The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Sublime

The band Sublime rose to popularity in the early 1990s amid the grunge scene, which came like a tidal wave drowning out the hairbands that ruled rock 'n' roll in the 1980s. But instead of the grungy Seattle sound of heavy guitar and screaming frontmen fueled by gen-X angst, Sublime's "breezy Cali-reggae-punk," as described by Pitchfork, sounded more like dudes having a good time — and we were all invited to the party. 

Bradley Nowell, Bud Gaugh and Eric Wilson formed Sublime in 1988. According to Sublime's website, the crew started playing backyard parties in Long Beach, California and selling cassettes out of their car before they landed their first official gig at a club on July 4, 1988. By 1989 Nowell joined Miguel Happoldt in launching Skunk Records (via OC Weekly), the label that would release Sublime's first single in 1991, "Date Rape," and several of the band's subsequent records. 

In June 1992, Sublime released their iconic album, 40 oz. to Freedom on the label, an album Pitchfork called "their most enduring work and one of the most musically ravenous albums of the '90s...." But even though 40 oz. to Freedom eventually nestled itself firmly into the music collection of many a Gen-Xer and Millennial, it didn't reach the height of its popularity until after the death of frontman Nowell, who died of a heroin overdose on May 25, 1996, according to Billboard. 

Nowell died a week after getting married and a month before his son's first birthday

Nowell's untimely death was not only a tragedy because he was just 28, but also because he left behind a new wife and baby boy. 

According to Sublime's website, Nowell's son, Jakob, was born on June 25, 1995. Nowell died exactly a month before his son's first birthday. Adding to the sadness of the situation was that Nowell had just married the mother of his son, Troy Dendekker, on May 18, a week prior to his death. But as Dendekker told CBS Los Angeles, by then, Nowell's drug use was a serious problem that she didn't think he was going to be able to overcome.

Dendekker said, "It got to a point where the boys were sick of babysitting him because of the addiction. I got the same way and he needed to fight for it himself. It sucked at the time and I was p***** and angry. We went through a tragedy together. All these years later we are still being blessed by Bradley and his music. I don't think Bradley would've made it no matter what because he was tired and he wasn't a fighter."

Sublime kept touring and recording up until Nowell's death

Dendekker wasn't alone in her feeling that Nowell was going to die as a result of his addiction. According to Pitchfork, drummer Bud Gaugh said of Nowell's death, "It wasn't a question of was it going to happen, it was a question of when it was going to happen."

As Nowell's partying escalated into hard drug addiction, the band continued to release music and tour. In 1993 Sublime released "Badfish," a song from 40 oz. to Freedom, as a single, and in 1994 they released the album Robbin' the Hood. The record did well on college radio initially, according to all music, but never reached the commercial status that 40 oz to Freedom or Sublime's 1996 self-titled album would ultimately achieve. Sublime was released in July 1996, two months after Nowell's death.

Nowell's addictions may have been growing, but he was still making it as a musician and trying to be a father and husband. His sister, Kellie Nowell, told New Noise about the last time she saw Bradley: "It was the night of the reception, and he thanked me for helping with the wedding –he was clean and really happy. The next morning, when I brought his son back who had stayed with us that night, I just waved to him across the room. And six days later, he was gone."

Sublime was working on their most popular album as Nowell descended into addiction

In the final months of Nowell's life, he, Gaugh and Wilson were busy cutting the album Sublime in Austin, Texas at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio. But according to Rolling Stone, it was clear in those months that even though Nowell had tried to kick his heroin habit a few times, he was worse than ever. 

Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers produced the album. He told Rolling Stone, "They're the sweetest bunch of guys, [but] it was chaos in the studio. There were times where someone had to go into the bathroom to see if Brad was still alive." 

At one point Leary sent Nowell home to get it together. Nowell's dad, Jim Nowell, told Rolling Stone, "It was the worst I'd ever seen him."

The Sublime recordings lasted from February to May 1996, when Nowell was found dead in the Oceanview Motel in San Francisco, according to Rock and Roll Roadmap, who reported that the singer was cremated and his ashes released in his favorite place to surf in Surfside, California. 

Sublime eventually replaced Nowell

In the years after Nowell's death, Gaugh and Wilson put out two albums as the the Long Beach Dub All Stars, per Vulture, before bringing guitarist and singer Rome Ramirez into the group in 2009 and re-naming the band Sublime with Rome. By 2011 Gaugh  quit the band and drummer Josh Freese filled the opening. Freese left to play with Sting in 2017, according to Vulture, and in 2019 Carlos Verdugo of the San Diego reggae unit Tribal Seeds joined the group. 

Wilson told Vulture that even though fans came out wanting to hear the original Sublime songs in the beginning, he's not trying to recreate what the band did with Nowell. "We're not Sublime," he said. "We're Sublime with Rome. My favorite part of the show is when we're out there playing our new songs, and people already know the lyrics. We're doing something there."

It's been nearly 25 years since Nowell died, but the songs he recorded with Sublime — "Santeria," "Badfish," "What I got" — still get regular play on rock radio. The butter-voiced singer's comical, playful – or (per Pitchfork) some may say offensive – lyrics left their mark on generations of music fans.  

Rome Ramirez stepped in for Bradley Nowell

The Nowell family is trying to honor Bradley's memory by helping others in the music community who are struggling with addiction. 

They created The Nowell Family Foundation, which is working to open a six-bed addiction recovery center called Bradley's House for people in the music industry who need help with substance abuse, and according to New Noise, the treatment would be free. 

To help fund the venture, in 2020 the foundation teamed up with LAW records and 24 bands to release an acoustic Sublime tribute album called The House That Bradley Built (via YouTube). And in February 2021, in honor of what would've been Bradley Nowell's 53rd birthday, 20 bands participated in a streaming concert (via Facebook) to benefit the foundation. 

In August 2020 Kellie Nowell told New Noise, "We want to honor his memory and help other families avoid all the pain we've had to go through. And we wanted to somehow have an impact on this crazy opioid epidemic sweeping the country, if not the world. We've seen the challenges that musicians face in trying to get clean and stay clean — we thought this would be a good way to do that. I think he would be proud of the way we have taken our pain and tragedy and turned it into something potentially really positive."