Bradley Nowell was born and raised in the Belmont Shore neighborhood of Long Beach, California to Jim and Nancy Nowell, with his sister, Kellie. As a child, he enjoyed surfing and sailing and often participated in boat races. As Nowell grew, he became a difficult child and was often hyperactive and disruptive. His mother recalled that he was "very emotional, very sensitive, very artistic, but he was needy...He was always testing just to see what he could get away with." Nowell's rebellious behavior increased when he was ten years old caused by his parents divorce. His mother was awarded custody of Nowell, but found him too difficult to control on her own and he subsequently moved in with his father full-time at age twelve.
Nowell performs with his band.
Music was an integral part of Nowell's upbringing. His father, a construction worker who enjoyed playing guitar, exposed him to the music of Jim Croce. His mother taught piano for a living in addition to playing the flute. Both parents helped teach young Nowell to play guitar. In the summer of 1979, Nowell bonded with his father during a month-long sailing trip in the Virgin Islands, which first exposed him to reggae music. After the trip, he began to play the guitar with other teenagers in his neighborhood.
At the age of thirteen, he began playing guitar and started his first band Hogan's Heroes with Eric Wilson, who would later become the bassist of Sublime. Nowell and Wilson met in sixth grade and lived across the street from each other; during this time, Nowell was described as a "gifted kid with many friends." At first, Wilson did not share Nowell's interest in reggae music. Nowell recalled the experience: "I was trying to get them to do (UB40's version of) 'Cherry Oh Baby', and it didn't work. They tried, but it just sounded like such garbage. We were horrible." Nowell attended the University of California, Santa Cruz before transferring to Cal State Long Beach to study finance. However, he dropped out of one semester shy of earning a degree, stating in 1995 "I have all the hard classes left...I doubt I'll ever go back."
Career with Sublime
According to "Westwood One Interview" on disc three of the Sublime box set, Nowell got together with bassist Eric Wilson and drummer Bud Gaugh, and began performing in small shows at house parties and barbecues in 1988. The band was often forced to leave the parties they performed at due to excessive noise, which would result in neighbors calling the police. Sublime gained a reputation for their rowdy behavior and eventually became one of the most popular bands in Southern California. Despite their success, music venues were skeptical of the band's eclectic musical fusion and many refused to book the band. In response, Nowell and Wilson created their own music label, Skunk Records, and told venues that they were "Skunk Records recording artists", which helped the band seem more accomplished and subsequently book more shows. The band produced and distributed Sublime's early recordings on the label. The band's demo tapes were later sold at shows and local record stores.
In 1990, music student Michael "Miguel" Happoldt approached the band, offering to let the band record in the studio at the school where Happoldt was studying. The band enthusiastically agreed and trespassed into the school at night, where they recorded from midnight to seven in the morning. The recording session resulted in the popular cassette tape called Jah Won't Pay the Bills, which was released in 1991. The tape helped the band gain a grassroots following throughout Southern California. Nowell quickly became involved in the scene's drug culture. For years, Nowell had feared and refused to try heroin; however, as he entered his twenties and witnessed his band gaining success, he decided to try the drug. Nowell's father explained "His excuse for taking the heroin was that he felt like he had to be larger than life. He was leading the band, leading his fans, and he had to put on this persona. He had heard a lot of musicians say that they were taking heroin to be more creative."
Using the same tactics implemented for the recording of Jah Won't Pay the Bills, the band recorded its debut album 40 Oz. to Freedom in secrecy at the studios in California State University, Dominguez Hills. Nowell recalled "You weren't supposed to be in 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." 40 Oz. to Freedom was released in 1992; 60,000 copies were distributed and sold, all from the trunk of Nowell's car after shows.
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 back yards.
– Nowell, on Sublime's success in 1995.
Despite growing popularity in Southern California, Sublime still had not landed a record deal with a major label. Around this same time Nowell teamed up with longtime friend Gwen Stefani, of fellow Southern California ska band No Doubt, to record the song "Saw Red". The song was eventually released on Sublime's Robbin' the Hood album. Self-recorded on a four-track cassette, Robbin' the Hood was released in October 1994. Several songs from the album detail Nowell's worsening drug addiction. Nowell is believed to have predicted his own death in the song "Pool Shark", singing "One day I'm going to lose the war". Sublime performed quite a few local shows with local bands One Hit Wonder, Candida, The Cadilac Tramps, and Dos but Brad's hopes of finding a label to support them began to fade, as Nowell's heroin abuse hit critical levels and rapidly ate through the band's travel funds.
