Don't Start a Riot
“You smoke weed, dude?”
Rome Ramirez has just taken a break from discussing the relative merits of Range Rovers and Escalades to light up a glass pipe. After inhaling a deep hit, he leans forward to offer the remainder before stretching back in a chair set up between two speakers; smoke billows from his nostrils. The cherubic 22-year-old is covered in tattoos laid bare by a black wifebeater that matches his sagging, tapered jeans, the kind favored by skaters and hipsters, the cuffs of which are invisible behind an oversized pair of designer high-top sneakers.
He looks, in other words, every bit the rock star he’s suddenly become.
A year or so ago, Ramirez was serving up lattes at a Bay Area Starbucks and playing guitar at dive bars for 20 people on a good night. Now, as the sun begins to set on a recent Friday, he’s rehearsing at Sound Matrix Studios in Fountain Valley, about to embark on a global tour with two people he has idolized since he was 11: Eric Wilson and Bud Gaugh, the bassist and drummer for Sublime—or, as the band are now called for legal reasons, Sublime With Rome.
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The sound stage is cluttered with an intimidating array of amplifiers, instruments and sound consoles. Exhausted engineers sprawl on chairs in corners, wolfing down takeout Mexican food. When the pipe is spent, Ramirez and Wilson step outside to have a cigarette as the sun ducks behind the building, while Gaugh, a tough-looking character whose wary eyes dart back and forth beneath the angled bill of his baseball cap, shares auto-mechanical tips with one of the engineers.
Unlike Ramirez, Wilson, a towering figure with close-cropped reddish-blond hair, seems soft-spoken and shy to the point of introversion. They take turns circling the parking lot in the rear of the studio atop Wilson’s orange bicycle while half a dozen roadies affix an aluminum ramp to the rear bay of an empty semi-trailer. Ramirez’s eyes widen in delight.
“Dude!” he says. “I want to ride this bike up that ramp!”
A roadie turns around with a knowing grin. “For you, Rome?” he asks. “Anything you want!”
But it is not to be. A short, muscular man with a microphone headset who seems to be in charge of the roadies puts his arm over Rome’s shoulder and playfully noodles him in the ear with his knuckles. “I can’t let you touch that ramp,” he says. “I have to deliver you to the end of this tour in bubble wrapping. We can’t let anything happen to you.”
A 4-foot tumble could twist an ankle or crack a skull, and too much is at stake to allow for accidents, especially given Sublime’s touring history. The last time the band were on tour, 14 years ago, 28-year-old lead singer/guitarist/creative genius Bradley Nowell died of a heroin overdose after only two shows, just as the Grateful Dead-meets-hip-hop single “What I Got” began shooting up the Billboard charts, catapulting Sublime to worldwide—if, for the surviving members of the band, bittersweet—fame.
Flash forward to Feb. 28, 2010: At the Cantina Los Tres Hombres in Sparks, Nevada, a suburb of Reno, Sublime resurfaced from its decade-plus hiatus with Ramirez filling in for Nowell on vocals and guitar. The surprise performance followed a set by Gaugh’s surf band Del Mar; the sudden appearance of Wilson and Ramirez onstage with the former Sublime drummer drove the crowd nuts. Someone in the crowd posted footage of the show on YouTube under the title “Sublime With Rome.”
The name stuck, thanks in large part to a heated legal battle with the Nowell estate, which owns the trademark to the name “Sublime.” After reaching an undisclosed financial settlement with Nowell’s family, the newly suffixed trio await their first global tour, with performances in the United States, Germany, Great Britain and Brazil.
* * *
If Sublime are a household name among 21st-century teenagers and college stoners, that is a testament to the staying power of the unique combination of Nowell’s alternately vulnerable and testosterone-laced vocals and the snare-drum-taut rhythm section of Gaugh and Wilson. Indeed, the music is a time capsule of Long Beach circa the early 1990s, when punk rock, ska, reggae and hip-hop came together in the form of a trio of tattooed high-school and college dropouts who sold their self-produced music, some of it recorded on equipment looted during the LA riots, out of the back of a beer-soaked van.
