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Bradley Nowell: Life After Death

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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.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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Song Stories

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Mickey Newbury | 1969

A country-folk song of epic proportions, "San Francisco Mabel Joy" tells the tale of a poor Georgia farmboy who wound up in prison after a move to the Bay Area found love turning into tragedy. First released by Mickey Newbury in 1969, it might be more familiar through covers by Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Kenny Rogers. "It was a five-minute song written in a two-minute world," Newbury said. "I was told it would never be cut by any artist ... I was told you could not use the term 'redneck' in a song and get it recorded."

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