Sublime's late Brad Nowell could have had it all: family, fortune and rock superstardom. Instead, he hocked it all for a needle and a spoon. - Guitar World Online Article
Sublime's late Brad Nowell could have had it all: family, fortune and rock superstardom. Instead, he hocked it all for a needle and a spoon.
by David Grad
San Francisco, May 25, 1996. Brad Nowell couldn't sleep, so he took a walk on the beach with his beloved Dalmatian, Louie. After two months of being drug-free, Sublime's frontman had succumbed to his addiction once again, his bloodstream now saturated with a combination of heroin, Valium, alcohol and marijuana. He always felt guilty when he relapsed and let the band down, but as he made his way across the sand, he also began to realize that this time it might cost him dearly. He was going to meet his wife, Troy, at the last show of the tour in Santa Barbara, and he had to at least appear straight. Brad knew that if he returned to the needle she would leave him for the sake of their infant son. So in a junkie's desperate attempt to remove further temptation, he went back to the motel room that he was sharing with drummer Bud Gaugh and instead of flushing it down the toilet, shot up the remainder of his stash and then crashed. Two hours later when Bud woke up, Brad was dead.
While it is true that no one can know the exact thoughts and emotions that passed through Brad's intoxicated brain in those last fatal hours, Jason Westfall, Sublime's road manager, feels that the above scenario probably comes close to the truth. And Jason's opinion is an informed one, for not only had he been close to Brad since childhood, but he is also a recovered drug abuser himself who has worked extensively with other addicts who are trying to get clean. Asked why Brad shot the remainder of his dope rather than just trashing it, Jason says, \"You have to understand the junkie psychology. They love the stuff too much to ever destroy it. The best comparison I can think of to make is the cigarette smoker who always waits to finish the pack before he quits. It's ironic, but a lot of addicts die like that-just when they are on the verge of putting the stuff down.\"
And that should have been the end of the story: another talented voice silenced by the ongoing heroin plague. But the strength of Brad Nowell's songs was such that they outlived the singer. Two months after Nowell's death, Sublime was released. The album's explosive hybrid of rap, reggae and punk captured the imagination of fans rapidly tiring of heavy alternative angst. To date, Sublime has sold more than two million copies. For most of their current fans, Sublime was dead on arrival. With Nowell gone, much of the band's story has remained shrouded in obscurity. But listening to their musical legacy, one can't help but wonder who they really were, and why their powerful frontman, when poised on the brink of stardom, allowed his demons to consume him, once and for all.
Some of the answers to these questions can be found in a suburb of Long Beach, California, in the home of Sublime bassist Eric Wilson, the headquarters of \"The Sublime Posse.\" The door is answered by three Rottweilers and Wilson's grinning roommate, Jerry Jefferies, who ushers me into a room redolent with the smell of pot and dog. Jefferies plops into a chair and starts rolling a massive joint.
The smell of burning bud seems to serve as some kind of silent alarm and the room starts to fill up with the other occupants of the house, as well as several guests who walk in through the front door unannounced. More potent herb is produced, further joints are rolled and then a couple of six-packs appear along with a big box of doughnuts. Breakfast is served.
Last to enter the room is Eric Wilson. The hulking 27-year-old bass player affably introduces himself, but not before he grabs a hearty toke. Dropping his 6-foot-4-inch frame onto a couch, he explains that although he knows I have come to learn about the history of Sublime, he's not so sure how helpful he can be. \"I'm a little hazy on dates and stuff like that. A lot of times I don't even know what day it is.\" His friends, half shrouded by prodigious clouds of smoke, promise to help fill in the gaps. Thus assured, Wilson relaxes, and begins to relate the litany of bands which eventually led him to hook up with Newell in Sloppy Seconds, sometime around 1984.