During Nowell’s lifetime, the music they crafted became legendary, first in Long Beach, then Orange County, and finally in college towns across the country. In 1997, a year after Nowell passed away, “What I Got” was still No. 1 on the Modern Rock Chart, and Rolling Stone magazine dubbed Sublime the most influential band of the year. Even now, several of the band’s songs—including “Doin’ Time,” “Wrong Way” and “Santeria”—remain in heavy rotation, and KROQ, the hugely influential LA rock station, lists Sublime as the third most popular band of all time, after the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nirvana, having sold more than 17 million albums so far while amassing legions of fans, many of whom were still in kindergarten or elementary school the last time the band performed live.
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.”
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.
“Let’s just say I had something with me on campus that I shouldn’t have had with me,” Gaugh says.
“Yeah, something along those lines for me, too,” Wilson chimes in.
At the time of the band’s 1988 performance-turned-riot, Nowell had recently returned from an abortive stint at UC Santa Cruz and begun taking business classes at Cal State Long Beach, where Sublime played regular shows in the outdoor quad and at the Nugget Grill and Pub, a campus bar next to the student union.
“You never knew what you were going to get,” recalls Dave Shea, a student who booked shows for the university and later went on to become a member of the influential Long Beach rock group Shave. “They liked to piss off the crowd. At first, they didn’t stand out too much, but then in one show, they took it up a notch from good to great, and then to mind-blowing.”
Another early fan of the group was Shea’s friend Michael “Miguel” Happoldt, an aspiring young sound engineer and producer from Florida who’d moved to Long Beach to attend Cal State Dominguez Hills, where he had access to the school’s recording studio. After listening to four songs Nowell had recorded on tape—“Don’t Push,” “Slow Ride,” “Ball and Chain” and “Date Rape”—Happoldt convinced the band to come into his studio to record what would become Sublime’s legendary demo tape, Jah Won’t Pay the Bills.
The band brought boxes full of the cassettes to their shows and eventually sold 1,200 copies for $5 apiece. The demo was incorporated into Sublime’s first full-length CD, 40 Oz. to Freedom,which was released on Happoldt’s Skunk Records label in January 1991. “It took a while for the CD to sell, and that really took a toll on Brad,” Happoldt says. “It took six months to sell 1,000 copies. They were stacked up at my uncle’s house.”
With Happoldt’s promotional help, Sublime continued to perform sold-out shows at dive bars and small clubs around Long Beach—Bogart’s, the Foothill, Fender’s and Golden Sails. They quickly became the most famous band in the city. Just as the band’s reputation for musical prowess took off in 1992, so did their penchant for crazy behavior. When the Rodney King riots began on April 29 of that year in LA and Long Beach, Nowell and his friends drove north to participate in the anarchy. “They drove up to LA and stole booze and shit like that,” Wilson recalls. “There was some furniture stolen, some drum equipment.”
When the band’s aptly named sophomore release, Robbin’ the Hood, was recorded in late 1993, Gaugh, who had taken a prolonged leave of rehab-related absence, had already rejoined the band, and Sublime were touring up and down the West Coast, often sharing the stage with No Doubt, an Anaheim-based ska band who went on to become arguably the most successful band in Orange County history. Sublime played their first show with No Doubt in February 1992 at Anaheim’s Kona Hawaii club, and the bands became nearly inseparable.
“We had gotten a cassette tape of 40 Oz. to Freedom and just had fallen in love with it,” No Doubt’s Tom Dumont recalls. “I loved how they could blend so many styles, but in such a cohesive way. Brad obviously had a ton of soul in the way that he sang, and I found his lyrics reminiscent of [Charles] Bukowski in the honest way that they described both the lighter and gritty sides of Brad’s life. Bud and Eric were a really strong and distinctive rhythm section who could nail the deepest authentic reggae groove, and then switch it up to raw emotional punk as well.”
