Bradley Nowell: Life After Death

Two months before the release of his band's finest album, Bradley Nowell stuck a needle in his arm and died. In the 18 months since, Sublime has become the biggest rock act of 1997

Bradley Nowell Eric Wilson Bud Gaugh Sublime
Steve Eichner/WireImage
Bradley Nowell, Eric Wilson and Bud Gaugh of Sublime
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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 the mythic impact of so many rock star flameouts. 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 funk Nowell cooked up during his 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 den Denkker, 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 the Smashing Pumpkins' touring keyboard player, Jonathon Melvoin, got more attention in the press. In fact, plenty of Sublime fans don't even know that Nowell is gone. "We still get lots of letters for him," says Brad's father, Jim, who handles his son's estate. "I have a boxful of them in my office."

At least a boxful. By April 1997, a little less than a year after Nowell's OD, Sublime had entered Billboard's Top 20, and the album's 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 beginning. Throughout 1997, Sublime produced hit after hit, and the album 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 liked 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 on the guitar after hearing it once. By the 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, Calif., in 1981. He was a smart kid who got good grades and had the 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 counselors 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 Southeast Asian neighborhoods 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 melding 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 Alamitos 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 got pregnant 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 Farrell 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 it's all about his 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 were 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 fucked up, they loved to fuck 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 habit. Other times, the band would party too much on the day of a major gig and squander a golden opportunity. For instance: June 17, 1995 – Sublime are invited to play the KROQ Weenie Roast in Los Angeles alongside Bush and Hole, at a time when they have nothing more than two indie albums and a hot local single, "Date Rape." They print up 40 backstage passes for their friends, family and dogs. By the end of the day, Nowell's beloved Dalmatian, 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 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, followed by Troy Nowell and Marshall Goodman, the group's 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 band's shiny statuette, raises a fist and incongruously blurts out, "Lynyrd Skynyrd!" Gaugh, realizing that his band mate's comment might need clarification, adds, "for writing the tune 'Workin' 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 sunglasses, a loose T-shirt, shorts that reveal several tattoos, 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 Baja Peninsula, and he purchased an $85 bottle of tequila as a gift for his dad. But by the time he met up with Wilson the next day in New York, the bottle looked too good to save. So the two decided to "have a little victory shot," as Gaugh puts it. "We thought, 'Fuck it, even if we don't win, let's drink this shit.' 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 of people."

Wilson, clutching a jet-fueled margarita, shudders at the memory. "See, we were already pretty buzzed back at the hotel when I said to 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 flabbergasted that I just go, 'Lynyrd Skynyrd!' That's all I could say."

The conversation drifts to 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 an 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 edge of the stage. (In fact, the Minutemen lyric "punk rock changed our lives" was sampled as the first line on Sublime's 1992 debut, 40 Oz. 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 odor he carried around a little bottle of Binaca."

Wilson played trumpet for a while but says he sucked at it and switched to guitar and then bass. When he was in 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 40 Oz. to Freedom. The album, which the band released on its own label, Skunk, did well on a word-of-mouth basis.

But by then Nowell had begun experimenting with hard drugs, and by the time Sublime began work on the followup, Robbin' the Hood – most of which was recorded in a Long Beach crack house – his addiction was out of control. Gaugh attempted to reach out to his band mate – though often in destructive ways. "I felt like kicking his ass," recalls Gaugh, who himself had been hooked on speed and heroin for years. "I mean, I'd been there and was still struggling with it. So I was all things that I could be to him during that time. I tried to be his conscience; I tried to be his nurse. I even tried to be his drug buddy; I mean, we got loaded together a couple of times."

Nowell met Troy in 1993, at a Sublime show in San Diego. "We were just friends at first and we stayed friends for a long time," she says. "It wasn't until '95 that we started seeing each other." As Nowell alienated his friends, family and band mates, Troy was the one person who was there for him to talk to. "He'd already promised everybody that he would stop doing it and had asked for help," she says. "People would help him and then he'd hurt them. So when I came along, I hadn't been fooled by him yet."

