Letter from Eben "Ebin" Sterling About Bradley
I met Brad Nowell in an intro to sociology class I was enrolled in at the University of California at Santa Cruz in January of 1989. We were both part of a group project that was supposed to survey the student population and extract some sort of empirical conclusion. At the time I had long dread locks down to the middle of my back, this was during skateboarding’s Alva era, so it was only natural that Brad and I would strike up a friendship. He was a huge dancehall reggae fan and I pretty much wanted to be Bob Marley. The group project didn’t go so well for me. I’m too much of a rogue individual. Brad, on the other hand, proved to be both charismatic and gregarious and was a natural leader. I was way too caught up in the validity of the research and employed my cousin to create a highly technical statistical interpretation of the data, which I tacked on to the study. I ended up getting a C while the rest of the group under Brad’s steerage received A’s. The instructor praised Brad with a particularly glowing review. During the course of our research I was introduced to another famous character, Brad’s now infamous 4-track recorder and drum machine. This is really where our story begins for it was on this machine that the genesis of the song Ebin begins. We were both aspiring musicians and Brad invited me over to record a song. The song I chose was a number I had written while still living at home in Ojai, California the summer before I started college. It was called Celebration and was a basic progression in C minor with a calypso feel. The lyrics, admittedly cliché, were an appeal for people to rise up and unify through music, very Santa Cruz. The first line of the song “Rejoice, rejoice”, ironically enough was boosted from a Steel Pulse song I’d heard growing up. The whole affair climaxed with ever so cliché: Get up and dance, Clap your hands and Sing out, Sing out, Sing Out To make matters worse the second verse started out with a lyrical couplet that was a near plagiarism of the cheesiest chunk of Broadway schmaltz ever penned “Sing, sing a song, sing it loud, sing it strong” -- Just hideous. To my credit the song had a hook that Brad recognized and which to my soon to be astonishment became his muse. I say soon to be because it wasn’t until the next day that Brad called me on the phone and told me that he’d re-recorded my song. He’d changed it around a bit and written knew lyrics and, the capper; he’d used my name in the song. He assured me that the song was not about me and he’d actually changed the spelling of my name so people wouldn’t think that it was. Thus was the birth of Ebin. To be honest I was pretty much appalled and a bit weirded out. First off, the guy had pretty much stolen my song. I mean I barely knew him as it was. Secondly, was he singing the song to me? I gotta admit it seemed a little gay. Well, then he started telling me some of the lyrics and I was downright alarmed. There was the part about joining the CIA and the KKK and smoking crack, which was pretty standard issue UCSC liberal paranoia for the times. Then it transitions into the whole you’ve changed bit which in the punk rock integrity wars of the 80’s was tantamount to calling someone a Judas and finally the capper of all cappers the guy is calling me (or the fictional me) a Nazi. Hold the fucking presses! I’m Jewish for God’s sake. That was strictly unacceptable, a diss of the highest order. While my reaction was less than positive I was more perplexed than anything. I agreed to meet Brad and at least hear the recorded song in full. Upon listening I was struck more than anything by the fact that the guy could sing. He had a beautiful voice, somewhat effeminate but in a good way, a trait shared by many reggae artists of that era, a bit to syrupy for my tastes at the time but recognizably good in a pop kind of way. To be completely honest I was somewhat jealous. Remember I told you I wanted to be Bob Marley. Brad had that sort of frat boy all American vibe about him even at that time, That sort of I want to be punk rock but I’m just a few years too late and I can’t shake my suburban upbringing. I just couldn’t believe that this dude could conjure such a sweet sound from inside. His voice truly was an instrument unto itself. Why did he have it and I didn’t? I pretty much pushed the entire incident out of my mind but I was always stuck with the memory of Brad, the weird dude with the voice. That summer or maybe the next I received a letter at my mom’s house in Ojai. Brad had gotten my address from his ex-girlfriend who was still enrolled at UCSC. He was living in Southern California after being asked to leave college over a graffiti incident on the campus. Apparently during a drunken binge Brad had spray painted something to the effect of “surf Nazi’s must die” on a building and was caught. In the hyper charged PC atmosphere of UCSC in the 80’s that was equivalent to a hate crime or an act of terrorism, an ironic payback of sorts for the guy that married my name to a Nazi persona. The letter informed me that Brad had formed a band called Sublime, a name I considered awkward and somewhat pretentious, and he was asking my permission to record “my song” Ebin as their first single. At that point I was in a band of my own and we were performing Celebration, my version of the song. I figured Brad was just kind of a kook who stole my song, wrote some weird lyrics more or less defiling my name and had about a hamster’s chance in hell of going anywhere with the tune. I never even wrote him back but I did keep the letter for legal reasons just in case. I kept the letter in a box where I kept my old ticket stubs and love letters from past girlfriends and after a few years decided it was weird to keep a letter from a dude with my sentimental stuff and I threw it away never to think of it again. In the fall of 1993 I found employment at High Speed Productions, the publishers of Slap and Thrasher skateboard magazines. In 1994 I was working in the advertising department and was naively pursuing an ad from Tracker trucks. At that time they were still owned by the publisher’s of Transworld Skateboarding. I never got the ad, of course, but in my pursuit ended up talking to an intern who was struck by my name. She explained that it was the name of her favorite song from her favorite group, Sublime. Transworld was offering the group’s CD Forty Oz. To Freedom as a subscription premium and she offered to send me a copy so I could check out the mysterious