Dennis Danell, the guitarist who joined veteran Orange County punk band Social Distortion in 1979 not because of his musical ability but because front man Mike Ness wanted a friend at his side, died Tuesday, apparently of a brain aneurysm, band manager Jim Guerinot said. He was 38.
"He was as healthy as a horse--he surfed or ran every day and was very much a family guy," Guerinot said. Danell collapsed in the driveway of his Newport Beach home while in the midst of moving with his wife and two young children to a new home in that city, he said. "With Social Distortion's history, I don't want people starting any rumors."
"I am saddened beyond any possible form of expression," Ness said Tuesday in a statement. "Dennis and I have been friends since boyhood, starting Social Distortion while we were in high school. My deepest regrets to his family."
Guerinot said Ness and Social Distortion bassist John Maurer were with Danell's family at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, where he had been taken after a neighbor called paramedics. Emergency-room personnel tried to revive him for about 45 minutes, Hoag spokeswoman Debra Legan said. The body was released to the coroner to determine the cause of death, she said.
It was Danell who stuck by Ness through years of heroin addiction and helped him off a path on which Ness seemed destined to wind up dead or in prison.
"He was my best friend," Ness told The Times in 1989. "I just realized that I was going to have to have friends in the band--it couldn't just be musicians."
Ness and Danell turned Social Distortion into one of the longest-running and most respected bands on the volatile Southland punk-rock scene. It is often cited as an important influence by multimillion-selling '90s O.C. punk group the Offspring and numerous others.
Guitarist and songwriter Frank Agnew, younger brother of Social Distortion founding member Rikk Agnew, had known Danell since 1978 and said he provided a sunny counterpart to Ness' dark intensity.
"As I sit here thinking about him, I can't remember him ever being down--he was always smiling," Agnew said Tuesday. "Mike was the serious brooder, Dennis was the comic relief. Actually they made a great combo."
Danell and Ness were almost inseparable since their days at Troy High School in Fullerton, although they had known each other since elementary school.
At Troy, Ness said in a 1989 interview with The Times, "we started hanging out together and he started taking me to [punk-rock] gigs in Hollywood. We were just acquaintances, but we got real close.
"We were the only two punk rockers in the whole school," Ness said. "We had friends who would wear leather jackets and go with us, but because of their parents or peer pressure, they wouldn't get punk haircuts. We took beatings so kids can dress the way they dress today."
Two original members of Social Distortion--Rikk Agnew and Casey Royer, who went on to form another key O.C. punk group, the Adolescents--left when Ness insisted on bringing Danell into the group even though he didn't play an instrument at the time.
While Danell "was never a [hotshot guitarist like] Stevie Ray Vaughan," Frank Agnew said, "he always played nice solid rhythm behind Mike and set a nice foundation for Mike to do his stuff over the top of it. He was one of those perfect, loyal rhythm guitar player types--you could always count on him."
Ness put Social Distortion on hold last year while he recorded two solo albums and toured on his own for the first time since he started the group in 1978. The group was planning to come together again this year for a new studio album.
"I love what I do with Social Distortion. But I also love this [solo] stuff," Ness told The Times in November. "I really feel there's a balance creatively . . . knowing that from here on out I can do [both]. It's really the best of both worlds."
Danell and Maurer formed the band Fuel in 1994 to give them a musical outlet while Ness worked on material for a Social Distortion album.
During the last two years while Ness was pursuing solo activities, Danell got a real estate license and was doing "just phenomenal," Maurer said Tuesday.
"We both realized at the age we're at, we'd have to buckle down and get something going on our own," he said, "because Social Distortion could take five years between albums."
Maurer and Danell also had worked recording and producing local bands at the Casbah recording studio in Fullerton, which the band bought after the accidental death in 1993 of Casbah founder Chaz Ramirez, a longtime friend of the band's.
While Ness wrote the bulk of Social Distortion's material, Danell collaborated with him periodically and co-wrote a handful of songs on the group's 1988 "Prison Bound" album.
As to how Danell's death will affect Social Distortion's future, Maurer said "that's a decision only time's going to be able to tell. It's going to be rough."
No funeral arrangements or services had been planned as of Tuesday, Guerinot said. Danell is survived by his wife, Christie; his mother, Dee; a 3-year-old son and 6-month-old daughter; three brothers; and one sister.
Times staff writer Mike Boehm contributed to this report.