After Bradley Nowell's death of a heroin overdose the next morning, Sublime's last show in Petaluma has attained a mythic status. MCA/Gasoline Alley
After Bradley Nowell's death of a heroin overdose the next morning, Sublime's last show in Petaluma has attained a mythic status. (MCA/Gasoline Alley)

Sublime's Last Show: The Oral History

Sublime's Last Show: The Oral History

On May 24, 1996, Sublime played their last show at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma.

No one knew it'd be their final concert. But no one knew at the time, either, that singer Bradley Nowell would be found dead of a heroin overdose the next morning at a motel in San Francisco.

Sublime would go on to sell over 17 million records, and for obvious reasons, that final show in Petaluma has attained mythic status. An audio bootleg exists; legal issues over still-unreleased video footage have continued for years; and snippets of people's memories can still be overheard at parties in and around Petaluma. But only 900 or so people witnessed Nowell's final performance. The rest of Sublime's millions of fans always want to know: what was it like?

I was there that night, but I left after four songs. My band played the Warped Tour with Sublime the year before, and I'd gotten my fill of them already, to say nothing of Nowell's impulsive behavior. (He once sicced his dog on a skateboarder and expected me to back him up in a beatdown, an incident I wrote about here, 10 years ago.) But hearing everyone's memories since, I've always wondered how the rest of their final show went down.

So to mark the anniversary of Sublime's last show in Petaluma, I've decided to pull together those memories, stories, and loose threads—from regular showgoers, people behind the scenes, and performers on stage.

Sublime with Lou Dog.
Sublime with Lou Dog.

Stand by Your Van

Eric Wilson (Bassist, Sublime): We had just finished the album. For two or three years before that, we had gotten a really strong cult following, just from playing up and down the coast. We started packing in 2,000 people just from word of mouth, before we even had any deal with a record company.

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Rick Bonde (Booking agent, the Tahoe Agency): In the time I worked with them, they made it to every gig, we really tightened up the scene, Brad had gotten clean. From my memory, he'd been clean for almost a year. They were going to go to Europe, Brad had a brand-new wife, a new baby.

Lil' Mike: I was gonna meet 'em at the Glass House in Pomona. They were supposed to play there the week before, and I was gonna jump in the van with 'em and head up the coast. But they canceled the Pomona show. I went down to the club that night, and they were like, “Nah, they're not coming.” I was worried there had been an O.D.

Jason Boggs (Filibuster): They'd come to Sacramento and open up for us and play for 30-40 people at little dive bars around town, and they'd crash on our floors. But they'd really started to blow up right around then, with "Date Rape" on KROQ.

Tom Gaffey (Manager, Phoenix Theater): We were just starting to see more ska and less punk. My punk crowd was just starting to finally turn 21. Ska was the next thing. The youngsters loved it. Most of our crowd for the Sublime show was under 18, and definitely under 21.

Rick Bonde: I was with them the night before up in Chico. That was one of the most insane, crazy rock 'n' roll shows I've ever seen in my life. There were probably 2,000 people there. The fence got torn down, security was overwhelmed.

Eric Wilson: It was in a park, with a traveling circus. All these people with tattoos and piercings, the freakshow thing.

Rick Bonde: At one point I saw an opening in the crowd and I thought someone had gotten hurt and gone down. So I jumped off the stage, right in the middle of this crowd, and there was nothing there, but everyone was looking on the ground. I'm like, “What are we looking for?” And some guy yells out, “A finger! A fuckin' finger!” And I'm like, “What do you mean, a finger?!” So we're all there looking around for this guy's finger.

Eric Wilson: In Chico, there were a lot of drugs. We stayed over at some college girls' house and smoked crack for breakfast. So it wasn't really surprising that that's where Brad found his last bag.

Rick Bonde: At the afterparty, Brad came up to Mitch, who was the bodyguard we'd hired to protect Brad from himself. Brad walked up and said, “Gimme some money.” And Mitch was like, “No, I'm not giving you any money.” And Brad got really upset and was like, “It's my money! Gimme my fuckin' money!” And Mitch was like, “I'm not giving you any money.” Because we all knew what that was about. But the unfortunate thing is that Brad didn't need money to score, you know what I mean? So I'm convinced he got it that night.

