When Brad Nowell, leader of Sublime, OD'd on heroin in 1996, it was assumed that it was all over for the group. But someone forgot to tell the fans, who scooped up nearly 2.5 million copies of the group's last album, making them the success story of 1997.
One month after Sublime singer Bradley Nowell, 28, overdosed on heroin in 1996 in a San Francisco motel room, producer Michael "Miguel" Happoldt was still in shock. "Fuck ... it's just all this shit we were working towards ..." said Happoldt, one of Nowell's best friends, as he sat in the living room of his small apartment in the Belmont area of Long Beach, Calif. Old, Xeroxed Sublime flyers along with Minutemen posters, were tacked to the walls; there were crates of records by everyone from Neil Young to old-school ska artists heaped alongside a cheap Yamaha acoustic guitar.
Just up a couple of stairs was the roof where just a few months back, Sublime -- drummer Bud Gaugh and bassist Eric Wilson, along with Nowell -- and Nowell's beloved Dalmatian, Lou Dog, goofed for photos in a baby pool.
"Ruined it," said Happoldt, who was wearing baggy torn denim shorts and an old T-shirt, and whose head was shaved. "Man, heroin just ruined Brad's life. It's pretty fuckin' obvious."
The musician lighted a smoke. "It started with the Speed," he said, trying to make sense of what happened to his friend. "You know, Brad went through his phase growing up, trying coke and Speed and all that shit. When I met him, he was totally anti-drug. You know what I mean. He wouldn't even hang out with chicks that were packin' it. He was 'Fuck that. On to the next one,' and shit.
"But he lived right down this street from our studio," Happoldt continued. "There's nothing down here except fuckin' drugs. So then he started getting back into Speed because it's such an epidemic you know, so widespread. Then, he ended up selling the Speed, and [dealers] they're all junkies, you know, that shit goes hand-in-hand. They get addicted to Speed, and they get addicted to heroin too because it's just a come down or whatever. Once you shoot yourself full of holes, you might as well fuckin' do whatever you like. So it was one of those things that kind-of crept up on him, and the next thing you know, he had a habit. "
Happoldt was silent. There was nothing more for him to say about that. Once Nowell had "a habit," it was only a matter of time. When the band that meant the most to him, the band he produced and collaborated with, blasted into a million pieces, Happoldt was going to have to deal with his own trip, and what would lie ahead for him.
Shortly, two of Happoldt's musician friends from The Ziggens who record for Skunk records, the indie label started by Sublime in the early '90s, were due to arrive. Before they did, though, Happoldt, offered a grim assessment of Sublime's future, which at the time could have been summed up as "no future."
"Without Brad," Happoldt said, "Sublime is over."
Two million, four-hundred thousand. That's how many copies of Sublime, the album released after Nowell's death, have sold. And the album is still selling, with "What I Got," "Wrong Way," "Santeria" and "Doin' Time" seeming to be fixtures on Modern Rock radio.
Somehow, without touring, without doing interviews, signed to a label not known for having success with new alternative artists, and without Brad, Sublime became one of the biggest bands of 1997.
Sublime now have a place in rock history. They are the band that popularized "skacore," the punk-ska-pop fusion that is currently all over Modern Rock radio. And though the band itself doesn't exist anymore, you'll be hearing their music on the radio for the foreseeable future. A new album of B-sides and unreleased material, Secondhand Smoke, is just out, and, over the course of the next few years, a Bradley Nowell solo album, a greatest hits package and a live album will be released.
Secondhand Smoke further advances the myth of Sublime by presenting some of their best songs in radically re-worked and previously unavailable versions. "Doin' Time" is presented as the "Uptown Dub" version produced by Butthole Surfer guitarist Paul Leary, with extra boogie-woogie piano and saxophone, transforming the track from a stoned lope to a jazzy, echo-drenched dub jam. Another mix of that song, the "Eerie Splendor Remix," features vocals from dancehall reggae star Mad Lion.
