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Sublime to the Ridiculous

In deference to the fact that very few people who read this care about the finer points of musical instrument construction, I’m going to post a sort of personal essay type thing I’ve been working on for a little while even though I’m pretty sure it’s not done. Enjoy.

Everyone who cares about music has an origin story. There was that one band you heard under that one set of circumstances, and it hit you in just such a way, and from then on there was no turning back. You were, from then on, Into Music. When you’re a kid you like all sorts of music, and any sound that hits you is fair game. Sounds you hear at home, at school, in the car, on a commercial, the demo track of a cheesy kids keyboard, all have the potential to capture your ear. If you’ve ever heard a small child hum a simple and/or partial melody over and over again, that’s what you’re hearing: the beginning of aural discernment. Those three tuneless, insistent notes in a weird uneven bar length are The Beatles to that kid. As time passes, you internalize the knowledge that some sounds are cooler to talk about, and some are less cool. Or maybe that’s simplistic and overly judgmental. It’s more that saying you like something illuminates a whole infrastructure of other things you like and philosophically approve of. Your endorsement is a node in a system, and you want to represent your system accurately. The narrative that built this system is gone. By the time you’ve hit your early 20s, you didn’t get into punk rock because your friend burned you Short Music For Short People, you started with Richard Hell or Fugazi. But there’s a lot that happens in your musical consciousness before you know what’s cool, or when what’s cool was different. And it’s just statistically a distinct possibility recognized by the BillBoard Hot Music Chartz that if you’re around my age, one of those bands that inspired you to rock and to roll and to leave the straight world forever (maybe) was Sublime.

I don’t remember how old I was the first time I heard Brad Nowell’s voice, but odds are I was in the car with my parents. My parents would usually listen to WBGO or WFUV, but when I rode shotgun they’d put on WXRK, or as it was known at the time, 92.3 K-ROCK. The first song I heard would have been “What I Got”, the first single from Sublime’s self-titled album. “What I Got” was on the top of the Modern Rock charts when I was 11 and in heavy rotation for several years after. Brad Nowell was already dead, overdosed on heroin in a cheap motel room one week after his wedding. Prior to his untimely passing, the hit record had been titled Killin’ It. His son Jakob was a year old. In an eerily prescient interview in 1995, Brad was quoted on the subject of college: “I have all the hard classes left…I doubt I’ll ever go back”.

Brad’s death in the summer of 1996 added a disproportionate sense of gravitas to what was really a pretty tame and unserious band. Even the more aggro tracks felt less like a riot and more like a mosh pit at a particularly well-attended backyard barbecue. Still, in middle school and early high school I remember hearing his name discussed in the same breath as Kurt Cobain. It’s clear now which fans were on the right side of history, but at the time the equivalency made sense: we liked them, they had died young, and they could both be heard on 92.3 K-ROCK. I have to admit, back in the day, I spent a lot more time with Sublime. It was emotionally accessible to a 13-year-old in a way Nirvana was not. In the same way that Cosmopolitan appeals to teenage girls by appearing to target adult women, Sublime appealed to me. They sang about partying and doing drugs and getting laid, which were all things I was sure I wanted to do someday. I went through a phase during the ages of 13 and 14 in which damn near every song on 40 oz. to Freedom was at one time my favorite song.

