The Examined Life Ends for Brad Nowell


In his introduction to the public last year, and in his exit last weekend, Brad Nowell became the embodiment of sad show-biz cliches.

The front man of Long Beach rock and reggae trio Sublime, Nowell arrived as the singer of a cartoonish novelty hit, “Date Rape,” that even he came to find annoying; he departed as an apparent heroin casualty, found dead May 25 in a San Francisco hotel room at the age of 28.

But the sadness of an early and pointless death will be unfairly compounded if Nowell goes down in rock memory merely as a guitar-toting druggie who got lucky with a lightweight song, then got very unlucky with his habits.


The three records he made as Sublime’s singer, guitarist and songwriter hold decisive evidence that Nowell deserves to be remembered for more than the triviality of his coming into the public’s consciousness, and the sordidness of his going.

Instead, it’s worth remembering the honest, emotionally unstinting and stylistically varied way in which much of his music grapples with what was in his own consciousness--fundamental questions of escape versus responsibility and despair versus hope.

Nowell’s fate is pitiful, maybe condemnable, but highlights from the albums, “40oz. to Freedom” (1992), “Robbin’ the Hood” (1994) and a new one, tentatively titled “Sublime” and due for release July 30, show him struggling to fight hopelessness, or at least to explore how it was hitting him.

Nowell was a soulful singer whose smoky, pliant voice took cues from such reggae greats as Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff. Unlike many in contemporary reggae, Sublime--with drummer Floyd “Bud” Gaugh and bassist Eric Wilson as Nowell’s allies from the beginning in 1988--had no use for hackneyed catch-phrases and thematic boilerplate.

Nowell’s subject was his own life, whether realistically detailed or colored by imaginative license. Slang and hip-hop production techniques strewed Sublime’s musical landscape with street-level grittiness.

Nowell was one of the most gifted singers the local alternative-rock scene has produced; the emotion in his delivery was palpable and uncontrived.


“You really felt what he was singing. It really came from within,” said Tazy Phyllipz, a young rock impresario who helped push Sublime toward mass exposure.

Trenchant reggae rhythms were Sublime’s musical foundation. It also deployed thrashing punk beats, alterna-rock guitar riffing, rap elements and lighter, skipping ska rhythms. Some of the most memorable moments came when Nowell, who could have been a marvelous folk singer, stripped the music down to its barest elements--his voice and a lone guitar.

The band could be frustrating. “40oz.” is a solid album (it contained the atypically fanciful “Date Rape,” a too-breezy morality play depicting the harsh payback handed out to a sex offender), but “Robbin’ the Hood,” basically a home-recording project, is half-stuffed with noodling filler.

The upcoming, and final, album is Sublime’s best. There is no filler as it finds a cohesive focus in struggles social and personal, and there is no attempt to rekindle the novelty success of “Date Rape.”

As a live band, Sublime was erratic. None of the four shows I saw over the past few years were fully satisfying, and the band’s most prominent area performance, an appearance at last year’s KROQ Weenie Roast, was a chaotic, listless failure.

Sublime’s free-form concerts were “always hit or miss,” Phyllipz said. “But when you saw them hit and do a great performance, it made up for every [other] time.”



No Doubt, the high-flying Anaheim ska-rock band, also shared many bills and a mutual admiration with Sublime. Singer Gwen Stefani recorded two duets with Nowell--one for Sublime’s “Robbin’ the Hood,” another for No Doubt’s “The Beacon Street Collection.”

“His voice is like candy to your ears,” Stefani, her voice shaky with sadness, said Friday from aboard No Doubt’s tour bus in New York City. “Bradley definitely had a gift, and it sickens me that I’m not going to be able to enjoy his voice anymore. It’s not sad for him--he’s gone--but it’s sad for everybody else. He had such a huge impact on so many people in the whole [local music] scene.”

Sublime’s climb to national recognition started early in 1995, when KROQ, alerted by Phyllipz, began to pump “Date Rape.” The song kindled interest in the overlooked, 3-year-old “40oz.” album, which went on to sell 151,000 copies, according to SoundScan.

A contract with MCA ensued. Working with name producers Paul Leary and David Kahne, Sublime finished the upcoming album that would be its bid for a career-solidifying breakthrough. Nowell appeared to be on an upswing as the latest of his efforts to kick heroin showed signs of sticking.

“A month ago it was the most positive situation we’d been in in many years,” said Michael Happoldt, the Long Beach record producer and label boss who was Sublime’s unofficial fourth member. A week before he died, Nowell married Troy Dendekker, the mother of their 11-month-old son, Jakob. Sublime was awaiting its first tour of Europe, where “40oz.” is about to be released.

Happoldt said that Nowell, an avid reader who liked to quote philosophers and historians, was boning up on European history to prepare for the trip.


Still, his death was not a great surprise to those close to him.

“He had really been struggling [with heroin] for a long time,” said Bert Susanka, whose own band, the Ziggens, befriended Sublime and opened scores of shows for it over the years--including the one at the Phoenix Theatre in Petaluma the night before Nowell was found dead.

“We had talks about it, and he said, ‘I just don’t feel that good.’ I don’t know what was gripping him, if it was depression [or something else], but he would say he just didn’t feel good,” Susanka said.

“With heroin, it’s hard to feel you’re out of the woods,” Happoldt said. “We all tried to steer Brad the right way, but that [expletive] just takes a good person over. I want people to remember him [not just as] a junkie musician, but for all the dimensions of the guy, because he was a true diamond.”

“Every junkie’s like a setting sun,” Neil Young sang. Nowell wore Sublime’s symbol--a shining sun--tattooed on his right arm. In “Doin’ Time,” a new-album track that’s one of many Sublime songs touching on his struggles for balance, Nowell sings this prayer in his most yearning voice:

“Oh take this veil from off my eyes/My burning sun will someday rise.”

Nowell’s sun did not rise. He died a junkie’s death. But as he cast about in his self-made trap, he earned respect by using his talent in an honest attempt to account for what he was going through. At least the veil was off his eyes.

Those wishing to memorialize Brad Nowell may contribute to the Jakob James Markus Nowell Scholarship Fund, 275 Redondo Ave., Long Beach, CA 90803.