In Search of Bert Susanka - Michael Downes, NYU '10
In Search of Bert Susanka
by Michael Downes, NYU '10
I. dharma bums? what if the dharma part's horseshit?
We were at a beach called AD's, which is a fifteen -minute hike from the highway and the sun was going down so the sky was streaks of purple but we were too noisy to be part of something pastoral because no one could figure out who this guy Bert Susanka was. We needed to take him drinking. No matter that we were in Hawaii three thousand miles from California. We'd settle for some shots over the phone. That's how you have to do it in college. You get a call from Washington State at 3 a.m. New York time and they tell you to find a bottle. You were just sleeping but they somehow have proof that you were already up. No booze at home? Steal some you pussy!
They're half kidding but it's the other half that worries me. In the song "Greatest Hits" Bradley Nowell tells everyone, "Bert Susanka made me drink." The actual life and times of Bert Susanka don't matter. Five words from Brad is enough to classify Bert as a protagonist in this stoned and salty story about Sublime.
The first round of history is quick and painless. Papa Wilson bought a bass for his son Eric and gave Bud Gaugh drum lessons. Bud met Brad at Cal State where they'd get drunk together and the three got a rehearsal space. Brad loved songs even more than he loved forties and bong rips. With "Sublime" tattooed on his back (courtesy of Opie Ortiz) he took the band wherever there was enough booze to keep suburban life from being such a fat stick in the ass bum out.
The Northeast and Southern California have some sort of polar relationship. Sublime never did manage to swim back up out of that pit Long Beach. They wouldn't play much past the Mississippi and loathed Oregon. In Portland there was a dispute over a bill at Denny's. The restaurant's manager was about to tow their RV. They reclaimed the vehicle and aligned its septic tank with a service entrance. Bud set it up flawlessly. "It shot shit piss and that blue shit that cleans it out all into their back door. Thirty fucking gallons of fucking shit piss puke and blue shit. It was fucking beautiful man." When I'm at one of those glossy East Village loft parties and some asshole in a vintage T-shirt is hogging the cute blonde girl and her flapper Asian friend I'll just amuse myself with mental images of a pressurized turd cannon. These kids sacrifice play for sex. They're not the kind of people who can appreciate feces. Do you have any clue what you fuckers are missing out on? Those poles keep flipping on me all the time.
There's something separating the settlers who made it to the West Coast from the polygamist crazies who faded into Utah and the Sierra Nevada folk who ate each other. They're justified by the ocean. They charged westward starry-eyed under the pretense of Manifest Destiny, chasing shadows until their heads smacked into the Pacific. Months of zigzags to the promised land and when they got there it turned out it was actually just LA. If you're ever feeling critical of a bum passed out on Venice Beach just remember that he's made it as far as it goes. He'd be charging westward if there were any west left to charge into.
What more could we have expected from Bradley? He stared down all the worst California has to offer. Rodney King and the LA riots. Child abuse. Addiction. The porn industry. He scraped together boredom and rage and somehow issued forth songs about joy and love and the ridiculousness we suffer to chase happiness. He funneled an endless supply of shit onto himself like he was Atlas or Jesus or something. "I won't walk up upon the sea like it was dry land" he said. He knew he'd buckle at the knees. He killed himself with heroin when he was twenty-eight years old.
II. fishbones snails and puppy-dog tails
Long Beach never really got turned on by Pavement. Alternative rock down south was still made of TV parties and squiggly neon graffiti and forties. Plus NoCal is too close to Oregon to not suck. If Gary Young had played with Bradley they would have written classic songs about getting drunk and falling off drum stools. Malkmus gave Gary the boot.
California State University's radio station kBeach played "Date Rape" several times a day in 1992. That's where Ron Jeremy first fell in love with the track. (Now would Ron Jeremy have been listening to college radio if it meant hearing early Everclear and the Cherry Poppin' Daddies? No he wouldn't have so fuck Oregon.) Sublime had been playing house parties and shopping malls when they got some model named Kathleen to ask Ron Jeremy to produce their music video. MTV aired it and they started to get a bit of national attention. Eric was asked how it felt to have "Date Rape" blow up. "Like a hemorrhoid." For several years Ron Jeremy would come on stage to introduce them. Then they realized he was just a big fat bumout. He would film pornos in his backyard. Lou Dog shouldn't have to see things like that.
There's a certain type of person who cannot leave a dog alone all day. A neighbor tells them that when they go out the dog whimpers for hours. They immediately quit their job. Lou Dog the dalmatian went everywhere with Bradley. He'd be there licking himself on stage at every show. At their first interview with a record label he pissed all over the conference room carpet. When Gwen Stefani was still just the lead singer's little sister she asked Brad to do a rap/scat thing on a No Doubt record. When he got to the studio he asked for some time to warm up. He didn't have any lyrics written down. After playing with Lou Dog for forty-five minutes he did one perfect take and left.