The two bands’ artistic collaboration cemented in the song “I Saw Red,” an uptempo duet by Nowell and No Doubt’s lead singer, Gwen Stefani, that was included on Robbin’ the Hood. Despite the brilliant music, mainstream success continued to elude the band. “The whole time, Brad and I were homeless and staying with random weirdos,” Happoldt recalls. “When you are squatting in a house, you don’t usually have cable, so Brad was our entertainment.”
Another source of entertainment was a bizarre series of recordings made by a mental patient named Raleigh Theodore Sakers that had somehow fallen into the hands of the band and are included on Robbin’ the Hood. According to Wilson, the band once blasted at full volume one of Saker’s saltier treatises—perhaps the one on oral sex, aliens and “semantic blockage”—at a concert in a Palo Alto park.
“It was a Sunday,” Wilson says. “There were all these families playing soccer out on fields. It took some balls just for us to put it on, so we drank a bunch of alcohol, and we cranked the Raleigh tape through the PA and had all these irate dads who wanted to beat our asses. People called the cops, so it was a real nightmare. We loved it.”
* * *
For Nowell, however, the real nightmare was his losing struggle with heroin. Gibson discovered her stepbrother’s addiction when she noticed that some of her CDs were missing from her room. When she was younger, Nowell had forced her to get rid of all her “crappy” New Kids On the Block music in favor of Bob Marley and other “obscure” reggae artists. “But now my music didn’t suck, so I went to his room to see if my CDs were there. And that’s when I found needles.”
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.”
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.”
In the summer of 1995, Sublime headlined the Warped Tour, performing to tens of thousands of screaming fans. The band’s now-legendary wild antics—as well as those of Nowell’s pet dalmatian, Louie, who bit people and relieved himself onstage during performances—grew more unhinged, and several bands threatened to walk, so Sublime were cut from the tour. Nowell’s heroin problem followed the band to Texas, where they recorded what would be their platinum-selling third album. Halfway through, producer David Kahne, whose credits included the genre-defining 1988 ska-punk album by Fishbone, Truth and Soul, had no choice but to send the strung-out vocalist home.
Nowell’s widow, Troy DenDekker, says this low point marked a turnaround of sorts. A fan of Sublime who grew up in San Diego, DenDekker began dating Nowell in late 1994 and had just given birth to his son, Jakob. With advance money from MCA Records, the couple had moved to a beachfront house in Surfside, and Nowell, a lifelong surfer, seemed happier than ever.
“While I was pregnant, he stayed clean for six months, which was the longest he’d ever stayed clean,” DenDekker recalls. In May 1996, Nowell and DenDekker were married at a Hawaiian-themed ceremony in Las Vegas. “He was clean at our wedding, but then, four days later, they put him on the road.”
Three days into the tour, Sublime performed a show at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma and spent the night in Chico. Wilson recalls waking up in a house where the band’s hosts, a couple of girls they’d met the previous night, were smoking crack. “That was the breakfast scene,” he says. “And that’s probably where Brad scored his dope.” The next day, the trio drove to San Francisco, where Nowell and Gaugh shared a room at a beachfront hotel in preparation for a concert in town the next day.
Nowell, who was fresh in his sobriety, was exhilarated at the prospect of their upcoming European tour, Gaugh recalls. “He was like, ‘Man, we did good,’” Gaugh says. “‘I’m going to go out and party.’”
Wilson spent the night in a motor home parked next to the hotel. At dawn the following morning, Nowell knocked loudly on Wilson’s door, hoping he’d join him to walk the dogs. “He had probably been up all night,” Wilson recalls. “It was a beautiful morning, but I was like, ‘Fuck you’ and went back to sleep. I was hung-over. I was the last person to see him alive.”
