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Rift Widens Over Videotape of Sublime’s Final Show

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alliance has turned to enmity between the hit rock band Sublime and the producers of “The Ska Parade,” an influential weekly college radio show that boosted Sublime during its grass-roots days on the local rock scene.

Rancor that has been brewing for more than 18 months surfaced last week in Internet postings on two Sublime-related Websites. The cause: a 90-minute videotape of the band’s last concert.

Albino Brown, who hosts “The Ska Parade” with his half-brother, Tazy Phyllipz, videotaped a Sublime show in Petaluma, Calif., on May 24, 1996, with the band’s knowledge for his archives, which contain hundreds of performances by such bands as Fishbone, No Doubt and Sublime. The next day, the band’s singer-songwriter, Brad Nowell, was found dead of a heroin overdose, ending the band’s nine-year career. Suddenly, the tape acquired sentimental value and commercial potential, although the band’s posthumously released CD, “Sublime,” would not become a surprise hit--now triple platinum--until months later.

Shortly after Nowell’s death, the Sublime camp, represented by Skunk Records, the label the band had started in the early 1990s for grass-roots releases, asked for copies of the video. Zach Fischel, a member of the Skunk team, said this week they wanted it for “strictly sentimental” reasons.

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Brown rushed Skunk a short segment of his footage for a memorial service (where it was not used) and followed up with a legal document stating that he would provide a complete copy if Sublime agreed to keep it private and to protect Brown’s economic rights.

The Skunk/Sublime camp was outraged. They had considered Brown a friend. Why, when they were grieving, would he put business first?

"[Nowell] had just died. We didn’t want to be served with lawyers and a contract,” Fischel said. “It’s a conflict of personalities. With Sublime and Skunk, everything we want to do with music is in a form of brotherhood. I guess you could say [Brown’s legal overture] was a form of insult.”

Brown says he only wanted to prevent bootleg copies--a concern stemming from experience with unauthorized releases of tapes and videos from live studio performances on “The Ska Parade.”

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“I very much want Bradley’s family to have a personal copy. At the same time, I’m an artist too,” Brown said. “I am the one who videographed that show in my own style, in my own expression, at my own expense and at my own effort.”

The band’s manager, Jon Phillips, says Sublime allowed fans to tape shows and trade copies among themselves as long as they anted up a copy for Sublime’s archives. “Sublime was a band for the people [and favored] the free exchange of music,” he said. “These guys [Brown and Phyllipz] had big dollar signs in their head. They handled it really poorly.”

In friendlier times, Sublime appeared on “The Ska Parade,” on UC Irvine station KUCI-FM (88.9), and on “Step on It,” a 1995 CD compilation from the show. Early in 1995, as a KROQ-FM (106.7) intern, Phyllipz helped persuade that influential station to play Sublime’s “Date Rape,” the break that took the band from the do-it-yourself circuit to the doorstep of mainstream success.

The current dispute flared on the Internet on Jan. 28, when Skunk’s official Website, www.skunk.com referred visitors to an unsigned letter condemning Brown for trying to “exploit Brad’s death for his personal financial gain” and alleging other ethical lapses by the “Ska Parade” partners--all of which they deny--including a charge that Sublime got stiffed on its contributions to “Step on It.” The Internet letter asked Sublime fans to send “tactful and constructive” e-mail urging Brown and Phyllipz to turn over the video of Sublime’s last show.

Brown says more than 100 messages, which he characterized as “hate mail,” have arrived. He says Skunk timed the letter to tarnish the Tuesday release of a new compilation album, “The Ska Parade: Runnin’ Naked Thru the Cornfield.” (Its CD booklet urges fans to “frequently encourage” Sublime’s label, MCA, to release both an audiotape of Sublime playing live on “The Ska Parade” and the Brown videotape of Sublime’s last show.)

Fischel says Skunk put up its Web site in January and decided to include the letter because fans had asked about the video dispute. Skunk is preparing its own Sublime video release, a documentary called “Stories, Tales, Lies and Exaggerations” that will use concert video solicited from fans and received with no legal strings attached. Fischel says it may include videotape of Sublime’s last show, shot by Skunk staff members.

Brown says his tape of that concert is going nowhere, because he abhors bootlegging. A legitimate release would require the approval of MCA and Sublime, and that seems unlikely.

“Now that they have made their smear campaign, it is no longer just an issue of the videotape,” Brown said. “This is not how you deal with issues, trying to coerce and spread untruths. Because they chose this path, they will be held [legally] responsible.”

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Jim Nowell, who took over Sublime’s business affairs after his son’s death, said this week that he has not been involved in the controversy.

“They’re young people, and they’re very emotional,” he said of the circle of friends who make up Skunk/Sublime. “They feel like they started out as a grass-roots deal, and they were in it more for the music than the money. They didn’t feel that [Brown’s contractual approach] was in the spirit of alternative music.”

Added Nowell: “From an emotional standpoint, we’d like to have [the disputed tape]. If all we have to do is sign something saying we’re not going to be commercially exploitative, I’d like to have it, just to see it.”


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