For whatever reason, my Aunt Betty-Ann (her friends call her B.A., I always called her Aunty) was in my room. I didn’t like when my Aunt was in my room because she was a curious person, and her curiosity made me uncomfortable. She would ask me about the bands on my posters. What did their names mean? She would look at all my CDs and ask how I found time to listen to all of them, unintentionally reminding me that I didn’t find time to listen to all of them. Maybe she’d see a lighter sitting on my dresser and ask me what it’s for and I’d say incense and she’d say, “Sure.” But I doubt I was any older than twelve or thirteen in the instance I’m remembering and so I probably didn’t have lighters in my room at that point.
I was sitting on my bed, waiting for her to address a particular poster I just knew she’d have a question about. It was a poster of Bradley Nowell. He was playing guitar, singing into a mic with his eyes closed. He was shirtless. I didn’t feel that weird about having a photo of a shirtless man in my bedroom because he was rather slovenly. He looked like one of my fat uncles. At the bottom of the poster it said in red letters, “Brad Nowell, 1968-1996.” I watched my aunt study the poster and I waited for the question.
“How’d he die?”
“Huh. You sure?”
“Yeah,” I said. And I was sure. I was sure that I didn’t want my aunt to know that the person I idolized most as a twelve-year-old boy had died of a heroin overdose. So I lied.
May of 1996 was a big month for Bradley Nowell. His band, Sublime, finished recording the album that would make them famous. On May 18, he got married. And on May 25, he did too much heroin and he died. He was one year older than I am at the time of writing.
Like most people, I didn’t know of Sublime until after Nowell had passed. Hearing “What I Got” on 89X was my first exposure to the band. I liked the song very much. Who cares if Nowell lifted the verse melody from The Beatles’ “Lady Madonna,” and the chorus from a song called “Loving” by some Jamaican guy named Half Pint? To tell the truth, I was not aware of any of that until I began my research for this piece, and this new knowledge doesn’t effect my enjoyment of the song in the least. It’s a feel-good track now and in 1996 it was the feel-good song of the summer. And yet you couldn’t feel all that good listening to it. After all, the man reminding us that “Life is too short so love the one you got” was dead and we never had a chance to get to know him. But for better or worse, his ghost would not leave us alone. Following “What I Got,” we were bombarded by Sublime singles. The songs “Santeria,” “Wrong Way” and “Doin’ Time” all received heavy radio play, and in case you were able to tune out the sad underlying story while listening to them, their accompanying videos made sure you knew Nowell was dead.
But over time, Nowell’s death weighed less and less heavy on his own music. Here we are more than fifteen years later, and at least two songs from that album, “What I Got” and “Santeria,” haven’t gone away. I doubt they ever will, especially now that surviving members Eric Wilson and Bud Gaugh are taking those songs back on the road with the help of a 20-year-old named Rome Ramirez in a project called Sublime with Rome. This contradicts the prediction Sublime manager Jason Westfall made in ’96 when he said, “I don’t think Bud or Eric have any interest in making anything in the future with the name Sublime in it.” He also said, “Just like Nirvana, Sublime died when Brad died.”
And that is where I think the Nowell/Cobain comparisons should end. But they don’t end there. Do a google search for “Brad Nowell Kurt Cobain” and you’ll find plenty of people (probably young people) throwing in their two cents on who was a bigger influence. I was surprised by the number of people who insisted Nowell had a more significant impact on music than Cobain. This claim is of course preposterous, and the comparison only exists because both men died young. But for the hell of it, here is irrefutable evidence that Nowell wasn’t in the same league as Cobain: if Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic jammed with some guy named Gary and realized he sounded an awful lot like Kurt Cobain, and then decided to tour the world playing Nirvana songs under the name “Nirvana with Gary,” Gary’s life would be in serious danger. There would be an internet-wide campaign to have this impostor promptly and properly snuffed. Novoselic and Grohl would not be safe either. Foo Fighters CDs would be burned all across the earth. However, I can’t imagine anyone making an attempt on the lives of Ramirez, Wilson or Gaugh, and I’m sure copies of Right Back by Long Beach Dub Allstars remain intact, although most of them are probably in used bins, like mine.
Nowell was no Cobain. So what was he? I’ve been talking to a lot of people about Sublime lately. Something about them - about Nowell, specifically - is bugging me. I can’t seem to figure out who Nowell was, exactly. But the more perplexing question is, had he lived, who would he have become? With Cobain, you can sort of imagine the kind of music he would be making today. He probably would have mellowed some by now, and his albums would be quieter. I believe he would have grown more introspective and made music that was less commercially accessible. But things are trickier with Nowell. On the one hand, he was a surfing, beer-bellied stoner who wrote criminally stupid lyrics such as “And then she pulled out my mushroom tip/And when it came out it went drip, drip, drip/I didn’t know she had the G.I. Joe kung-fu grip.” But on the other hand, he was a tortured individual with an undeniable gift for melody, and lyrics that often veered off into accounts of depression and addiction.