"Get Out" is remixed with elements from The Minutemen's "It's Expected I'm Gone" and a sample of Betty Wright's "Clean Up Woman," as well as some Jerky Boys interference. The album also includes a Leary mix of "April 29th, 1992" and several never-before- officially-released archival songs, including 1988's old school ska "Romeo," acoustic ballad "New Realization" from 1987, and a remastered version of "Saw Red," featuring No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani, from Robbin' the Hood.
The surviving members of Sublime, Gaugh and Wilson, are trying to get on with their lives. Both have been busy playing in various side-project bands. Earlier this year, MCA passed on a trashy, rude album by Gaugh and Wilson's side project, the Juice Bros. Gaugh has been playing with the acoustic-punk Friends of Jesus, while Wilson sits in with the swing/surf/drag-racing revivalists in Del Noah and the Mt. Ararat Finks as well as the trash-punk Corn Doggie Dog and the 1/2 lb. Both musicians are also part-time participants in the nine-piece Sublime tribute band, Long Beach Dub All-Stars.
But overshadowing everything else that the ex-Sublime rhythm section are currently involved with is Sublime itself.
In a year that saw such sugar-coated pop confections as Hanson and the Spice Girls sell millions of albums, this band that no longer exists was one of the biggest success stories. Good, funky music from three SoCal heschers, music that until 1996 was about as far from radio-friendly as you could get. Gaugh, who said he'd never even heard, much less played reggae music before he met Nowell, admitted that he's "surprised" that Sublime is doing as well as it has without a band backing it up.
The surviving members of Sublime, Gaugh and Wilson, are trying to get on with their lives. "I thinks it's just timeless, though,"Gaugh said. "It speaks for itself."
"Brad was a tortured genius," said Happoldt, just a month after Nowell OD'd on May 25, 1996, in a room at the Ocean View Motel in San Francisco following a night of heavy partying, less than two weeks after marrying his long-time sweetheart, Troy. "He had everything in the world that meant anything to him mastered -- literally. Finance, relationships, music, business -- and he was bi-lingual. But he had a problem with heroin. It's such an all-encompassing drug."
Despite his addiction, Nowell managed to lead his band through the recording of three full- length albums that redefined street-punk in the '90s. Officially formed in 1988 in Long Beach, Calif., an affluent seaside retirement community on the south tip of Los Angeles also known for its rampant drug and gang problems, the trio fused a buzzed mix of reggae, dancehall, rock, ska, dub and hip-hop in their own shambling, D.I.Y. fashion, setting the stage for the cross-over appeal of bands such as Reel Big Fish, Buck-O-Nine, Smashmouth and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, the latter of which had been toiling nearly as long as Sublime.
Sublime released their debut album, the schizophrenic 40 Oz. to Freedom, on Skunk records, the label that the band formed in 1992 specifically to release that album. They followed up with the equally wide-ranging Robbin' the Hood, their last home-recorded, sell-it-out-of-the-trunk-at-shows effort.
If things had proceeded as usual, 40 Oz. to Freedom would have passed into that black hole where cool albums by unsuccessful groups vanish.
But there was a secret weapon on that album: An infectious, off-beat song called "Date Rape" that found the trio taking a rock-hard anti-date rape stance that won over alternakids everywhere.
"Date Rape" chronicles a goon who rapes a woman he picks up in a bar. As the story unfolds, the woman presses charges, the goon is convicted and sentenced to prison, and the song happily ends as the goon is butt-fucked by his cellmate.
Somehow, this song was picked up by the influential L.A. alternative station KROQ (106.7 FM), and became something of a hit in '95. "Date Rape" brought Sublime to the attention of the MCA-records distributed Gasoline Alley imprint later that year. They would soon go into the studio with veteran producer David Kahne (Soul Coughing, Bangles, Fishbone) and the Butthole Surfers' guitarist, Paul Leary, to record what would become Nowell's swan song. The result, Sublime, was a more polished, radio-friendly album of ska-punk tunes released two months after Nowell's death, that continues to spin off singles for the now- defunct group. "We're not trying to write rock, we're not trying to write reggae," Nowell said before his death. "We're trying to write a good song, however it comes out."