A ticket for Sublime's last show, May 24, 1996.
A ticket for Sublime's last show, May 24, 1996. (Photo: Gabe Meline)

Eric Wilson: I slept hungover on the way to Petaluma. And so did anybody else that was in the van. We had a big old junker motor home and we had our own bunks. That was like a tour bus to us.

Boots Hughston (Manager, Maritime Hall): We had 'em at Maritime once before, and we had 'em at the Phoenix a couple times. They were kind of wild and crazy. Bradley was a little bit out of control, but he wasn't a bad person or anything. I liked him. I thought he was cool. They were booked at the Phoenix one night, and the Maritime the next night.

Rhi Smith-Guerrero: I was 19. A bunch of dudes were going. My best friend had just met a guy, and his roommates were all like, “Let's go see Sublime!” So I hopped in with the roommates and left her behind with her boyfriend, which she still regrets to this day.

Josh Drake: Earth Crisis played at the Phoenix with the metal band I was in and there were maybe six people there. But whenever there was a big ska show at the Phoenix—Let's Go Bowling, Skankin' Pickle, Reel Big Fish—lots of people would go to the ska shows, so you would just go to whatever show it was.

Lil' Mike: Everybody'd be singing along and know all the words, even if the record wasn't out! They just had that contagious enthusiasm. I've never seen anything like it.

Tom Gaffey: That was their third show here. The first time they came in was as the support band and absolutely stole the show. So we brought them back on their own two more times. Their guarantee in those days was probably $1,500 plus backend. In those days, backend was still at 70 percent.

Boots Hughston: They probably got three grand.

Rick Bonde: I would guess that their guarantee was probably in the $2,500 range. And right now, they'd be playing for no less than $250,000 or $500,000 a night.

Tom Gaffey: Here's one of the differences that I noticed. The first couple times that they came through, they'd get here early, they'd do their soundcheck and then they'd hang out with all the skater kids. The skater kids would be going onto their RV and watching videos with them and hanging out. The last time through, the RV was not open to skaters. They weren't hanging out as much. Bradley wasn't skating with the kids like he had before. That was the first sign that something was a little bit wrong.

The inside of the Phoenix Theater today.
The inside of the Phoenix Theater today. (Photo: Jim Agius)

Work That We Do

Jason Boggs (Filibuster): It was the Ziggens, us, and Sublime. We had a 27-foot 1967 school bus that we took around on tour, so we rolled up in that, and all the guys from the band hung out in there. That was like our little backstage party zone.

Hollie Simons: I remember lots of frat boys, which was weird for the Phoenix, and the crowd that usually went there. It was never the college boys, it was the punk rockers and skaters. I went with my girlfriends.

Tyson Engel: Brad was hanging out with people out front. He was excited with the new record coming out. I gave him a cigarette, but I didn't really talk to him that much.

Hollie Simons: I thought it was incredibly cool that before they played, Brad was in the crowd, drinking and hanging out.

Eric Wilson: I remember before the show—it was in the Bay Area, with a college crowd—and there were some guys discussing politics. I said what I thought about it, which wasn't much, and then the guy put me down for a couple minutes in a real intelligent way.

Josh Drake: The way the Phoenix used to get when there were tons of people in there, it was so hot that you had to try to crane your head up to get fresh air. With the crowd, and the heat, it was tough to breathe.

Hollie Simons: It was an awesome concert, and a huge party. The energy level was just insane.

The flyer for Sublime's last show, May 24, 1996.
The flyer for Sublime's last show, May 24, 1996. (Courtesy Glenn Rubenstein)

Jason Boggs: Sublime killed it that night. They did a great, great job. Considering how much we'd all been partying before the show, I was very, very impressed at how tight they sounded.

