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For Sublime, the Living Was Rarely Easy

On the quintessential self-titled album from the Long Beach band

On March 16, 2023
Photo by John Dunne

The living was rarely easy. That much should be obvious. Though it isn’t always, and that’s partly the music’s fault. Sublime was a good-time band, but they generally didn’t write good-time songs. Bradley Nowell sang about people who made bad decisions. Sometimes his characters are aware of this aspect of themselves; oftentimes they aren’t. What they are aware of is that something isn’t quite right. They might investigate it — “Pull over,” Nowell sings from somewhere on the 22 Freeway in “Garden Grove,” “there’s a reason why my soul’s unsound” — but usually they don’t. Usually they try to shake it off, to skank the night away. Every now and then it works. But it often doesn’t.

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This is an album where things linger. It is an album of smells: cannabis exhaled in a hot car, grocery store incense, wet dog, coconut sunscreen, spilled orange juice, coagulated beer, ball sweat. Things don’t dissipate on Sublime. They build, they hang around, they don’t draw much attention to themselves until, suddenly, you can’t not notice them. You can hear it in “Garden Grove,” in the way those hazy dawn-orange synths keep the singer’s soul uneasy. It’s in the patched-together layers of “What I Got,” how the lo-fi texture of the drumbeat puts a membrane between it and the pristine guitar. It’s in the dysphoria of voices that swirl through “Under My Voodoo” and — most obviously — in the nervous tone of the Long Beach PD scanner in “April 29, 1992 (Miami).”

Those moments are almost all subtext, and while Sublime was a brilliant band with a generational talent for a lead singer, it was their ability to accrue detail slowly, until something as banal as the sound of a barking dog could take on great emotional meaning, that was their greatest strength. Sublime was, strangely and unexpectedly and delightfully, subtle.

The cumulative effect of all this subtlety? A unique sense of place, of very real angst biting at the edges of heaven. That place is Long Beach, California. Along with Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle, released three years earlier, Sublime helped to define The International City for a new generation that never knew it as the kind of place that could host Formula 1 and Olympic volleyball. Long Beach is a beautiful, confusing, complicated city, a genuine paradise pocked with oil derricks and bad crime and worse parking and a rusted antique cruise ship sitting in the harbor. It is the Liverpool of North America, a pugilistic port city that doesn’t believe in glory days. It’s also chill as hell. It’s tucked perfectly between Los Angeles and Orange County, like a precious little metaphor at the end of the 710 Freeway.

How you hear Sublime — and how you think about it — probably has a lot to do with how you think about Southern California generally. Like the Beach Boys before them, Sublime are inseparable from their surroundings; it’s virtually impossible to think about them without thinking about where they’re from. But where Brian Wilson felt himself increasingly alienated from the world around him to the point of extreme retreat, Bradley Nowell’s alienation somehow took him closer, deeper into the shit. He was most certainly made for these times.

If you’re one of those whose understanding of California is essentially utopian, you’re likely to hear the phrase “loving’s what I got” as a soulfully intoned declaration of faith, the kind of thing you’d put on the wall of a beachfront condo. And you’d be right: There is a simplicity and sweetness to this music that is undeniable, and undeniably charming; there’s a reason why it’s sold 6 million copies. If you find it all — ska, the term “SoCal,” spending a lot of time at the beach, bottled Coronas and corner burritos and wraparound shades — a little unserious, a little goofball, well, you’re also right, and that’s also to the album’s great benefit: Sublime were a deeply, even profoundly, unselfconscious band, and their willingness to indulge themselves and have a great time makes this album more approachable and chummy. Like the city they call home, they completely lack pretension. But if you’re trying to tune into the everyday vision of what it would be like to live in a place like Long Beach, a little strip of sun and sand whose idyllic weather is powerless to soothe even the quietest and smallest tragedies, much less the very large ones, then maybe you hear it as a mantra with a hint of desperation, as a way of trying to keep a future in front of you: Loving’s what I got. I said remember that.

   Photo by John Dunne 

Bradley Nowell, Bud Gaugh and Eric Wilson began work on the album that would become Sublime in late 1995 at Total Access Studios in Redondo Beach, California. The space had for a time been home base for the legendary SST label, and had hosted a number of South Bay and Orange County bands that were either direct influences on Sublime (Black Flag, The Descendents, the immortal Minutemen) or were part of their scene (Pennywise, No Doubt, Unwritten Law). At the console was David Kahne, an extremely prolific producer who was coming off a Grammy nomination for his work with Tony Bennett. His vision for Sublime was to essentially clean up and stitch together the many threads the band had pulled at on 1992’s 40oz. to Freedom. Kahne knew how to bring together wildly complex scenes and sounds: He was a longtime collaborator of Fishbone, and he’d just mixed the all-star extravaganza of Mike Watt’s Ball-Hog or Tugboat? What he hadn’t counted on was the party-rage intensity of the Sublime studio experience. He reportedly tried to quit the project on the second day.

