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If God's Good Word Goes Unspoken

Sublime front man Bradley Nowell OD’ed on May 25, 1996, in a San Francisco hotel room. He had a new son, a new wife, a new record deal with MCA and his first European tour coming up. Sublime was already five years’ famous in Long Beach for its live shows and catchy mix of ska, dub, hip-hop, punk and hummable pop, and now the band was poised for the big break. Instead, Nowell died a clichéd rock-star death before getting the chance to be a rock star. The band’s self-titled major-label debut was released after his death in 1996.

Ten years after his death, what would have become of Nowell, and of his band, is open for debate. While the eponymous Sublime made it to No. 13, no Sublime single ever hit higher than No. 87 on the charts, and the band is barely a footnote in most of the rock histories. You won’t find it at all, for example, in The Rough Guide to Rock, nor will you find critical heavyweights like Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Jon Pareles or just about anyone who thinks about pop for a living mulling the significance of its music. And what fame the group did achieve might owe just a little too much to the bong-water and beer-belly set, the ones who sing, “If it weren’t for date rape, I’d never get laid,” with the same lack of irony with which patriotic crowds pumped their fists in the air to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”

Of course, the ’90s was a tough decade for rock stars to come of age in. Kurt Cobain, the undisputed king of martyred rage, cast a long shadow (Cobain’s junked-up shotgun-blast suicide was a hard act for Nowell’s pedestrian heroin OD to follow), and Nirvana is still the iconic band of the decade, the darling of almost every rock critic writing at the time. By the mid-’90s, though, pop music had split right down the center: Grunge owned angst, Dr. Dre’s gangsta-lite owned bravado, and an argument could be made that, in the end, the legacy of those three white dudes from Long Beach amounted to little more than crewcuts, a thankfully modest ska revival and numerous contributions to surf/skate/snowboard videos.

Still, something about them has stuck. They live on through tribute albums, cover bands and MySpace fan clusters that rival the population of Long Beach. Even now, they poll as one of KROQ’s all-time fan favorites, and Nowell’s Dalmatian, Lou Dog, who died in 2001, has memorial pages littered all over the Internet like virtual roadside shrines.

What’s the appeal? Part of it is junkie-chic (the Cult of Dead Bradley) part of it is the staying power of a good pop melody, and part of it is Nowell’s lilting tenor and jazz phrasing — at his best he sounded like Billie Holiday on uppers. But there’s also the fact that as a band, Sublime was way ahead of its time.

Grunge was essentially a conservative movement, restoring rock & roll to an idea of what it sounded like before getting corrupted by marketing and over-production and club music. Sublime, meanwhile, was something new — combining L.A. post-punk with Latino music, rap, reggae and Long Beach surf culture. It was a mixed bag, and what you thought of it depended on what you were looking for. As Ikey Owens, 31-year-old keyboard player for the Mars Volta, puts it, “The thing about Sublime is it’s all about your perspective.”

His own perspective was that of a middle-class black kid from Lakewood, who first came across the band in 1988 at the Long Beach record store Fingerprints, when he picked up a five-song tape called “Jah Don’t Pay the Bills.” For Owens, it was a musical awakening. “I’d never heard anything like it,” he says. “I was just out of high school, and I’d heard, like, one reggae album in my life . . . I think I owned Legend or something, but all those rhythms were part of how I learned how to understand how music works.”

Owens started going to shows, and eventually was invited to jam with the band at Nowell’s house, a few blocks down from Fingerprints. He’d stumbled on a scene where, as a black kid from the suburbs, and as a musician, he didn’t feel out of place. Over the years he shared gigs with the band, and after Nowell’s death, he played keyboards for the Long Beach Dub All-Stars, formed by the surviving Sublime members. Even though the Mars Volta sounds nothing like Sublime, Owens insists that 40 Oz. to Freedom will be the CD he’ll be listening to on the day he dies, not only because of the music, but because of what it evokes.

“There was a time,” explains Owens, “back in the early ’90s, when I was optimistic that multiculturalism worked, that music could bring people together, and it was all part of that music.”

That music was something that sounded like what California actually looked like: black and white and Latino, part hardcore, part Beach Boys. Nowell sang in Spanish, he rapped, he wrote homages to KRS-One. He preached, at his most fervid if not most eloquent, that “racism is a schism on a serious tip,” and he did all this before Eminem, before Kid Rock, before hip-hop had become pop music — when it still took balls for a white front man to call himself an MC, or to boast, as Nowell did on “Doin’ Time,” that Sublime was “well-qualified to represent the LBC.” Besides the Beastie Boys, Sublime was the only white band Owens could get away with playing for his black cousins.

Of course, being the down white boys didn’t hurt. Music critic and English professor Josh Kun, who does not consider himself an expert on the band or even a fan, says he wonders how many other bands — Mexican, black or mixed — were playing the same kind of music, but never got radio play at all. Kun does teach his UC Riverside classes their song “Waiting for My Ruca,” a serenade to a Mexican girl who sells oranges on the highway, and he acknowledges their influence: “In their music,” says Kun, “you could hear proof that in Southern California there was a vibrant Mexican culture and a vibrant black culture that these white kids were interacting with, either superficially or in real ways.”

As for Southern California post-punk, Kun prefers the Chili Peppers or Fishbone.

The members of Fishbone, on the other hand, count themselves as fans. They contributed the best song on Look at All the Love We Found, the latest Sublime tribute album, which includes bands as varied as the Ziggens, Los Lobos, Camper Van Beethoven and, of course, No Doubt. “They were true musicians,” says Fishbone bassist Norwood Fisher, “and one of the only popular bands that had muscle.” Anyone who dismissed them for writing catchy tunes, adds Fisher, “doesn’t know anything about what it takes to make those kinds of hit songs, not once, not twice, but over and over again.”

It takes more than just musicianship, which the band had in spades, but also a sensibility that strikes a nerve. Nowell found his in his working-class persona, one with a distinct California ZIP code. On “April 29, 1992,” he took a populist’s view of the L.A. riots, singing about mothers getting the diapers they couldn’t afford and his band getting its guitars and amps. He sang about jail time as if he’d served it, about down-and-out 12-year-old prostitutes as if he’d grown up with them in a trailer park. Never mind that he himself had grown up well off, with a family able to take him on trips to the Caribbean, pay for his music lessons and send him off to college. Then again, Bobby Zimmerman wasn’t exactly the son of an Alabama sharecropper, and it didn’t stop him from reinventing the blues.

In their own way, Bradley Nowell and Sublime were reinventing the blues as well, the way rock & roll did in the ’50s and hip-hop did in the ’80s. It was a hybrid that belonged to Long Beach, specifically, and to multiracial America in general. In “Don’t Push,” the very first Sublime song Owens heard when he was 18, Nowell chants a litany of musical influences ranging from Half-Pint to Bob Marley to Pink Floyd. He also serves up one of the closest things Sublime has to a mission statement: “The bars are always open/and the timing’s always right/and if God’s good word goes unspoken/the music goes all night.

The music is still going; too bad Nowell’s not around to hear it.

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