Wilson's new partner may have seemed like an odd choice for him at the time, because while the bass player was just on the verge of dropping out of Wilson High, Brad Nowell was still maintaining an A average. There were other differences as well: Eric had learned how to play his instrument in a succession of ragged punk bands while Brad had been taught how to play guitar by his father and grandfather at family gatherings where everyone sat around singing tunes like \"Good Night Irene\" and \"The Camptown Races.\" Eric had learned to appreciate reggae from records while Brad had fallen in love with rude boy rhythms at 13, when his father took him to a \"Jump Up\" during a vacation in the Virgin Islands. Eric acknowledges that Brad was the exception among his friends. \"He came from a rich family. And he was always a very deep guy, a genius. He was always reading philosophy and stuff like that.\"
Eric was obviously intrigued by Brad's intellect, but what attracted the guitarist and singer to the husky punk party animal? Brad's dad, Jim Nowell, describes his late son as a \"free spirit\" who was always \"interested in life's answers. And getting close to people who were very different from him was part of that process. But I always thought he would outgrow his relationship with Eric and what we now call the Sublime Posse. After all, Brad was really an intellectual, and those guys are mostly interested in getting and maintaining a high.\"
Jason Westfall, in a somewhat less paternal analysis, points out that, like many affluent would-be punks, Brad craved \"authenticity,\" a quality that Eric and his bros, who at 15 were already making their own tattoo machines and inking each other up, had in abundance.
By 1988, Brad had returned home from two years attending college in Santa Cruz and enrolled at Cal State Long Beach, where he was surprisingly majoring in finance. This allowed Sublime to become a full-time band, though it as far from an immediate success. \"Brad's father was paying his rent so I moved in with him,\" Eric recalls. \"We got evicted and we moved and then we got evicted again. After that, I had to go home and sleep on my mother's living room couch. I stayed on that couch for another seven years until we got signed.\"
Eric might still be sleeping on mom's coach if it had not been for the efforts of Miguel Happoldt, who founded Skunk Records with the express purpose of releasing Sublime's early efforts. Happoldt was studying recording engineering at U.C. Long Beach when he saw the band in a campus pub, was blown away and decided right then that he would devote himself to documenting their sound. He brought Sublime into the recording studio for the first time, for a class project, but the session was hardly an overwhelming success. But by the following year, they had returned with enough good songs and studio savvy to come up with Jah Won't Pay the Bills, a cassette that marked the debut of both the band and the Skunk label. This tape vastly improved the fortunes of the band, who used it to book a tour which took them from Seattle to Florida.
In 1991, with a thousand-dollar loan from Brad's father, and Happoldt at the controls, Sublime recorded 40 oz. to Freedom. Initially, Skunk pressed a thousand copies of the new CD, but these soon sold out. Within a year, demand was so great that local record stores were advancing the label cash to ensure that they would have an uninterrupted supply of product. Regarding his unexpected elevation to the status of punk mogul, Happoldt says, \"I was surprised at first but then I began to realize what we had. You couldn't play it for someone and not have them look up and say, `What in the **** is this?'\" In less than two years, 40 oz. to Freedom sold over 30,000 copies, a considerable achievement for a totally DIY label with no advertising budget.
It was enough to bring interest from Epitaph and then Atlantic Records, and the band used money advanced from these labels to cut more demos, which were combined and released as Robbin' the Hood in `94, but it didn't prove to be a popular follow-up to 40 oz. to Freedom. The failings of the new CD had little to do with sophomore slump and everything to do with Brad's descent into a heroin addiction after 1992. \"I wasn't really friends with him at the time because he would shoot up in front of me to make it seem like it was no big thing,\" recalls Eric. \"He even did it once at a radio station when we were live on the air and they didn't even see him.\"
Drummer Bud Gaugh confirms Eric's account of Brad's addiction. Bud is something of an expert on the subject of heroin-his own addiction caused him to leave the band from 1991 through `93. Bud explains that returning to Sublime wasn't easy for him because Brad was always trying to get him high. But he also has a lot of compassion for his dead bandmate.
Bud also says that he didn't just sit by and watch Brad slowly kill himself. \"I tried to lock him up in my house and took his car away. Then I had to yank the phone cords out of the wall because he would try to call his friends to come and pick him up. To help him get straight I would lie on top of him, hugging and sweating with him all through the days and nights.\"
Despite Nowell's enormous personal problems, Sublime's fanatical fan base continued to grow, due in large part to the power of their live show. In 1993, a friend of Happoldt's began interning at Gasoline Alley, a subsidiary of MCA, and convinced a young member of the label's A&R; department to go see the band perform. Even today, Jon Phillips can still barely contain himself when describing his first taste of Sublime. \"It was a totally original mix and the most amazing music I had ever heard. I kept thinking, `Doesn't everybody know about this band?' There was a mass of energy around Sublime that was totally out of control and at the heart of it was Bradley and his voice.\" From that point on, Phillips devoted himself to getting the band a deal. But as he explains, \"It wasn't exactly the easiest sell in Hollywood; the suits just didn't seem to understand that I was offering them one of the cornerstones of a new era in music.\"
Of course, Sublime also proved to be its own worst enemy. Jon Phillips remembers how, after persistent nagging, label president Randy Phillips (who not so incidentally also happened to be his uncle) agreed to take a meeting with the band, and how they showed up with their dogs and a couple of six packs. \"They were hanging out in my office. But [Randy] was tied up and couldn't meet with them. So they got frustrated, drunk and left all pissed off. I came down to the parking lot that evening, and all of a sudden I hear [Randy] going, `****!' And I walk around the corner and see this huge Sublime sticker on his special edition BMW.\"
It took the label another six months to sign the band and, when it happened, the uncle had the last laugh. Today, Jon Phillips admits, \"Sublime came in without a lawyer and got a really bad deal, but neither I nor the band knew it at the time. I was really young and they were the first band I had ever signed.\" Jon soon quit working for the family business to become Sublime's manager.
