Time - August 12 1996
When Brad Nowell woke up in a San Francisco hotel around 6:30 a.m. on May 25, his life appeared to be turning around. The 28-year-old singer-songwriter for the ska/hip-hop/punk-rock trio Sublime had a reputation for wildness and womanizing, but he was trying to change. He had been married the week before in a Hawaiian-theme ceremony in Las Vegas, and now he was doing what he loved, touring the country with his band, which had just finished recording an album that, to everyone who heard it, sounded like a smash. In fact, Nowell felt so good that May morning, he decided to take his Dalmatian Louie for an early walk along the beach. He tried to get Eric Wilson, Sublime's bass player, to join him--"It's a beautiful day out there," Nowell said--but Wilson closed his eyes and pretended to snore. It would be the last time anyone would see Nowell alive. A few hours later, Sublime's drummer, Floyd ("Bud") Gaugh, found him lying on his hotel-room bed, dead of a heroin overdose.
Nowell left behind his new bride Troy, an 11-month-old son Jakob and a host of might-have-beens. The group's final album, titled simply and aptly Sublime (MCA), was released last week and might have been the band's ticket to becoming the hottest new act in the music industry. Nowell might have been to ska what Kurt Cobain was to grunge--a big, blazing talent who introduces the mainstream to a new musical world. Nowell, however, played the Cobain role a bit too well, and Sublime, like Nirvana, will be best remembered as a band with history-making potential that perished before reaching its full potential--or, in Sublime's case, before most Americans had even heard of it. Says Gaugh: "The band died when Brad died."
Nevertheless, the band's album lives on and deserves to be heard. Simply put, it is the best rock release of the year so far. Like such cutting-edge performers as Beck, Tricky and Rage Against the Machine, Sublime draws confidently on the group's new CD from both alternative rock and avant-garde hip-hop, creating a sound that is sharp and soulful. The band also tosses reggae and ska (a faster, jerkier reggae precursor) into the sonic mix, resulting in songs that are hard to categorize and harder still to resist. While much of today's pop wallows in recycled schlock rock from the '70s (Kiss) and rehashed alternative rock from last week (just turn on the radio), Sublime offers up a sound that is fresh and potent.
Will morbid curiosity attract some listeners? Of course. But MCA is trying to avoid looking like postmortem profiteers. A press release accompanying advance copies of the CD expresses a wish to avoid "the appearance [of] exploitation of Bradley's death," although it then goes on to say that "if there is one last gift" Nowell could give to his bandmates, his widow and baby boy, it was "financial security."
Nowell's last gift to everyone else is this outstanding album. The first song on it, Garden Grove, features a scratchy, staccatoguitar riff, characteristic of ska, along with sampled snatches of sound and music. The result is a feeling of restful introspection coupled with an underlying sense of urgency. On April 29, 1992 (Miami), the band combines an itchy ska beat with a kind of enlightened gangsta-rap attitude to capture the incendiary, anarchic mood on the streets during the nationwide Rodney King uprisings. Nowell is not just channel-surfing through these emotions and genres, and he's not parodying them, as the Beastie Boys once parodied rap and heavy metal. Instead Nowell uses eclecticism to explore and understand his own shifting thoughts and moods. There is a purpose to his pastiche, and his bright, versatile voice holds everything together.
It was Nowell who first introduced his bandmates to ska and reggae, when the trio were middle-class, punk-rock-worshipping youngsters growing up in Long Beach, California. They formed a band in 1988, and when clubs refused to book their strange-sounding hybrid act, they founded their own label, Skunk Records, just so they could proudly tell clubs they were "Skunk Records recording artists."
In 1995 the band played on the very first Warped tour (an annual skateboarding/ska/punk traveling music festival) and became the very first act asked to leave the tour (for a week) because of unruly behavior. This group was too punk rock even for punks. Explains Gaugh: "Basically, our daily regimen was wake up, drink, drink more, play, and then drink a lot more. We'd call people names. Nobody got our sense of humor. Then we brought the dog out and he bit a few skaters, and that was the last straw."
The drinking, the unpredictability, even the out-of-control Dalmatian, were all part of Sublime's volatile appeal. Gaugh says he and his bandmates were looking for extremes, for the raw experience that could help them write and perform compelling rock. For Nowell, harder drugs than alcohol were part of his wild ride to artistic inspiration. Gaugh says now, not surprisingly, that it was "definitely the wrong way."
But for rock stars, it has been an all too popular way. The music industry has been rocked, in the past few years, by the drug-related deaths of Nirvana's Cobain and Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, and more recently Blind Melon's front man Shannon Hoon and Smashing Pumpkins keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin. As for Nowell, his bandmates say they tried to help him. Recalls Wilson: "If you tried to talk to him about it, he would get mad. He thought he was invincible. When someone would die, other artists, he'd just go, 'O.K., they're stupid, they shot too much, they didn't know what they were doing.' "
The night before Nowell died, Gaugh says, his friend told him he was giving up heroin and that his next hit would be his last. Of course, addicts always say that. It's usually a lie. Unfortunately for Nowell's friends, family and fans, this time it proved true.