"When I got the Sublime material, I knew it would be a major breakthrough record for the band," said Paul Orescan, vice president of marketing at MCA. "I could hear it in the songs. This was a record with lots of great songs. You knew it would be a milestone for them." Sublime was the biggest rock album released by MCA in 1997.
And no doubt due in part to the sometimes dicey lyrical content of that album's biggest hits, "What I Got," a bright tale of the power of love to overcome life's darker drug-and- mayhem-fueled moments and "Wrong Way," about a pre-teen prostitute, Sublime has sold continuously since its July 30, 1996 release. And the group's new fans also queued up for copies of 40 Oz., (recorded for just $1,000), which has sold nearly 800,000 copies to date, and Robbin, with sales of over 215,000, according to SoundScan.
"Myself and a select few who were close to the project, who lived it, felt it was music that had sub-cultural significance beyond just pop music," said John Phillips, the band's 27- year-old former A&R representative/unofficial manager. "Something in my mind told me, no question, that they would be the big band of the decade."
Phillips still has trouble putting his finger on what exactly it was that gave him the gut feeling that Sublime would be able to reach the level they have. But, like the band members themselves, he just knew. Without the ability to tour, certainly the biggest boon to the Sublime success story was blanket radio play.
"We didn't even start working on the album until four months before it was released," said drummer Gaugh, 30. "But the sound we got on the album is the closest we'd come to doing what we do live, which was the sound we'd been shooting for all along. When [bassist] Eric [Wilson] and I finished the bass and drum tracks, we were stoked on that. We thought it would be big, we felt really good."
Without the ability to tour, certainly the biggest boon to the Sublime success story was blanket radio play, something San Francisco station Live 105 (105.3 FM) assistant program director Roland West said was a given. "In our case, we had [former co-manager] Blaine [Kaplan] from Skunk come in two months before the record came out," said West. "And he started playing us some tapes, and when I first heard 'What I Got,' I thought it was a riff on [the Beatles'] 'Lady Madonna.' Neither of us had any idea how big it would be," West admitted. "When we started playing it, the response was pretty instantaneous."
Sublime got its start in 1986 in the Long Beach punk scene. It was there that Wilson and Gaugh, friends since fifth grade who were playing in the trashy Juice Bros., met Nowell, who was in a punk band called Second Sight. Soon Wilson and Nowell were jamming on a mix of ska and English punk tunes.
Once Nowell graduated from high school, he left the comfort of Long Beach for the University of California at Santa Cruz to study finance, coming back for Christmas break in 1986, during which the trio recorded their first home demos. By 1989, the band had recorded studio demos, including "BIN," "Ball and Chain," "Don't Push" and "Romeo, " the latter two appearing for the first time on the recently released B-sides collection, Secondhand Smoke. They spent their own money, in typical D.I.Y. style, to release a crudely recorded home-tape, Jah Won't Pay The Bills. "Most of what you hear [on a Sublime recording] is three or four guys in the studio screwing around," Nowell said during an interview, filmed by a friend, that appears in a 24-minute Sublime documentary that has had limited screenings at punk gigs during the past year.
Building on the good local buzz they'd created with their backyard gigs and high-energy club sets, the band started Skunk in 1992 and released 40 Oz.. Happoldt has said that he and Nowell pawned the band's equipment and used the money to found Skunk. "[It was] so that I could have a business card and so we could say 'Skunk recording artists Sublime,' " he told a reporter.
40 Oz. is rife with samples and interpolations of everyone from the Minutemen to Eazy E, Public Enemy, Kurtis Blow, the Grateful Dead and the cult classic film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. A close listen to 40 Oz. shows not only the breadth of Sublime's music and their uncanny ability to blend genres, but also the group's intuitive pop sensitivity.