song. At the time I had totally forgotten about the band from the letter. The funny thing is I had heard of Sublime from my friend who owned a club in Arcata who was all up in arms about how rad they were. When I received the CD I listened to the song Ebin but I made no connection. The words were weird and less than flattering although I thought it was pretty funny how they repeated my name over and over. At the time I was so immersed in hip-hop’s golden age of the Wu Tang Clan and Biggie Smalls that I really had no interest in white-boy rappers or punk rock. The CD was OK but I really didn’t think much of it. I did however keep the record as a novelty. My friends were really into it so I figured maybe at some point I’d get into it. A while passed and one day Brian Brannon, Thrasher’s music editor, dropped a promo single on my desk with no explanation. It was a CD single of the song Ebin that Skunk records sent him. They probably were pumping up whatever product they owned in anticipation of Sublime’s upcoming major label release. On a lark I popped on the track. I remember I was pretty blazed at the time sitting in my room. I was just zoned out enough to open some dark corner of recognition in my subconscious. All of a sudden I was like, “Man that hook sounds so familiar. Where have I heard that before?” It turns out that the Skunk single is much closer to my original recording than the album version which I first listened to when I received the CD from Transworld. BOOM! Like a light the memory came flooding in. I was like, “Wait a second this sounds familiar and the song is called Ebin.” Ok, it seems totally obvious now but I was super blazed. I was like, “Oh Shit! This is that song. That guy Brad from UCSC. This is the song. Right, Sublime, now I remember. Could it be?” I rushed over and found the Album since the single didn’t even have a sleeve. I looked at the pictures. “Yes, is it? Yes, that’s Brad.” I checked the liner notes, “Bradley” close enough. “That’s Brad. Wow! This is my song. Weird -- that’s cool. I went back to work and called Skunk records I was going to hit them up for an ad. They thought it was funny that my name was Eben and I was like, “Yeah, I’m Ebin. Well, I’m not Ebin but that’s my song. I went to school with Brad at UCSC.” If they were skeptical they didn’t show it and even agreed to tell Brad I said “What up.” It was also agreed that they would send my some Sublime t-shirts and the next time they played in SF, they would hook me up with passes and facilitate a reunion. When I got the swag box I was stoked. They sent me a copy of Robbin’ in the Hood and a t-shirt with a Tabasco logo bite that I thought was supremely cool. They also sent me some stickers with “Sublime” written in old English vato writing that I thought looked super cool because they reminded me of the punk rock scene growing up in Oxnard and Ventura. I started listening more closely to my Sublime CD’s and developed a true appreciation for the music. I even started to like the song Ebin. I liked it so much in fact that I never even thought about seeking any sort of compensation (although a writing credit would be the utmost honor. Whatever though -- I just figured Brad took my song and made it cool. He made it much better than I ever did or could have. In all honesty I’m grateful for that. It later became clear to me that the power in Brad’s gift as a songwriter was in his ability to fuse disparate styles and songs and blend them into something new and wholly his own. To be a piece of that puzzle is a huge honor and puts a smile on my face just thinking about it. Brad’s talents really were a gift and he was very generous in sharing them with us.
In a strange addendum to the story as the nineties wound on and Sublime’s star began to rise I found myself spiraling downward into the grip of addiction. I never did see Sublime or have my reunion with Brad. On May 18th, 1996 I checked into the drug detox center at Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto. That same day Brad Nowell married his fiancé Troy, the mother of their 11-month-old son Jacob Nowell. On May 23rd I transferred to a six-month residential rehab program in San Francisco. I only had the few clothes that I brought with me to detox so I was in dire need of going home to pick up my belongings in order to transition into my new living situation. I did not have a car at the time so on Saturday the 24th with great trepidation I skateboarded to my house in the mission. I knew I was on shaky ground both geographically and in my recovery. I could only grab a few necessities to bring back to the rehab but I had this inexplicable urge to grab my Sublime Tabasco t-shirt. It was really the impetus of my entire journey. I don’t know what solace I sought in that t-shirt but I wanted it and I was willing to risk going into a dangerous place to get it. Well as the story goes Sublime played their last show that night in Petaluma and early the next morning Bradley Nowell died of a heroin overdose alone in a hotel room in San Francisco. When I heard the news I was shocked. I got goose bumps. It wasn’t supposed to happen. We hadn’t had our reunion. My story would never be validated. The letter was gone. My brush with greatness evaporated into the ethers. I was saddened but mostly it was just eerie. Why had I gone back for the shirt? Why was I sober and he was dead? Why was he in San Francisco in such proximity? Just eerie. When I got to work the next day I immediately called my buddy over at Skunk records and expressed my deep sorrow and hoped to comfort his pain. I told him about the shirt that he had sent me and how at that very time I was newly clean and living in a rehab. We talked about Brad’s attempts at getting clean and how optimistic he’d seemed about life, his family, fatherhood, and his new record. I have to say it was one of the realest most, heart-wrenching conversations I’ve ever had. Well, here we are. It’s 2006 and ten years have gone by. By the time you read this I will, God willing, have celebrated my 10th year clean and sober. I have a son now, Aidan, who is around the same age Jacob was when Brad died. God, Jacob must be eleven years old now, old enough to read this article, old enough to miss the dad he never really knew in a real and tangible way, old enough to start shredding on guitar and writing and singing songs of his own. To Brad’s family I send my condolences. To all those that miss him and were touched by his music I say we were so lucky, and to Bradley I want to say “THANK YOU!”