Kahne hung around long enough to produce four of Sublime’s most beloved songs: “What I Got,” “Caress Me Down,” “Doin’ Time” and “April 29, 1992 (Miami).” These four songs represented a dramatic step forward for Sublime as a studio band. Where 40oz. to Freedom’s charm comes from its passionate performances and shambolic construction — it’s not difficult to imagine a young Michael "Miguel" Happoldt cueing up the Minutemen’s “History Lesson - Part II” and chasing Lou Dog around with a mic — the music captured at Total Access is focused, even lean. Part of that is surely owing to a production ethos Kahne would hone further on Sugar Ray’s 14:59, but the band here is intent on creating individual worlds out of these songs. You can practically walk through “Doin’ Time,” so rich is its atmosphere. Nowell in particular comes off as focused, at ease, alert, at his swaggering best. “Levanta, levanta, tienes que gritar,” he sings in “Caress Me Down,” and even if you failed 10th-grade Spanish you know he’s telling you to get up and move; you probably already are.

Sublime themselves packed up and headed east after the Redondo sessions, steadily gigging across the southwest as they made their way to Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Studio outside of Austin to finish the album. Where Kahne had convinced them to more deeply integrate sampling and sequencing into the music — all three members of the band are listed with their drum machines of choice in the album’s credits — they wanted to switch it up, which in the world of Sublime meant returning to the kind of punk and reggae you could easily play in someone’s backyard.

Meeting them at Pedernales was Paul Leary, the guitarist for Butthole Surfers, a band whose outrageous stage shows and nose for chaos made their name one of the least controversial things about them. Despite working on the property of a country-music legend and Texas demi-god, the band behaved no better than they had in Redondo. The exploits are well known by now and involve, among other things, Lou Dog scuffing the floors, the sauna being accidentally set on fire and a Hitler mustache ending up on a portrait of Willie himself.

As the son of a diehard Waylon Jennings fan, Nowell probably should’ve known better. But when he stepped up to the mic, he delivered a series of story songs that may have been different in slang from what Willie and Waylon and the boys had done 20 years prior but were nevertheless kindred in spirit. “Santeria” is essentially an update of Willie’s own “Red Headed Stranger,” but where the latter song is told through a haze of gunsmoke, the former is about regret, and frustration, and feeling powerless and unloved. Despite the threats, he never pops a cap in Sancho, never tracks his “hyna” down and ultimately lays the song to rest with the suggestion that he’s going to have to learn how to accept the way the world turns. “Wrong Way,” for all its jumped-up O.C. ska frenzy and blatty trombone solos, is a strangely complex story about desperation — both Annie’s and the narrator’s — that keeps tumbling inward. Like “Santeria,” it’s a nuanced, finely tuned song that’s laced with moral ambiguity, which is not the same thing as amorality. “I’m gonna make it hard to live,” Nowell sings in “Wrong Way”; it’s obvious that he isn’t relishing his role, even as he can’t stop himself from performing it. The song is called “Wrong Way,” after all.

Still, Pedernales was a mess. Though Nowell, Wilson and Gaugh were still extraordinarily tight as a musical unit — listen to how easily they change tempos in “Seed,” three times in the first 10 seconds — Nowell struggled to complete lyrics, often spitting whatever popped into his head in long, unedited vocal sprees that Leary would later stitch into coherent songs.

Arlyn Studios, in downtown Austin, was worse. With the rest of the band back in Long Beach, Nowell holed up with Leary, Marshall Goodman (aka Ras MG, the future mayor of La Palma, California, but for now a percussionist, and DJ) and Happoldt to record overdubs. Leary eventually sent them all home. The record was done.

In “Garden Grove,” when Nowell sings the request to pull over so he can examine the state of his soul, he discovers a whole litany of things that are draining his spirit. Though he often wrote in character, there’s no clear reason to assume any kind of emotional distance between the singer and the song in this case. What he finds there on the side of the freeway is a whole bunch of things, some banal (“my bed sheet covered with sand”), some profound (the stunned “It’s you!” that kicks off the list). As he’s rounding to the end, just as you can sense the Econoline’s tires turning back toward the roadway as the band begins to shift out of the groove they’ve been parked in, he ruefully adds “Sayin’ I’m happy when I’m not” to the list, sneaking it in just before the indignity of reaching into a fresh sack and finding a burned-out J.

