Bradley Nowell and Sublime: The Unrecognized Rock Music Tragedy of the 1990’s

Buddy Holly. Jim Morrison. Kurt Cobain. Bradley Nowell. They all shared a uniform parallel: Live fast, break the rules, anger the establishment. Start a following, dominate a music genre, and perish before turning thirty. Each has left behind a timeless musical legacy to be cherished for ages. However, in the history of rock music, one name on that list fails to conjure images of a tragic, influential rock legend — but it should. The name Sublime doesn’t typically remind one of chaotic rock’n’roll debauchery as might The Sex Pistols or Motley Crue — but it should. Sublime staked their claim in the Southern California beach scene, and it’s hard not to notice. One can almost hear the influence of the sun and the surf in some songs (What I Got, Santeria) the universal struggles of man in others songs (Slow Ride, Garden Grove), pleas of mercy from addiction (Badfish, Poolshark), and even songs sang in Spanish, an ode to Southern California’s prominent Mexican culture (Chica Mi Tipo, Caress Me Down). They personified Southern California with their unique musical style, transitioning between punk rock, reggae, ska, hip hop, rock, and a style that can only be described as Sublime. And along the way, they never forgot to break all the rules and burn all their bridges. Bradley Nowell and his band, Sublime, were the ultimate party band, made of the same self-destructive ingredients found in the more notable tragic rock acts: Drugs. A cult following. A general apathy towards authority and consequences. Innovative music. Numerous number one hits. A talented, energetic front man dead of a heroine overdose. Sublime is the quintessential rock and roll story, with one thing missing: the easily recognizable face and household name that always comes with such a legacy.

It Begins.
Long Beach, CA, 1987. Neighborhood teens Bradley Nowell, Bud Gaugh, and Eric Wilson formed a band. Bradley’s soulful voice and guitar lead the way, as Bud kept rhythm on the drums and Eric fused the sound with his bass guitar. They practiced tirelessly, honing their harmonious blend of tunes to perfection. On the Fourth of July, 1988, Sublime was unleashed on the public in their first legitimate gig at a small club in Long Beach. Their chaotic set was blamed for what became known as the “Peninsula Riot”, in which seven people were arrested. Sublime had entered the scene without treading lightly, a prophetic foreshadow of the years that lie ahead.

Word Spreads...
As the early 1990’s unfolded, Sublime’s popularity in Southern California snowballed, and they began headlining and selling out venues all over Southern California. They enjoyed surfing, liberal amounts of weed, and even took on a mascot – a Dalmatian puppy Brad named Louie, more affectionately dubbed “Lou-Dog”. In 1992, they recorded their first full-length album “40 Ounces To Freedom”. Still revered as a cult classic. As Sublime continued to appease their growing fan base with their transitional style, their onstage antics and offstage recklessness proved worthy of rock legend status. On many occasions, they employed adult film star Ron Jeremy to bring them onstage. They took uncivilized liberties (among other things) during the L.A. riots of 1992, and proudly made a song about it. In one instance, after receiving bad service at a Denny’s restaurant, they emptied the sanitary tank of their tour bus into the restaurant’s kitchen. They lived life like there was no tomorrow, and I’m certain Jim Morrison smiled down the entire time. But when apathy crosses a certain threshold, there are consequences. This was the case when Brad Nowell began to experiment with heroine. By late 1993, it became apparent that he was a full-blown addict. Brad was resigned to the fact that heroine would ultimately claim his life. In the song Pool Shark, he confesses: “Now I’ve got that needle, and I can shake, but I can’t breathe. Take it away, I want more and more. One day I’m gonna lose the war…”

And The Band Played On.
With the unpredictable nature of the band, one thing remained constant: Sublime’s music was good, and major record labels took notice. In 1994, Sublime took a meeting with Gasoline Alley, a sub-division of MCA records. Most bands would enter this opportunity with distinguished professionalism, in the hopes of claiming fame and fortune. Most bands, however, are not Sublime. According to their admission on “VH1’s Behind the Music: Sublime”, hey arrived to the meeting with Lou-Dog in tow, a case of beer, and turned the conference room into a party while they waited. They waited for hours, but the MCA executive never showed. The result was a case of classic Sublime vengeance: they snuck Louie into the executive’s office to drop a parting gift on his carpet, and once outside, they slapped a large hologram sticker on the back of his car. Their potential record deal was terminated. Nine months later in 1994, Gasoline Alley and MCA decided to forgive their blatant disrespect, and signed Sublime to a record deal. Jon Phillips, an A&R at Gasoline Alley, told VH1 “It didn’t matter what they did. Their music was good enough where they could actually break through and not have to play “the game”, and they would definitely do it on their own terms.”

