Bradley Nowell:
Sublime’s Eternal Sun of a Beach

© Jeffrey Bertrand

If you didn’t know that today is the 15th deathday of Bradley Nowell, don’t feel bad. Millions of kids bought up Sublime’s 1996 self-titled album—released two months after the singer overdosed on you-know-what in a San Francisco hotel room—but most didn’t know he had died. Nowell is what you might call a late-start martyr, illuminating an otherwise seedy state of affairs with his posthumous halo.

What kind of asshole pawns his band’s equipment right before a gig, casually shits his pants on clonidine patches, and kills himself one week after his wedding and two months before his album goes platinum? A junky, that’s who.

That’s not to say that Brad wasn’t loved. His many friends, his wife, his one year-old son, and his loyal dalmatian absolutely adored him. He was the sort of shirtless surfer boy that has you laughing beer out your nostrils as he recounts the time you accidentally stuck your finger on his dirty needle while fishing for change under the couch cushion. It shouldn’t be funny, but it’s all in the delivery. Charismatic drug-addicts are a lot like cult leaders, lawyers, and cynical writers—totally lovable despite being self-centered pricks.

Bradley Nowell embraced elitist heroin chic like a hipster’s skinny jeans cling to his sweaty butt crack. All the dead rock stars were doing it, and Brad wasn’t about to be left out. Janis Joplin and Sid Vicious were immortalized with a spike to the vein like a nail in the palm. Just like GG Allin, Kurt Cobain, and Shannon Hoon in the early 90s, Bradley Nowell’s body was found stabbed full of more holes than a desperate fat girl who wields a pocket-knife on herself so the entire football team can get it on with her simultaneously. It was an attention thing.

Funny thing is, the wider world never cared about Nowell’s personal struggles until the year after his death. Before that he was just an evening’s worth of good vibe guitar licks bouncing around the Long Beach party scene.

Sublime sold more than 60,000 copies of their 1992 debut 40 oz. to Freedom out of the trunk of a car. They recorded their second album, Robbin’ the Hood, in an obscure Long Beach crackhouse. It was only after a local radio station repeatedly played their peppy single “Date Rape” in 1995—which playfully describes the karmic odyssey of a horny scumbag who goes from picking up victims at the bar to getting forcibly fucked behind bars—that Sublime was given their shot at the national spotlight.

Brad had to do a long stint in rehab to finish off his self-titled mainstream masterpiece, Sublime. The album is a brilliant mix of punk, folk, and reggae—polkeggae, if you will.  He kept it together just long enough.  Two days after his Vegas wedding, Nowell was back on the road and back on the smack, and within five days he was flat on his back and zipped in a sack. With one hot shot he traded his long dreamt-of success, his fatherhood, and God knows how many surfside barbecues for six feet of dirt and a bucketful of worms. Is there such a thing as buyer’s remorse in the afterlife?

© Brandt Hardin

To commemorate Nowell’s passing, my girlfriend and I spent last night listening to his last album under a sweet cloud of schmoke-well. As with “Date Rape”, the most popular tracks on Sublime obscure Nowell’s twisted subject matter with catchy, upbeat tunes. When I was a teenager, Sublime was just the stony soundtrack to my two joints in the morning and two joints at night, not a nightmarish voyage into the heart of darkness.  My, how perception changes with age.

We tapped our feet to “Wrong Way” and sang along to the story of some pervo protagonist driving off with a fourteen year-old prostitute who was broken in by her father and seven brothers, only to have this crafty Lolita steal his car as the cops drag him away. “Santeria” is another love song about reclaiming a street-stepping sweetheart by blowing her new boyfriend’s head off and slapping the shit out of her in full on caveman style. Great mood music for a romantic evening.

“April 29, 1992 (Miami)” is a relaxing romp through the Rodney King riots—a cracker loot anthem about snatching up consumer goods and burning down Babylon for fun. At one point Nowell becomes indignant that certain demographics are overlooked in the chaos:

They said it was for the black man
They said it was for the Mexican
And not for the white man

But Nowell finds that some pastimes transcend race:

It’s about coming up
And staying on top
And screamin’ “187 on a muthafuckin’ cop!”

By the end of the song, my girlfriend and I were ready to take to the streets with Molotov cocktails, but were too blitzed to be bothered. Besides, we had a riddle to unravel.

Sublime’s biggest feel good hit is undoubtedly “What I Got”. On the surface, the tune is as blissfully optimistic as any fortune cookie prediction. But the wise Chinese buffet-goer knows that you have to decode the otherwise vacuous message by adding “in bed” to the end, as in:

“You find beauty in ordinary things, do not lose this ability in bed.”