About a year later, Tazy Phillipz took a copy of 40 Oz. to Freedom to Los Angeles radio station KROQ-FM, requesting that Sublime's "Date Rape" be added to the playlist. Soon after, MCA records picked up 40 Oz. to Freedom for nationwide distribution, and Sublime was scheduled to tour throughout Europe. Nowell, an avid reader who enjoyed quoting historians and philosophers, began studying European history to prepare for the trip. Attention from a major label did not curb Nowell's drug use, which sometimes led him to pawn his instruments and sell drugs, as in the song "Pool Shark" which reflects his struggle with addiction. In February 1996, Sublime returned to the studio to record the bulk of their self-titled major label debut album. Production was done by Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers (and producer of Marcy Playground and Meat Puppets) at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio in Austin, Texas.
Just days after Nowell's marriage to Troy Dendekker on May 18, 1996 Sublime embarked on a five-day tour through Northern California, with a European and an East Coast tour to follow. On the morning of May 25, in San Francisco, drummer Bud Gaugh woke up to find Nowell lying half-way across a bed, with his knees and feet on the floor. At first, Gaugh assumed he had been too intoxicated to get into bed until he noticed Lou Dog was curled up whimpering and looking really sad at the end of the bed. Further inspection allowed him to "notice a film around his mouth yellow and white foamy mucus, and it became apparent that he had overdosed on heroin." Gaugh called for paramedics, but Nowell had died several hours earlier, and was pronounced dead at the scene. Nowell was cremated and his ashes were spread over his favorite surfing spot in Surfside, California. A headstone was placed at Westminster Memorial in Westminster, California in his memory.
A few weeks after Nowell's death, fellow Southern California band No Doubt headlined a "cautionary" benefit concert in tribute to Nowell. Nowell's widow and the various bands who performed wanted to make it clear that they were not glamorizing the way that Nowell died, but that they wanted to celebrate his life as well as establish a college fund for his son, Jakob.
On January 11, 1997 Los Angeles Times article titled "Cautionary Concert in Rocker's Memory", writer Jerry Crowe quoted No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal as saying: "Obviously, it's going to be very emotional because you're there playing a show to commemorate a good friend who died and died for very wrong reasons. But you're also there to change things for the future and prevent stuff like that from ever happening again. A lot of times we hear about musicians using drugs and it's so blasé and cliched. You just kind of say, 'Oh, he'll be fine. Somebody will take care of him.' But that's not true. It's important for every single one of us to stand up and say, 'Enough of this shit.' It's time to make a difference".
Jason Westfall, one of Sublime's managers, was quoted as saying that the other members of Sublime had no interest in continuing to perform and record under the "Sublime" name, saying "Just like Nirvana, Sublime died when Brad died". Sublime played their last show at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma, California. In late 2010 and early 2011 the remaining band members, along with Rome Ramirez, began touring under the name "Sublime with Rome."
In light of Nowell's death, record executives considered not releasing Sublime's major label debut album. After some debate, the album was eventually released, though the album's original title, Killin' It, was substituted with an eponymous title, and Sublime was released on July 30, 1996.
By 1997, the album entered Billboard's Top 20, and its first single, the largely acoustic "What I Got", soon became the number one song on the Modern Rock chart. Throughout 1997, the album produced three more radio hits: "Santeria", "Wrong Way", and "Doin' Time". The accompanying music videos from Sublime for radio hits including "Santeria", "What I Got", and "Wrong Way", received heavy rotation on MTV, with previously filmed footage of Nowell performing live interspersed into the video. The footage used came mostly from shows in 1996.
To the surprise of many, Sublime became arguably the most successful American rock act of 1997. Rolling Stone reported in March 2010 that the album Sublime had sold over 6 million copies. Danin says of Nowell, "he will live inside all of us and will influence the music careers of many."
In 2009, Gaugh and Wilson teamed up with Rome Ramirez to form Sublime with Rome after an attempt to reform the original Sublime was banned by Nowell's estate. The new band plays all of original Sublime's songs except for "Caress Me Down", which Rome refuses to play because of the lyrics "Mucho gusto, me llamo Bradley" ("Pleased to meet you, my name is Bradley"). Rome did not want to change the lyrics or sing the song out of respect for Bradley Nowell and his fans. The band also records original music. Their 2011 debut album Yours Truly is a dedication to Nowell.
