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Sublime's History

Sublime History

The story of sublime is full of sad, strange, twists, but this is perhaps the strangest: Since frontman Brad Nowell overdosed before his band became a phenomenon, before he had a chance to become a bona fide rock star, his death has been oddly free of mythic impact of so many rock star flame outs. Sublime's success has come as a slow-building surprise, rather than in a rush of mourning, and it's been based on the sweet too-short 28-year love affair with punk, hip-hop, reggae and whatever other music he could lay his hands on. Bradley Nowell died on May 25, 1996, in a San Francisco hotel room, after shooting up some heroin that was much more potent than the brown Mexican tar he was used to. His death came seven days after his wedding to Troy denDenkker who'd given birth to their son, Jakob, 11 months earlier; it was two months before the release of Sublime, the album that would make his band famous. The heroin death of Smashing Pumpkins' touring keyboard player, Johnathon Melvoin , got more attention in the press. In fact, plenty of subime fans didn't even know that Brad was gone. "We still get lots of letters for him," says Brad's father, Jim, who handles his sons estate. "I have a boxful of them in my office."

At least a boxfull. By April 1997, a little less than a year after Nowell's OD, Sublime had entered billboards Top 20, and the albums first single, the breezily grooving, mostly acoustic hip-hop toaster "What I got," went to No. 1 on the Modern Rock chart. And that was only the beginnig. Throughout 1997, Sublime produced hit after hit, and the albume has sold more than 2 million copies to date. The follow-up to "What I Got " was the reggae-tinged ballad "Santeria"; then came the shuffling ska of "Wrong Way " and the dance-hall-flavored "Doin' Time," which Nowell constructed around the melody of the Gershwin standard "Summertime."

Eighteen months after Nowell's death Sublime sell about 40,000 records every week; in November, MCA released Second-Hand-Smoke, a collection of early songs, unissued material, remixes and alternate takes. Sublime's surviving members recently inked a deal to release at least three more albums of archival material over the next few years. Incredibly, the band that is no longer a band has become perhaps the biggest American rock act of 1997.

These are a few of the things Brad Nowell loved: surfing; eating; drugs; his dog, Louie; his son, Jakob; his wife, Troy; and music - maybe music most of all. He grew up gifted and musically inclined: His mother was a singer with perfect pitch, and his father like to strum folk songs on the guitar. At Christmas, the acoustic guitars would come out and Brad would spend hours playing and singing with his father, grandfather, and uncle. He devoured sounds, and could pick out a tune after hearing it once. By time he was 13, he'd started his own band, Hogan's Heroes.

Nowell was 10 when his parents split up. He lived with his mom, Nancy, for four years before moving back to his dad's house in Long Beach, California, in 1981. He was a smart kid who got good grades and he had brains to make his younger sister, Kellie, do his homework whenever he didn't want to. "He was probably twice as intelligent as I am," she says, "but he just wasn't real school-minded." Guidance counselers had a name for what was wrong with kids like Brad who failed to live up to their obvious potential - attention-deficit-disorder - and a drug for it, too: Ritalin.

Unlike the wealthier, whiter suburbs of Orange County, where Brad's mom lived, Long Beach is a funky old port town of 450,000, with affluent bayside communities - Belmont Shore and Naples - and Latino, African-American and Southeat Asian neightborhoods farther inland. With cheaper rents than Hollywood and lots of available space, Long Beach had a thriving art underground in the '80s, as well as a music scene in which punk, surf, and hip-hop cultures clashed and blended freely.

Nowell was a master at medling these sounds into something new. From Sublime's earliest recordings, his combination of ska, dub, punk, funk, rap, reggae, and heavy metal seemed less like a synthesis than a natural byproduct of Long Beach's youth culture. Though there were few local clubs to play, house parties could bring a couple hundred bucks every weekend - enough to buy all the beer, pot, and gasoline the band needed. In 1990, one semester before graduating from California State University Long Beach with a degree in finance, Nowell dropped out to devote all his time to the band. by then, Sublime were well known up and down the coast; from San Diego to Santa Barbara, beach towns were their turf.

In photographs from this period, Nowell looks like the prototypical SoCal surf rat: sun-bleached hair, wraparound shades and Hawaiian shirts. With his round face and easy smile, the cherubic singer gave off an air of bemused calm. But behind the mellow exterior, Nowell was troubled. "There was always a part of him that wasn't satisfied," says his widow, Troy Nowell. Sitting on the patio of Nowell's dad's house, overlooking the calm waters of Alimitos Bay, she recalls her three-year life with Brad. "As happy as he was 80 percent of the time there was 20 percent that could not be made happy, and it ate him up."

Nowell battled with his addiction for most of the time Troy knew him, kicking when his record deal with MCA was in the offing, in 1994, and again when Troy was pregnent a year later. But friends say he could never be comfortable without the drug. Troy blames the Ritalin he was given as a child for having created his craving for drugs, but she blames something else as well: "He wanted to be a rock star. He said it was very rock & roll, you know. Perry Farell and Kurt Cobain and all those guys did drugs, and Brad wanted to see what it was like. Then they honestly begin to think that they write better music! I mean, Robbin' The Hood [Sublime's second album] was written when Brad was at his worst of being strung out. it's a great album, but its all about heroin abuse: ' Now I've got the needle/I can shake but I can't breathe/Take it away and I want more, more/One day I'm gonna lose the war.'"

