Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Death by Misadventure- Brad Nowell

"Thank you all from the pit of my burning, nauseous stomach...."

The path to the pinnacle of rock & roll is lined with tombstones and hypodermic needles. Layne Staley and Kurt Cobain were troubled by the idea of fading away and being forgotten in death. Kurt went so far as to close his infamous suicide note with a line that was borrowed in part from Neil Young "I don't have the passion anymore and so remember it's better to burn out than to fade away

Both men resigned themselves to early (though avoidable) deaths. A myriad of behavioral disorders ultimately helped their prophecies come to pass. Staley and Cobain unlike Brad Nowell didn't just get a small taste of success, they fucking feasted on it. Both rose to heights of fame and fortune that neither could have ever imagined. In the end, the level of success achieved, validated their self destructive ambitions.  

They felt used up and spit out by the very system that had made them rich beyond their wildest dreams. Success brought demands, spoon feeding the fans was a task neither one cared for.  Was it sour grapes from malcontents who refused to grow the fuck up, or did fame hound them to their deaths?  Rock stardom may have been the worse thing that could possibly happen to either one.    

"Speaking from the tongue of an experienced simpleton who obviously would rather be an emasculated, infantile complain-ee"

Brad Nowell didn't choose the time of his death or leave a carefully drafted suicide note. It's almost certain that dying was the last thing he expected to happen to him. The month of May in the year of 1996, was to be special. After several  years of grinding it out playing backyard gigs & clubs, Sublime had signed with MCA and their debut album was set to drop.

For Brad & the band it was a moment of triumph, one that would help them forget the hard days and trying times. Nowell had battled addiction almost from the Sublime's inception. At times, stooping so low as to steal and pawn the band's equipment for drug money just before a show. Nodding out on stage, or stopping in the middle of a set for a fix was not uncommon for Brad.

Neither Nowell, the band or their hardcore loyal fans could ignore the elephant in the room. Many of the band's song lyrics dealt with addiction and Brad's struggles. It was sadly the common denominator that connected the band with many of their fans. For them to overcome all that and have an impact on the national music scene was almost unthinkable... yet here they were. 

"I won't flake or perpetrate - I won't front no funky ho"

Then, just a week after his marriage to Troy Dendekker (they already had an infant son), in the midst of a five day tour of Northern California (the first leg of a tour that included stops on the East Coast & Europe) Nowell was found dead of a heroin overdose in San Francisco. Bradley's life was over.... but strangely enough, his impact was just starting to be felt. 

"It mediates reggae, folk and punk, makes them all constituent parts that serve a great songwriter's vision. It might seem a daring experiment if it hadn't so effortlessly sprung from a Long Beach surf scene that featured acoustic jams on the beach that naturally flowed from Wailers to Descendents classics, from ego less poise to omnivorous id-explosions"  RJ Smith Spin Magazine 1996

Long Beach has a storied but mostly overlooked music legacy "The greatest bands I'd ever heard came from here" is how Sublime founding member & bassist Eric Wilson describes the scene. "A lot of really great bands couldn't stay together long enough."  It was a long shot that three childhood friends, Brad Nowell, Eric Wilson and Bud Gaugh would buck those odds. 

"I don't get angry when my mom smokes pot, hits that bottle and goes right to the rock"

Sublime started coming together in 1988. Brad, home on a break from UC-Santa Cruz, started jamming with Wilson and Gaugh. The band grew from there, until according to Bud Gaugh "We were, like... the band that everybody in the scene would show up for." Nowell transferred to Cal St.- Long Beach to be closer to home, although he dropped out just short of earning his degree.

The band's first break came when Michael "Miguel" Happoldt (he would later become their manager) a music student at Cal St.-Dominguez Hills, offered to let the band record at the school's studio.  They would sneak onto the campus at midnight and record until seven in the morning, departing before any staffers arrived. This unconventional approach resulted in their first release,  "Jah Won't Pay the Bills" distributed by the band on cassette in 1991.

Wary of their rowdy reputation and Long Beach roots, most concert promoters turned the band away. To alleviate this problem, Nowell and Wilson created their own record label, Skunk Records. By billing themselves as "Skunk Records recording artists" music venues began to open their doors to the band. As a result Sublime's early recordings and demos tapes soon found their way into local record stores.

"Mucho gusto me llamo Bradley"

It was roots music, an eclectic fusion of punk and ska, interspersed with Spanish lyrics that instantly made Sublime unique. Bradley Nowell could channel all the dysfunctional, mind fucking problems faced by the homeboys and turn them into songs that celebrated SoCal culture. (in all its obnoxious, macho, violence prone glory)  Just like Brian Wilson,  Nowell had a knack for creating music that was uniquely Californian. 

Even surrounded by all that California surf and sun, it's hard to maintain a sunny disposition. How else do you explain the prevalent use of heroin in the south land. It was a culture that creeped north over the border and into every nook and cranny of Los Angeles. Bradley feared heroin and stayed away from that scene. But now, with the band picking up steam he felt compelled to use.  

