I don’t often write personal stories, mostly because I feel that my own life is largely irrelevant to the topics of our discussion, but also because I’m a private person and I don’t particularly enjoy writing about myself. But I’m going to break with tradition here and share a personal story with you. I apologize ahead of time for the length. I am not known for brevity.

40oz to FreedomYesterday, for the first time in a long time, I decided to listen to Sublime’s40oz to Freedom,” an album that I spent a lot of time with in my younger years. I sometimes call this period of my life “my greater youth” because, in the strict sense of Earth’s revolutions around the Sun, I am still young (26, to be exact). Yet, I often feel as though I’ve been through enough to qualify as an octogenarian. I age in dog years.

My youth (referring to my “greater youth” here) was a turbulent time. It was filled with drama, drugs, alcohol, and a level of naiveté that I can barely stomach to remember. I thought I knew what was going on. I thought I knew who I was, where I was going, and what life was all about. I thought I knew what I wanted. Frankly, I was a moron. It would take me many years to learn that these things are ever-changing and we can never know them for more than a few moments. Yet, in the span of time that it took me to go from “moron” to the present moment, I rarely listened to Sublime’s 40oz. Instead, the album had become a headstone for an era of my life that was gone: “Here lies Josh’s Greater Youth. 1990-2000. RIP.”

Although I had listened to this album on occasion since my youth, I never really listened to it in the same way that I once did. Instead of hearing the lyrics and singing along (or yelping, rather) as I used to when I was younger, I later used it as a form of background noise. The battered tape (and later the CD) would often find its way to the stereo when some old friends came over for a few beers and to reminisce of the days before marriage and children. Unfortunately, those visits by old friends have become increasingly rare. But yesterday, when I listened to “40oz to Freedom,” I heard the album with new ears. I listened to it in a way that I hadn’t since I was 16.

Yesterday was a rough day. You know the ones: where everyone around you seems rude and inconsiderate; these are the days when you hit all of the red lights, the radio is playing nothing worth listening to, your cell phone battery has died, you haven’t gotten enough sleep, and your mind is consumed with worry over something you have no control over. To top it off, I was on my daily drive home from work and, as usual, I was stuck in a mound of traffic. I had a long ride ahead of me.

I thought listening to Sublime would cheer me up, much in the same way that it had when I was younger. So I removed the CD from the case, put it in the deck, and lit a cigarette.

After a few minutes of listening to it, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. I felt as if I wanted to cry — and not a girly cry either, one of those manly outbursts that involves bashing the steering wheel — but I wasn’t sure why. Yeah, it had been a rough day but it wasn’t that bad. What the hell was wrong with me?

My first instinct was to remove the CD, chuck it into the back seat of the car, and forget that it existed; but I know that my first instinct is usually the wrong one. If I ran from this pain — whatever its source — I wouldn’t be able to develop an understanding of it and, instead, it would control me and potentially send me into a depression. So I listened on, paying close attention to both the music and to the way it made me feel. I listened to the entire album this way (except for the two songs I’ve always hated). I carefully tracked my thoughts as they bounced around, latching on to painful mental images and memories of both laughter and tears.

I never knew Sublime’s vocalist and lead guitarist, Bradley Nowell, but I had always felt that I had. I’ve listened to every song he’d ever written, covered, or been featured in. I can still sing most of them verbatim, without missing a beat (even when the lyrics are in Spanish). I bought every Sublime album, even if I’d already heard all of the songs on it. I even bought albums I didn’t need when I found them cheap at pawn shops and used record stores (I gave them away to friends). I couldn’t bear the sight of seeing a Sublime album sitting amongst the sad stack of forgotten singles and one-hit-wonders.

Even in the years since I had stopped listening to Sublime, I unintentionally discovered many of Nowell’s reggae influences. On more than one occasion I would buy a reggae album (most likely recorded in the 60s or 70s), only to find that the lyrics were the same as those Nowell used thirty years later. In other words, many of Nowell’s songs were covers of older reggae songs, even though I didn’t know it at the time. For example, a few years ago I bought an album by Toots and Maytals and I was shocked to learn that Sublime’s “5446 Was My Number” was actually a cover.

