Heroin's Toll Is Nothing Sublime

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The message on a pillow in the bedroom she shared with her late rock star husband now serves only to mock Troy Nowell.

"Grow Old With Me," reads the stitched lettering. "The Best Is Yet to Be."

The former Troy denDekker was married only seven days before Bradley Nowell, her 28-year-old husband and the creative force behind the Long Beach-based punk-ska band Sublime, died of a heroin overdose May 25 in a San Francisco motel room.

Heroin, once again the drug of choice among a growing number of rock musicians, made Troy Nowell a widow--and a single parent.

Jakob James Markus Nowell was 11 months old, days away from taking his first steps, when his father died a junkie's death.

"At first, I was so angry," Troy, 26, says now, tears welling in her eyes as she sits in the sun-drenched living room of her multilevel Sunset Beach home. "I wanted him here so I could yell at him."

She wasn't alone.

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Nowell's parents and bandmates also were abandoned when the singer-songwriter pumped heroin into his veins for the last time, cutting short the career of a promising young band that got its first taste of mainstream success last year when KROQ-FM (106.7) gave saturation airplay to the band's cautionary single "Date Rape."

His widow and parents have to forever live with the loss of a central figure in their lives. At the same time, the band that Nowell and his two partners worked so hard to establish is no more.

The surviving members have to deal not only with the personal ramifications of his death, but also with the sobering challenge of starting their careers anew.

But the family's and bandmates' anguish didn't begin the day they learned of Nowell's death. They had been torn apart by his heroin addiction for years.

And Sublime drummer Floyd "Bud" Gaugh, himself a recovering heroin addict, will always be haunted by the memory of finding his tour roommate's lifeless body.

Only a few hours earlier, with Nowell out of the room, Gaugh had broken into his roommate's stash, shot up and passed out.

When Gaugh came to, Nowell lay dead in a bed across the room.

"I thought I was in hell," says Gaugh, pacing nervously in the rundown Long Beach theater that Sublime had converted into a rehearsal hall.

"I thought, 'That was probably supposed to be me.' The Grim Reaper saw him laying on his side, saw the tattoos and thought, 'That must be Bud.' "

He lowers his voice.

"It was Brad's turn, though."

The drummer looks away, his eyes focusing on a wall where somebody has painted a tombstone and the words "RIP Brad."

*

On the surface, Nowell's life seemed almost idyllic.

Newly wed and a proud parent, he had recently moved into his dream home in a gated community mere yards from the sand at Sunset Beach, where he hoped one day to teach his son to surf.

But in a junkie's world, nothing is as simple as it seems.

Heroin rules all.

"It ran the whole show," says Troy, glancing toward her baby, who fusses intermittently as he sleeps in his crib. "Everything revolved around whether Brad was using or not. If he was not, it was a struggle to keep him from using. And if he was using, it was a struggle to help him quit.

"People don't know the price he had to pay just because he was curious and thought it would be a cool rock-star thing to do."

Maybe, she hopes, they'll learn from her husband's death. With help from Gaugh and Wilson, she plans to organize a concert this fall to increase drug awareness and promote prevention programs among rock fans and musicians. And, in hopes of someday working as a drug counselor, she'll take classes this fall at Cypress College.

"I was devastated," she says of her husband's death, "but I don't want to be devastated anymore. I want to be empowered by this and not let it happen again.

"I want to make people aware that this is not what being a musician is about. I want to tell kids that Brad had a gift long before he ever did drugs--but drugs robbed him of that gift."

She is eager to get the message out, but Gaugh and Wilson were reluctant to sit for interviews, declining requests for almost two months after Nowell's death.

Like Nirvana's Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, who still have not spoken publicly about Kurt Cobain's 1994 heroin-related suicide, Gaugh and Wilson didn't want to be accused of exploiting their bandmate's death.

"I didn't have time for these media whores who were trying to thrive off our pain and suffering," Gaugh says. "It's like, I had to deal with it myself. I'm still feeling like one big ball of emotion."

They've relented now, Gaugh says, "because it's important for people to know this wasn't a suicide. He wasn't giving up. It was purely an accident. That's one of the problems with this drug: You're not the one in charge."

There's also a second reason they're talking now: The group's major label debut, "Sublime," recorded in April, will be released next Tuesday by MCA. Gaugh and Wilson will fly to New York today for three days of interviews--with Time, Newsweek, People and High Times, among others.

"I didn't really want to [do interviews] for the longest time," Wilson says, "but I figured it was in our best interests in putting this album out. Brad would have wanted us to do this because he was just as stoked as all of us about this album. We've got to keep our name out there as long as we can."

What's next for the band?

"Sublime died when Brad did," Gaugh says. "It's time to work on something new. We have a couple of ideas, but nothing really solid. We're trying to find something that we believe in."

They all believed in Sublime, but heroin got in the way. Nowell, his bandmates say, was strung out all during the recording of the new album in Texas--and even had to be sent home a few days early.

"We all knew that one day it would probably come to this," Gaugh says. "It was always a question of when. . . .

"The problem with drugs is, they're a one-way street. Unfortunately, this is usually where they lead. This wasn't the first time that Brad had ODd. It was always a factor in the puzzle."

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Nowell never could figure out the puzzle. He battled his addiction everyday for the last four years of his life, tormenting his family as he repeatedly vowed to get straight.

"It really consumed us," Troy says. "Not in a productive way, but in an angry, scared, fearful way. We were always afraid he was going to use again. Afraid that one day it would be the last time."

When the last time finally came, it brought sadness, of course--but also an unburdening.

"I felt a lot of relief in a way because I knew that the fight was over," Troy says softly. "He wasn't much of a fighter, so fighting everyday took its toll on him.

"Even if they'd revived him that day, he probably still would have messed with it down the line."

She vividly remembers the dread that enveloped her last October when she and Brad heard on the news that Blind Melon singer Shannon Hoon, who had battled heroin addiction, had died of a cocaine overdose.

"I looked at Brad and it was like nonreality to him," she says. "That just had nothing to do with him. His attitude was, 'That guy was just stupid. He just [screwed] up.' It scared the hell out of me."

Fans from across the country wrote to express their sorrow when Nowell died seven months later.

"It's nice that his songs had so much effect on people," says his father, Jim, a Long Beach contractor who has taken over Sublime's business affairs. "But I'd rather he was an accountant and still around.

"I feel like I gave my son to the music industry. And I didn't get anything back."

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