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Bradley Nowell: Life After Death

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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."

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