Is Sublime a happy album? Did Sublime make happy music? Was it even possible to play this kind of music when you didn’t feel good, when things were bad, when addiction was obviously winning, when it looked like you might blow your chance not only at making a great record, but at living a quality life with your partner and newborn son and dog? The particular form of reggae-ska-punk that Sublime created in their own image and then set about perfecting was flexible enough to incorporate Eazy-E rips and KRS-One shoutouts alongside twangy Dick Dale solos and drum-circle ballads, but with the occasional exception, it didn’t adapt well to sad songs. As a serious devotee of Jamaican music, Nowell would’ve been aware of reggae’s deep connection to American soul and R&B, and to the range of emotional expression the island’s artists had long brought to their music. The tension that the band creates between the positive vibes they’d forged as a live unit and the actual difficulties of day-to-day life gives Sublime a powerfully bittersweet aftertaste. The slow-mo shuffle of “The Ballad of Johnny Butt” shakes off the goofiness of the Secret Hate original, replacing it with a supremely humid ennui; nobody has ever sounded less like they were on the verge of overcoming someone than Nowell does when he sings the phrase “we’ve got to overcome.” “I don’t want to play guitar,” he sings in “Burritos,” a song that features a lengthy solo whose milky soulfulness recalls Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel’s famous “Maggot Brain” lament.

And yet — and yet — and yet, we all know what it feels like to listen to this album. It feels good. It feels very good. There are moments of bright, brilliant, unconstrained joy across Sublime, from the sweetie-pie harmonies and Linton Kwesi Johnson samples that close out “Garden Grove” to the hup-hup bounce of “Same in the End.” For 25 years, surfers have furiously scribbled down the Santa Cruz surf spots Nowell enthusiastically shares in “Paddle Out.” Even fuckin’ Twentynine Palms, the desert town that gets shat upon in the final moments of 40oz. to Freedom, here gets redeemed alongside Tuscaloosa, Abilene, Kansas City and a whole lot of other supremely uncool cities who have nevertheless risen up in “April 29, 1992 (Miami).” The last voices you hear on this album belong to the Beastie Boys. The second-to-last voice you hear belongs to Lou Dog.

But the album’s finest moment, and maybe the finest moment in Sublime’s recorded career, is their cover of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Jailhouse.” It’s an earlier track, a ska song with a backbeat that keeps slotting into place, recorded at the famed Studio One in Kingston, way before anyone involved had become an icon of soul, a totem for their homeland and a perennial reminder of the tragedy of early death. Marley is loose, smooth on the mic, completely at ease as he prophesies about how the youth will one day rule over a cleaner, brighter world.

Sublime, playing against type, slow it down, sitting in the groove. Nowell rolls back and forth across the song, breezily drifting into the lyrics of Tenor Saw’s “Roll Call” to shout out Wilson and Gaugh. It’s perhaps the least-complicated song on the album, but that means it’s also the loosest, the most comfortable in its skin. It’s clear that they are simply enjoying the music, testing its limits to see what it can hold; it’s not hard to imagine them playing it for an hour without ever getting sick of it. Nowell’s singing is, to be frank, absurd in its soulfulness. He makes the phrase “ootsie ootsie ootsie” sound like the deepest declaration of love, and, sure, maybe it is, if we want to think of the object of that love as reggae music itself, as the rhythmic chunk he’s both enacting and wooing with those words. But also? It just sounds good. It sounds great. It feels good to hear it.

With the album basically done, Nowell drove around Long Beach listening to it, luxuriating in it. He was proud of what he, Gaugh, and Wilson, (along with support cast) had accomplished. He went back into rehab and came out happier than he’d ever been in his life. He married Troy Dendekker, the mother of his son Jakob. He set out on a tour of California with Gaugh and Wilson. They played in Chico. He scored some heroin from somewhere. They played in Petaluma. And later, in San Francisco, some time after 2 a.m. on May 25, 1996, he overdosed and died. Outside, on the California coast that Nowell had loved and rhapsodized and was well qualified to represent, it was very late at night, and it was very early in the morning.

Profile Picture of Marty Sartini Garner
Marty Sartini Garner

Marty Sartini Garner has written music criticism for Pitchfork, The A.V. Club, The Outline and many other places. He’s currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing at the University of Liverpool, and, much to the delight of his teenage self, he now lives in Long Beach with his partner Rachelle.

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