Son, husband, band mate, mentor, friend. Fifteen years after the Sublime icon's untimely death, loved ones share stories of the man who helped to define the gritty Southern California punk rock/reggae/ska sound.
JIM NOWELL: 'I'd Rather Have Brad and Not the Music'
The world knows Bradley Nowell as the often-shirtless front man whose dalmatian Lou Dog was never far from his side, a musical genius who could blend Jamaican rhythms with American hardcore as effortlessly as he could smile, and a golden-throated lead singer with the ability to belt out black music and not sound like a corny white boy.
But Jim Nowell isn't the world. He's Bradley Nowell's father—a proud and often remorseful one at that.
Fifteen years since his son's death, the bearded 67-year-old sits in his home office—decorated with family photos, Brad's Epiphone guitar, vinyl and CD copies of Sublime records, fan artwork, and a plaque commemorating 10 million Sublime records sold—and laughs when he talks about Brad and the early days of Sublime. His right hand is in constant flux as he speaks, a nervous tic brought on by the pressure of the cameras and the questions. Brad was the one comfortable in front of the media because Brad was the superstar—but his father knew that long before the rest of us had ever heard of Sublime.
“Everybody loved him,” Nowell says. “He had a lot of charisma and certainly wasn't a loner, but he was just as happy sitting around reading a book. They were always nonfiction, history and philosophy. He read all the great books, and we'd discuss them. I thought he was extremely smart, much smarter than I was.”
This penchant for knowledge led Brad to advanced courses at Long Beach Polytechnic High School (Jim says his son and Snoop Dogg never crossed paths). Located in a much more diverse community than the beachfront neighborhood he was accustomed to, Poly introduced the young Brad to an array of people. But not all were friendly, Jim says.
“He'd go to their parties, and usually, he got beat up,” Jim says, “but he kept on going back. One guy kept beating him up all the time, and I said, 'Why do you let him do that?' He said, 'I think he's starting to respect me.'”
Everything you need to know about Sublime can be heard in “STP” off 1994's Robbin' the Hood. The song begins with a distorted guitar before working in a variety of reggae rhythms that finds the singer repeating the line “Look at all the love we found” three times.
But Brad didn't find love: He was given it. And, Jim says, he returned it by hugging his father and saying, “I love you” each time they would part. Things have improved for Jim since Brad's death on May 25, 1996, but the love his son found is the same love missing from the elder Nowell's life for the past 15 years.
“When he died, I didn't think of anything else. I quit working because I couldn't see the importance anymore. You go down the street crying in your car,” he says. “I don't do that as much anymore, but I can work up a good cry if I need to. When I think about it, I still get emotional. There are times when I can't talk about it now. When it first happened, it was life-threatening. I would have rather been dead than to go through what I was going through.”
When fans long for Bradley Nowell, all they have to do is put on his music and he appears. But his father does not have that luxury. In fact, Nowell says he doesn't listen to Sublime because there are too many emotions, too many memories, attached to his son's voice. He credits his eight grandchildren—including Brad's son, 16-year-old Jakob—and feedback from fans as factors in his ability to keep going. Still, nothing replaces the loss.
“Some days, I'm just so upset that he left,” Nowell says. “He achieved a lot in his short life, and that has helped me adjust, but it's unquestionable I'd rather have him here. If he had never picked up a guitar, that would have been fine with me. I'd rather have Brad and not the music. The music doesn't mean anything to me other than it's helped me because of the effect it's had on other people.” (Ryan Ritchie)
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TROY HOLMES: 'My Biggest Regret Is That Jakob Will Never Know Him'
Half of Bradley Nowell's ashes was scattered during a memorial in Surfside. The other half is buried in Westminster Memorial Park Mortuary. “I did that for the fans,” says Troy Holmes, Nowell's widow. “I wanted there to be a spot for people to go to remember Brad.”
And every year on May 25, Sublime fans gather to commemorate Nowell's death; they decorate his headstone with flowers and leave all kinds of trinkets, bongs and, of course, 40-ounce bottles. “There are a LOT of 40-ounces there,” Holmes notes, adding that it's a healing place to spend the day. To remember him with his fans makes it better, she says.
Not that Holmes can really forget. “It's impossible to forget him, when practically every time I turn on the radio, I hear Sublime,” she says. “So I never want it to be a painful thing.”
Sublime were Holmes's favorite band before she met Nowell in 1992. She'd been given one of his tapes (“Sublime would get out to surf in San Miguel, put up a PA by the beach, perform and sell cassettes out of the trunk of their car”), and it was the soundtrack of her summer. “It was perfect party, smoke-a-joint music,” she says.
Before KROQ, before getting signed, they had a small underground following. When Sublime were booked at a heavy-metal bar (“It was the wrongest place for them,” she says), Holmes knew she had to be there. There were 20 people at that show. “It was quite sad!” Holmes recalls, laughing. She and Nowell exchanged numbers, beginning their romance; they married a week before he died.
Trying to keep a family together at first was a struggle, Holmes says. “We were both pretty young, and he was on the road a lot. Music was his passion, and I totally supported that. Being a fan in the first place, I wasn't going to stand between him and his music. But he was a very devoted husband and father.”
Holmes, who has since remarried and now has five children, says she wouldn't change a thing from her life with Nowell. “We at least have the gift of his music,” she says, “so he'll never be gone.
“My biggest regret is that Jakob will never know him,” she adds. “He's turning into a young man, and he'll never know what his dad was like.” (Lilledeshan Bose)