The first time I heard Sublime, the band had already broken up and its talented lead singer, driving force and the man who can be credited for the band, its sound, and its essence, Brad Nowell, was already dead. And, as it happened, the first song by Sublime that I heard and that made me sit up and take notice of the band was not even (well, not fully as we shall see in just a bit) written by the band. It was Scarlet Begonias, originally written in 1974 by Robert Hunter (words) and Jerry Garcia (music) for the Grateful Dead.
As a long-time Deadhead, I instantly took note, especially because Nowell had added a verse or two to give the song a nice and edgy twist. In the Sublime version of the song – I’d highly recommend Deadheads who haven’t to listen to it – Nowell references the “Summer of Love”, a “microbus”, a hippy lifestyle that involves a bit of dealing in mushroom, ecstasy, nitrous oxide and sundry other, um, psychotropic substances, as well as a not-so-happy brush with the law. As a bonus, the band also sampled James Brown’s Funky Drummer on the song. That was enough to hook me.
Also watch: Sublime – Badfish (Live At The Palace/1995)
Sublime’s music is categorised by some writers as a genre they call ska punk – ska originally being a form of Jamaican dance music that pre-dates reggae. But the influences that shaped Nowell (guitar and vocals), Eric Wilson (bass) and Bud Gaugh (drums) go beyond those genres. You can add to that list of their influencers garage rock, rap, blues and psychedelia, especially psychedelia. Sublime’s songs have a very robust bass line (a characteristic of ska music); blistering guitar solos that could be blues-rock influenced; and the danceability of reggae. It’s incredible how things can evolve within a Sublime song – metamorphosing from garage punk to reggae to ska and rock.
Sadly, Sublime had a short run. They launched their first album in 1992 and could manage to record just three studio albums in their career, the first one clandestinely by sneaking into a studio at a California university at night. Their third album, titled Sublime, came out just after Brad Nowell’s death in 1996.
Nowell died from what is believed to be a heroin overdose in a motel in the band’s home state of California. He was just 28. Sublime’s songs aren’t without controversy either. On their debut album, 1992’s 40 Oz. to Freedom, Sublime have a humorous song called Date Rape that is about a date-rapist and his victim and ends with jail for the perpetrator who gets sodomised in jail.
Also watch: Sublime – Date Rape
Many consider that song homophobic – particularly, the last verse where Nowell sings: “Well, I can’t take pity on men of his kind, /even though he now takes it in the behind.” There’s a video of the song in which male porn star Ron Jeremy acts as both the judge who sends the perp to jail as well as the co-prisoner who later… well, never mind.
Besides the three studio albums and some live cuts, Sublime in post-Nowell years have released several compilations and a box set. And loyal fans abound even now. And although the remaining members of the band have regrouped and renamed themselves Sublime with Rome (after Rome Ramirez, guitarist and singer, joined them), their fare hasn’t met with the kind of following Sublime still has.
If you like your reggae shaken up with ska, punk, funk and groove, it’s the band for you. And if you’re a Deadhead, I’ve already told you the song you could listen to before you dive into the rest of their catalogue.
TAILPIECE: Confused by the barrage of music blogs, reviews, year-end lists and so on? Want to try something different? Writer/artist Chris Prunckle does a review and music blog all in six-panel comic book form.
Wannabe is the name of his music blog, which sometimes even has an interview with a musician. Head over to Wannabe’s website. And don’t forget to check out his recent post on 2015’s best 11 albums. His take, of course. All in comic panel form.
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Last weekend in a curious case of serendipity, I found The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir, a documentary film by Mike Fleiss. The film is focused on the Grateful Dead’s co-founder, singer and rhythm guitarist but as expected, the spotlight is also on the late Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s legendary guitarist; on the band and its origins; on its cult-like followers; on the influence of drugs and psychedelics; on the 1960s; and all of the other things that any film on any aspect of the Grateful Dead can’t not cover.
If you’re not a fan of the band, it’s not a film for you — but if you are one, then it’s a must-watch. Weir who quit school at 16 to become the youngest member of the band in 1965 is at the centerpiece of the film and talks candidly about his experience; about Garcia; and about the pressures that fame had on the band members.
Also watch: Grateful Dead Final Concert 7-9-1995
And there’s rare footage that those familiar with the Dead will love to see – including one from the early 1990s of Garcia and Weir scuba diving at Maui, Hawaii, with one underwater sequence showing the former stroking the neck of what seems to be a giant eel with its head protruding from a cave, quite in line with what you’d expect Garcia to be doing underwater.
I mentioned serendipity in the beginning because this month happens to be the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead and all eyes are on its remaining members who have decided to go on one final tour with a number of concerts that start on June 27 in California and end on July 5 in Chicago.
The tickets for the actual concerts sold out in less than five minutes after they went on sale (scalpers will no doubt have a field day) and so have those for the several simulcasts that are planned in theaters across various cities in the US.