The prospect of signing to a major label was a big deal for Nowell, so when Sublime began talking with MCA, in 1994, he was determined to really clean up. "He decided on his own that he wanted to go to rehab," says Troy. "He knew he had to get clean before the MCA thing could happen." Nowell did get clean for a while, but in February 1996, when the band traveled to Austin, Texas, to begin recording Sublime at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio with producer Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers, Nowell went back to heroin more vigorously than ever. "They're the sweetest bunch of guys, [but] it was chaos in the studio," Leary says. On good days, they'd show up at 9 a.m. with margaritas in one hand and instruments in the other and go to work; on bad days, they nearly burned the place down. "There were times where someone had to go into the bathroom to see if Brad was still alive," he says. Nowell's drug use became so intense that Leary sent him home to Long Beach before the record was completed. "It took him three days to get back on his feet," Jim Nowell recalls. "It was the worst I'd ever seen him."

The skies above Long Beach are clear today, and Troy Nowell is sprawled on a lounge chair on the back patio of her in-laws' house, a modest yellow-paneled, two-story home in a well-kept neighborhood. She has long, blond-streaked hair and is dressed in black running shorts and a white baby tee that partially exposes a rose tattoo on her right arm. When she speaks, her voice has a coarse, cigarette-wrecked edge. "Did you see the tattoo on my back?" she asks, turning to reveal a pair of Chinese characters. "The top one means 'to be in mourning,' and the bottom one means 'husband.'" She laughs and lights another Marlboro as 2-year-old Jakob runs around in a tiny T-shirt with Big Kahuna scrawled across the front. "He was very bad at the grocery store this morning," she says. "He's acting much better now, aren't you, Jake?" Jakob nods vigorously, and you can see Brad in his face and Troy in his half-moon eyes. "Sometimes Jake will say something that I want Brad to hear so bad," she says, "but he can't, because he's gone."

Troy den Denkker was born and raised in a San Diego household where drugs and alcohol were always around. Her mother was hooked on speed throughout Troy's childhood, and her father was a biker who held frequent parties at the house. "They were wonderful people," Troy stresses. "I loved them all. I mean, they were real." Troy will look you straight in the eye and tell you exactly why she was attracted to Brad Nowell. "I love drug addicts," she says. "I went to see that movie Boogie Nights the other night, and, you know, I knew all those people. When it was over, I turned to my girlfriend and that's just what I said: 'I love drug addicts.' I guess they're just the kind of people I'm used to being around. They're great; they're crazy."

Troy, who is studying to be a substance-abuse counselor, says she and Brad spent a lot of time talking about his problems. "I was very understanding," she says. "And Brad was so open about it. He used it as a way of getting attention. That's the sick thing about heroin addicts. They're like, 'Take care of me.' They're like puppy dogs. And I guess I wanted to take care of him." She was also more than ready for him to clean up when he decided to go back to rehab in 1995, soon after Troy found out she was pregnant.

"In the beginning I was real accepting of his behavior, but then there was much more at stake," she says. "We'd bought this beautiful house, we had our beautiful son, we were about to get married and it was driving me crazy. I felt like I didn't have anyone to turn to. His whole attitude was, 'Look at everything we've got – I can have a reward every now and then.' He wanted to reward himself. It was like, 'I'm not hurting anyone, I'm just doing it this one day.' "

But one day turned into a week, and pretty soon Brad was in trouble again. "It scared the hell out of me," Troy says. "And the thing that was so horrible is that when he would get high, he'd be so euphoric and so happy. I was like, 'Why can't you be this happy when you're not on it?' " She pauses and looks away. "It got really ugly," she finally says, "and that tore him up.

"You know, the one thing that gave me the most peace after Brad died," she continues, "was when his first love, Eileen, came to me and said, 'He did everything that he wanted to do, and he went to sleep. He was tired and went to sleep.' The way she put it was exactly true. Brad was so tired – he really was. He was tired of letting everyone down, of letting himself down; he was tired of trying to stay clean, tired of everything."

Even though Nowell died too soon to experience his band's success, for Troy his death was like the final chapter in a long, exhausting journey. "Brad had accomplished everything he wanted," she says. "He always wanted to have a baby: 'We gotta have a kid,' he said. He wanted to get his family back, 'cause he had hurt them so bad with his drug use. And he did. He wanted to get this album written, and he wanted it to be the best one he ever wrote. And he did. He wanted his band to have glory. And they did."