On the street one day Brad was wearing a Sublime shirt. He walked past someone who said "I like your shirt." Brad took it off and gave it to him.
The biggest problem with Sublime--besides the alchoholism drug abuse and night-shivers of marijuana dependence--is that they're all so goddamn ugly looking. Bud's short and fat and hairy and his pointy nose makes him look like a homicidal clown. Eric's taller and even fatter and always wears a wife-beater. Brad is the only one whose skin doesn't fold. But it almost does. His cheeks and chest are hairless so he looks like a huge infant. Instead of getting laid Eric got a black box to descramble TV porn.
"What do you like about the Spice channel Mr. Wilson?" asks Bradley.
"The nudity" say Eric.
"What don't you like about the Spice channel Mr. Wilson?"
Bud would wear a shirt that said "Poor Ugly Happy." He says California wants to eat your money. He says every crime in the state is punishable by a $304 fine. Rob a store? Kill a hooker? That'll be $304. Brad was drinking a beer in the back seat of a car when they were pulled over. It was the same price as the ticket Bud got for lighting up in public. He says he told the cops he'd been hit by a car and wanted something to get his mind off the road rash. He wore his shirt for the Badfish music video--the band's playing at a party on the beach and the girls are in bikini thongs and Brad and Lou Dog are sitting on a boulder with waves crashing all around them. It has much more life to it than the "Date Rape" video, which features Ron Jeremy distastefully reenacting the narrative of said date rape. But here both the song and video are vibrant. The waves are barreling overhead so everything's hazy from the ocean spray. Bud's wearing a snorkel and hitting a wet snare drum splashing the water from it. Brad dives into the water from his boulder. The dog shakes out his wet fur all over a couple of guys who have mohawks. Meanwhile Bradley's jamming the smoothest surf rock solo and it's dripping with reverb and he's singing about pulling himself to the bottom of the sea.
Paul Leary produced Sublime's self-titled major label debut. "Those guys are so sweet and funny. It's just that things get broken when they're around." His engineer Stuart Sullivan butts in "It's just chaos because its so stream of consciousness. They don't really think too much in advance or once they've done stuff in post-view either." Butthole Surfers guitarist Leary flew to Long Beach to spend four days on pre-production with the band. He couldn't get hold of them for two days and on the morning of the third they met for breakfast. They got sloppy drunk and passed out by noon. The fourth day Bud and Eric ran off to Mexico and Brad took Leary to get a tattoo from Opie, who by now was responsible for all of Sublime's artwork. They spent two months on the album and Leary says that now every time he hears that tight dry snare drum he involuntarily visualizes Bud's asscrack. They had set up the drums so that Bud's back is just in view over the mixing board and Bud didn't bring any belts to the Austin studio. In rock music circa 1995 there was a specific snare sound a producer wanted. He'd pull the mic back from the drum to catch the room reverberations which increases its impact and makes a crunch like John Bonham used to. Nirvana and R.E.M. and Bad Brains records all come from the same philosophy of engineering that gave us "Sweet Child of Mine" and "Born in the USA." Bud's snare is a bold contrast. It's open and rings out like a timbale. He tunes it like Carlton Barrett of the Wailers or Sly Dunbar of Sly & Robbie. Even when a song breaks down into thrash metal the snare is springing around up there. When the heavy guitars kick in you know you're supposed to start moshing but that snare's yelping at you to double-time your skank instead.
Their other albums were completely self-produced. 40 Ounces to Freedom was recorded by Miguel who at the time was in school to study recording engineering. (Miguel is actually Michael and is 100 percent white.) The studio time was free but they couldn't afford much tape. They recorded the album's opener on the "Don't Push" master's unused tracks. Of the album's twenty-two cuts about fourteen are worth listening to. I don't want to hear any whining about that! When was the last time you had to use a cassette? "Ebin" is supposed to be an anti-neo-Nazi fable but it has no impact and "New Song" is just plain crap. But "Badfish" is probably the finest song ever spawned by California. And yes I know what "Good Vibrations" is. Brian Wilson's songs didn't have shit to do with surfing. He never sang about the panic of a failed dive under ten-foot waves, which is the closest thing to death you can feel without going all the way. I am also positive that in the right lighting "Waiting for My Ruca" will make any woman want to have sex. I've seen their befuddled faces when the track opens up: "punk rock changed our lives." As soon as the vocals jump up the octave and peak at "You're not the only one but you're the best Bradley" she'll freeze. Her eyes will widen. For a second it looks like she gets it. Women are the gatekeepers of sex. They really have extraordinary power over men. That feeling of empowerment can have some pretty crazy effects on somebody's night out. And for years the only place you could buy this was the trunk of Brad's van.
