Bradley James Nowell
born: Feb 22 1968, Long Beach, CA
died: May 25 1996, Petaluma, CA
Brad Nowell is a real musical hero of mine, and I have often been disappointed by the shortage of decent biographies online. So I've spent some time collating information from various websites and also my own knowledge; this will be just about as comprehensive as I can manage. Any corrections or additions would be much appreciated.
N.B. This is not a bio of the band Sublime but their career is outlined to give you extra perspective on Brad's life.
Brad Nowell was the major creative force behind '90s SoCal ska-punk band Sublime. I say ska-punk because that is the usual label applied to them, but here is how he viewed the situation:
"Sublime is a hodgepodge of all types of bands I have been into since I was a kid. Not like I mix it all up on purpose but more like its a subconscious type of thing. As a young kid I was heavily into hardcore punk, like the Circle Jerks and Black Flag, then I first heard the ska sound from bands like The Selector and The Specials. I thought this was the best music I had ever heard. Then came the rub-a-dub style of dancehall reggae music which I've never been able get out of my head since! A little later I was into Run-DMC and the whole NWA sound. I was blown away when I heard groups like BDP and KRS-One mixing rap and reggae. It was devastating. Without really trying I now seem to put a dancehall style lyric melody over much of my attempts at writing other types of music."
"The bottom line is I love good music and I try to shy away from all these labels that people think are so necessary to slap on music. It seems like people get afraid of a certain music if they can't pigeonhole it to their satisfaction. They will be up all night trying to slap a label on Sublime. Good music is good music, and that should be enough for anybody."
Born on 22nd February, 1968 to parents Jim and Nancy Nowell. By all accounts, Brad was an intelligent child. However, he also suffered from attention deficit disorder (arguably the root of the incredible musical eclecticism he would display later on in life). His parents divorced when he was ten and he lived with his mother in Orange County for a few years. It was during this time that his dad took him on a vacation to the Virgin Islands and he heard reggae music for the first time. Upon returning home he started teaching himself to play guitar, strongly influenced by the reggae style he had seen on his trip. He received his first guitar on his twelfth birthday, and had already begun expanding his musical tastes to include punk rock and the other diverse genres of music common in Southern California at the time.
In 1981 he moved in with his dad (himself a keen guitarist), and at age thirteen formed his first band, Hogan's Heroes. The band was short-lived, but Brad's appetite for musical stardom had been whetted. He graduated from high school in 1986 and enrolled at U.C. Santa Cruz where he also developed a taste for hip-hop.
Sublime's Early Years
In 1988, along with college friend Eric Wilson (bass) and drummer Bud Gaugh, he formed Sublime. After three years at Santa Cruz, Brad decided to drop out in order to concentrate on the band full-time. Not releasing an album for four years, they were known as "The Garage Punk Band that Nobody Liked, but Everybody Wanted to Have Play at Their Party", before releasing their debut LP, 40 oz. to Freedom, in 1992. The album was released on Skunk Records, the record label that Brad himself had created along with friend Michael "Miguel" Happoldt (a member of another local ska punk band, the Ziggens). The band had to sell copies of the album from the trunk of their car, as Brad was unable to persuade a major label to carry it.
Although 40 oz. to Freedom was successful for an indie release (selling 60,000 copies), Brad had been hoping for something more. His desperation for greater success led to a "two year experiment" - shooting heroin to improve his creativity. The experiment culminated with the release of their sophomore album, Robbin' the Hood, in 1994. This album contained the song Pool Shark (both a hardcore punk version and a slower acoustic version) which skadip mentions. As skadip implied, this song proved sadly prophetic (update: skadip's write up appears to have been swallowed by Klaproth).
Ironically, had Brad waited, he would have seen that success would have been attained without heroin use. A local radio station, KROQ had begun playing the single Date Rape (from 40 oz. to Freedom) two years after its initial release. This extra exposure resulted in a deal with MCA covering both Robbin' the Hood and a proper release of 40 oz. to Freedom. By now, though, it was too late for Brad to go back on a drug habit he had formed over the past two years.
Troy and Jakob
Around this time, while Brad was touring, he met and started dating a girl named Troy Dendekker. In June 1995 their son, Jakob James Nowell was born. Later photos of Brad show him with his son's name tattooed just under his neck. Brad was madly in love with both Troy and his baby son, and he and Troy planned to marry the following year.
The Final Year
1996 would turn out to be a very eventful year. Early in the year, the band started work on a third album. Unfortunately, this only served to increase Brad's heroin problem, and recording had to be postponed while he entered rehab. A few months later, and apparently clean, Brad finished off the album (entitled Sublime) with the rest of the band. He married Troy on May 18th, 1996, and Sublime went on tour two days later. It was while staying in a Petaluma motel after a tour date there that Brad suffered a fatal overdose of heroin. He was discovered by the other band members the following morning.