Sublime was a party band. they played house parties, beach parties, frat parties; and if there wasn't a party, they brought one with them. They were, people will tell you, lovable, but they were also the same people will attest, out of control. They loved to get xxxxed up, they loved to xxxx things up, and they had many ways of doing it. Sometimes Nowell hocked the band's instruments before a gig in order to pay for his habbit. Other times, the band would party too much on the day of a major gig and squander a golden oppertunity. For instance: June 17, 1995 Sublime were invited to play the KROQ Weenie Roast in Los Angeles along side Bush and Hole, at a time when they have nothing more than two indie albums and a hot single, "Date Rape." They print up 40 backstage passes for their friends, family and dogs. By the end of they day, Nowell's beloved Dalmation, Louie, has bitten a record exec's little girl, and one of their pals just missed puking on MTV's Kennedy while she was interviewing the band.

Here's the latest variant: In September 1997, Eric Wilson and Bud Gaugh - Sublime's bassist and drummer - fly to New York for the MTV Video Music Awards. The band has been nominated for the best alternative video. The duo's been drinking for most of the evening, and by the time their category comes up, Gaugh is melted into his seat and Wilson is sucking down a vodka tonic at the lobby bar.

MCA reps corral them just before they win, and they're shoved onstage, folled by Troy Nowell and Marshall Goodman, the groups DJ. Dazed in the spotlight, Gaugh performs a little jig and mumbles a few thank-yous to friends and family. Then, the hulking Wilson holds up the bands shiny statuette, raises a fist and incrogruosly blurts out, "Lynyrd Skynyrd!" Gaugh, realizing that his band mate's comment might need clarification, adds, "for writing the tune 'Working' for MCA.' " In the midst of this stoned spectacle, Goodman comes to the rescue, pointing out very soberly, "This is all for Bradley Nowell - peace."

A month later, Wilson and Gaugh are in more familiar environs - sitting with their girlfriends around a picnic table at Long Beach Sport Fishing, a tackle shop, seafood restaurant and boat-charter operation that looks like it's been perched on this rusty waterfront since long before oil refineries dotted the landscape. Wearing wraparound shades, a loose T-shirt, shorts that reveal several tattos, and a fresh buzz cut, Gaugh is itching to explain his and Wilson's onstage blunders back in New York.

"It all started with the tequila," Gaugh begins. The day before the show, the drummer had been fishing with his girlfriend in Cabo San Lucas, a party town at the tip of Mexico's Baa Peninsula, and he purchased an $85 bottle of tequila as a gift for his dad. But by the time they met up with Wilson the next day in New York, the bottle looked to good to save. So the two decided to "have a little victory shot," as Gaugh puts it. "We thought, 'xxxx it, even if we don't win lets drink this xxxx.' So by the time we got onstage, man, we were wasted." He gazes out at the fishing boats swaying by the docks. "I guess we forgot to thank a couple people."

Wilson clutches a jet-fueled margarita, shudders at the memory. "See, we were already pretty buzzed back at the hotel when I said Bud, 'You know, if we win, we should say "Lynyrd Skynyrd!" ' Bud had mentioned something about the song they did about working for MCA. So when we actually got up there, I was so flabergasted that I just go, ' Lynyrd Skynyrd!' That's all I could say."

The conversation drifts to the memories of Sublime's early days. "It was [the most] fun for us when we were traveling around in a van and crashing on people's floors," Wilson says wistfully. These days, Wilson and Gaugh start most mornings with a bong hit and continue smoking well into the night.Wilson's thrashed two-story Victorian house in Long Beach is their headquarters and the practice space for their new band, the Long Beach Dub All-Stars. It has the feel of a college hangout, with a revolving cast of characters lounging on the couches and chairs , beer bottles covering every flat surface, bongs on the end tables and three Rottweilers that bark viciously and gnash their teeth at newcomers.

Wilson and Gaugh, whose families lived across and alleyway from each other, have been friends since childhood, when they first started playing music together and surfing at nearby Seal Beach.When punk bands like the Minutemen came to town, Gaugh and Wilson were always at the end of the stage. (in fact, the Minutemen lyric "punk rock changed our lives" was sampled as the first line of Sublime's 1992 debute,40oz. To Freedom)

Wilson's dad Billy,a drummer who toured with big bands in his youth and played on a cruise ship during the Depression, was Gaugh's drum teacher. Though Billy WIlson was much older than the parents of Eric's Friends, he was also much cooler; it was he who introduced his son to marijuana. "He got into it while he was hanging out with all those jazz cats, I guess," Eric says of his dad. "He smoked now and then, and to hide the oder he carried around a little bottle of Binaca"

Wilson played the trumpet for a while but says he sucked at it and switched to guitar and then bass. When he was in the sixth grade, he met Nowell. The two began playing music together before Nowell took off for Santa Cruz, to start college at the University of California. During one of Nowell's breaks from school, Wilson introduced him to Bud Gaugh, and the three started jamming together. After recording several DIY cassettes and selling them at shows, Sublime went into a Long Beach studio in 1992 to record 40oz. To Freedom. The album, which the band released on its own label, Skunk, did well on a word-of-mouth basis.

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