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Bradley Nowell: Life After Death

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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.

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