The more scattered follow-up, Robbin' the Hood, was, by all accounts, recorded during a difficult time for Nowell, when his drug use was escalating, resulting in a less refined, more slap-dash collection of acoustic reggae and thrashy punk numbers interspersed with rambling true-crime audio collages. Although five of the tracks were paid for by Epitaph Records boss Brett Gurewitz, the punk label later passed on signing the band.
Then, out of the blue, more than two years after its release, "Date Rape," inspired by a scene Nowell witnessed in which a drunken frat boy stumbled into a party bragging about "bagging a chick who was passed out," was picked up by KROQ. "In January of 1995, 'Date Rape' happened on its own," explains ex-manager Phillips, who met the band in 1993 and was soon working with them.
"Brad and Miguel had assembled a radio CD, their first-ever college radio mailing for Sublime," continued Phillips. "They put that song, plus a secret track version on it and, ironically, those ended up being first singles off the first album. It just happened organically, which was how they wanted things to happen."
Radio veteran Roland West of San Francisco's Live 105 said he wasn't alone in thinking that the band had already had their shining moment with "Date Rape," which many radio programmers considered simply a one-shot novelty hit. "Many of us thought they were a one-hit wonder with that song," said West. "But 'What I Got' not only proved their longevity, it was just the first from a record chock-full of these nuggets."
West then mentioned "Smoke Two Joints" as the latest hit from the album. Ironically, that song comes from 40 Oz., and when corrected, West gamely laughed and said, "We play so much Sublime here it all becomes a blur sometimes."
The band was soon offered the Gasoline Alley deal, which they quickly accepted. "We were paying our bills before," said drummer Gaugh. "It was hard times, but when we signed the contract we needed money to go out and tour. Every time we went out on tour we'd run out of money half-way through. We'd have to steal loaves of bread to get food, that kind of thing. We definitely signed for the money."
No one was prepared for the runaway success of Sublime. That is if you don't count seemingly everyone involved with the album. "The bottom line is I love good music and I try to shy away from all these labels that people think are so necessary to slap on music," said Brad Nowell in a band bio. "It seems like people are afraid of a certain music if they can't pigeonhole it to their satisfaction. They will be up all night trying to slap a label on Sublime. Good music is good music, and that should be enough for everybody."
"I found this piece of paper from, like, late '94, early '95 recently in a stack in my office," said Phillips. "It was in Miguel's and Brad's handwriting and it was this sort of scribbled- out initial contract. It talked about the European release of the [third] album, publishing, royalties, of the album as a mix of the first two CD's and, this was before they even recorded the Sublime album, it had a note from Brad. It said, 'U.S. -- hit single to be featured on third album as well, "Lovin' is what I got, remember that."
That song, which had been in the band's repertoire for several years, blossomed into "What I Got," one of the most inescapable alternative radio hits since Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
The hit potential of the song, and the album, a smoother, more hi-fi realization of what the band had been doing for over eight years, didn't escape MCA's marketing department. MCA's Orescan said that as "shocked and saddened" as label personnel were by Nowell's death, they were "not shocked by the success of the record." n keeping with the band's grass-roots approach to winning over fans, Orescan said Gasoline Alley/MCA wanted to "build the street-buzz and expand their franchise. Sublime had already built a following, they sold a lot of records on the West Coast and in pocket markets across the U.S.," he said. "Our idea was not to change that, but to help expand it."
The band, too, seemed to want to "expand the franchise." Gone were the lo-fi tape experiments, outlaw samples and stoner flights-of-fancy of their earlier works, and in were high production values and killer songs. "Garden Grove" kicks-off the trip with a loping dub-reggae groove, "April 29, 1992 (Miami)" is the band's buzzing story of where they were when the Rodney King riots went down, and even the seemingly throw-away song, the Hendrix-meets-Fishbone blue funk of "Under My Voodoo" rolls from the speakers effortlessly thanks to crisp production and a sense of purpose.
