Sublimation Nation

29 11 2007

There’s a point in every year — this point is known colloquially as spring through fall — when it happens. Simultaneously occurring at virtually every beach, every small-town coffeeshop open mic, every stoop in front of a college dorm and every big-town cover-band night, someone’s playing Sublime covers.

Sprouting out of Long Beach, Cali., the trio rose to fame and fell apart within two-and-a-half years, hitting a crescendo in 1994 and breaking up after the death of frontman Bradley Nowell in 1996. What’s remarkable is not that, with only three original albums, they’ve far outsold peer bands like the Gin Blossoms, Better than Ezra, Counting Crows and virtually every non-Incubus/Lifehouse/Creed/Nickelback/other Pearl Jam derivative rock band over the past 10 years. What’s remarkable is that people still want to hear them, all the damn time.

But why? Why is a band that is just so, so general regarded as so damn cool?

It’s because Sublime derives its fame among people between the ages of 20 and 25 thanks to influences both coincidental and tragic.

At the precise moment when Sublime was coming of fame, we were in turn coming of musical age. At the exact time when Sublime became the it band, we began to associate our tastes with our senses of selves.

It was middle school when we began to truly detach from the innocuous, generally milquetoast offerings our parents had provided us during development. Goodbye, Beach Boys. Hello, Nirvana (although a bit late). And, awkward and self-aware as we were, it was only natural to chase around the pack which was, in turn, chasing Cool. At that point, Sublime was Cool, embodied in some carefree Southern Californians.

Consider this a phase in the modern lifestyle. Eric Ericsson, the post-Freudian psychologist, saw developmental stages in a much more socially postive way than his predecessor did. Where Freud imagined development in sexual terms, Ericsson saw growing up in terms of personal relationships. He would have seen this Pursuit of Cool as a formative time as essential as the periods of Trust and Delayed Satisfaction.

Here, at the point when Sublime was just edgy enough to be cool in the mainstream (although not edgy enough to be ever called pioneering), we decided if we were to go along with what the crowd felt was cool or if we were to diverge. Today, we repeat that choice time and time again: To buy in or opt out. To follow Cool or define it.

But perhaps there was no greater influence in Sublime’s peculiar ascent than Nowell’s death. Long has it been an artistic law that an early or otherwise untimely death will secure one’s spot in aesthetic mystery (it’s the theme of Chuck Klosterman’s Killing Yourself to Live). An early death (at the age of 27, coincidentally, or maybe not) froze Jimi Hendrix, James Dean, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison and others in perpetual youth and possibility.

Nowell, who died three days after his wedding day and two months before the release of Sublime’s third album, Sublime, from a heroin overdose that came after years of addiction to the drug, has realized the same posthumous forgiveneness that came upon so many entertainers before him. He, too, is possibility. 

I’ve never been a Sublime fan. But there’s something special about this group of men who caught us at the right time in our Zeitgeist and managed to remain relevant through our secondary maturation.

To Nowell’s undying credit, he lives on still, on the airwaves, in iPods and in groups of dudes who walk by people playing guitar on the beach, and pause before taking a breath and asking “Yo, do you know Santeria?”

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3 responses

29 11 2007
Drew

I’ve always associated sublime with the summer and warm weather. windows down, music blasting. And Tim Ruch. As for my musical zeitgeist, radiohead. ever since ok computer.

I think people just like sublime because they’re simple to play and even easier to sing along too, especially the pop-culture hits. It always seems a cover band that plays a sublime song will undoubtedly play a beatles songs too.

21 02 2008
Tim

Hey! Who’s this talking about me in some random spot on the internet? I AM Tim Ruch…and I enjoy the press however small it is 🙂

21 02 2008
scheity

Timmy, that was Mr. Drew Yanders who offered up that shining piece of nostalgia. For my part, this is Kevin Scheitrum. Glad to be of service.

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