“What I Got” starts out with an instantly memorable drum loop and a catchy acoustic guitar. Upright bass and a simple rhythm part on the organ round out the arrangement, and there are some facile nods to hip hop production in the form of samples and turntables. A detractor would point out that the song is merely composed of equal parts The Beatles and Half Pint (“Lady Madonna” and “Loving”, respectively) and they’d be right. You don’t have to think it’s greater than the sum of its parts, but it does something unique with the juxtaposition, and is very much in keeping with the Jamaican tradition of juxtaposing bits of pre-existing songs to make new ones. When I started playing bass, Sublime was one of the first albums I tried to play along to. There was always reggae around the house, so Eric Wilson’s dubby tone felt warm and inviting. But this wasn’t mom and dad’s music, it was mine, adding dashes of punk and hip hop to a familiar recipe. I tried to play “What I Got”, of course, but the upright bass of the original was hard to match on electric. “April 29th, 1992” was catchy and felt within reach, and I played it hundreds of times trying to get it just right. “Caress Me Down” was another practice staple, with its winking lyrics, goofy Spanglish rap break, and distinctive bass line. I was only slightly chagrined when my father told me the bass line was cribbed from Wayne Smith and King Jammy track called “Sleng Teng”, one of the most-versioned reggae tracks ever. Sublime were the opposite of the quintessential DJ, who might spend hours scanning obscure 7″ singles for the perfect undiscovered drum break. They were unafraid to appropriate the most familiar and obvious material in pursuit of what I imagine to be their end: to synthesize the cultural tropes of a certain subtype of Southern Californian and present themselves as unparalleled avatars of slackerdom and stonertude. Today, we would call them bros. They liked drinking beer, smoking weed, and hitting on chicks, accompanied on their adventures by a suitably masculine dog. Chicks dug the dog. If they went to school with you they would have been the guys who lived off campus and had a big party when their house was condemned by the Department of Buildings. They would have guested on Jackass and considered it an honor and a privilege. I would have watched it.

How to describe Brad Nowell’s voice? Smooth, good-natured, a little soulful. He could go from flippant to sincere over the course of a drum fill, and at the time this felt complex rather than disingenuous. He was a talented kid who loved music and getting fucked up, possibly in that order. I knew a guy like him. He died really young, too. To me at 13, Brad Nowell sounded cool and older, which is everything a 13-year-old wants to be. An informal poll of friends supports my memory that Sublime was played at absolutely every party I attended from 7th grade to sometime freshman year of college. It is hard to overstate the effect of this peculiar immersion on the psyche. Walking into a room full of people I knew just well enough to know they were slightly-to-extremely cooler than me, and being greeted by the laid-back white-boy-rude-boy lilt of Brad Nowell, all of a sudden felt comfortable. Brad was my friend who was always at the party. If I was familiar with the song playing, that might be the one part of the evening I could prepare for. The wide array of covers, samples, and references Sublime worked with added another dimension, making it conducive to extended listening sessions on my own time. Their first album, 40oz. to Freedom, turned out to be the real gem (Robbin’ the Hood, their second, was pretty much useless even to a maximally-credulous 13-year-old). When my house finally got a CD-R drive and I started ripping CDs to make mixes, 40oz. to Freedom was the only CD I had that was just too scratched up to work with. It had been loved to death like the Velveteen Rabbit. It felt like it was made just for me, despite being one of the highest-selling independent releases of all time.

A detractor would say that Sublime just ripped off the good parts of better songs to make their mark. But when you consider the deep influence of hip hop and reggae, in which every level of appropriation from sampling to outright re-recording is an accepted part of the style, you have to arrive at a more charitable interpretation. They were not so much inventors of a particular sound as curators. And for a kid trying to develop a conception of what might constitute “cool”, this curation was invaluable. 40oz. to Freedom, has 22 tracks of which 6 are covers. The remaining tracks contain a panoply of references to other music, from an acoustic ode to KRS-One (entitled “KRS-One”) to an entire final track of shoutouts to personal friends and inspirations. 40 oz. to Freedom was not just a CD I bought, it was a prepackaged identity in a jewel case. If I wanted to appear cool to Sublime, the mischievous older brother-figures I never had, I knew what I had to consume to get there. Was any other band in the history of music so generous with their hard-won knowledge? Possibly, but Sublime was the one I knew about, and I voraciously devoured everything they referenced.

