Bradley James Nowell (February 22, 1968 – May 25, 1996) was an American musician who served as lead singer and guitarist of the ska punk band Sublime. He died at the age of 28 from a heroin overdose shortly before the release of Sublime's self-titled major label debut. Raised in Long Beach, California, Nowell developed an interest in music at a young age. His father took him on a trip to the Virgin Islands during his childhood, which exposed him to reggae and dancehall music. Nowell played in various bands until forming the group Sublime with bassist Eric Wilson and drummer Bud Gaugh, whom he had met while attending California State University Long Beach. As Sublime gained success, Nowell struggled with a worsening addiction to heroin. After several attempts to quit using the drug, Nowell died of a heroin overdose while Sublime was on tour on May 25, 1996.
Bradley Nowell was born and raised in the Belmont Shore neighborhood of Long Beach, California to Jim and Nancy Nowell, with his sister, Kellie. As a child, he enjoyed surfing and sailing and often participated in boat races. As Nowell grew, he became a difficult child and was often hyperactive and disruptive. His mother recalled that he was "very emotional, very sensitive, very artistic, but he was needy...He was always testing just to see what he could get away with". Nowell's rebellious behavior increased when he was ten years old caused by his parents divorce. His mother was awarded custody of Nowell, but found him too difficult to control on her own and he subsequently moved in with his father full-time at age twelve.
Music was an integral part of Nowell's upbringing. His father, a construction worker who enjoyed playing guitar, exposed him to the music of Jim Croce. His mother taught piano for a living in addition to playing the flute. Both parents helped teach young Nowell to play guitar. In the summer of 1979, Nowell bonded with his father during a month-long sailing trip in the Virgin Islands, which first exposed him to reggae music.
At the age of thirteen, he began playing guitar and started his first band Hogan's Heroes with Eric Wilson, who would later become the bassist of Sublime. Nowell and Wilson met in sixth grade and lived across the street from each other; during this time, Nowell was described as a "gifted kid with many friends". At first, Wilson did not share Nowell's interest in reggae music. Nowell recalled the experience: "I was trying to get them to do (UB40's version of) 'Cherry Oh Baby', and it didn't work. They tried, but it just sounded like such garbage. We were horrible". Nowell attended the University of California, Santa Cruz before transferring to Cal State Long Beach to study finance. However, he dropped out one semester shy of earning a degree, stating in 1995 "I have all the hard classes left...I doubt I'll ever go back".
Career with Sublime
According to "Westwood One Interview" on disc three of the Sublime box set, Nowell got together with bassist Eric Wilson and drummer Bud Gaugh, and began performing in small shows at house parties and barbecues in 1988. The band was often forced to leave the parties they performed at due to excessive noise, which would result in neighbors calling the police. Sublime gained a reputation for their rowdy behavior and eventually became one of the most popular bands in Southern California. Despite their success, music venues were skeptical of the band's eclectic musical fusion and many refused to book the band. In response, Nowell and Wilson created their own music label, Skunk Records, and told venues that they were "Skunk Records recording artists", which helped the band seem more accomplished and subsequently book more shows. The band produced and distributed Sublime's early recordings on the label. The band's demo tapes were later sold at shows and local record stores.
In 1990, music student Michael "Miguel" Happoldt approached the band, offering to let the band record in the studio at the school where Happoldt was studying. The band enthusiastically agreed and trespassed into the school at night, where they recorded from midnight to seven in the morning. The recording session resulted in the popular cassette tape called Jah Won't Pay the Bills, which was released in 1991. The tape helped the band gain a grassroots following throughout Southern California. Nowell quickly became involved in the scene's drug culture. For years, Nowell had feared and refused to try heroin; however, as he entered his twenties and witnessed his band gaining success, he decided to try the drug. Nowell's father explained "His excuse for taking the heroin was that he felt like he had to be larger than life. He was leading the band, leading his fans, and he had to put on this persona. He had heard a lot of musicians say that they were taking heroin to be more creative".
Using the same tactics implemented for the recording of Jah Won't Pay the Bills, the band recorded its debut album 40 Oz. to Freedom in secrecy at the studios in California State University, Dominguez Hills. Nowell recalled "You weren't supposed to be in there after 9 p.m., but we'd go in at 9:30 and stay until 5 in the morning. We'd just hide from the security guards. They never knew we were there. We managed to get $30,000 worth of studio time for free". 40 Oz. to Freedom was released in 1992; 60,000 copies were distributed and sold, all from the trunk of Nowell's car after shows.
