The punk-rock wake for Social Distortion guitarist Dennis Danell on Saturday in Irvine predictably found a lot of bands making a lot of noise for a lot of mosh-ready fans. Yet it was the singing of one man with one acoustic guitar that rang loudest of all.
That was Social D front man Mike Ness, sharing his loss as well as celebrating the life of his friend and right-hand man who died in February apparently of a brain aneurysm. Danell left a wife, a young son and daughter, who will get the proceeds from Saturday’s six-hour, nine-band benefit at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater.
The Offspring, X, Pennywise and T.S.O.L. combined to make the show a typically energetic, often anarchic, only fleetingly sorrowful meeting of the punk generations. As X’s Exene Cervenka put it as she left the stage, “I’m happy and sad to be here.”
After those sets, Ness started his musical eulogy to Danell alone, with a sparse but wrenching performance of “When the Angels Sing,” written several years ago after his grandmother died.
With more emotional power than all the high-wattage thrashing that preceded him, Ness, who has credited Danell with saving his life during his dark years of heroin addiction, sang straight from the heart and to the heart about inconsolable loss in “Angels.” He backed it up with an equally gripping solo acoustic “Ball and Chain,” spitting out its lyrics: “Take away this ball and chain / I’m lonely and I’m tired / And I can’t take any more pain.”
The other surviving band members joined Ness for an hour of Social D music, using volume, power and speed as catharsis. Cadillac Tramps guitarist Johnny Wickersham, who had subbed for Danell when the birth of his son three years ago caused him to miss some shows, handled Danell’s sheeting rhythm guitar parts for the evening. He may remain in the band, which Ness said recently he plans to continue in Danell’s memory.
They closed with their now-standard version of the Johnny Cash hit “Ring of Fire,” which gave a fitting pyre-like finale to this musical funeral service.
Great Names of Punk Put Their Hearts Into It
The Offspring was the biggest draw on the bill and the band that gave Orange County punk a national profile after being formed by a bunch of kids just trying to emulate their heroes in Social Distortion and T.S.O.L.
In “Smash,” Offspring lead singer Bryan “Dexter” Holland sang “Smash is the way you feel all alone/Like an outcast you’re out on your own,” a summation and lionization of the alienation that, ironically, is the foundation of collective punk culture.
The Offspring’s set not only carried forth the band members’ fondness for Danell, but celebrated the rise of punk from outlaw status to mainstream popularity in a set that ran from the early ultra-violent “Beheaded” through such breakthrough hits as “Come Out and Play” and the whimsical “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy).”
X, meanwhile, provided another reminder of why it was such a treasure on the L.A. punk scene two decades ago. Cervenka, in occasion-appropriate black dress and leggings, her hair spiked in its former punk glory and dyed jolting hues of yellow and orange, again sang in jarring harmonies with bassist John Doe. D.J. Bonebrake slammed the drums as if going down with the Titanic while guitarist Billy Zoom stood and played in splendor, surveying the proceedings with amused approval like the wizened elder statesmen of punk he is.
Another punk elder seemingly enjoying himself was T.S.O.L. lead singer Jack Grisham, who prowled the stage in front of bassist Mike Roche and guitarist Ron Emory, two of his original bandmates. In the reconstituted T.S.O.L of recent years, Danny Westman has replaced original drummer Todd Barnes, who died in December, also of a brain aneurysm. Barnes undoubtedly was among those Grisham had in mind when he told the crowd, “While we’re remembering Dennis today, let’s also remember all the punks that died who didn’t get a benefit concert.”
As if to underscore that even old punks aren’t in danger of turning sentimental in any circumstance, T.S.O.L. closed with one of its signature tunes whose title is unprintable in a family newspaper, but which promotes sustaining, shall we say, close relations with the dearly departed.
The unspoken message of the evening from the musicians was that the best way to honor Danell’s memory was to serve up the music he played and loved full throttle.
And how do punk fans express their loss over the death of an admired practitioner of music they love?
Apparently the same way they express their commitment to extracting every morsel of passion out of each precious moment of sweet life and, for that matter, the same way they express joy over clean socks out of the dryer: By forming a mosh pit, slamming into one another, crowd surfing, stage diving and hurling cups of beer or water, plastic light sticks, sneakers, shirts and anything not nailed down at their peers and at the nearest elevated surface.
In fact, they didn’t stop at what wasn’t nailed down. During Pennywise’s early performance and again while the Offspring and Social D were playing at full bore, fans ripped out some of the permanent seats immediately in front of the stage.
Pennywise guitarist Fletcher Dragge, who had admonished security staffers for trying to keep fans in assigned seats, halted the chair-feeding frenzy temporarily by reminding fans it was a benefit and that any damages might cut into the money going to Danell’s widow and children. Dragge then promised to pay for the spontaneous redecorating committed by Pennywise fans.
Despite additional chair-ripping later and cuts and bruises to many of the pit denizens, an Irvine police spokesman said no “significant” problems or injuries were reported from the show.
A Microcosm of Punk’s Evolution
A two-stage setup and alternating performances times allowed hustling fans to catch all the music and, by design or happy coincidence, created a microcosm of Southern California punk’s evolution over the last 2 1/2 decades.
In terms of its place in O.C. punk history, Fullerton’s Agent Orange would have deserved a spot on the main stage along with T.S.O.L. and Social Distortion, but lead singer and songwriter Mike Palm, the trio’s only original member, said he was happy playing the side stage.
The threesome ripped through a handful of its surf-drenched melodic punk as several dozen fans moshed in the vortex below them. The musical highlight of the side stage lineup, however, came from Strung Gurus, a side project started by Danell and O.C. punk and alt-rock veteran Mike Knott, formerly of Aunt Bettys.
The songs, all of which Knott said he wrote with Danell, were tuneful, punk informed alt-rock that could provide another lasting legacy for Danell if Knott and Strung Gurus can get them recorded and released.
The grass-roots intimacy of the small side stage neatly complemented the grand-scale main-stage performances by punk’s big guns in front of 16,000 screaming fans--both sights that would have heartened a punk-war veteran like Danell.
Randy Lewis can be reached at (714) 966-5821 or by e-mail at email@example.com.