In January `95, Sublime finally broke into the mainstream when L.A. radio station KROQ started playing \"Date Rape.\" For the next four months it was the station's most requested song. Predictably, success proved to be a mixed blessing for Nowell, who was sent to rehab by the label as part of a deal made to avoid his doing jail time for a felony drug bust in `94. He stayed clean for a while, but the combination of ready access to cash and the pressures of touring almost guaranteed that Brad would return to his deadly old ways. By the time the band recorded their new record in February of `96, Brad's habit was completely out of control. During his month in the studio, he spent over $4,000 on heroin. \"I thought he was going to die,\" reports Westfall. \"Every day I used to ready myself to receive the phone call.\"
Brad may have been in bad shape, but that still didn't stop him from performing in the studio. Jon Phillips helped make the sessions as successful as they were by insuring that he had an adequate budget ($150,000) and the right producers for the job. And the band agrees that without Paul Leary (the Butthole Surfers guitarist who's produced such acts as Supersuckers and Meat Puppets) and David Kahne (Fishbone, Soul Coughing), Sublime would have been a very different record.
When it was all over, Miguel Happoldt claims, \"We knew what we had, and that now we were playing big league hardball. It's as simple as that.\" Also sensing that Sublime had a hit was Brad, who saved himself from tumbling into the abyss by going cold turkey. The next two months proved to be among the happiest in the band's lengthy career. \"For once, Brad really seemed to be serious about living drug free. And there was a gleam in his eyes that no one could recall ever having been there before,\" says Westfall sadly. \"He seemed filled with a newfound joy and, just a week before his death, married Troy, his girlfriend and the mother of his one-year-old son, Jakob.\"
Unfortunately, bands who are about to release a new CD have to tour, and the road offers continual temptations. And so it was that Brad Nowell succumbed to his disease one last time.
Three months after Brad Nowell's death, MCA released Sublime, which entered the Billboard album chart at #62. The album enjoyed great success on the radio, spawning three hit singles, \"What I Got,\" \"Santeria,\" and \"Wrong Way.\"
40 oz. to Freedom, the album that was originally recorded for $1,000, has gone on to sell over 500,000 copies and is currently charting on Billboard's catalog album chart. Robbin' the Hood, their eclectic bouillabaisse of sonic manipulation, is also selling briskly.
The surviving band members have formed a 9-piece Sublime tribute band, The Long Beach Dub All Stars. In addition to Bud Gaugh and Eric Wilson, the group features Marshall Goodman on percussion and turntables and Miguel Happoldt on rhythm guitar. Opie Ortiz, who tattooed the Sublime logo on Nowell's back (pictured on the cover of Sublime) also plays rhythm guitar. The big band, which also features a keyboard player, two saxophone players and another guitarist, also plays covers of dub and dance hall classics. At this time, they have no plans to record.
Wilson and Gaugh have also revived their legendary thrash/punk outfit, the Juice Bros, but warn, \"We still play the same five songs that we always did.\" Wilson now plays guitar, and bass duties are handled by Skummy Elm. They recently submitted demos to MCA.
Finally, fans of the band will be pleased to learn that a new record of Sublime outtakes and rarities is currently being compiled. Highlights include \"Had a Dat,\" a Jane's Addiction parody from Sublime's first recording sessions with Miguel Happoldt, and \"Get Out,\" which appeared only on early pressings of 40 oz. to Freedom. The album also includes tracks from the Sublime sessions that part-time band member Marshall Goodman says were \"less than a day away from being completed. We're not exactly finishing the songs, though. We're just adding a little of this or that to make them more listenable. We could never really finish them, anyway, because Brad is not here anymore.\"