“Humor usually works at the moment of awkwardness in bed.”

“It takes more than good memory to have good memories in bed.”

“Ideas are like children; there are none so wonderful as your own in bed.”

Through a similar cryptographic analysis, we were able to decipher the true meaning of “What I Got” by reading between the lines:

Early in the morning, risin’ to the street
where there’s heroin
Light me up that cigarette and I strap shoes on my feet
to find heroin
Got to find a reason, a reason things went wrong
heroin?
Got to find a reason why my money’s all gone
because heroin
I got a dalmatian, I can still get high
on heroin
I can play the guit-tar like a motherfuckin’ riot!
which sounds like a drowsy musician struggling to play his instrument while on heroin

Life is too short, so love the one you got
like you would heroin
‘Cause you might get run over or you might get shot
up with too much heroin

[…]

I don’t cry when my dog runs away
because heroin is more important
I don’t get angry at the bills I have to pay
I pay my dealer instead
I don’t get angry when my Mom smokes pot
because nobody likes a hypocrite on heroin
Hits the bottle and goes right to the rock
Fuckin’, fightin’, it’s all the same
when you’re on heroin
Livin’ with Louie dog’s the only way to stay sane
other than heroin
Let the lovin’, let the lovin’ come back to me
or maybe just give me more heroin

Lovin’ is what I got
that, and a spoonful of heroin
I said remember that…

If only anti-drug campaigners had a sliver of the talent Bradley Nowell possessed, there might be no more drug users inspired to write music as powerful as Sublime made.  I often wonder if the drugs open artists up to their fantastic potential—as Nowell believed heroin did for him—or if the music in their souls is simply strong enough to pour out despite the dope.

Did Bradley Nowell shake off his mortal shitbag for sake of a stupid smack habit, or did he ride the Tao into the jagged rocks of Destiny?  Perhaps the answer is somewhere in between, as ambiguous as a Yin-Yang decal on a freshly waxed surfboard.

The ancient Tao Te Ching say: “True words are not beautiful. Beautiful words are not true (in bed).”

© 2011 Joseph Allen

SublimeBadfish
1992

Comments

  1. Juice says:

    “stabbed full of more holes than a desperate fat girl who wields a pocket-knife on herself so the entire football team can get it on with her simultaneously”

    How high were you when you wrote that line?

    • JoeBot says:

      Stone sober. If I had been high, I would have said, “punched full of holes like a Smoothie King loyalty card in mid-summer.”

      Smoothies. Now that’s a seriously addictive substance.

      • Elizabeth Gorden says:

        And you freely admit that, huh? That’s right, you go girlfriend! Embrace your “special-ness”!

        “The lady (i.e.YOU) doth protest too much, methinks.” (Shakespeare’s Hamlet, act III, scene II). Clever as your “in bed” gag/comparison is, and I do mean that, it’s not original but it is funny, no matter how many times I hear or use it. You speak as one who has a very pronounced opinion of addicts but not much understading of addiction, nor the compassion such an understanding naturally elicits. It would really help not to dismiss you entirely as a reporter and commentator were you not so obviously biased and, worse, uneducated about addiction.

        No one sets out to become hurtful and use people (most especially those the love most). Rather, it’s a byproduct of the disease of addiction. An unwelcomed one. One that causes the addict much guilt and remorse, which in turn and ironically fuels the addiction.

        There is a lot of information about addiction out there. It would have been nice if you had the ability to write as a fully informed disseminator. One of the most intuitive learning experiences one could have is to attend open 12-Step meetings for the addict in question. In lieu of that, any addict primary program will suffice. If you keep an open mind you will learn the experience of carrying that heavy load in life. No one would choose it as a lifestyle knowing the pain it creates in self and others not to mention death when you just had a baby and got married and were on the verge of realizing your dreams.

        That being said, it appears your hostility on this issue has clouded your judgement. Bradley Nowell remains an exceedingly valuable creative force. You attempt to diminish his creative genius when you wrote: “…he was just an evening’s worth of good vibe guitar licks bouncing around the Long Beach party scene.” Let me elucidate a couple if facts about the man. He was educated, well-read and insightful. He was also sensitive, smart and deep, aside from being obviously quite gifted. If you can’t extract that from his music, you either haven’t listened to it, or you aren’t capable of very deep thought or perception (I hazard a guess at the latter).