Bradley's father, Jim talked about what fueled his son's impulse to use heroin "His excuse for taking the heroin was that he felt like he had to be larger than life. He was leading the band, leading his fans, and he had to put on this persona. He had heard a lot of musicians say that they were taking heroin to be more creative."  

"Waking up to an alarm, stickin needles in your arm"

For Sublime heroin addiction was the cross they had to bear.  They seemed destined for the same fate as all "those great Long Beach bands" that Eric Wilson spoke of. Then in 1992, more by chance than design, Tazy Phillips (an associate of the band) dropped off a copy of Sublime's debut album "40 Oz. to Freedom" at KROQ-FM in Los Angeles. Tazy asked the program director to consider adding "Date Rape" to the station's playlist. 

Recorded in 1990, "40 Oz. to Freedom" had been largely ignored and received little promotional push. "Date Rape" a ridiculous tune that made no effort at political correctness "Come on baby, don't be afraid.... if it wasn't for date rape, I'd never get laid." made it onto the KROQ rotation and became the station's most requested song. The uncouth but catchy song pissed all over a very sensitive subject, nonetheless it pushed "40 Oz. to Freedom" straight up the alternative charts.

"Robbin' the Hood" the 1994 follow-up was recorded under austere conditions in a "earthquake damaged house-cum tweaker pad with pirated electricity" The second album was far different from the first, it showed Bradley with a softer edge, crooning like a rude boy (it includes a duet with Gwen Stefani) "Robbin' the Hood" while melodically upbeat, offered an unblinking peek into the dark and seedy side of the addiction gripping the band.  

"Take me to that amigo town, where I can score some of that Heroin brown"

Bradley Nowell, was unashamed of his addiction, he approached it like everything else. He read books about addicts, he studied the process, he emulated William Burroughs as "someone who knew how to hold his drugs." He sneered at the mention of Shannon Hoon's name (Blind Melon's doomed lead singer) calling him stupid and weak.

Nowell looked down on non-users who tried to get him to quit "You guys don't understand because, you don't do heroin." Bradley equated the rush of a heroin high with the same rush he felt when surfing, they were one and the same. His addiction was a badge of honor, a rite of passage, if afforded him membership to an elite and ultra hip society.

In the midst of all that, MCA records (a label with a long history of fucking over musicians) came calling. In February of 1996, Sublime arrived at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio in Austin, Tx. to work with Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers. On the surface it seemed like an odd pairing. The Butthole Surfers were no strangers to heroin culture and Austin had long nurtured a chiva cult of its own.

"Leaving without making a sound"

On the other hand, that may have been why MCA sent them to Texas. Nonetheless, Paul Leary helped produce a masterful, major label debut for the band. MCA had hit the fucking mother lode.  Originally titled "Killin' It" the album went into the can and Sublime set out on a major promotional tour. Starting with a five date romp through Northern California. 

During a stay in San Francisco, Bud Gaugh retreated to Bradley's hotel room to shoot up. He passed out and when he came to, he found Bradley Nowell collapsed across the bed, with his knees still on the floor. Unable to wake him, he called Eric Wilson who found a green froth around Nowell's mouth, he had overdosed on heroin. An ambulance was called, but Brad had been dead for several hours. 

Gaugh would later reflect "I thought, that was probably supposed to be me" The dream was over, the prophet of Long Beach had been called back home. Bradley Nowell was cremated and his ashes scattered at his favorite surfing spot. A headstone was erected at Westminster Memorial as a tribute to his fans. It now remains adorned with flowers and 40 oz. bottles.

"I don't practice Santeria I ain't got no crystal ball"

"Killin' It" now bearing an eponymous title was released on July 30th, 1996. In 1997 it entered the Top 20, it would go on to sell over six million copies. "What I Got" shot to #1 on the rock charts and the hits kept coming, "Santeria", "Wrong Way" and "Doin' Time" soon followed. The band's videos (interspersed with live concert footage of Brad) were in heavy rotation on MTV. Disbanded for nearly a year,  Sublime was declared the most successful American rock act of 1997.

As the Long Beach Dub All Stars, Wilson & Gaugh continued to perform Sublime's music for a few years after Brad's death. But, for all intents and purposes Sublime died with Bradley Nowell.  Brad with the consent of Wilson & Gaugh had registered the name "Sublime" under his name before his death. Jim Nowell stated "It was Brad's expressed intention that no one use the name in any group that did not include him." 

This recently led to a round of court action as Jim tried to stop Eric Wilson & Bud Gaugh from performing as "Sublime with Rome" (Ramirez)  Wilson & Gaugh got an injunction that allowed them to continue for now. Afterwards Bud issued this statement: 

"It's unfortunate that The Estate would take a position against us. Eric, Brad and I started this band when we were kids. We were the ones that spent years paying dues playing hole-in-the-wall clubs. We were the ones lugging around our gear in a broken down van. We were the ones that spent years writing, recording and rehearsing. WE. Not anyone else. Sublime is a band -- our band. *Bud Gaugh has since disassociated himself from "Sublime with Rome" for personal reasons.