Probably the most important of these were The Descendents, whose “Hope” Sublime covered on 40 oz. to Freedom. On one end, The Descendents were an entree into punk, of which I was already vaguely aware. My friend James and I went to see Green Day on the Warning tour in 8th grade, and it was a watershed moment in my musical development. Hearing the obvious stylistic overlap between The Descendents and something like Green Day, I could start to piece together a sense of history. And what if I went further back? What would I find then? An old friend of my father’s recently reminded me that he told me to listen to Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers back in those days, and I had scoffed. I had to work my way back in time for it to make sense, and I had to do it through the things I already knew, like Sublime. Not that I wouldn’t have found Jonathan Richman some other way; two people in my band are from Massachusetts, after all. But that’s the thing about the music you love first: it colors your perception of everything that comes after. My father, an avid listener as well as a musician himself, was always telling me about where various musical tropes came from, but it didn’t really register why this was important until I got hooked on Sublime.

The technology available at the time guided my listening. I was in the 8th grade when I first heard about Napster, the first file-sharing service most people would know about. Peer-to-peer networks were nothing new, but Napster was the first widely-accepted one focusing solely on music. By the time I was banned by Metallica’s famous lawsuit towards the end of the year, the genie was out of the bottle. Plenty of other ways of downloading music you didn’t “own” in the traditional sense had popped up. But compared to BitTorrent, these programs (Limewire, Kazaa and their ilk) were primitive. You searched for songs, not albums, and the obscurity of a particular recording made it much less likely to be findable. Even more important than the software was the raw speed of the connection. 56K internet made it technically possible to download music, but it was more of a commitment. If you had a very good connection, and the person hosting the file did too, you might get a song in 10 or 20 minutes. If you had a slow one, it might take an hour, and the more you tried to download at once, the more noticeably slow it would become. And if you lost your connection for a minute, you risked corrupting the file and having to do the whole thing again. By the time my family upgraded to cable, I was already out of the house. I was in college, and fast internet service was the norm. The idea of owning albums you haven’t listened to and probably won’t listen to only makes sense if they’re free and readily available. Before that was possible, filesharing was all about individual tracks.

And what tracks to search for in the first place? I was used to choosing my downloads carefully, limiting them to things I knew and things that had been recommended by friends, so that I wasn’t wasting precious internet time on dead ends. I’m sure there were music blogs when I was 13, but I wasn’t going to hear about them from other 13-year-olds. We mostly used the internet for gossip and tentative flirting through AOL Instant Messenger, and still got most of our music by taking the 6 train to St. Marks Place and going to Kim’s Video or Sounds (RIP). The Napster search query promised infinite possibilities, but at the end of the day I was probably going to try and download something I found in the liner notes of my Sublime collection. This included The Grateful Dead, best known for being a seminal American rock band,  and also The Ziggens, best known for being friends with Sublime. A lot of things I sought out were, to my chagrin, already in my parents’ record collection. It wasn’t the first time I had heard of The Grateful Dead, it was just the first time I listened.

As time passed and my musical palate expanded, I started to listen a little more critically. Lyrics to which I’d enthusiastically sung along seemed trite. You could tell from his life story and/or a cursory listening that Brad Nowell was a pretty depressed dude. He lived to party, but he had demons. When I was a kid I thought the latter cast the former in a more interesting light, but now I just think the juxtaposition just fails. Check out the lyrics from “DJs” off their debut:

all of the DJs surely have taken a lesson start talkin trash and I’ll come with my smith and wesson

a little competition comes my way and it always winds up the same but the stone that the builder refused shall be the head cornerstone

but there ain’t nothin’ wrong ain’t nothin’ right and still I sit and lie awake all night

all of the DJs surely have taken a lesson try talkin trash and I’ll come with my Smith and Wesson

enough DJs come with enough, enough stylee but when I bust my lyrics we all know it’s wicked and wiley

ain’t nothin’ wrong ain’t nothin’ right and still I sit and lie awake all night

So are you the hottest DJ on the block or are you a sad sack of shit? Because these two halves don’t make a whole. Occasionally he gets introspective for a more sustained period of time, as in “Pool Shark”:

lying in my plastic bed thinkin’ how things weren’t so cool to me my baby likes to shoot pool I like lying naked in my bedroom tying on that dinosaur tonight it used to be so cool

now I’ve got the needle and I can’t bleed but I can’t breathe take it away and I want more and more one day I’m gonna lose the war