It was May 25, 1996. Nowell was 28 years old. Gaugh woke up at about 11 a.m. that morning in the hotel room. “I was asleep in the other bed,” he says. “When I woke up, he was laying half in the bed, half off.”
Barely a year old when his father died, Jakob Nowell is now 15 and sports a jaunty Mohawk. Despite all attempts by various family members to keep him from becoming a musician, he has already started playing the guitar. DenDekker says she has even taken him to see a couple of Sublime tribute bands, like Badfish and 40 Oz to Freedom. But, she says, Jakob isn’t wild about the fact his dad’s former band have reunited under the same name with a new lead singer.
After the new lineup performed before an ecstatic crowd of teenagers late last October at Cypress Hill’s two-day Smokeout Festival in San Bernardino, DenDekker filed an injunction on behalf of herself and Jakob that led to a restraining order preventing the group from performing under the band’s original name.
“As Brad’s heirs, and with the support of his entire family, we only want to respect his wishes, and therefore have not consented to Bud and Eric calling their new project ‘Sublime,’” she stated in a press release a week before the injunction. “We have always supported Bud and Eric’s musical endeavors and their desire to continue to play Sublime’s music . . . [but we] feel compelled to take the appropriate legal action to protect Brad’s legacy.”
On Feb. 16 of this year, however, both parties announced they’d reached an out-of-court financial settlement that would allow the band to perform the entire Sublime catalog as Sublime With Rome. “Both parties are happy working together,” Gaugh says. “For business reasons, we had to keep the two companies separate and figure out how they are supposed to interact together. It was basically a way for a bunch of lawyers to make a bunch of money off us.”
DenDekker says she knows Nowell would want Wilson and Gaugh to continue playing the music they loved so much. “I know he loved Bud and Eric,” she says. “He would want the best for them, and I’m really happy at the response they’re getting at the shows. All the fans are singing along to all the words. There’s this spirit, like Brad is there for a second, and it’s fucking awesome.”
Gibson says she overcame her ambivalence when she finally agreed to see Sublime With Rome perform live at the Hollywood Palladium in April. “I was terrified,” she says. “I was so overwhelmed. The fans were going crazy. I remembered standing on the stage watching him so many times when I was younger, and everything was the same, except Brad wasn’t there. It was so surreal.”
Before the show, Gibson introduced herself to Ramirez. “I was so nervous I didn’t know what to say,” she says. “I was speechless, and he said he wasn’t trying to replace Brad and that the whole reason he was there was because of Brad, that he learned to play guitar because of Brad.” Gibson says she’s glad Ramirez is able to live out his dream of playing Nowell’s music. “I think Rome’s a good kid, and he’s really good at what he does,” she concludes. “It’s definitely bittersweet. It should be Brad, but it can’t be. Should it be Rome? Sure.”
It’s clear that Ramirez’s unbridled enthusiasm for Sublime’s music—and that it’s shared by so many other young fans—has brought a newfound sense of purpose and professionalism to the two surviving members of the band. Both Wilson and Gaugh say they’re humbled by the expense that has been brought to bear to ensure their upcoming tour is a success. “We’ve never had a tour that wasn’t totally fucked, so we’re not used to this,” Wilson says. “A lot of the times we played, we sounded really shitty because of, uh . . . circumstances.”
“People used to come to our shows and stand outside while we played our first song,” Gaugh says, “just to see if we sounded like shit before they went in.”
“Or to see if we even showed up,” Wilson says, laughing. “Sometimes a show would be, we’d just take mushrooms and laugh at our equipment, and that was that.”
Ramirez is the first to acknowledge the dilemma he faces in trying to fill Nowell’s shoes. “I’ve had people ask me how it feels to be compared to Brad for the rest of my life or tell me that I’ll never live up to Brad,” he says. “For me, personally, you’re just comparing me to my biggest influence because what got me into playing music was Bradley. You can compare me to him all day long, and I’ll just take it as a compliment. I am the biggest Sublime fan in the world.”
This article appeared in print as "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."
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