Sublime is by no means a perfect album. I wouldn’t even call it “great.” But it was such a giant leap from the unfocused mishmash of the band’s previous effort, Robbin’ the Hood, that I’m inclined to believe Nowell was capable of someday putting out a truly great album. Sublime (originally entitled Killin’ It, but the name seemed too crass in light of Nowell’s death) opens with “Garden Grove.” Now, I am in no position to try to convince anyone that any of these songs are good. I fell in love with this music as a twelve-year-old boy. I can’t separate these songs from that boy’s heart. I’m trying to be as honest as I can here: I honestly can’t tell you if Sublime sucks or not. But what I can tell you is that when I listen to “Garden Grove” today, I hear something I didn’t hear when I was twelve. I hear one seriously depressed dude.
The song begins with one long note held by a string instrument, or at least the ghost of a string instrument living inside a Casio keyboard. Either way, it adds gravitas to what’s to come, a certain “we’re not fucking around this time” quality. The lyrics begin very Sublimely. Nowell tells of a trip the band took to Garden Grove in a van that smelled like his dog. He tosses out some hacky-sack phrases, such as “deuce-deuce,” “funky reggae party,” “music from Jamaica,” etc. It’s all surfery and pleasant. Then things take a noticeable turn once he sings, “There’s a reason why my soul’s unsound.” He goes on to list the reasons, and there are many. Most of them are simple annoyances (“that shit stuck under my shoe,” “sitting through a shitty band”) but some are more serious. And yet, the list seems tossed together randomly, as if the listener isn’t supposed to notice anything unusual about Nowell rhyming “wakin’ up to an alarm” with “stickin’ needles in your arm.” Did he really find these two experiences equally upsetting? For the first minute and a half of “Garden Grove,” Nowell creates a pleasant, care-free mood that we can either pay attention to or passively enjoy. But once he says, “Stickin’ needles in your arm,” we can’t ignore the fact that we’re listening to a man for whom shooting heroin is as commonplace as getting out of bed in the morning.
Nowell gives a few more reasons for his daily frustration, including, “Feeling depressed everyday” and “Saying I’m happy when I’m not.” Then he tells us, “All these things I do, they’re waiting for you.” In other words, welcome to the album, and welcome to the singer’s troubled brain. Sometimes he steps in dog shit, and sometimes he does heroin. He’s sad all the time, but you’d never be able to tell.
Throughout Sublime, Nowell proves himself a so-so lyricist. Sometimes all he wants to do is talk to us about his Dalmatian, Lou-Dog (the dog is a recurring character throughout the album), or what it’s like being in Sublime. But he has imagination as well. On “Wrong Way,” he tells the story of a fourteen-year-old hooker. On “Santeria,” he fantasizes about tracking down the “Sancho” that stole his “heina” and killing him. And on “April 29, 1992 (Miami),” he even attempts social consciousness, imagining a first-person account of the LA riots resulting from the Rodney King trial. These songs don’t make him seem smart, exactly. But they make him seem, to me, like more than all of my high school classmates thought he was. Yes, he was a stoner who sang about how wonderful it is to “smoke herb” on “Get Ready”. Yes, every single lyric on sex anthem “Caress Me Down” is terrible. But he clearly wasn’t a fun-loving, carefree person. Not all the time, anyway. I think this is a man who suffered, and I believe his was a private suffering.
In talking with friends about Sublime lately, and inquiring about what they thought Sublime would be today were Nowell still alive, the most interesting thing I heard was that they would be their generation’s Jimmy Buffet. In other words, we’d all go see them every summer and we’d get drunk and “What I Got” would be our “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” We’d have a great night, then forget all about it until next summer. This theory makes sense to me, and it’s certainly a route Sublime could have taken. This is pretty much exactly what their friends in 311 did, and are still doing, and will do forever.
This brings an important question to mind. If Nick Hexum died after 311 released its breakthrough album (also self-titled), would I be examining Hexum’s lyrics as closely as I’ve examined Nowell’s? Is the only truly interesting thing about Bradley Nowell the fact that he died of a heroin overdose? And why do I care so much about Nowell today, and why did I connect so much with him when I was twelve and yet I never gave a shit about Shannon Hoon (another front-man who overdosed on heroin at 28) or the music of Blind Melon? Because, Hoon has already been painted as the tragic figure he was, while Hexum has never represented anything depressing. Hoon and Hexum are at opposite ends of a spectrum that has Nowell floating confusingly around in the middle.
There has not been a real biography written about Brad Nowell. His friends and family put a book together called Crazy Fool, which served as a life story of sorts, but there is no objective account that thoroughly examines the man’s psyche. And I think this is because we don’t care about that, really. His music represents a good time of drinking forties, doing bong rips, and owning a Dalmatian. But I believe we have done him a disservice by completely ignoring his dark side. On “Burritos,” a forgotten, third-rate track on Sublime, Nowell has another list for us, this time citing things he doesn’t want to do. In fact, he has no intention of getting out of bed at all. And party-loving stoners can relate to this. Who wouldn’t want to stay in bed all day, man? Responsibility sucks! But Nowell’s reason for staying in bed was severely different from yours. He truly, tragically, couldn’t get out of bed.