She lights another cigarette. "I'm not saying that it's OK that Brad died, because it's not OK. So many things have happened that I wish he could see – Sublime being nominated for awards and their videos being on MTV all the time and their songs played on the radio. Or things will happen with me, and Brad's the first person I want to tell, 'cause we were best friends. I want to see his reaction to all this. What's OK is [that] there's no more struggle, no more war. That struggle took up a lot of our energy and our time, and it was horrible. He's at peace now."

Jim Nowell and his second wife, Jane, are flipping through a photo album that shows Brad from birth through his teen and college years, his emaciated drug years, and his wedding, a Hawaiian-themed extravaganza in Las Vegas, when he had filled out again and gotten some color back in his face. Jim, a burly, affable guy, was a contractor until he retired to manage Sublime's affairs. Last Fourth of July, he and Jane threw a big backyard barbecue and invited Brad's old posse. The Long Beach Dub All-Stars jammed most of the afternoon. When they got around to playing Brad's songs, Jim and Jane were shaken and had to go inside – they didn't want their grief to spoil anyone's good time.

The first time she met Brad, says Jane, she was astonished at his good behavior. "I remember telling Jim, 'Gee, you did something really good with this kid. I've never seen a boy who is so polite and interested in his elders.' Even when he got into his teens, he would always offer his chair to you." She loved Brad from day one, helping him through his best years as a student and musician, as well as his worst years as a drug addict. Jane defended her stepson's decision to get a tattoo – even when his father opposed it. "It was kind of like an Aztec design that went from his knee to his ankle," she says, remembering the day he came home with it. "Well, Jim's sitting here looking at it, and he says to Brad, 'So, how long is that thing going to be on there?'"

"I said, 'It does wash off, doesn't it?' " Jim adds.

Jane laughs. "Brad and I just look at each other because we're thinking, 'He's kidding,' you know. And then we look at Jim and we see that he's not kidding. So I go, 'Jim, that's not the wash-off kind of tattoo.' And Jim goes, 'It's not?' I mean, it was a huge tattoo!" To prove her loyalty to her stepson, Jane hikes up her pant leg and shows me her own new tattoo. It's the image of the sun from the cover of 40 Oz. to Freedom.

There's a party going on at Eric Wilson's house, which is on the edge of one of Long Beach's more unsavory neighborhoods. Wilson and the Dub All-Stars are jamming on an old Skatalites tune when Jim Nowell drops by for a visit. Before long, Nowell picks up an acoustic guitar and joins in, playing and singing. As the group moves from the Skatalites to a silly version of "Puff the Magic Dragon" and then to a free-form Dead-like jam, everyone in the house – including a gangly couple who'd been playing pool in the front room, a couple of dudes just back from a beer run, and Opie Ortiz, a shirtless tattoo artist who had earlier been working on a customer – packs into the room, listening intently to the deep, warm croon of the elder Nowell's voice.

At one point, Wilson, hunched over his upright bass in a Surf and Sail tank top and mismatched sneakers, turns to Nowell and smiles. "Hey, Jimbo," he says, "play some of those real old songs that you know. How 'bout 'Minnie the Moocher'?" Over the next hour, the group runs through a set of pop, folk and country hits, like "Ain't She Sweet?" "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "Okie From Muskogee." By the end, the blue-collar cool of this posse of tattooed skate-punks has turned to blissful, drunken, giddy exuberance.

Then, suddenly, the mood turns wistful. "Hey, Jimbo," asks Jack Maness, who's been playing acoustic lead guitar, "what about 'Sunny'?" He is referring to the old Bobby Hebb song that Jim and Brad used to play together at backyard parties at the Nowells' home. "I remember one day Brad said to you, 'I wanna do it like this, Dad,' and you told him, 'Yeah, son, but this is how it goes.' "

Everyone in the room erupts in laughter. The kind of laughter that brings tears. It's a laughter that has positively conjured the ghost of Brad Nowell – right here, right now, in the wee hours of an October morning in Long Beach. It's a few moments before Wilson's gregarious girlfriend, Kat Rodriguez, breaks the silence: "Now, that's Brad for you – in a nutshell," she says. "He was going to do things his way or no way. That's why no band will ever sound like Sublime."

This story is from the December 25th, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 776: December 25, 1997