Damn, that is a pretty evocative and harrowing portrayal of drug addiction. I wonder where he goes with that. Oh, he just repeats all those words once more and then the song is over. And the song appears twice on Robbin’ the Hood. He knew it was good enough to put on the album twice, but not quite good enough to actually finish. Songs like “Badfish” and “40 oz. to Freedom” approach the self-awareness needed to pull this off, but in context they almost feel like flukes. Another thing I didn’t notice when I was 13 is the consistently wack depiction of female sexuality. Of the 22 tracks on 40 oz. to Freedom, 9 reference either cheating girlfriends or actual prostitutes. It seems like the primary function women perform in Brad Nowell’s life is to fuck him and also a bunch of other guys. Even on their arrangement of “Summertime”, perhaps the most-covered standard in the Western canon, he throws in a bunch of lyrics about his girlfriend’s extreme promiscuity. And that’s not even counting “Date Rape”, the song that got Sublime its first substantial play on college radio. At the time it was probably seen as a somewhat brave move to make a pop song about sexual assault that drew a clear moral line in the sand, but it totally undermines itself with the rapist’s predictable comeuppance (he goes to jail, where, you know, dudes totally fuck him up the ass, which is gay). Problematic, as they say. One commentator I found on the internet pointed out an awesome comparison that had never occurred to me: Sublime and Jimmy Buffett. Goodtime party music that maybe somewhat deliberately fails at being anything else. A little research suggests that the guys themselves might have been kind of dicks to be around, too, as suggested by this illuminating quote from Bud about getting kicked off the Warped tour in 1995: “Basically, our daily regimen was wake up, drink, drink more, play, and then drink a lot more. We’d call people names. Nobody got our sense of humor. Then we brought the dog out and he bit a few skaters, and that was the last straw.” So you’re on tour with a bunch of wasted guys and they’re always making fun of you and then their dog bites you? Fuck those guys! The other bands must have hated them! I have to keep telling myself they were younger than I am now.

The self-titled record would eventually go five times platinum, and the death of Brad Nowell wasn’t enough to stop the commercial juggernaut that was Sublime. I can only imagine how fucked up Nowell’s friends must have collectively gotten at his funeral, but I imagine that after a pep talk from management and a lot of sweaty hugs they decided to keep the dream alive. It lived on in the form of the Long Beach Dub Allstars, whose debut album Right Back came out in 1999, reaching #67 on the Billboard 200. You would be hard-pressed to find a person more receptive to the idea of the Long Beach Dub Allstars than 14-year-old me. 40 oz. to Freedom was played at least daily in my house, with brief respites for SublimeRobbin’ the Hood, and even the spotty-at-best posthumous B-side collection Secondhand Smoke. A brand new piece of Sublime apocrypha to add to the collection? Sign me up! When my best friend, having also recently acquired a CD-R drive, gave me a burned copy, I couldn’t wait to blast it. And yet, even then, through my haze of adoration, I knew that the Long Beach Dub Allstars were dog shit. Just completely forgettable, featureless, trifling music. I think I listened to the album once back then, and maybe again the next day to confirm my initial assessment. Nothing. Sublime, it seemed, really was all about Brad. It was the musical equivalent of bad fan fiction, made more depressing by the presence of key original members. Best to forget about them entirely, I decided. Stick to the classics.