Although all the remaining members of the band (Garcia died in 1995) are aging – Weir is the youngest at 67, drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart are 69 and 71, respectively, and bassist Phil Lesh is 75 – the yet-to-be-staged final Dead tour is already a huge draw.
The Dead have been a touring act – by one estimate, between 1965 and 1995, they may have played more than 2,300 concerts and many of their die-hard fans may now be as or near about as old as the living band members are.
Then there was a story in the June 8 issue of The New Yorker magazine about how Weir was rehearsing with Phish’s Trey Anastasio in New York before the Fare Thee Well concerts begin because the phenomenally talented Phish lead guitarist will be filling in for Garcia at the concerts.
And the info that singer-pianist Bruce Hornsby has been enlisted to do duty on the keyboards, an instrument that has been an essential part of the Dead’s ensemble. Hornsby has played nearly 100 shows with the Grateful Dead in the early 1990s and is like an extended member of the band. Anastasio would probably need to rehearse more.
All of this information has re-created interest in the band for its fans, including probably the hundreds of mostly middle-aged fans in India, all of whom will likely have hoards of their music but few of whom will have had a chance to watch the Dead in the flesh.
And then, in another serendipitous dose, to mark the 50th anniversary of the band, music website Aquarium Drunkard compiled all of its Dead Notes – in flysheet format – accompanied with zipped downloadable files of iconic performances of the band’s songs (mostly from gigs in the late 1960s and the ’70s), which together makes a great collectible for an old Deadhead (ask me, I know!). It was, altogether, a pleasant series of fortunate events to mark a landmark anniversary of a band that I loved.
DOWN MEMORY LANE:
It hasn’t been two weeks yet since Ornette Coleman, jazz saxophonist, trumpeter and violinist, died on June 11. Coleman was known for his unconventional style that became a genre named ‘free jazz’ (that name came from Coleman’s 1960 album of the same name).
The blues influenced Coleman’s music but it was iconoclastic for its time – creating controversy in the jazz world of the 1960s – because of its free form structure and non-conformist improvisation. Later, he embraced electric sounds – guitars and keyboards mainly.
And here’s some more serendipity: on Coleman’s 1988 album, Virgin Beauty, Jerry Garcia played the guitar on three tracks; and, in 1993, Coleman got on stage while the Grateful Dead were playing to jam on at least five songs.
If you haven’t heard Coleman or jazz ain’t your thing, those could be the entry point to one of the genre’s greatest innovators.
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As I write this, with a cup of coffee next to the keyboard, I have on my computer’s speakers Keller Williams playing 10 songs with minimal accompaniment—just a piano. It’s the perfect audio complement to a sunny morning in Feb when it’s not yet as hot as Delhi can get nor too chilly. Read more
I’d thought I’d be able to give Bob Dylan’s new album a good long listen and then perhaps write my two bits about it in this instalment of DC. Tempest, Dylan’s 35th album, came out on September 11; I managed to get hold of it a couple of days later but before I could properly listen to it, the deadline of this column was upon me (Brunch goes to press really early in the week and its editor is quite a strict disciplinarian when it comes to deadlines). I don’t know about you but I just can’t casually listen to any of Dylan’s albums, particularly a brand new one from a living legend who is now 71. Dylan’s isn’t by any stretch ambient music. It requires focused listening. Read more
In the late eighties when Neneh Cherry first burst onto the scene with her album, Raw Like Sushi, and won two Brit awards, she promptly melted one of them and got it crafted into jewellery, some of which she gifted to other nominees in the categories she won the award for. Raw Like Sushi showcased the then still incipient trend of hip-hop and rap but with an infusion of electronica, a genre that earned it the label trip-hop. The tracks on that debut album, including two major hits, Buffalo Stance and Manchild, brought her instant fame. And, more important than that, an enviably cool image.
A couple of days after Levon Helm, drummer, singer and key member of The Band, the legendary rock group of the 1960s and 70s (and then again the 80s and the 90s), died in the middle of last month, I got to hear a podcast that excerpted two radio interviews with Helm—one from 1993 and the other 2007. There was a distinct difference in Helm’s voice between the two interviews. In the 1993 interview he sounded exactly like he did on The Weight. Remember The Weight? I pulled into Nazareth, I was feelin’ about half past dead;/ I just need some place where I can lay my head. “Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?”/ He just grinned and shook my hand, and “No!”, was all he said. What a gorgeous song that is. The vocals were shared by three of The Band’s singers. Besides Helm, there was Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. The song itself was written by guitarist Robbie Robertson who, I read somewhere, was inspired by the films of Luis Bunuel to write The Weight. Read more
I think it was in Mumbai where I was living in 1996 that a friend slipped me a CD by Phish, a band that I’d heard of but had never heard. “Great stuff for former Deadheads,” he said. The album was Rift and its cover showed a man lying in bed diagonally, which I later realised was the depiction of one of the songs, Lengthwise, which features on the album. Read more