Tom Gaffey: I think I read somewhere that said he'd called home, and said he was having the best show he'd ever had. I don't want to go against what common belief is, but I do recall that I was kind of bored with that show. I'm sorry to say that. It just didn't have the energy the other shows had had.

Sara Sugrue: I recall feeling sheer disappointment. I thought it sounded awful, especially Brad. I feel a little bad saying it, being that he's passed.

Drew Hirschfield: It was my second time seeing them and I just remember Brad looking just awful. He was smoking lots of cigarettes during the set.

Josh Drake: When Sublime was on, I went up to the balcony where they had the fire escape doors open, and you could get some fresh air. And of course, there were some guys with big army jackets standing around clearly smoking weed, and me, sidling up to them, trying to stand in the circle hoping they'd pass it to me. It was a gross-tasting wooden pipe that everyone's mouth had been on, it was disgusting.

Tom Gaffey: In those days that was acceptable behavior. Nowadays, our rules are stricter and stricter. The party finally ate us up.

Sublime.
Sublime.

Jared Powell: I left the show. I was like, “Whatever, I'll see them play again.”

Drew Hirschfield: It was a show I was stoked about because I had become a real fan, and then there was something worrisome and sadly disconnected about the band.

Eric Wilson: It was a hit-and-miss thing for us. We used to drink a lot. A lot of my older acquaintances would say, “I would never know if you guys were going to sound like total shit or play great.” We didn't have our professional skills going on back then. We just thought the world was ours, or whatever.

Jason Boggs: They had the halfpipes at the front. It was almost like a rec center, the way it was set up.

Hollie Simons: There were pro skateboarders skating on the ramps while they were playing, and people were just going nuts. I wanna say Mike Carroll was one of them? My friends I was with, they were more in awe of the skateboarders than the band itself.

Rhi Smith-Guerrero: I stayed in the back. I remember that the pit was pretty rowdy. I was being a little more cautious than I would have been in the past couple years prior to that. I had pit injuries.

Skunk Records sampler.
Skunk Records sampler. (Courtesy Josh Drake)

Sara Sugrue: There was this one guy that I couldn't take my eyes off of. I recall him being dressed in all black, and wearing a skirt, and he decided to dance ballet-style in the pit. He would pirouette through some macho douchebags that were pushing people around, and he looked so free, without a care in the world of what others thought.

Faith Corrien Valdez: I just remember their Dalmatian running around.

Eric Wilson: Lou Dog running around on stage, that was typical, yeah. He probably bit somebody too.

Josh Drake: I still have a cassette tape, a Skunk Records sampler, that I think the Ziggens threw out to the crowd.

Rhi Smith-Guerrero: My friend was up in the front, and I guess he buddied up to this big, burly, muscly black dude who was their merch guy, and so he left with a bunch of stickers, pins and t-shirts and stuff.

Lil' Mike: Sublime would give you 10 copies of their records, and be like, "Give these to your bros, let people know about us!"

Hollie Simons: We snuck backstage, which was amazing for us, in our Osh-Kosh overalls, and really curly hair, with a Mickey's 40 oz. poured into a Big Gulp cup. I was 19. There was lots of weed, and it was crowded. We just stood there in the corner, in awe, drinking out of our 7-11 Big Gulps full of beer.

Eric Wilson: It was always a scene backstage. We had our guard down, so we didn't see what [Brad] was up to.

The last known photo of Brad Nowell, with fan Barbie Shearer and friend.
The last known photo of Brad Nowell, with fan Barbie Shearer and friend. (Courtesy Barbie Shearer)

Waking up to an Alarm

Tom Gaffey: Rick Bonde called me the next day and said, "Tom, I want you to know this wasn't your fault." I said, "What are you talking about?"

Eric Wilson: I was asleep in the motor home. We woke up to have bloody marys, and I sent my friend inside the hotel to get some ice for the bloody marys. And he came back frantically crying.

Rhi Smith-Guerrero: I was at my parents' house and I woke up and poured myself a bowl of cereal and was sitting in front of MTV. And the MTV News splash was “Bradley Nowell Dead at 28. Died in San Francisco.” I just about spewed my cereal.

