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

She didn’t tell her parents, but they found out soon enough, perhaps clued in by Nowell’s weight loss and that he seemed strung out and incoherent, nodding off mid-conversation. They forced Nowell into rehab; when that failed, and when more property went missing, they kicked him out of the house. He began crashing at various Long Beach and Orange County flophouses with Happoldt and other friends.

Katon W. De Pena, now a vocalist with the speed-metal band Hirax, used to work at ZED Records, a popular punk-rock and underground music store. The store’s hottest-selling CD in the early 1990s, he recalls, was 40 Oz. to Freedom. One day, Happoldt showed up with a pre-ordered box of CDs for the store. A few hours later, Nowell arrived at the store looking disoriented. Nowell begged De Pena to purchase 100 more discs, which he refused to do.

“It’s something I’ll never forget as long as I live,” De Pena recalls. “He got really frustrated. Finally, he didn’t know what else to do, and he backed up from the counter and started singing this song at the top of his lungs a capella, and it was the coolest dub reggae song, except he was singing it all pissed-off and aggro.” As a crowd of onlookers watched in silence, Nowell turned around and walked out of the store, leaving the pile of CDs on the counter. “It was amazing to witness,” he says. “At this point, I could see there were some problems.”

John Gilhooley
Bud Gaugh, Rome Ramirez and Eric Wilson prepare for an all-polka album
John Gilhooley
Bud Gaugh, Rome Ramirez and Eric Wilson prepare for an all-polka album

Among other things, Nowell was depressed that after releasing two CDs, Sublime still couldn’t get signed by a major label. Just when it seemed Sublime’s musical career had dead-ended, however, the band were signed by Gasoline Alley, an MCA Records imprint owned by Rod Stewart’s manager, Randy Phillips. In March 1994, another stroke of fortune occurred when Sublime received an invitation to perform an hour-long session at the studios of KUCI-FM, the UC Irvine radio station. The show’s host, Tazy Phyllipz, a ska enthusiast and KROQ programming assistant who learned about Sublime from his friends in No Doubt, included two tracks from that performance on his inaugural Ska Parade compilation CD.

“That was one of their greatest live sessions ever,” Phyllipz says. “A lot of it had to do with the fact that it was too early in the afternoon to party, so they focused on the music.” Thanks to Phyllipz, the Sublime songs “Dub Medley” and “Date Rape” made their way to KROQ, where the station put the latter on the air during a broadcast of Jed’s Catch of the Day, hosted by Jed “The Fish” Gould.

“It lit up the phone lines like crazy,” Phyllipz says. As fans continued to demand “Date Rape,” Gould invited Sublime onto his show; the band showed up drunk and made repeated runs to a nearby men’s bathroom, where they pounded beer after beer. The band also brought a few joints into the studio, resulting in them being banned for two weeks. The stunt did little to diminish Sublime’s popularity: “Date Rape” went on to become one of the most-requested songs in KROQ history.

By now, Nowell had been arrested for drunk driving several times and had been in and out of rehab for years. His friend Dave Shea volunteered to drive Nowell and the band in his van to various gigs up and down the coast from San Diego to Arcata. Under the watchful eyes of his friends, Nowell would slowly emerge from his heroin-induced stupor during the long drives.

“He would have a prescription bagful of drugs,” Shea says. “He had a patch that was supposed to go on his back to sedate him, and then he’d take off his shirt, and you’d see he’d stuck these patches all over his back. He was a mess.”

During concerts, Nowell could barely play. “He would just sit there in a chair, and it was bass and drums, guitar—not really—and Brad did his best to sing,” Shea recalls. “We wouldn’t stay in hotels. Girls would let us stay at their house, and the whole neighborhood would show up, and the house would get thrashed.”

Sometimes, Nowell would curl up in the rear of Shea’s van and sleep for hours on end. No matter how long he stayed off heroin, though, Nowell would always relapse whenever he visited San Francisco. “He could barely walk for a week, and all of a sudden, he comes out high-fiving everybody, and he gets on guitar and [he’s] soloing and singing,” Shea says, “but he had hit the neighborhood when nobody was looking.”

Once, while on tour, Nowell shared a needle with a friend who overdosed and had to be sent to the hospital. “I had a talk with him that night,” Gaugh recalls. “‘That is something you keep to yourself. Don’t share that with other people. If you send someone else to the hospital, I’m going to kick your fucking ass.’ I didn’t want him to have that on his conscience, and I knew Brad didn’t want to hurt anyone.” So, a few months later, when Nowell gave some heroin to a girl who nearly died, Gaugh followed through on his promise. “I served him up a good one,” he says. “It didn’t do any good, though.”

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