Sublime's self-titled album was finally released two months after the tragedy to both critical acclaim and commercial success (selling 3.5 million copies and counting), being nominated for various awards (including a Grammy). Without Bradley, the band broke up, with Bud and Eric going on to form Long Beach Dub Allstars (Bud now drums with Eyes Adrift).
The overdose itself has always been something of a mystery. The Substylee website has this explanation:
There is a joke that has been going around that if Bradley had been a member of Motley Crue or any other less talented hair band from the 80's, he would still be alive. What's both funny and sad about this joke, is that it is probably true. But since Bradley was much more talented, and much more intelligent, he repeatedly tried to stay off of heroin, which might have been what killed him in the end. In the event of a relapse, the more time in between hits, the less heroin a person can handle. Bradley's normal amount of heroin would not have been fatal if taken by a regular user, but since he had been clean for over two months, his body couldn't take it.
It is also interesting to note that many fans who purchased the third album were unaware of Brad's demise. It appears that MCA felt that too much mention of the circumstances surrounding his death would have a negative impact on record sales.
James Nowell, Brad's father:
"Brad was a loving son, who always had a hug and an "I love you" for his father. He was very open with his emotions and told me that his wife, Troy, and eleven month old son, Jake, were his special joys in life. He also had a special place in his heart for both Nancy and Janie, both of whom he called mom. He loved his sisters Kellie, Katie and Kristin, his brother Cory, his Uncle John and Aunt Karen. He had a special relationship with his Aunt Julie. He loved his Grandpa Louie and Grandma Mackie, in fact so much that he named his dogs after them. He and his dog Louie were inseparable. Wherever Brad lived or traveled, Lou Dog was there, even sharing his last moments with him.
"He greatly enjoyed all of you in his large extended family and considered you not only as cousins, but as friends. He was proud that he had such a wide circle of good and loyal friends in his life. His was a tender and generous soul that cared more for the welfare of others than the material treasures of life. He often expressed the love and admiration he felt toward his bandmates, Eric and Bud, who he thought of as his brothers.
"Alas, Brad was, as all young men are, a seeker of truth and perfection, both in his life and his music. We had many a conversation over the years about the meaning of life and our place in it. He read through my shelf of used books that I acquired during my questioning early years, and he used to go through used book stores in his own search. Brad sought wisdom by reading the old philosophers and biographies of great men. He read the books of Joseph Conrad and dreamed of south seas adventures. He read accounts of man's history in search of understanding our world. He sought for the wisdom of the universe in an imperfect world only to find that man is fated only to ask the questions, the answers to which are known only to God. He looked to expand his mind and seek escape in drugs, but came too close to the edge with them and unintentionally took his own life.
"Brad will always live for me in his son, Jake, and we can all seek relief from our grief by loving and nurturing the son he gave to us. Brad touched many people with his caring personality and musical genius and we are all lucky to have had him in our lives. Men who have lived longer have achieved less and I am content that he is now at peace.
and Tom Dumont of No Doubt:
"Bradley's death Friday night is shocking and devastating for me. Despite Sublime's reputation for partying, I always felt that his talent for singing and writing songs shined through it all. He was one of those guys whose natural talent was on a higher level than just about anyone I've ever known.
"I remember one night a few years ago when Tony's parents threw him a surprise birthday party at home, and I brought some amps and guitars and drums over, and we invited a bunch of our musician friends. Brad and the rest of the Sublime guys came over and the various bands did little improvised sets of their stuff. So there in the middle of the Kanal family's living room Bradley, Eric and Bud played the most amazing, emotionally heart wrenching performance, holding absolutely nothing back, blowing away everyone there.
"It's the thing I always thought could happen but I never believed it would. When somebody you know dies its hard to fathom. I'm kind of devastated. Gwen dedicated a song to him today and it was probably a shocking downer for those who knew them. It was a sad set. All the lyrics in Don't Speak seemed to be about Brad. He'll be missed. He knew what he was up against, but heroin will enslave the strongest of men."
Brad had two electrics: a flame top smoke black Ibanez S-470 and a custom model built by his guitar tech, Dan McDonald. The custom model was based on a mix of a 1960's Vox Hurricane and a G&L 100, with an ebony fretboard and Floyd Rose vibrato. His amps were a Marshall 50 watt 2x12 combo amp and a Roland JC-120 jazz chorus amp. Pedals were two effects (Boss OS-2 Overdrive Distortion and Boss DD-3 Digital Delay) and a box switcher to switch between the two amps.
Details about his acoustic guitar(s) are sketchy, but he was often pictured with a flamenco-style guitar (i.e. nylon-strung with a thick white scratchplate either side of the soundhole) which was presumably the guitar of choice for his frequent acoustic excursions.
I feel that Lou Dog, Brad's dalmatian deserves special mention. Lou was perhaps the one constant in Brad's life, and this is reflected in the lyrics of songs written throughout his career. Legend has it that Lou shat on the carpet at the MCA offices during the meeting that secured Sublime their record deal... Brad had trained the dog well!