This summer, Happoldt described Nowell's unique penchant for finding gold in what most people thought were "mistakes." "With music, he'd hear you do a mistake, and he'd stop the band and he'd ask 'what was that?' " Happoldt recalled. "And you'd be 'it was a mistake' and he would say, 'No, try to do it again' and it would end out being a song."
"The shit is bad, people like that," was how Happoldt described Sublime's appeal. "If Brad was alive he would have partied his ass off and wrote three more hit albums." In keeping with Sublime's genre-hopping tendencies, though, Happoldt said there was no easily definable logic to Nowell's musical madness. "It was different every time," he said. "Every song would come out a different way. Brad used to describe his songs as writing themselves. There would be a little thing he would remember from sound checks and jams, and when a deadline came up he would look for things. There was no work ethic at all."
Happoldt, considered an unofficial fourth member by the trio, said Sublime knew they'd get a "hit" sound during the sessions with Kahne and Leary, "because when you're working with big-time producers, two big fucking names, fuck yeah, they brought something out. You get what you pay for. We did the Kahne session first and we knew if we went in and recorded diarrhea blow-outs it would be great. He's a fucking good producer."
Currently toiling on compiling a live album of Sublime material, and with one year's hindsight to look back on, Happoldt said he was unfazed by Sublime's success. "I'm not surprised at all that it's selling well. Because it's good fucking music. It if was shitty, copycat -shit, with no style or substance, fucking mall-shopping, video-watching kooks I'd understand. But something with integrity would always do good."
"This is the record where they perfected what they do," said Orescan. "They'd reached that level. Sublime is vital to what's going on on the street. They come from the street and all of the things that are real and natural about Sublime come from that. When you hear them on the radio, you know it's them. The copying that's come after it is the biggest form of flattery."
Orescan echoed the sentiment that the band connected and continue to connect because both before and after, nobody has sounded like Sublime. "This kind of success is unique to this situation, though," said the MCA marketing man. "A band like Nirvana broke it wide open and then Kurt passed away. Sublime hadn't. They were on the edge and what carried them through is the music."
"Our big fear was that Brad had passed, and so the album wouldn't get worked and would fall through the cracks," recalled Phillips. "But the band made a great record, the music spoke for itself. The music was undeniable. I got involved because there was so much legitimacy and soul in what they were doing. We always felt it was just a matter of time before the band would be huge."
Now the band is huge, but there is no band.
"Brad was like the CEO," said Happoldt in June of 1996. "He was definitely an artist that was 100 percent representing his own interests business-wise. He handled all his own shit, made his own faxes and calls, and stayed on top of it."
Happoldt was explaining the state of Sublime just a month after Nowell's passing. Assessing who was going to pick up the reigns to the then-fragile Sublime, Inc., Happoldt speculated that Nowell's dad, Jim, would be taking over.
Jim Nowell, a hulk of a man, was standing outside Happoldt's dilapidated studio just as the subject came up. He was moving toward the grafitti-covered nondescript building, then fussing with the four locks on the door. Happoldt was glad to see the elder Nowell had arrived with a contractor to figure out some wiring problems in the shoestring, 16-track analog studio where Sublime had logged countless hours.
The "Skunk Family" vibe was in full effect, and despite his son's recent passing, Jim Nowell was taking care of business. Inside the studio, even with Brad gone, the Sublime vibe persisted, perhaps due to the walls, covered as they were with the dark graffiti imagery of band friend Opie Ortiz (who not only appeared on the cover of Robbin', but also created the trippy cartoon-like artwork for all of the band's releases).
A year later, drummer Gaugh reflected that he wished his dead bandmate could have lived to see Sublime take off. "It's been a bummer," said Gaugh. "I wish Brad would have been here for everything. We would have been worldwide by now."
"This Sublime thing -- it's certainly a phenomenon," said Live 105's West, who expected that his station would be digging into Sublime well into 1998. "They should have an asterisk in the history books to tell Brad's story."