Rick Bonde: Bud [Gaugh, Sublime drummer] found him. What I heard is that Lou Dog was on the bed, licking Brad's face. Bud looked at him, and there was zero question. Lou was licking the vomit off of him, his face was green-colored. There was no saving him. Obviously it was over.

The Oceanview Motel, San Francisco.
The Oceanview Motel, San Francisco.

Boots Hughston: At first I thought it was bullshit. I thought somebody was pulling my leg. That's the kind of band they were, always goofing off. “Tell the Maritime promoter that Bradley died and then he won't give us any shit for missing soundcheck.” That's what I was thinking. But then this girl I talked to, who was hanging with the band, she got real serious and real quiet, and she said, “No, no man. He's not here anymore.”

Eric Wilson: It killed part of me. I don't really like talking about it.

Jason Boggs: From what I heard, there were a bunch of people in San Francisco that got the same batch, and there were a bunch of O.D.'s that night.

A poster announcing Sublime's show at the Maritime Hall on May 25, 1996, which never happened.
A poster announcing Sublime's show at the Maritime Hall on May 25, 1996, which never happened.

Drew Hirschfield: The next day during recess at Montgomery High my pal John told me he heard about the overdose. I was shocked and a bit scared. I think we felt sacredly important that we were at their last show ever, 'cause we were a bunch of 17 year old punks.

Josh Drake: It was on the news. And I got that kind of excitement that I was part of news! Like, “I was at that show!” I know that that's insane, taking someone's death and turning it into a win. But when you're that age and nothing ever happens to you, it was at least some excitement in our small town.

Tom Gaffey: Three or four creepy downtown denizens in town tried to claim responsibility, tried to say that they were the ones that sold him the drugs, as a source of pride. How ghoulish is that? What a bunch of idiots. And I wasn't the only one who heard stuff like that. It's like, is that your stupid way of at least being able to say you were a part of history? That's how you want to be known, as the guy that sold Bradley Nowell the drugs?

Rhi Smith-Guerrero: I heard a lot of rumors about where the drugs came from. I heard people say, “Yeah, my friend was the guy that sold him the dope,” and all that. It sounded like a lot of exaggeration and rumor.

Jared Powell: Everybody says they know someone who did something. There are rumors that seem plausible, but it's also coming from people who want to hang onto some celebrity moment, and that's just scumbaggy anyway.

Rhi Smith-Guerrero: The rumors were nasty, about who was trying to boast about it.

Rick Bonde: I'm convinced he got it in Chico. And here's my theory. I think that Brad knew that he was going to be home, seeing his wife and baby in a few days, and I think that he got high that night and probably decided he needed to just finish it off so he wasn't tempted to do it the next day. So he could clean up for a couple days before he needed to see his family. That's been my gut this whole time, and believe me, I've thought about it a million times in the last 20 years.

Sublime's self-titled major label debut.
Sublime's self-titled major label debut.

Look at All the Love We've Found

Boots Hughston: Their fans were incredible. When the show at Maritime was canceled, instead of freaking out and demanding refunds, they just came and were, like, really sad. They didn't care about the money they paid for the tickets. I probably only refunded 10 or 20 people out of 1,500 tickets sold. Usually when something like that happens, people start to demand their money back right at the door. It wasn't like that. They were just sad that it happened. The whole space in front of the hall turned into a makeshift wake for Bradley.

Tom Gaffey: In the next five to ten years we were getting a lot of people coming through taking pictures of the place. That's dropped off, of course.

Rick Bonde: The president of MCA Records met with me about a month later. I was in his office, and he told me that he was not going to release their record. He said, “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.” I was like, “I'm not leaving until you promise to put out this record.” I wouldn't let up on him. And like, 20 minutes later, he was finally like, “Okay, I'll try it. I'll put it out and see what happens.” And now... how many millions of records later?

