Don't Start a Riot

Fourteen years after Bradley Nowell's tragic death, Sublime (With Rome) are back and headed for a town near you

One of those fans is Ramirez himself. Born Roman Rene Ramirez in Fremont, California, on June 11, 1988, he grew up listening to punk music thanks to his dad, who played in several Bay Area bands. The summer when he was 11, he lived in San Diego with his uncle, a Sublime fan who let Ramirez borrow his copy of the band’s 1996 self-titled CD, which was released on MCA Records just two months after Nowell’s death.

Recalling his first taste of Sublime, Ramirez says he fell in love with Nowell’s soulful vocal style when he heard the song “Wrong Way.” He figures he listened to the CD every day for weeks on end.

“On the last day of summer, I was lying on the couch, listening to it on my Walkman, and the dog ran by and caught the headphone cord, and it fell off the table and opened up, and the dog’s paw fucking stepped on it and scratched it,” he says. “It was a fucked-up CD, couldn’t play a track.” On the drive back north to his hometown, Ramirez begged his father to take him to Fry’s Electronics to buy another copy. “He bought it for me, and I kept on fucking listening to it, and then I wanted to play guitar and learn the songs.”

Gaugh, Brad Nowell and Wilson, circa mid-'80s
Courtesy Nowell family
Gaugh, Brad Nowell and Wilson, circa mid-'80s
Nowell and Michael "Miguel" Happoldt during a September 1995 recording session
Josh Coffman
Nowell and Michael "Miguel" Happoldt during a September 1995 recording session

A few years ago, Ramirez began dating a girl who introduced him to Lewis Richards, a sound engineer with the Costa Mesa-based 17th Street Recording Studio. Richards invited a rock manager he knew, Michael “Cheez” Brown, to drop by the studio, where he overheard Ramirez plucking at a guitar. Something about the kid’s voice reminded him of Sublime, a band he’d seen live back in the early ’90s whom he didn’t particularly like because their drug-fueled live performance struck him as sloppy. “I asked him if he knew any Sublime songs, and he said, ‘Yeah, I know all of them.’” Ramirez proceeded to play “Wrong Way” and “What I Got” note-for-note. “He sang in this sweet, pristine voice,” Brown says. “And I was like, ‘Holy shit, this kid is magic.’”

Getting Gaugh and Wilson together with Ramirez wouldn’t be easy. Since Nowell’s death, the pair had performed in the Long Beach Dub All-Stars together, releasing two albums. But shortly after that 10-member band fell apart under the weight of too many competing egos in 2002, they’d fallen out of touch. Gaugh had struggled with addiction to speed and heroin in the 1990s and alcoholism in the years since. But in 2007, he’d become sober again and was now playing with Del Mar while also raising a 1-year-old girl.

One day late last year, Brown called Gaugh and told him about Ramirez and his desire to reunite the band. Gaugh told Brown he had five minutes to convince him to not hang up the telephone. “You get Eric up here to Tahoe, and we’ll talk,” Gaugh finally said, unaware that Brown had already won over Wilson. A week later, in a seemingly endless session at Gaugh’s South Lake Tahoe house, the trio ran through virtually the entire Sublime catalog.

“We jammed through everything,” Gaugh says. “It was like we had been jamming together our whole lives.”

*     *     *

On July 4, 1988, just a few weeks after Ramirez was born, Sublime played a gig on the beach in front of Nowell’s house off Ocean Street in Long Beach’s upscale Peninsula. Foreshadowing the chaos that would accompany Sublime everywhere they played and ultimately define the band, the concert devolved from a rowdy good time into a full-fledged riot.

“Brad liked riots,” recalls Katie Gibson, Nowell’s stepsister, while on the back porch of the same house. “When they played that show, kids were totally destroying property, and the cops had to come in and shut the band down, clear the streets and kick everybody off the Peninsula.” Sublime “just caused chaos wherever they went,” she says. “It was awesome.”

Nowell, a handsome, blond beach kid with a wrestler’s build, a perpetual tan, and a surfeit of charisma and creative energy, was 20 at the time. He’d grown up in Tustin but lived in Long Beach from the time his parents divorced a decade earlier and his mom, citing his hyperactivity, sent him to live with his father, a construction contractor and amateur guitarist who’d recently married Gibson’s mom. As long as Gibson or anyone else who knew Nowell can remember, all he wanted to do was be a rock star.

“When I met Brad, he was trying out for this junior-high-school band, and the highlight of their career was this talent show,” Wilson recalls. “He tried out for them, and they didn’t want him because they said he wasn’t good enough.”

Nowell and Wilson hit it off and played together in a pair of garage-punk bands, Hogan’s Heroes and Sloppy Seconds. By high school, Wilson had befriended Gaugh, who had arrived from Northern California eager to play music and cause trouble. After jamming for a week straight at Nowell’s house, the trio formed Sublime. By then, both Gaugh and Wilson had been kicked out for unspecified offenses of Long Beach’s prestigious Wilson High School, from which Nowell had successfully graduated.

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