        Bradley Nowell’s accomplishments, his life’s work, his immense talent and unique contribution to music will live on well past your snarky, talentless, mean-spirited, tunnel visioned commentary about something you obviously don’t know much about; namely the very subject you wrote about. Way to go, brainiac.

  2. Jacob Konnoff says:

    Dude no disrespect for speaking ur own opinion but you need to understand bradley wrote song u had some correct but ur interpritation about what i got was far off his actual meaning any people confuse lyrics u have to have stepped thru that persons past urself and emerise ur self in the music to get a full understanding i understand sublime and nirvana ive been thru the cobain life and the nowell life niether was easy but bradley new what would happen and lived life he fought his addicction but new one day hed loose the war. Its very hard for many to understand the havent lived the long beach skater shoot up expierence they didnt no the band or the love he felt for everyone bradley would help u out if u needed a place to crash u could have the bed in his hotel room he wasnt gonna use

    • BC says:

      Okay, Jacob Konnoff, I’ll bite.

      First: You aren’t famous. You haven’t lived the life of Bradley Nowell or Kurt Cobain, and I know that because I have never heard of you. If you are trying to say that you’ve been caught up in the heroin lifestyle, congratulations, you are somehow still breathing and (barely) typing. The lifestyles of Nowell and Cobain are famous largely because of their musical abilities and output, and also because of how they ended.

      Second: People like to tell stories about how selfless Bradley was, and how he would give you what he had, but they never tell about what he was asking for. He desired your attention, which gave him the excuse and the cash to get high until he died. I never met him, so I don’t know if he actually asked his friends or family for cash for smack, but I have known a hell of a lot of people with drug problems, and they ALL need more money, and will ask for it. Usually, it’s for their phone bill or to get their guitar out of pawn for next weekend’s gig. Did he let YOU sleep in his hotel bed?

      Third: ‘What I Got’ might have some fairly hippie quality to it as far as love being all important, but listen to the song. It’s just a song, it doesn’t have a lot of real meaning to it, besides just sounding good. Bradley tells the listener to take a small example, and to give all your money to charity. Taking his example, he didn’t give his money to charity, he bought drugs with it, that he presumably didn’t share, which resulted in his death.

  3. Joseph Hickey says:

    Good Article

  4. Joseph Hickey says:

    But Bradley was not a selfish person he loved and was nice to everyone he met unless they dissed him. He had a drug problem which he had regretted in his later years. Once before a concert or sometime on a tour he had been caught sobbing saying how much heroin had taken away from him musically and in life. He wanted to get well but it is so hard to stop a addiction especially a heroin addiction his family did everything they could to help him once they even locked him in their own house and literally had to hold him down once so he couldn’t escape and get his fix. I wouldn’t say he was like other drug problem musicians such as Kurt Cobain though he loved life and didn’t want to die even with his addiction he sang of life and to love it. Bradley had a lot of love given to him and he expressed it in his music. He was not selfish he was a addict no offense i feel theirs a difference. He loved his wife and kid and its not like he purposely died two weeks after his wedding i mean come on. He even called his wife the night he died and told her how much he loved her and their son and how he could not wait to see them. I think it was unfair when he died leaving his family, friends, fans and baby son behind. I know that he feels terrible for them but he left a legacy and a lot of love. Brad in his own words was funkie not a junkie. Teens should not look to be just like him but take his good music, vibe and express it.
    Sorry for my spelling if i did something wrong. like with their and there i get that stuff mixed up.

  5. moe says:

    laughed my ass off with the what i got interpretation. Yeah i always knew it was about heroin because i knew he was a junkie. the first verse especially. People chill there might be more to the song true, like not every line is about heroin like the writer says hes just messin around. Sublime great band RIP

  6. Great article. Drug addicts (while sad) are completely selfish. They want themselves all for themselves! That is what drug addiction is really all about, not wanting the reality of a shitty relationship with a parent or loved one. Or not having to deal with any mundane basic human responsibility like paying your own god damned cell phone bill. Rather than fixing themselves or the problem, the problem (or issue) and subsequent solutions are put off by getting high. They want everything to be perfect all the time, so they escape in a drug and the the drug itself becomes a parasite…and it too wants the individual all to themselves. Then the drug consumes them. It is Karma…a viscous circle that is fed by chemical dependency and it all began with a lack of regard for responsibility. Even the type drug that a drug user chooses has plenty to tell about the type of person the druggie is. It is like wanting to eat your desert before the meal…we have all seen over weight children and adults…if you exercise properly you can eat ice cream…you just can’t all of it and you need moderation. You don’t give your dog a dog treat before they sit do you? I am not saying that Heroin can be effectively used in moderation but go tell that to Keith Fucking Richards or Miles Davis. So don’t cry to me about the unfair position of this writer (who by the way is fucking spot on and talented as fuck) who obviously knows a bit about both; dealing with strung out selfish drug addled humans and moderation.