The Long Beach Dub Allstars had another album in 2001, and then disbanded, supposedly because one (unnamed) member violated a pact the band had taken to abstain from hard drugs. Not long after, bassist Eric Wilson and someone named Ras went on to form the even-less-essential Long Beach Shortbus. I didn’t even listen to it. I still haven’t, because this piece is not real journalism and I don’t have to. I have a feeling it royally sucks, and if you want to prove me wrong I encourage you to present your evidence. Then in 2009, Wilson and drummer Bud Gaugh joined forces with a young singer to play their old material, under the name Sublime. Nowell’s estate sued them, making it clear that nobody was stopping the remaining members from playing Sublime songs, but stringently objecting to the use of the name, to which Nowell had owned the rights. Not to be deterred, the project made the legally-significant change to Sublime With Rome and soldiered on. Rome being Rome Ramirez, the new singer, then 20 years old, a kid who hit the Sublime fan jackpot if ever there was one. He sounds all right, I guess. Pretty close. The same guy who compared Sublime to Jimmy Buffett pointed out that if Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl started a band with called “Nirvana with Gary”, Gary’s life would be in serious danger. I find it kind of hard to fault Mr. Ramirez personally. I think The Pixies’ best years are double digits behind them, but if they wanted to play with me I’d probably sever all ties to my previous life and do it. But I sure as hell don’t have to listen to the guy.

Sublime has since crossed a threshold I would like to dub The Tupac Rubicon (“Tupacon”?), which is the point at which a musician’s posthumous releases outnumber their releases while alive by a ratio of 5:1 or more. Sublime With Rome, a band that embodies half-truth in advertising, continues to tour. Wilson is the only remaining original member, with Gaugh’s spot now filled by seasoned rock music hired gun Josh Freese. Gaugh has gone on record saying that he always objected to the use of the old name, and felt wrong playing the old songs without Nowell. Wilson made the news back in 2012, but not for anything musical. Did you read that link? Read it. A man in his early 40s was injured because he stood on a longboard and allowed his dog to pull him around on said longboard. This is a pretty obviously dumb pursuit likely to cause injury; the sort of thing a group of boys who haven’t discovered jerking off yet might get into. I’m only 28; I can lay no claim to the wisdom of age, but come on. I vacillate in my level of empathy for Eric Wilson, my first bass idol. A man I will likely never meet, known to me only through his recordings and things I’ve read about him. On the one hand, it sounds deeply sad to be a middle-aged man playing songs you and your dead friend wrote when you were 20, especially when said songs were exclusively and explicitly about the small world of forever-stoned college-age SoCal party people. Gaugh’s statement about his decision to leave, although a little late, feels like the most reasonable emotional response to have. On the other hand, what else is the guy going to do? Most musicians have entire careers never achieving the level of success Sublime did. Can I honestly say I wouldn’t try to cash in on something like that if I were in his shoes? I like to think I wouldn’t; I like to think I’d be able to go on to have a productive second act after living the dream at age 22. Gaugh at least tried to branch out with supergroup Eyes Adrift, which somehow managed to be worse than either of the Long Beach Variants, and then Volcano, which I did not know existed before I did some Wikipedia research for this piece. The debut (and only) releases of both bands are now out of print, and Bud Gaugh could until very recently be found onstage with Sublime With Rome at an outdoor festival in a college town near you. Was this a defeat, or just an acceptance? Does Eric suck more for not trying, or does Bud suck more for failing? Why do I care who sucks more, even? Bud and Eric have more of a right to be up there than anyone else; it was their band too. But I guess the question is really “why would they want to?”.

The idea of a “guilty pleasure” has never sat right with me, which is probably why I left the Catholic church at the age of fourteen or so. If something gives you pleasure, you have to own that fact. I enjoy the music of Sublime, even though I should know better. Even though it is shallow and silly and vaguely misogynistic and their most memorable melody is just “Lady Madonna” without the falsetto before the bridge and at the end that totally makes the song. I know every song in its entirety, and if you get a multiple of 40 in me I might just sing them with you. That’s all I got.

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