“Chapter 3: On Sublime, The ’90s’ Misunderstood Problem Child”

{excerpt from my unpublished book On Rock Music within the 1990s}


Eric Wilson’s bass is the alpha male. Bradley Nowell’s voice is incandescent, voluminous, damaged, almost feminine. The track opens with a spliced, stuttered and generally bamboozling drum beat. 

Michael “Miguel” Happoldt handles the mix and this is garage rock reggae, sans horns, to take over the world and be pumped through pub PA’s in Long Beach, Boston, London and Alabama, alike. 

And then IT happens. 

Marshall Goodman, international man of mystery, was born in Chicago, according to Wikipedia, and was the original drummer in Sublime, and a way more vital member of the band than most people realize. In fact, for 40 oz. to Freedom (1992), probably the band’s second-best album next to their self-titled (1996), according to The Pier, “the line up for Sublime was Marshall, Brad, Eric & Miguel” [1]. Of course, this fact runs in irony with this poster I had hanging on my wall in college that read “Lovin’ is what I got… It’s within my reach” and depicted Bradley Nowell (vocals, guitar), Eric Wilson (bass) [2] and Bud Gaugh (drums) standing by the ocean, Gaugh’s face smeared with this preternatural sort of placid satisfaction distinct to being a member of a genre-shifting, radio-ready ’90s mastodon, if you will.

And to be honest, I don’t really know what the general story on Sublime is: usually, when I talk to someone and they don’t like Sublime, I just feel bad for the person. I’m just like, you’re missing out. 

Anyway, for the permeating foregone conclusions that the aforementioned detractor has heard “What I Got” and “Doin’ Time,” it’s highly unlikely that they’ve ever taken in “Live at E’s,” track 11 on my original 40 oz. to Freedom CD. The reason I say this is that nobody who heard this track would refuse to immediately declare Sublime the best currently active band in the world that wasn’t Nirvana or Primus. As I mention, Miguel mixes Eric’s bass up to mountain lion force, the drum beat, which is probably a dub played by Goodman himself, grooves on a cosmic level, and Bradley Nowell sounds like a male Gwen Stefani, poised to commence soundtracking sweaty pub shows or Jock Jams, whichever he’d prefer.

But first, we gotta kick it. Marshall Goodman’s gotta get on and bust this primordially cool rap, to the reggae groove laid down by the band, a rhythmic diatribe containing the declaration that “’Cause all the ladies and me / You see we both agree / That I’m goin’ down / In world history”, and, perhaps even more interestingly, this bizarre, inimitable habit of unleashing these ecstatic “uh” sounds, like some old lady on Ab Fab [4] might make, every bar or so. 

I mean, this track is so fu**ing cool it’s like it’s from another planet, and again, I’d just like to reiterate that Eric Wilson’s bass, in confluence with how its rendered in Michael Happoldt’s mix, is what really sends the thing into overdrive. It’s almost like you can’t name this as your favorite Sublime songs because it’s not fair to the other songs. It’s like picking Charles Barkley in a pickup game involving 11-year-olds. 

So fu** it. I’ll go with “Get Ready.” And I hope you don’t mind if I do. “Get Ready” is track 14 on Sublime’s near-perfect self-titled album, the album that put “What I Got”; “Wrong Way” and “Santeria” on the map, the album that made them world famous, and, arguably, the album that did in Bradley Nowell, who would experience a fatal O.D. on heroin two months before its release, and the very morning the band were scheduled to begin touring in support of the album. 

As classic as all the singles are from Sublime, “Get Ready,” on a full-length listen to the entire album, marks the most important point on the journey, to me. In subject matter, it, in a way, resembles “Fight for Your Right”, taking on the topic of being disallowed basic liberties of expression and communication by the world at large, or the powers that be, who object to these liberties. Of course, it’s just like Nowell to take things a little too far, acting like he’s entitled to “let the bassline drop as loud as we can stand”, sending an infernal cacophony through the neighborhood.

I mean, truth be told, being irreverent and inappropriate is a lot of what Sublime always represented as an act and an overall brand and image. Nowell’s diction on “Get Ready,” though, seems to hit with more meaning, somehow: the song opens with the line “Some folks say that smokin’ herb is a crime”; a mantra then repeated later, about three minutes into the song, the second time accompanied by an unorthodox drum beat, with kicks on the first, fourth and seventh eighth notes of the measure, instead of just the first and fifth. 

Somehow, this second, permutated drum beat, combined with this repeated, semantically nuclear set of lyrics, materializes into the band’s primary, overall tour de force, to me. There’s frustration in that rhythm and a world-weary hopelessness in Bradley Nowell’s voice, as if he knows, eventually, that martial law and thought control are going to win out over music and free expression. He is singing these words, essentially, on the cusp of his own demise, and also, in a way, verbally regarding said demise, simultaneously. 

