The boys of Sublime

To many, Spanish lyricism and punk/ska music are not necessarily synonymous. When placed in the rare context of California dreaming, though, only one band comes to mind…Sublime. Whether it be their ultra-dirty Caress Me Down, or the spiced up Spanglish used throughout most of their songs, Bradley Nowell and his bandmates had a knack for incorporating their comunity’s Mexican flare into their already fusion-based music. The interest of my own writing then, is what exactly led Bradley to speak one of Southern California’s most prominent languages, despite his Anglo background. To what degree could his Long Beach culture have influenced his lyrics, and to what extent can we simply accredit it to Nowell’s gift for combining unlikely sources to create an art all his own.

The band was known to have first started in 1988 as a ska punk band, with deep-set roots in rowdy political stances and legal issues. Their first performance, located at Harbor Peninsula on July 4, 1988 allegedly led to the Peninsula Riot, and was only the first brick laid in their wall of notoriety.

After having a difficult time dealing with some attention deficiency disorders, Bradley moved from his mother’s home to his father’s more relaxed dwelling. Later, having built a strong relationship through the beach life (e.g. surfing, sailing, and swimming), his father took Nowell on a sailing trip through the Virgin Islands. It was on this trip that the band’s reggae influences were first introduced. Upon his return to his father’s Long Beach home, Bradley formed a band with some neighborhood kids, Eric Wilson and Bud Gaugh. With a strong foundation in their newly discovered reggae music, further practice led to the inclusion of dance hall music, hip-hop and rap, metal, surf rock, punk, funk, R&B, and even soul. While several followers still question the path that led to such a new and eclectic sound, it is my belief that so many genres were made possible simply through Brad Nowell’s vocal capacity. His voice was soulful, yet rang in a way that rockabilly singers still work towards. His scratchy melodies made his love songs lovelier, and his raunchy songs dirtier. Only a very rare voice could elicit such honest intonation, and even fewer singers could blend so many styles together to create a single, path-paving sound.

As jam sessions in the garage became picnic shows and backyard concerts, the band’s fame preceded them wherever they went. They became the gods of Long Beach, and used their music to preach about the life of drugs, alcohol, and the wrong side of the tracks. Although they were the singers of beach ballads, their’s were odes to going big or going home. Whether they were staying at home for the night or selling out a small venue, they made sure to party like it was their last.

With every song written, their fame grew, and with every bong hit, they ascended deeper into the madness that would be Sublime.

After the release of two albums, 40 oz. to Freedom (19924) and Robbin’ the Hood (1994), the band was nearing the finish of their third self-titled album and living the life. Nowell’s long-standing, and well-known battle with heroin addiction had seemed to be off the horizon, and the men were setting out to promote their album up and down the gold coast. Only days after finishing their album, and mere months after marrying his wife Troy and having son Jakob, Bradley Nowell passed due to a heroin overdose. On that day, May 25, 1996, died a legend and lost was any insight into the mind of an innovator.

Bradley Nowell

Due to his untimely passing, there are lot of questions that have been left unanswered. One of which, seems to be the his inspiration for the incorporation of Spanish into his already catchy lyrics, and the steps it took for him to perfect his pronunciation and learn the slang he is best known for. All we can be left to assume is that his respect for his upbringing and his strong connection with the Long Beach community led to his knowledge and usage of the language.


About ocbarrios

Professor for Cal State Fullerton's Barrio Studies class for Fall 2011 semester

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