Mike Watt of the Minutemen is one the most aged Sublime fans you'll find. He met them touring California with fIREHOSE and loved that they stole all of Unwritten Law's amps after opening for them. "There's a Sublime sound and it's not ska and its not reggae" he argues. "They're punk with what they're doing with sound. They're saying this is ours. This is the way we see it. From us. With our handwriting. No typewriter. No Xerox machine. They probably just wanted you to know that they were Sublime." Between 1986 and 1996 punk rock was a blurry pit. Then it gurgled for a second and coughed up Blink-182. During these years Bad Brains turned into a reggae band. The Offspring became a pop band. People with normal-colored hair started listening to Rancid. But Sublime was the favorite band of the skate punk scene. Other bands took the ska guitar upstrokes and vocal scat breakdowns but never got that rocksteady skank right. Hardcore bands never knew what to make of the music but they'd admit that Brad could write a hell of a song. Kevin Lyman founded the Warped Tour with Sublime headlining. Brad was usually too drunk to remember the chords and the tour was a financial disaster. The crowd bashed itself up hard and the shows became legendary. Four years later the tour was in five countries.
Bradley started to go a little mad in Austin during the recording sessions. He'd lie down and hold Lou Dog to his chest and make up new lyrics for hours. Two months into it he made a run to Mexico to pick up cheap prescription drugs and was on too much Valium to function. Paul Leary approached Brad to say he was no longer capable of recording them. Bradley went back to Long Beach to detox with his newlywed wife and newlyborn son. They finished the album without him. In three months the album sold a half million copies. In three more it went platinum. By 1999 they'd sold seventeen million records.
Any route you try to take with this band will get you stuck on Bradley's death. He overdosed three months before the self-titled album came out. If Eric hadn't been too hung over to go for a walk with him he probably wouldn't have even shot up. When Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain died there was a naturalness to it. They were always concerned with the darker parts of the psyche. We used to sing "Santeria" on the school bus. There was no stigma to it then and even our teacher would smile when she heard it. By the time the country heard Sublime on FM radio there was no Sublime. Brad was always dead so calling it a disappointment isn't exactly right. It's one edge of the frame. When asked what came before time St. Augustine said "nothing." Ask what would have happened if Bradley hadn't died and the same logic applies. It was just a few young men who were compelled to write songs and to inject themselves with drugs. Why ask for more? That's more than enough to keep you entertained.
III. the wise men
"I'm drinking the hard stuff tonight. You gotta take off one night a week they say. It should be Sunday. The Lord's day." Brad lets out a childish giggle after he says that last part.
We used to backpack into the Hoomaluhia Botanical Gardens and meet our fathers who drove the trucks to the grounds. We'd set up our tents. Try bird calls. Catch fish. At night we'd set up the bonfire. Our dads came over from their picnic tables. We'd burn marshmallows and they'd play "Waimanalo Blues." "Where I will go the wind only knows. Good times around the bend. Get in my car going too far and never come back again." They're drinking beer getting ruddy-faced and jolly. There's five men with acoustic guitars all playing open chords and singing together so the strumming's all muddled and blurry and the vocals go down like liquid. We'd play along with a ukulele or a salt shaker or a stick and a pan. They'd play "Brown Eyed Girl." "This Train." "Henehene Kou`aka." Sometimes we'd hijack a guitar or two and mumble our way through a Ka'au Crater Boys song or maybe Jack Johnson. And of course we'd always do a few of Bradley's songs. Boss DJ and Rivers of Babylon. They'd started to recognize those ones. "It's so nice," they'd sing with us when the part comes up, "I wanna hear the same song twice." Most of the time they're giving us the songs of their age with a sense of purpose. But you can tell they like to hear us gurgle something back up for them. It's a confirmation that their logic is sinking in.
Brad learned to play guitar in his backyard with his dad. If he were still around he would sit his own son down on a lawn chair to teach him every song he knows. Eric and Bud and the fathers all still play together in the yard. Songs didn't used to be written things. They weren't recorded. People knew them and shared them. Brad thought his songs were so-so. That's why he loved playing covers. He lifted Eek-A-Mouse's vocals from "Every Girl Is a Virgin" and tacked it to the end of Bob Marley's "Jailhouse." He shamelessly built "Doin' Time" on the Gershwin classic. Even the "Santeria" progression is something he'd played already on Robbin' the Hood. "He was always jealous of Bert Susanka," his wife Troy said. Bert Susanka is the lead singer of Sublime's sister band the Ziggens. Brad considered Bert the best songwriter he knew. He covered "Big Salty Tears" and quoted it in "The Wrong Way." He took the drugs because he thought it "expanded his creativity," says Troy. In actuality it helped block the fact that his music was just the byproduct of the songs he loved. Troy says that Brad loved music more than anything else in his life. So he should have trusted that we would play his songs on our acoustic guitars the way we play everyone else's. That one day we'd forget who wrote them and still worship them. That we would also get that these songs are precious things.
[Credit to [email protected]]