The result, then, materializes as something approximating the governing thesis statement of one’s own life. Let’s face it: Bradley Nowell felt confined by society, felt locked inside a proverbial, cultural “cage,” of sorts. Over and over, repeatedly, he and his band made it a point to be rude, to be different, to have fun at any expense whatsoever, and to get people thinking outside of the stifling status quo of materialism, convention and formality. Just look at the title from their first album [5]: “Jah won’t pay the bills.” It’s almost like this was set up as a paradox to be embraced as their overall cornerstone of their whole existence as a band: the impossibility of amalgamating a righteous, virtuous life with earning money in America. If it bleeds, it leads. And, in a way, Bradley Nowell bled, to then intake something to his bloodstream that would end up doing him in.

No doubt, he dreaded the thought of touring. He dreaded the thought of fame. He was loath before the possibility that his own songs would become stale to him or that he would find himself singing to rapists, jealous goons and culture vultures [6]. It seemed like a cage to him, the very snag he’d initially intended on sidestepping by being in a band and creating free, expressive music, in the first place. 

Well, I’d be deluding myself if I said I were going to convert any Sublime haters into fans, with these casual words on this casual page, or pull anything over on the people who actually are true fans. Anyway, just the final spiel I’d like to go on with Sublime, if I may, regards the song “Wrong Way.” To a tee, “Wrong Way” embodies the aforementioned presence of the irreverent, or lurid, and the motif of this dirty, degraded kind of aesthetic standing as the flagship Sublime mantra. “Wrong Way” is a song about a 12-year-old girl, who, unbeknownst to her, is soon to enter the unthinkable atrocity of being whored out by her dad, to the world at large, and to her “seven horny brothers.” Now, I actually don’t know if this song is based on a true story or not — to be honest, I have a sort of low threshold for intake of information about situations this befouling.

What I would like to say, hopefully with at least an ephemeral amount of authority, involves the song’s disposition and musical outplay. Now, Bradley Nowell was a musical perfectionist. I’d just looked at this interview with Marshall Goodman, for instance, in The Pier, and it’s got this cool tidbit of transcription of a conversation he had with Nowell in the studio, writing one of the songs: “‘But I said: “There’s no one-drops on this record!”… And he’s like: “Nah man, we gotta play backbeat man, you gotta hit that snare”… But I said: “Nope, I’m playing the one-drop and that’s it!”’” Along these lines, I don’t think Sublime ever got enough credit for being as original as they are: no other band had ever, that I know of, taken the Jamaican range of style containing ska and reggae and just plopped it onto radio rock like a 50-lb. bag of top soil. Fishbone and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones had both come before, obviously, doing something roughly similar and also no doubt influencing what Sublime was doing. But neither of these bands had the reggae shtick — you can almost feel Bradley Nowell subsuming Bob Marley’s soul in his brilliant, electric guitar/vox cover of “Trenchtown Rock.”

Stylistically, “Wrong Way” falls a little closer to the Fishbone, “Skankin’ to the Beat” rhythmic default than most of their cuts. On this track, though, Nowell does something altogether otherworldly with the lyrics, making it a singular listen and authentic document with alternative rock. 

So let me put it in the form of a question. There’s this little girl getting whored out by her family; what’s the scoop with 99 singers out of 100 out there? Why, you get a cornball 3 Doors Down song, obviously: “Hold me when I here / Love me while strong / Hamma hamma hamma”. Now, let’s insert Bradley Nowell’s lyricism into the equation: “A cigarette / Pressed between her lips / But I’m staring at her tits / It’s the wrong way”. Sublime’s music possessed a compelling, blood-curdling, and, finally, fatal, level of authenticity. And sure, it’s this tenacity with which he courted the Dionysian lurid, like that unthinkably problematic manifestation that is “Caress Me down” [7], that likely had something to do with his ultimate demise as a person. But it’s like he wails out in the title track on their first album: “Oooohhh / I’m not coming back!” Never, in a million years, in the freezing of He** or the boiling of the Baltic Sea, would Bradley Nowell agree to be ordinary. 


[1] thepier.org/interview-marshall-ras-mg-goodmat-pt-1-of-2.  


[2] And if we’re being honest, my all-time favorite member of Sublime. 


[3] “Jock Jams” was a workout-geared series of CD releases in the late ’90s.


[4] Ab Fab, or Absolutely Fabulous, was kind of a Golden Girls on coke type affair, a sit com running on HBO in the mid-2000s decade. 


[5] Obnoxiously, Wikipedia dubs this a “compilation album,” despite that it came before all three of their studio albums. Gotta love these little perfectionist Wikipedia power trips.


[6] Kurt Cobain’s cathartic rant in the Incesticide liner notes comes to mind: “At this point I have a request for our fans.. If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us – leave us the fuck alone.. Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.” Thanks Pinterest. 


[7] “Caress Me down” happens to be a heartwarming little ditty about getting caresses and a “Kung Fu grip” hand job from, uh, your daughter…