Already, it looks as though when the formal history of '90s rock is written, Sublime will be much more than a footnote. Popularizers of skacore, stars of late '90s radio and MTV, millions of albums sold ... But all of that misses the real story completely. It's a story that most everyone who actually bought a Sublime album knows well. For Sublime was the real deal. A street-smart band makin' real music that connected with millions of real people.
"Brad wrote really, really simple songs that related to a lot of people," former manager Phillips said. "It was a band for the people, without any made-up image. To me, it was the closest thing to a Southern California band like the Beach Boys, or [Northern California's] Grateful Dead. Now Sublime."
And then, stating the obvious, Phillips added, "The guy had a lot of talent, man."
Life & Times - September 25, 1996 By Jennifer Gurecki
Sublime Still Rocks
Despite the death of its lead singer, Sublime's self-titled third release is worthy of the media's Praise.
Sublime is a lyrically charged album, influenced by Punk and reggae. Songs vary from melodies mixed with record sampling and scratching to ska incorporated with wailing guitars.
Although its last album, 40 oz. to Freedom is more upbeat, their newest album delves into today's social dilemmas facing Americans.
The "Wrong Way" looks at the life of a 12-year-old girl, forced into Prostitution by her father to support his drinking habit. "April 29, 1992" is Sublime's account of the Los Angles riots. It's opinion is blatant: "It wasn't about Rodney King. It's about this f****d up situation and the f****n' police." Sublime also takes a very liberal stance on drug use in "Get Ready." This is very ironic considering its lead singer died of a drug overdose. "What I Got" is one of the best songs on the album. The acoustical guitar and Programmed rhythm section is reminiscent of many of the songs found on 40 oz. to Freedom. Overall, the diverse musical styles and interesting lyrics place Sublime in a category of there own. Sublime is definitely an album worth buying.
If you like this album, you should definitely think about buying the previous two albums Sublime has released. It's unfortunate it took the death of Brad, its lead singer, to open the door for Sublime's widespread popularity and media attention.
Long Beach PT - May 27, 1996 by Jennifer Vigil
Nowell's Memory Survives Mourning: Family and friends say L.B. singer likely succumbed to his drug addiction.
By all indications, Long Beach singer Brad Nowell had a bright future.
From his new marriage to the burgeoning national reputation of his band Sublime, the East Long Beach native had a good deal to live for, not the least of which was an apparent victory in his battle with drugs.
Sadly, he lost that battle Saturday, just a week to the day after marrying longtime girlfriend Troy Dendekker in Las Vegas. Nowell, 28, was found dead in a San Francisco motel room, the apparent victim of a drug overdose.
Alan Pringle, an investigator with the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Office, said it will take weeks to confirm what family members say is obvious: Nowell, who had been clean and sober for two months, had stumbled, this time fatally, in his quest to conquer a five-year drug addiction.
"He had been doing really well," said Jason Westfall, one of Sublime's managers and a longtime friend of Nowell's.
"He was probably the happiest he'd ever been in his life. He got married a week ago to the day of his death, and he was excited about touring. He just finally succumbed to his addiction. This is as much of an accident as this sort of thing can be."
Sublime was in the midst of a five-day swing through California cities in preparation for a summer tour of Europe to promote the band's new album. The San Francisco show, scheduled for Saturday night, was canceled after Nowell's death.
Westfall, who was in San Francisco with the group, called Nowell's overdose "a sort of one-night thing, like a 24- to 36-hour sort of relapse." Nowell's father, Jim Nowell, said his son has been in and out of rehabilitation facilities since 1992. His most recent stay was in 1994, when Sublime's recording company provided several weeks of personal medical help, hoping to wean the singer from drugs, his father said.
Jim Nowell said the family believes Brad's death was due to a combination of drugs, possibly heroin, but said he would have to wait for the coroner's report to be certain.
Family, friends mourn:
Family and friends of the singer, guitarist and composer gathered in his father's Long Beach home Monday, comforting one another and reminiscing about Brad, a graduate of Wilson High School who had recently bought his first home in Surfside Colony, just south of where he'd grown up.
