Social Distortion Ages Gracefully
Punk rock, perhaps more than any other musical style in recent times, has evolved into a multi-pronged and tough-to-define assault. What began as a vehicle for the principles of incendiary, raging youth has become, in many cases, an outlet for hoodie-wearing adolescents who have just graduated from the Tiger Beat pop of their previous years.
But, to hear Social Distortion guitar player Jonny "Two Bags" Wickersham tell it, punk rock has always been more versatile than people have noticed.
"I've never been able to define punk," Wickersham says. "Sure, when I was young, I was a punk-rock kid. I wore the boots and the homemade Black Flag shirt, but I was a music lover, first. I mean, look at L.A.—you had bands like the Circle Jerks, then Christian Death, and even X. It was impossible to define punk, even back then."
Wickersham, who toiled in myriad punk bands that blended rockabilly roots into their sound before he landed in Social D, sees himself more as a student of roots music in general than he does an agent of one specific movement or style.
"Anyone who is really interested in punk is also someone who is likely interested in the roots of rock 'n' roll," he says. "Of course, there's also the obvious, shared sense of rebellion that both styles are about. I mean, before punk, Led Zeppelin was my favorite band in elementary school. So when I heard Howlin' Wolf play the original version of 'Killing Floor,' I realized that was 'The Lemon Song,' and I was blown away."
For 10 years, Wickersham has been rocking in the place of a dearly departed friend: The sudden passing of Social Distortion's original guitarist and Mike Ness' confidante, Dennis Danell, opened up a spot in the band that Wickersham had been admiring for years. Since accepting the role of lead guitar player in the legendary southern California punk act, Wickersham has undeniably created his own identity within the band. But he's done so with a great deal of caution and perspective regarding the history of his current gig.
"When Dennis died, Mike asked me to fill his shoes," Wickersham explains. "They were one of my favorite bands, and even friends of mine, but I felt like it wasn't my gig when I joined. I thought, 'Who am I to come in and do this?' and I felt like an impostor, really. When I would see the band play in the past, it was clear that it was Mike and Dennis' band."
Over the course of his past decade in the band, though, Wickersham hasn't simply settled for playing back-catalog tunes in the way that his predecessor shredded each blistering note and then calling it a night. The group's 2004 release, Sex Love & Rock and Roll, saw Wickersham co-write several of the tunes with Ness, including the tenderly rocking "Angel's Wings," perhaps the most un-Social D song in the band's frequently dark canon. For Wickersham, who has been instrumental in the creation of the band's upcoming studio album, more mature themes and added vulnerability are just a part of keeping it real.
"The direction for the last album just developed," Wickersham says. "Mike is just an honest songwriter, and he won't posture and act like he's still an angry kid. Social D is an emotional band far more than it's a political one, and Mike writes about what he's feeling and dealing with now."
For Social Distortion, honesty comes across as remarkably as denial often does in the work of some other bands. And Wickersham's certain that there isn't anything to cover up in regards to the passing of time.
"I see bands that are trying to hold on to what they were doing 10 or 15 years ago," he says. "You can't hide the obvious from everyone. I mean, it's obvious we're getting older, and I'm glad I'm in a band that refuses to hide it."
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