Josh Drake: I was into punk bands and more underground music, so in that scene, we all rejected Sublime once their big album came out, and the horrible scarring of the musical landscape they caused by telling bands it was okay to play this crappy reggae music.

Jared Powell: Now, everyone says they were at that show. If everybody who says they were at that show was actually at the show, it would have been thousands of people.

The mural backstage at the Phoenix Theater, painted by Long Beach Dub All-Stars.
The mural backstage at the Phoenix Theater, painted by Long Beach Dub All-Stars. (Mikey DeLosa-Tham)

Tom Gaffey: The other guys came back here a few years later with Long Beach Dub All-Stars, and painted a mural backstage for Brad.

Eric Wilson: That would have been done by Opie, the singer. He's the guy who drew the sun [on 40 Oz. to Freedom]. He's a tattoo artist.

Tom Gaffey: It lasted forever, until last year when some idiot came and painted a mural over it.

Jared Powell: Tom went apeshit. He started screaming and yelling, and this young little 18-year old grafitti writer that didn't know what was going on was almost in tears.

Tom Gaffey: That was a painful thing. It was a beautiful piece. I'd invite them to come back and redo it, because I'd love to have it back.

Jim Agius (Phoenix Theater in-house promoter): There's actually audio from the show out there on the internet. The story I heard was that a girl recorded it from the balcony with a Walkman, and she and her boyfriend put it out on CD with money she made as a stripper.

Eric Wilson: I haven't heard that recording. Did we sound good? I hope we sounded good.

'Play Nice in the Pit,' recorded at Sublime's last show, May 24, 1996.
'Play Nice in the Pit,' recorded at Sublime's last show, May 24, 1996.

Lil Mike: It wasn't great audio quality. But yeah, she had this little Walkman, a hand-held thing. You can hear the whole thing on the internet, because I gave the tape to these internet guys after a while, they were just hounding me. It was called "Play Nice in the Pit," because that's what was painted on the wall of the Phoenix, so she went home that night and wrote that on the tape. We put some of the better-sounding songs out on a CD called It All Seems So Silly in the Long Run with some other recordings we'd done at Klub Komotion, and I sent 'em $1,000 each. Bud and Eric told me that was the most money they'd gotten from their music at that point. Their album was out and selling millions, but they hadn't seen any money because they owed so much money to MCA for Brad's rehab, which I'd heard cost half a million dollars. So the only royalty check they received at that point was from a bootleg!

Jim Agius: The other thing is that there's video footage of the whole show, but it's never been released. After Brad died, there was some ugly legal battle between the guy who filmed it and the band, and he's just sat on the footage all these years, not doing anything with it.

Eric Wilson: I'm sure it'll come out sometime, but I don't know anything about the politics of it.

Sara Sugrue: It's also where I first met my ex, on the stairs of the Phoenix. Initially I was planning to say that it was a night I could have done without. However, without that night and the next few years of hell with my ex, I may have never been at Gale's that one night where I met my amazing husband. Seventeen years together this year! So, with that thought, I am so happy that I have that disastrous night in my history. If I didn't go to that show, I honestly would not be who I am now.

Hollie Simons: I remember telling my husband, “Ah! I was at their last show!” when a Sublime song came on the radio when we were driving to Disneyland with our kids. He's like, “No you weren't!” I was like, “No, they played their last show at the Phoenix!”

Boots Hughston: I didn't really expect it to happen. Bradley, he was crazy and partying, but I just never got the vibe that he was going to check out like that.

Rick Bonde: You know what was really going through my mind after he died? I swear this is true, that as sad I was for myself, and for my business, and obviously Brad's wife and family, and the band—the thing I thought about the most was that the rest of the world didn't know what they just lost.

Jason Boggs: I think Brad would have gotten a lot more seasoned. I think he might have started to realize that he was a voice. He never got a chance to see how much influence he had on people, or how his music affected people in such a good way; he brought that positivity that I think he understood about reggae and rocksteady and even punk rock. He was a very positive person.

Eric Wilson: He'd probably be playing music. Probably with me, but he might have gone solo. But who knows? We'll never know.

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