“We Were Burning Bridges, Big Time. It Was Fun Though!” -Eric Wilson
1995 saw the radio release of Sublime’s hit song Date Rape. The song became a number one hit on L.A.’s rock station, KROQ. Soon after, the radio station offered the band a gig at KROQ’s annual “Weenie Roast” concert event, along with such popular acts as Rage Against The Machine, Bush, Sponge, White Zombie, and Hole. Sublime’s following of fans would attend en masse, and the day of fun in the sun would not go as planned for the concert promoters. The band was given ten backstage passes. On VH1’s Behind the Music they confessed they recruited a friend with a computer to print out multiple counterfeit copies of the backstage passes, and distributed them amongst their friends. During a live on-air interview backstage, the band lit up a joint and shamelessly smoked it for the camera. Onstage, when their set was scheduled to finish, they refused, and continued to play on, their closest friends dancing on stage all around them. The promoters were forced to end Sublime’s set by rotating the stage away from the audience to bring out the next act. Consequently, Sublime’s full day of antics prompted KROQ to pull Date Rape from its playlist.

Their next mission of self-sabotage: The first-annual Warped Tour. A series of avoidable events got Sublime kicked off the tour half-way through: Bud was arrested for drug possession. The band often drank to excess, sometimes impairing their ability to perform. Lou-Dog was on the scene, and a few attendees were bitten. A mud fight with the audience in Upstate New York rendered much of the tour’s musical equipment inoperable, and the promoters finally had enough. The band was dismissed. But, like MCA records, the promoters of the Warped Tour were forced to forgive the band, and invite them back later down the road. The aggravation they caused was paid for many times over with their crowd-pleasing performances.

All the while, Brad made several valiant attempts to kick his heroine habit, but cold turkey and failed rehab stints always produced the same results: relapse.

In late 1995, MCA Records sent Sublime to Texas to record their first major-label debut. The recording studio was on a large estate owned by country legend Willie Nelson. What could go wrong? Producer Paul Leary described during an interview the on Sublime Stories, Tales, Lies, and Exaggerations DVD: They took a car from the garage and crashed it. Lou-Dog scratched up a door in the studio. Bradley defaced a decades-old portrait of Willie Nelson posing as Uncle Sam. Excessive drug runs to Mexico… The producer had enough, and called the label to send them home. What they managed to capture on tape before their dismissal would go down in history as the classic “Sublime”, better known as their self-titled album.

Tragic Loss Of A Should-be Icon.
In May of ’96, the band headed out on a small west coast tour to promote their upcoming album release. After a show in Petaluma, the band found an ocean side motel in San Francisco to sleep off their hangovers. As his band mates slept, Brad partied on. The following morning, Bud woke up to the sound of Lou-Dog whimpering. He looked over to find Bradley lying on the adjacent bed, and got up for a closer look. He gazed down upon a nightmare: his best friend, his band mate, the key to his future – was dead. He ran for help, but when paramedics arrived, they confirmed what Bud already knew: Bradley Nowell was dead at the age of 28; the result of a heroin overdose. He left behind a family, a band, an enormous following, and an under-celebrated rock and roll legacy. The devastating news hit Long Beach like an earthquake.

Life After Death.
The band released the self-titled album after Brad’s death. According to VH1, it produced five hit singles, and nearly each track of the album still receives radio play. According to music site, the album sold more than five million copies as of 2009. The “40 Ounces to Freedom” album was re-released by MCA in 1996, and has since gone triple-platinum, as the music of Sublime lives on. You would be hard-pressed to find any versatile music fan without Sublime somewhere in their music collection, yet most of them would give a look of confusion if you mention the name “Brad Nowell”.

May 25, 2011, marks the 15th anniversary of Bradley’s passing. Though Sublime is gone, their music remains, and it continues to garner fanship and inspire a new generation. Acts such as Pepper, Slightly Stoopid, The Dirty Heads, Bruno Mars, and several others have a all cited Sublime as a major influence in their music. A Sublime show might have been the last place on earth where one could see a Rastafarian, a punker, and a hippie all grooving to the same tune. Despite having something for everyone, Bradley Nowell remains nearly anonymous to the mainstream music culture, and hardly noticed to the fans who love a band with attitude. That reality is nearly as tragic as his death.


– VH1 Behind the Music: Sublime

-Hiedi Sigmund Cuda, “Sublime’s Brad Nowell: Crazy Fool (Portrait of a Punk) -“Sublime: Stories, Tales, Lies and Exaggerations” DVD 2006, Josh Fischel, Director.