    • Pheonix says:

      Wow for just being a song u ppl make everything he ever did about heroin.. So tell me .. Had nothing ever had been said n no one even knew n lets say it wasnt heroin that killed him but a car crash.. A heart attack or many of the other million ways of exiting this planet .. Would it still matter to u? It takes a real dumbass to pick on people who arent even alive.. Criticizing is easy aint it.. Judging others cuz hey none of us here have ever been addicted to anything? Seriously.. Every single one of u has an addiction to something.. Dont think ur above another just cuz ur not doing what they do.. What does it matter to u what he did n how he did stuff? Its not ur life nor was ur music or even ur situation.. Ppl talk alot of shit but unless ur brad then none of us really know anything.. U can talk all u want but it doesnt change shit.. N sorry not everyone who does drugs does so to escape or beg for money or sell shit for whatever they do.. Ive seen ppl do worse n die worse over alcohol.. Does anyone get thier tidy whiteys in a bunch over that? I think not.. Lol.. Good article but ya might wanna stick to just enjoying the music.. Life is too short to be gettin stressed over stupid crap ppl

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  8. Elizabeth Gorden says:

    “The lady (i.e.the author of this article) doth protest too much, methinks.” (Shakespeare’s Hamlet, act III, scene II). Clever as your “in bed” gag/comparison is, and I do mean that, it’s not original but it is funny, no matter how many times I hear or use it. You speak as one who has a very pronounced opinion of addicts but not much understading of addiction, nor the compassion such an understanding naturally elicits. It would really help not to dismiss you entirely as a reporter and commentator were you not so obviously biased and, worse, uneducated about addiction.

    No one sets out to become hurtful and use people (most especially those they love most). Rather, it’s a byproduct of the disease od addiction. An unwelcomed one. One that causes the addict much guilt and remorse, which in turn and ironically fuels the addiction. Incidentally, addiction has been recognized as a disease (with genetic roots) by The American Medical Association for decades now, as opposed to a weakness of character, as you and some others have posted.

    There is a lot of information about addiction out there. There’s simply no excuse for so much ignorance about it. It would have been nice if you had the ability to write as a fully informed disseminator. One of the most intuitive learning experiences one could have is to attend open 12-Step meetings for the addict in question. In lieu of that, any addict primary program will suffice. If you keep an open mind you will learn the experience of carrying that heavy load in life. No one would choose it as a lifestyle knowing the pain it creates in self and others. And who would they take themselves out of the picture when they just had a baby and got married and were on the verge of realizing their dreams? Your tone makes it sound like anyone who dies from drugs is a merely a transient fool. Wrong! It’s an unfathomable tagedy born by our collective sorrow for the loss of a dynamic soul wrenched from us far too soon. Some respect is in order, addict or not.

    While we’re in the neighborhood, let’s visit the worn out comparison between Brad Nowell and Curt Cobain. While they both were addicted to heroin, Curt Cobain committed suicide. With a gun. Brad Nowell did not mean to die. It was a tragic accident. I respect & appreciate Curt Cobain, however he didn’t possess the creativity, humor, effervescence and charm that Bradley Nowell did.

    It appears your hostility regarding the dark side of addict’s behavior has clouded your judgement. Bradley Nowell remains an exceedingly valuable creative force. With regard to your dissmissive belittlement of Bradley: “…he was just an evening’s worth of good vibe guitar licks bouncing around the Long Beach party scene.” Let me elucidate a couple if facts about the man. He was educated, well-read and insightful. He was also sensitive, smart and deep, aside from being obviously quite gifted. If you can’t extract that from his music, you either haven’t listened to it, or you aren’t capable of very deep thought or perception (I hazard a guess at the latter).
    Bradley Nowell’s accomplishments, his life’s work, his immense talent and unique contribution to music will live on well past your snarky, talentless, mean-spirited, tunnel visioned commentary about something you obviously don’t know much about; namely the very subject you wrote about. Way to go, brainiac.

    • JoeBot says:

      I can only assume that you either A) do not have a sense of humor (with the exception of fortune cookie jokes, of course,) B) did not read the last two paragraphs, or C) are the sort of insufferable busy-body who would get off on her own moral tirade no matter what the subject may be.

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