Despite growing popularity in Southern California, Sublime still had not landed a record deal with a major label. Around this same time Nowell teamed up with longtime friend Gwen Stefani, of fellow Southern California ska band No Doubt, to record the song "Saw Red". The song was eventually released on Sublime's Robbin' the Hood album. Self-recorded on a four-track cassette, Robbin' the Hood was released in October 1994. Several songs from the album detail Nowell's worsening drug addiction. Nowell is believed to have predicted his own death in the song "Pool Shark", singing "One day I'm going to lose the war". However, the lyric in question refers to the song's persona, not specifically Nowell himself. Sublime performed quite a few local shows with local bands One Hit Wonder, Candida, The Cadilac Tramps, and Dos but Brad's hopes of finding a label to support them began to fade, as Nowell's heroin abuse hit critical levels and rapidly ate through the band's travel funds.
About a year later, Tazy Phillipz took a copy of 40 Oz. to Freedom to Los Angeles radio station KROQ-FM, requesting that Sublime's "Date Rape" be added to the playlist. Soon after, MCA records picked up 40 Oz. to Freedom for nationwide distribution, and Sublime was scheduled to tour throughout Europe. Nowell, an avid reader who enjoyed quoting historians and philosophers, began studying European history to prepare for the trip.Attention from a major label did not curb Nowell's drug use, which sometimes led him to pawn his instruments and sell drugs, as in the song "Pool Shark" which reflects his struggle with addiction. In February 1996, Sublime returned to the studio to record the bulk of their self-titled major label debut album. Production was done by Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers (and producer of Marcy Playground and Meat Puppets) at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio in Austin, Texas.
Seven days after Nowell's marriage to Troy Dendekker on May 18, 1996 Sublime embarked on a five-day tour through Northern California, with a European and an East Coast tour to follow. On the morning of May 25, at the Ocean View Motel in San Francisco, drummer Bud Gaugh woke up to find Nowell lying half-way across a bed, with his knees and feet on the floor. At first, Gaugh assumed he had been too intoxicated to get into bed; however, further inspection allowed him to notice a green film around his mouth, and it became apparent that he had overdosed on heroin. Gaugh called for paramedics, but Nowell had died several hours earlier, and was pronounced dead at the scene. Nowell was cremated and his ashes were spread over his favorite surfing spot in Surfside, California. A headstone was placed at Westminster Memorial in Westminster, California in his memory.
A few weeks after Nowell's death, fellow Southern California band No Doubt headlined a "cautionary" benefit concert in tribute to Nowell. Nowell's widow and the various bands who performed wanted to make it clear that they were not glamorizing the way that Nowell died, but that they wanted to celebrate his life as well as establish a college fund for his son, Jakob.
On January 11, 1997 Los Angeles Times article titled "Cautionary Concert in Rocker's Memory", writer Jerry Crowe quoted No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal as saying, "Obviously, it's going to be very emotional because you're there playing a show to commemorate a good friend who died and died for very wrong reasons. But you're also there to change things for the future and prevent stuff like that from ever happening again. A lot of times we hear about musicians using drugs and it's so blasé and cliched. You just kind of say, 'Oh, he'll be fine. Somebody will take care of him.' But that's not true. It's important for every single one of us to stand up and say, 'Enough of this shit.' It's time to make a difference".
Jason Westfall, one of Sublime's managers, was quoted as saying that the other members of Sublime had no interest in continuing to perform and record under the "Sublime" name: "Just like Nirvana, Sublime died when Brad died". Sublime played their last show at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma, California. In late 2010 and early 2011 the remaining band members, along with Rome Ramirez, began touring under the name "Sublime with Rome".
Nowell performing in the mid-1990s.
|Birth name||Bradley James Nowell|
|Born||February 22, 1968|
Long Beach, California
|Died||May 25, 1996 (aged 28)|
San Francisco, California
|Genres||Ska punk, Reggae rock, reggae,Hip Hop, acoustic rock,alternative rock, ska, third wave ska|
|Occupations||Guitarist, songwriter, music producer|
|Instruments||Vocals, guitar, keyboards|
|Associated acts||Hogan's Heros, Sublime, Gwen Stefani|
|Gibson Les Paul|