"He could lay in bed and look at the ocean and tell whether the waves were up," Jim Nowell said of his son, a surfing enthusiast.
With the July 30 release of their new album, Sublime, whose exotic mix of punk spiced with ska, reggae and hip hop had long been a favorite in local alternative circles, was poised for the big time.
Signed by Gasoline Alley, a subsidiary of MCA Records, in 1994, the band first gained wide recognition last year when KROQ-FM 106.7 began playing an early single called "Date Rape." Westfall said the release of the new album will be delayed at least until August to allow surviving band members Eric Wilson and Floyd "Bud" Gaugh time to recover before promoting their new work. But Westfall said this is the end of Sublime.
"I don't think Bud or Eric have any interest in making anything in the future with the name Sublime in it," Westfall said. "We will go on in music and do other things, but just like Nirvana, Sublime died when Brad died."
KROQ interrupted programming to announce Nowell's death Monday. KDEO-FM, an Oahu-based station, played blocks of Sublime songs Sunday and opened up phone lines to callers. Nowell, who had several relatives in Hawaii, made it a point to perform there, said KDEO disc jockey Kathy Nakagawa.
"He was just really cool when he came down," Nakagawa said. "It wasn't an act for them, being friendly, and talking to kids after the show about music. They weren't doing it because it was expected of them."
Nowell is survived by his wife, Troy; an 11-month-old son, Jakob; his father and stepmother, Jim and Jane Nowell; his mother, Nancy Watilo; brother, Cory; and sisters, Kellie, Katie and Kristin.
Memorial services are scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday at Westminster Memorial Park in Westminster. A private graveside service will be held Monday. The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to the Jakob James Nowell Trust Fund, 275 Redondo Ave., Long Beach, CA 90803.
L.A. Times - June 1, 1996 By Mike Boehm
The Examined Life Ends for Brad Nowell
IN APPRECIATION: Late leader of Long Beach-based Sublime used his talents to explore how heroin addiction affected him. His legacy is greater than one novelty hit
In his introduction to the public last year, and in his exit last weekend, Brad Nowell became the embodiment of sad show-biz cliches.
The front man of Long Beach rock and reggae trio Sublime, Nowell arrived as the singer of a cartoonish novelty hit, "Date Rape," that even he came to find annoying; he departed as an apparent heroin casualty, found dead May 25 in a San Francisco hotel room at the age of 28.
But the sadness of an early and pointless death will be unfairly compounded if Nowell goes down in rock memory merely as a guitar-toting druggie who got lucky with a lightweight song, then got very unlucky with his habits. The three records he made as Sublime's singer, guitarist and songwriter hold decisive evidence that Nowell deserves to be remembered for more than the triviality of his coming into the public's consciousness, and the sordidness of his going.
Instead, it's worth remembering the honest, emotionally unstinting and stylistically varied way in which much of his music grapples with what was in his own consciousness--fundamental questions of escape versus responsibility and despair versus hope.
Nowell's fate is pitiful, maybe condemnable, but highlights from the albums, "40oz. to Freedom" (1992), "Robbin' the Hood" (1994) and a new one, tentatively titled "Sublime" and due for release July 30, show him struggling to fight hopelessness, or at least to explore how it was hitting him.
Nowell was a soulful singer whose smoky, pliant voice took cues from such reggae greats as Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff. Unlike many in contemporary reggae, Sublime--with drummer Floyd "Bud" Gaugh and bassist Eric Wilson as Nowell's allies from the beginning in 1988--had no use for hackneyed catch-phrases and thematic boilerplate.
Nowell's subject was his own life, whether realistically detailed or colored by imaginative license. Slang and hip-hop production techniques strewed Sublime's musical landscape with street-level grittiness.
Nowell was one of the most gifted singers the local alternative-rock scene has produced; the emotion in his delivery was palpable and uncontrived.
