On What Would be His 50th Birthday, Bradley Nowell’s Spirit Finds Sublime Reincarnation

Brad Nowell (Credit: Josh Coffman)

In the south end of Westminster Memorial Park Mortuary, a scrawny sapling on Shakespeare Lane sticks out like a sore thumb among tall, aging oaks. It’s a hint that you’re close to finding Bradley Nowell’s grave. Years ago, so many fans carved messages into the original tree that it died and had to be replaced.

Every year, the site holding a portion of Nowell’s ashes becomes a memorial ground for family, friends and fans of the Sublime front man. A parade of joints, 40-ounce bottles and magazine covers enshrine his headstone. People descend on the site to scrawl notes and prayers to Nowell on the curb nearby.

“I always remember hearing about Jim Morrison’s gravesite, which has become like a pilgrimage, and I felt it was important to have [a site] for the fans and important for me, so when I go up there, I’m not just in the rain remembering him by myself,” says Nowell’s widow, Troy Holmes. “Every year, there’s a few new people; there’s always music and someone playing his songs on acoustic [guitar].”

Brad Nowell’s grave (Credit: Nate Jackson)

We often remember Nowell for how he died and the history he left behind. Today, it’s surreal to imagine the often-shirtless, tattooed rock star on his 50th birthday with gray hair, decades of wisdom and a career that he was actually around to enjoy. “I think about that all the time,” says his father, Jim Nowell. “I’m 74 years old, and I’m overweight, and that’s what he would be. There’s no reason he’d be any different; he’d just be older and fatter.”

Jim has also often wondered whether success and parenthood would’ve gotten Nowell clean, or if his downward spiral of drug addiction would have continued. “I would’ve taken it either way, just to have him around,” he says.

While the impact of his death can’t be understated, on his 50th birthday, it seems only right to remember the story of Nowell’s birth.

Nowell’s mother, Nancy, who’d suffered a miscarriage, had undergone a procedure to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. “Brad always thought that if our first baby that miscarried had made it, he wouldn’t have,” Jim says. “So he always thought he was pretty lucky anyway.”

In February 1968, doctors had to provide a little extra help for Brad to be born. “Doctors in the old days played golf on Wednesday, so they took the day off,” Jim recalls. “My birthday was on Wednesday [Feb. 21], and Nancy was in the hospital, so instead of inducing labor on Wednesday, they did it on Thursday and missed my birthday by one day.” Fun fact: Sublime bassist Eric Wilson (who just turned 48) and Jim both have the same birthday.

Lil’ troublemaker (Credit: Jim Nowell–1980)

Though Nowell didn’t share a birthday with his father, he wound up sharing it with the father of America. “His birthday is the same as George Washington’s,” Jim says. “So he always got the day off for President’s Day.”

There isn’t a day that Nowell’s parents, his family, friends and band mates don’t miss him. They’re reminded of him everywhere they go: hearing his voice on the radio, seeing his band’s logo on T-shirts and stickers, or driving past the mural of Brad with Sublime on the corner of Ocean and Termino in Long Beach.

This year, Nowell’s 50th birthday is commemorated with tribute shows at Slidebar and Alex’s Bar, a new animated video for “Boss DJ,” and special merch from T-shirts to beer bottles of Sublime Mexican Lager.

When Nowell died of a heroin overdose on May 25, 1996, no one could’ve predicted how Sublime’s blend of reggae, punk, rap and dub would permeate the zeitgeist. “We always knew it was the best music in the world,” says Sublime drummer Bud Gaugh. “It was just a matter of convincing everyone else of the same thing. I think [Brad] would be pleasantly pleased the way things have gone, and we owe it all to the fans.”

Earlier this month, the One Love Cali Reggae Festival at the Queen Mary was awash with Sublime tributes. Couples walked hand-in-hand sporting shirts featuring the ubiquitous 40oz to Freedom sun drawn by Opie Ortiz, the tattoo artist/singer of Long Beach Dub Allstars, who play the fest every year. Nowell’s son, Jakob, performed with his band LAW. In between groups such as Iration and Common Kings, an MC on the mainstage got the crowds hyped to “Santeria.”

Fans belted out the chorus, their hands raised above their heads in the misty blunt smoke, singing along as if they were seeing Nowell and the band onstage, even though many of the youngsters weren’t even born when it came out.

Long Beach Dub All-Stars (Credit: Josh Coffman)

“I’d say about 80 percent of those bands on the bill wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing if it weren’t for hearing a Sublime song and loving the songs because they’re so well-written,” says Long Beach Dub Allstars keyboardist Jack Maness. “And not one of those bands could write a song as good as Sublime. Yeah, [they] can write songs, and they’re clever, but [Brad] was the real foundation—the real deal.”

For Maness and the Long Beach Dub Allstars members who knew Nowell best, missing their friend whose sound found them such ubiquitous fame is bittersweet. “It callouses you in some way. . . . You have to go deeper to heal,” Maness says. “For us close friends and all these guys that were close-knit in this camp and seeing the potential, it was like the Elon Musk rocket ship that was about to blast off. But sometimes, those rockets blow up. I mean, the rocket still went, but the captain just wasn’t on board.”

Sublime (Credit: John Dunne)

Sublime’s rocket launched in the form of a multiplatinum self-titled album that introduced many to the humor, heartbreak and seediness of California culture the band embodied. “It’s one thing to create amazing melodies, which they did, [and] it’s one thing to create great arrangements,” says Dave Kaplan, one of the managers of Sublime’s estate. “But to actually have the deep meaning in the songs brings it to a whole different level. When you come of music age, 13 to 16, we’re seeing every generation re-adopt them.”

It’s hard to believe the band didn’t fit in at all during their early days, when they were trying to book gigs in LA. “We’d go try to play Hollywood, and they’d have us stacked up with metal bands and glam rock, and we’re sharing the backstage with guys who have more cans of hairspray than we do beer,” Gaugh remembers. “Promoters were like, ‘How do we bill this?’”

Photo by Josh Coffman / Design by Richie Beckman

With sheer persistence, relentless touring and selling records out of the back of their van, Sublime brought the energy of their backyard parties to the mainstream. It introduced the world to a front man that was both charisma incarnate and a shy, well-read introvert who never quite knew if what he was doing would catch on. “Whenever he’d write something new, he’d play it over and over again and go, ‘Do you think people are gonna like it?’” Holmes says. “He was never totally sure; he couldn’t really see it through other people’s eyes.”

Thirty years after the band’s formation, it’s hard to imagine how Sublime’s music would’ve evolved or how 50-year-old Nowell would view their success. We imagine his spirit would be stoked every time joints or trees got replaced near his headstone. It symbolizes the cycle of Sublime that will always find a new listener.

“All these people that we’re bonding with over music, a lifestyle, it was going up against what was commonly popular,” Gaugh says. “We did something different, and people were like, ‘I’m digging that, I see that, I feel that, I’m living it.’”

Brad Nowell’s 50th Birthday will be celebrated with shows at Alex’s Bar tonight with Phileano, LAW, Tiger Sex, Perro Bravo and The Ziggens (for info, click here) and on Friday at Slidebar with LAW, Perro Bravo, Corndoggy Dog and Mic Dangerously (for info, click here).

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