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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 and Bud Gaugh of Sublime
Steve Eichner/WireImage
December 25, 1997

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.

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