Sublime’s self-titled third album — the album that sold 5 million copies and turned the group into dorm-room staples forevermore — almost didn’t come out, for an entirely understandable reason. On 5/25/96, Brad Nowell, the band’s frontman, died of a heroin overdose. This was after his band had finished the album but two months before it was due for release. That means: No Nowell on tour, no Nowell doing interviews, no Nowell in videos, no Nowell to promote the album in any way at all. In this fascinating oral history of Sublime’s last show — the one the band played immediately before Nowell died — Rick Bonde, the band’s former booking agent, says that the head of MCA, the band’s label, told him that he was going to shelve the album: “I’m done, Rick, I can’t do this. I’ve spent half a million dollars on Brad’s rehab, and now we don’t have a band to tour behind it, I’m just gonna shelve it, it’s not going to work, it’s never going to be successful.” Bonde says that he had to spend 20 minutes in the guy’s office, badgering him to release it. Now: This sounds exactly like the sort of shit a former booking agent would make up, 20 years after the fact, in service of a good story. But I believe him anyway.
After all, Sublime were a band of sun-baked ska-punk yokels with exactly one hit to their name. (That hit was 1992’s “Date Rape,” a straight-up ska song that didn’t hit radio until 1994-ish. It’s a story-song about a man who rapes a woman and who then, in a form of cosmic rebuke, goes to prison and gets raped in his cell. It’s presented as a happy ending. This is what passed for male feminism in the ’90s.) Sublime had built up an audience for themselves, but they’d done nothing to suggest that they could become the house band in America’s frat nation, especially in death. They’d brought in Butthole Surfers guitarist Paul Leary to co-produce their album, and that does not exactly indicate massive confidence on the part of the label. Sublime easily could’ve disappeared without a trace. Instead, it instantly became inescapable. Millions of children learned to restrain themselves from singing along with the cuss words when they were in the car with their parents and “What I Got” came on the radio. Nowell became a star posthumously, and the sound of alt-rock radio went through an almost-immediate sea change.