Marriage and fatherhood
While on tour in the mid-1990s, Nowell met Troy Dendekker, and they started dating. In September 1994, Troy became pregnant. In June 1995, Dendekker gave birth to a son, Jakob James Nowell. A week before Nowell died, the couple married in a Hawaiian-themed ceremony in Las Vegas.
Lou Dog on the cover of a Sublime box set compilation.
In February 1990, Nowell adopted an abused dalmatian puppy from a shelter and named him "Louie" after his grandfather. Also referred to as "Lou Dog", the dog became something of a mascot for the band Sublime. Gaugh recalled that "Lou Dog just loved Brad because it was the first time he had ever actually been shown love." Lou Dog was often allowed to wander the stage during live Sublime concert performances. Louie was also often featured on the cover of Sublime albums, and was referred to in the lyrics of Sublime songs. Lou Dog was on the cover of the LBC Lounge. The first lyrics Nowell sings on Sublime's major label debut album are, "We took this trip to Garden Grove/It smelled like Lou Dog inside the van". In Sublime's most successful radio track, "What I Got", Nowell sings, "Livin' with Louie Dog's the only way to stay sane." He also mentions his Dalmatian in the song other times, like in the lyric "I got a Dalmatian, and I can still get high", as well as "I don't cry when my dog runs away." The song "Doin' Time" also refers to Lou Dog in the line "Me and Louie, run to the party...". Nowell would also sometimes begin live songs by referencing Lou Dog, and can be heard on the live version of "Caress Me Down" from Stand By Your Van yelling "Everybody say Louie - 1,2,3 LOUIE LOUIE LOUIE LOUIE LOUIE!" Nowell at times was known to invite his friends and their dogs over to film parodies of popular music videos. The dogs would pose as a band or an artist dressed in a little corresponding costume. This was later confirmed by Wilson in a 2003 interview conducted by a collaboration of SPIN and Dog Fancy Magazine.
In the early 1990s, Lou Dog disappeared for a week. In a video directed by Josh Fishel of Bargain Music Sublime — Stories, Tales, Lies, & Exaggerations, Troy Nowell (Bradley Nowell's widow) says that for the week during which Lou Dog was lost, Nowell spent a great deal of time lying on the couch crying in response to the loss of his dog. Lou Dog was eventually returned to Nowell, who, in response to the situation, later covered the Camper Van Beethoven song "The Day That Lassie Went To The Moon" and changed it to "Lou Dog Went to the Moon"; this song is available on the Nowell bootleg "Firecracker Lounge". While Lou was missing, Nowell also recorded this song to his home answering machine as a sort of audio lost dog poster. As another homage to Lou, Nowell and Sublime composed, "I Love My Dog", a song sounding similar to that of Bad Brains "I Love I Jah", with the lyrics referencing Lou.
Following Nowell's death in 1996, Lou Dog was cared for by Miguel. Lou Dog died on September 17, 2001.
In popular culture
This section does not cite any references or sources. (July 2011)
Bradley is also the main subject of a song entitled "Brad Nowell" (see lyrics here http://www.plyrics.com/lyrics/subb/bradnowell.html)
by French Canadian ska punk band Subb, that mentions Sublime, their musical style, and also Brad's dalmatian, Lou Dog.
G. Love & Special Sauce have dedicated two songs to Nowell: a remake of the Sublime song "Greatest Hits," and a song called "Dreamin'," which begins, "This song is dedicated in loving memory of Brad from Long Beach, California." which also features the opening guitar riff of 'Get Out' by Sublime.
Fellow California punk rockers, NOFX, refer to Nowell in their song "Door Nails", the lyric is "and this fix is for Bradley". The song centers around rockstars who have died from overdoses or drug influenced deaths.
In the movie Grind, the main characters walk into a skate shop and Tom Green is behind the counter with a couple of turn tables trying to remix "Smoke Two Joints" unsuccessfully.
Duddy B of The Dirty Heads references Bradley in the song "Believe": "I never wanted something so badly, I want to learn to play guitar and sing just like Bradley". The next few lines of the song also reference lyrics from What I Got.
San Diego CA band Fluf reference lead singer "O" and Nowell's friendship in their song "Pipe Bomb" with the lyrics "god damn my good friend Brad, look at all the things you had. You could sing and play guitar, before you pushed a bit too far."