During his lifetime, Bradley Nowell lived a drug-fueled, fast life. He formed his band Sublime, along with two other members, in 1988 and made music until the day that he died. Sublime’s music still receives radio play with songs like “Santeria” and “What I Got”. The band released three albums during their 8 years together but their self-titled album released in 1996 received the most attention. The album is 5x times platinum and has sold over 5 million copies in the United States. However, Nowell was never able to see the success the band achieved.
Bradley Nowell died from a heroin overdose on May 25, 1996, just two months before the band released their final album.
Nowell was 28 years old when he died and left behind an 11-month old child.
Nowell was born on February 22, 1968 in Long Beach, California. Music was a part of Nowell’s life from the beginning. His father was a construction worker who enjoyed playing guitar, meanwhile his mother taught him piano and also made a living playing the flute. His two parents are the ones that gave him his first guitar lesson, according to a 1995 article from the Los Angeles Times.
“They’ve been supportive. My mom doesn’t like all the F-words [in Sublime’s songs].”
By the time Nowell was 10 years old, Nowell was exposed to reggae. He was listening to Bob Marley and moved deeper into the genre as he would listen to Jamaican shows on the radio. Eric Wilson, who would go on to be in Sublime, said that Nowell even tried to incorporate it into the music that his early bands were making.
“I was trying to get them to do ‘Cherry Oh Baby’ [by UB40], and it didn’t work. They tried but it just sounded like such garbage. We were horrible.”
After Nowell graduated high school he attended University of California Santa Cruz for two years and transferred to California State Long Beach where he studied finance. He was one semester short of a degree when he decided to leave college to focus on music.
When he returned to Long Beach, he formed Sublime with Eric Wilson and drummer Bud Gaugh. Sublime made a name for themselves by playing as often as possible out of garages, in backyards, and at private parties. Eric Wilson remembered the band playing in some rough neighborhoods, saying that somebody even got stabbed once.
Sublime and Nowell blended multiple genres to create the music that they wanted, drawing from reggae, hip hop, punk, ska and just about everything else you can think of. The band put together their first recording, a cassette tape called “Jah Won’t Pay the Bills” in 1991.
Following the release of the tape, Gaugh decided to check himself into the a drug rehabilitation center and rather than go on without Gaugh, the band decided to postpone a tour and focus on recording more music.
In 1992, the band recorded and released their debut album “40oz. To Freedom”. The album sold well enough for Sublime to emerge as one of the top bands in the Orange County/Long Beach rock scene. About 60,000 copies of the album were distributed and sold out of Nowell’s car.
Nowell said that the band recorded the album in the studios of a California State University building.
“You weren’t supposed to be 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.”
However, the band was soon in financial trouble and couldn’t afford a studio to record their sophomore effort. Instead, the band elected to make a project filled with experimental, home recording songs which became their second album, “Robbin’ the Hood” which was released in 1994.
Despite their new album, it was an older song from their first album that started to receive commercial attention. Their 1992 song “Date Rape” started to get played on college radio and other California stations. The radio play helped the band find more commercial success, it saw the band selling more records in southern California, but failing to capitalize on the national demand.
“On tour, everybody said ‘Where can we get your record?’ “
Eventually the band was able to land a national distribution deal which helped to bring their music more commercial success.. The band’s manager said that the first week after the deal was reached, their two albums sold 23,000 copies.
During the rise of the band, Nowell would often write and create songs that spoke about alcohol and drugs, something that Nowell had first-hand experience with. Despite the newfound commercial successes the band was seeing, Nowell drug use had continued and his heroin use increased.
According to a Sublime fan page, Nowell’s addiction got so out of control that he was spending about four thousand dollars on heroin every month while the band recorded tracks for their major label debut. Nowell was even flown home early due to the extent of his drug use.
"We just kept being punkers and doing it all by ourselves. Now here we are today. We never thought it would be like this. We just thought we'd always be playing backyard parties. A couple of hundred people in Long Beach can claim we played in their backyards".
Despite the band trying to bring his drug use to his attention, the band could not save him. On May 18,1996, Nowell was married to Troy Dendekker, his girlfriend and the mother of his child. Just seven days later, Nowell was found by his bandmate David Gaugh who woke up to find Nowell lying on the floor next to his bed it soon became clear that Nowell had overdosed, the paramedics were called but Nowell had been dead for hours and was pronounced dead at the scene.
The self-titled album that the band had been working on before Nowell’s death was released about a month later. The album received widespread commercial success fueled by the success of the album’s singles “What I Got”, “Santeria”, and “Wrong Way”. The album also achieved critical praise from music publications all over.
Rolling Stone Magazine gave the album four and a half stars. “The trio’s bright, wired bounce and the shell game shuffle of funk beats, snappy Jamaican rhythms and mosh-pit, shout-it-out choruses in Nowell’s writing -- that’s the stuff of a band with great promise and the confidence to make good on it. If only that were still possible,” wrote David Fricke in the review.
The album was also featured on Spin Magazine’s list of the best albums of the 1990s where they ranked 48th. “The completed record is a tragic contradiction: a confident, clearheaded work by an artist coming into his own and at the same time losing control,” the magazine said.
Nowell’s music, at times, reflected the struggles with drugs that he was experiencing in his own life. One of the prime examples of this is in the song “Pool Shark”
“But now I’ve got the needle/And I can shake, but I can’t breathe/I take away, but I want more and more/One day, I’m going to lose the war”
Another song that illustrates his drug addiction is “Badfish”. The song uses the word “badfish” a reference to a heroin addict and uses wordplay and metaphors to expand on the issue.
“Ain’t got no quarrels with God/Ain’t got no time to get old/Lord knows I’m weak/Won’t somebody get me off of this reef?”
Bradley Nowell and Sublime’s music has continued to grow in popularity over the years since his death. Their songs have gone on to inspire millions of people and thousands of musicians.
Despite Nowell’s wife being heartbroken and angry by the initial loss of her husband, she decided not long after his death that she wanted to use his problems to help other people who may be in similar situations.
“I was devastated but I don’t want to be devastated anymore. I want to be empowered by this and not let it happen again,” she said in a Los Angeles Times interview.
“I want to make people aware that this is not what being a musician is about. I want to tell kids that Brad had a gift long before he ever did drugs -- but drugs robbed him of that gift.”
Bradley Nowell was the engine behind Sublime’s success. But before he could fully see that success manifest, Nowell died from a heroin overdose. While Nowell may have passed away, his spirit and music still live on inspiring new listeners constantly. Nowell’s friends and family have come out to say that they hope people will learn from this tragic death. At Landmark Recovery, if you are suffering from some type of substance abuse, our staff has the tools and knowledge to educate you to help begin and maintain sobriety. Please call our admissions team today to learn about drug rehab and alcohol rehab today.