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20 Years Ago: Sublime Frontman Bradley Nowell Dies From a Heroin Overdose

Steve Eichner, Getty Images
Steve Eichner, Getty Images

In the early hours of May 25, 1996, 28-year-old singer and guitarist Bradley Nowell called Troy, his wife of exactly one week and mother of his 11 month-old son, Jakob. Earlier that night, Sublime had played at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma, about seven hours north of Nowell’s home in Long Beach, California. Although the show went well and everything seemed fine, it would be the last time Troy would ever speak to her husband.

At the time of his lethal heroin overdose, Nowell and his reggae-infused punk band were winding through a five-date promotional run for the upcoming release of their self-titled third album and major label debut, set for release two months later. By all appearances, Nowell had been doing much better in his long battle with heroin addiction, and he had been doing his best to stay clean.

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While no one knows exactly what happened to Nowell during those final moments in a San Francisco hotel room, it’s believed that he couldn’t sleep after a long night of partying. He had reportedly tried to convince his longtime friends and bandmates, bassist Eric Wilson and drummer Bud Gaugh, to go down to the beach with him and watch the sun rise over the breaking waves. But they were too tired and hungover, so Nowell took Lou Dog, his beloved Dalmatian, and went on his own.

At some point after he returned to his hotel room, Nowell must have shot up. Gaugh, who had used the same stash hours earlier, eventually awoke and found the singer laying with green film on his lips and Lou whimpering at his feet. It’s presumed Nowell had already been dead for some time.

Beyond the immense personal loss, his death was devastatingly tragic within the music world. After forming Sublime out of Long Beach in 1988, Nowell and the band had become a DIY phenomenon in the rising ska-punk scene. A party band through and through, they were driven by Nowell’s chill-inducing vocals and percussive, dub-influenced guitar, both of which paired perfectly with the infectious, breezy rhythms of Wilson and Gaugh.

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When Sublime first emerged, few knew what to make of a gang of crusty, self-destructive SoCal punks fusing reggae, punk, hardcore and ska into something entirely new. So the band partnered with their friend Michael “Miguel” Happoldt to create their own label, Skunk Records. After a series of early homespun releases, Sublime recorded their now-legendary 1992 debut, 40 Oz. To Freedom, with a $1,000 loan from Nowell’s dad. In two years, the band managed to move 30,000 copies from the back of a van, thanks in part to the smash single, “Date Rape.”

But more fame meant more problems for the band and, for Nowell, that problem was heroin. A college-educated deep-thinker from a loving and relatively affluent family, he first acquired his addiction during a misguided experiment of sorts, attempting to mirror larger-than-life icons like Miles Davis and Kurt Cobain.

As Sublime maintained their ascent, Nowell struggled to stay clean. When he recorded their scattered but often brilliant second album, Robbin’ The Hood, he did it in an “earthquake-damaged house” turned “tweaker pad with pirated electricity,” according to SPIN. The lyrics to “Pool Shark,” in which Nowell confesses, “I want more and more, one day I’m gonna lose the war,” proved eerily prophetic.

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The situation worsened after Sublime signed to major label MCA and began work in early 1996 on their self-titled album. As fresh and relaxed as much of that record sounds, it was the product of a torturous period when Nowell was reportedly spending up to $4,000 on heroin every month. Somehow, the band managed to finish the album, thanks in no small measure to the efforts of producers Paul Leary (Butthole Surfers, Meat Puppets) and David Kahne (Taking Back Sunday, the Strokes).

After the album was released, it became a runaway success and spawned four hit singles (“What I Got,” “Santeria,” “Wrong Way” and “Doin’ Time”) on its way to multi-platinum status. It also helped define the ’90s third-wave ska scene (which also featured genre-bending bands like No Doubt and 311) and the album placed a global spotlight on Nowell’s evocative lyrical imagery and his unflinching portraits of the seedy side of SoCal.

Sadly, Nowell wasn’t there for any of it.

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After Nowell’s death in 1996, his body was cremated and his ashes spread over his favorite surfing spot in Surfside, Calif. Troy has since remarried and Jakob, now in his early 20s, has picked up the family trade as frontman of his own Long Beach band, LAW. As for Lou Dog, Happoldt took him in and cared for him for five years, until Nowell’s faithful amigo died of old age in 2001.

For all intents and purposes, however, the Sublime the world came to love in the mid-’90s died along with Nowell in that San Francisco hotel room, despite a slew of posthumous albums released by MCA, including the 1997 rarities collection Second-Hand Smoke. Wilson and Gaugh continued on as Long Beach Dub Allstars and, for years, they refused to perform again as Sublime. But in 2009, after being blocked by Nowell’s estate, they arrived at a compromise when they reemerged with singer Rome Ramirez as Sublime With Rome. Gaugh left the band in 2011.

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