"You really felt what he was singing. It really came from within," said Tazy Phyllipz, a young rock impresario who helped push Sublime toward mass exposure.
Trenchant reggae rhythms were Sublime's musical foundation. It also deployed thrashing punk beats, alterna-rock guitar riffing, rap elements and lighter, skipping ska rhythms. Some of the most memorable moments came when Nowell, who could have been a marvelous folk singer, stripped the music down to its barest elements--his voice and a lone guitar.
The band could be frustrating. "40oz." is a solid album (it contained the atypically fanciful "Date Rape," a too-breezy morality play depicting the harsh payback handed out to a sex offender), but "Robbin' the Hood," basically a home-recording project, is half-stuffed with noodling filler.
The upcoming, and final, album is Sublime's best. There is no filler as it finds a cohesive focus in struggles social and personal, and there is no attempt to rekindle the novelty success of "Date Rape."
As a live band, Sublime was erratic. None of the four shows I saw over the past few years were fully satisfying, and the band's most prominent area performance, an appearance at last year's KROQ Weenie Roast, was a chaotic, listless failure.
Sublime's free-form concerts were "always hit or miss," Phyllipz said. "But when you saw them hit and do a great performance, it made up for every [other] time."*
No Doubt, the high-flying Anaheim ska-rock band, also shared many bills and a mutual admiration with Sublime. Singer Gwen Stefani recorded two duets with Nowell--one for Sublime's "Robbin' the Hood," another for No Doubt's "The Beacon Street Collection."
"His voice is like candy to your ears," Stefani, her voice shaky with sadness, said Friday from aboard No Doubt's tour bus in New York City. "Bradley definitely had a gift, and it sickens me that I'm not going to be able to enjoy his voice anymore. It's not sad for him--he's gone--but it's sad for everybody else. He had such a huge impact on so many people in the whole [local music] scene."
Sublime's climb to national recognition started early in 1995, when KROQ, alerted by Phyllipz, began to pump "Date Rape." The song kindled interest in the overlooked, 3-year-old "40oz." album, which went on to sell 151,000 copies, according to SoundScan.
A contract with MCA ensued. Working with name producers Paul Leary and David Kahne, Sublime finished the upcoming album that would be its bid for a career-solidifying breakthrough. Nowell appeared to be on an upswing as the latest of his efforts to kick heroin showed signs of sticking.
"A month ago it was the most positive situation we'd been in in many years," said Michael Happoldt, the Long Beach record producer and label boss who was Sublime's unofficial fourth member. A week before he died, Nowell married Troy Dendekker, the mother of their 11-month-old son, Jakob. Sublime was awaiting its first tour of Europe, where "40oz." is about to be released.
Happoldt said that Nowell, an avid reader who liked to quote philosophers and historians, was boning up on European history to prepare for the trip.
Still, his death was not a great surprise to those close to him. "He had really been struggling [with heroin] for a long time," said Bert Susanka, whose own band, the Ziggens, befriended Sublime and opened scores of shows for it over the years--including the one at the Phoenix Theatre in Petaluma the night before Nowell was found dead.
"We had talks about it, and he said, 'I just don't feel that good.' I don't know what was gripping him, if it was depression [or something else], but he would say he just didn't feel good," Susanka said.
"With heroin, it's hard to feel you're out of the woods," Happoldt said. "We all tried to steer Brad the right way, but that [expletive] just takes a good person over. I want people to remember him [not just as] a junkie musician, but for all the dimensions of the guy, because he was a true diamond."
"Every junkie's like a setting sun," Neil Young sang. Nowell wore Sublime's symbol--a shining sun--tattooed on his right arm. In "Doin' Time," a new-album track that's one of many Sublime songs touching on his struggles for balance, Nowell sings this prayer in his most yearning voice:
"Oh take this veil from off my eyes/My burning sun will someday rise."
Nowell's sun did not rise. He died a junkie's death. But as he cast about in his self-made trap, he earned respect by using his talent in an honest attempt to account for what he was going through. At least the veil was off his eyes.