a huge part of the band; he was as much the face of Social Distortion as Mike. Mike was always clearly the singer and the front guy of the band, but Dennis was his road dog. They were best friends and they started the band together. It was really intense.”

Still, he was honoured to be enlisted, playing the songs he knew and loved. Now 12 years later, and with the blessing of Danell’s family and Social Distortion’s fans, Wickersham has settled into his place onstage alongside Ness, bassist Brent Harding and David Hidalgo, Jr. on drums.

Social Distortion started up on the cusp of 1978–’79, and have released seven albums in those 34 years, starting with 1983’s Mommy’s Little Monster and capping with 2011’s Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes. Seven- or eight-year gaps came between their past three albums.

The most prolific band, they are not. They’ve previously suggested that the slimness of their discography was due to a lack of discipline. Wickersham thinks there’s a kernel of truth in there, if only because the rigours of road life and the breaks that follow leave little desire to hole up in a studio for weeks on end, writing, recording, mixing, mastering.

And so while Social Distortion have no plans to record a new album in the near future — including the long-projected acoustic album (sorry, fans) — Wickersham has been keeping busy in the studio of late. He just wrapped up an independently produced solo country/rock album at L.A.’s Redstar studio featuring Pete Thomas (the Attractions) on drums for eight of the 10 tracks, as well as Jackson Browne, David Lindley and both Social Distortion bandmate Hidalgo and Hidalgo’s father, David, Sr., of Los Lobos. They’re aiming to distribute in spring 2013.

“It was kind of a piecemeal thing; it took about a full two years from when we first started until it was mixed and mastered. It was one of those things that I worked on between tours,” Wickersham says.

During soundchecks, and sometimes even live shows, Social Distortion works out new songs, including a still unfinished Howlin’ Wolf-inspired tune. The ones that feel the best, the most natural — the ones they go back to time and time again — are the ones that often make it onto albums.

And although those albums are few and far between, it’s not uncommon to find the band in your local concert listings every couple years or so — if not to back a new album, then just for the love of the road. The built-in routine and discipline of touring resonates more strongly with the band than having to muster creativity on demand, even if it is more physically and emotionally taxing.

“That just seems to be our ethic. We’re a touring band; we’re just ‘go, go, go,’” he says. “I’ve always felt — and again, it’s nothing intentional — that not making a record every two years [ever hurt us].

“We’re lucky enough to be in a position to be on the road, and have people showing up and coming to see us,” Wickersham says. “I do try to stay aware of how fortunate we are to be able to do this for a living and call it a job. Not everybody gets that chance.” ■

Social Distortion play w/ openers Lindi Ortega and the Biters at Metropolis (59 Ste-Catherine E.) on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 9 p.m., $41.70/$44.20

Watch the gangster-inspired “Machine Gun Blues” from 2011’s Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes:

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