Bradley Nowell was, in a sense, someone I looked up to. He was fun-loving, articulate, intelligent, and — like me — addicted to his own pain. His emotional problems would eventually lead him to a fatal heroin overdose in May of 1996. He left behind a wife and a young son, Jakob. Nowell’s tragic death saddened me in ’96 and continues to sadden me today. But what really strikes me is the memory of Lou Dog, Nowell’s beloved dalmatian (see the image to the right). Lou Dog Nowell often mentioned Lou Dog (or “Louie”) in his music. Here’s a brief story that I think helps to explain Nowell’s love for his pet:

In the early 1990s, Lou Dog disappeared for a week. In the video Sublime — Stories, Tales, Lies, & Exaggerations, Troy Nowell (Bradley Nowell’s widow) says that for the week during which Lou Dog was lost, Nowell spent a great deal of time lying on the couch crying in response to the loss of his dog. Lou Dog was eventually returned to Nowell, who, in response to the situation, later covered the Camper Van Beethoven song “The Day That Lassie Went To The Moon” and changed it to “Lou Dog Went to the Moon.” While Lou was missing Nowell also recorded this song to his home answering machine as a sort of audio lost dog poster.

When I first heard of Nowell’s death in 1996, I clearly remember thinking, “At least Lou Dog lives on.” For some strange reason, I was comforted by the knowledge that Lou Dog was alive and would somehow be a testament to Nowell’s memory. Sure, Nowell’s son Jakob, his wife, and his band-mates survived but, for some reason, I was particularly attached to Lou Dog. Or, more specifically, I was attached to the idea that Lou Dog survived, an idea that I would continue to hold… until yesterday.

As I listened to the album in my car, I traced my thoughts back to the first moment when I began to feel sad. I figured it was a good way to try to find the root of what made me so uncomfortable. I soon realized that this moment occurred in the first few seconds of the first track, “Waiting for My Ruca,” where Nowell can be heard saying “Good dog” as Lou Dog barks at something (or someone?). As I thought about this, I found that my thoughts then turned to the many memories that I created while listening to this music. Then, they veered off and I began thinking about Lou Dog, and I realized that he must’ve died by now. This is where the sadness knotted up in my throat. Lou Dog is dead. Bradley Nowell is dead. Sublime is gone. My youth is gone. My innocence, my naiveté, and many of my friends have gone with them. My attachment to Lou Dog’s survival was actually an attachment to my youth and to the crutches that I used to get through it all.

I now know that Lou Dog died on September 17, 2001, only six days after the terrorist attacks, about five years after Bradley Nowell had died. When Louie died, I probably wasn’t paying much attention to anything other than the cable news channels. The terrorist attacks had gripped my attention as they had most other Americans. The fires at Ground Zero were still smoldering. And in the frenzy of it all, Lou Dog died and I did not notice.

What mattered to me so much in 1996 slipped by me unnoticed only five short years later. I had forgotten Sublime and Lou Dog. Although it’s difficult to verbalize, I think Lou Dog became a sort of archetype for me during those years I spent in an alcohol-and-drug-fueled depression. Don’t get me wrong: I never really paid much attention to it then. It wasn’t as if I had built a shrine for Sublime, Nowell, or Lou Dog. It was much more subtle than that. In fact, it wasn’t until just yesterday that I realized how many times I’d listened to that album in despair and found joy to hear Lou Dog’s bark, or to hear Nowell mention him in a song. It wasn’t until yesterday that I realized how many times I’d visualized Lou Dog and Nowell, running to and fro, having fun and getting into trouble. Sure, these were just fantasies born out of the music’s imagery, but they were well-played in my mind’s eye and they were a source of comfort to me during some of the darkest years of my life.

Sublime

I’ve always been a dog person and many of the bonds I’ve formed with my dogs are often stronger than those I form with humans. Yesterday, when I realized that both Bradley and Lou Dog were gone, I also realized that a part of me was gone as well. It also reminded me of my own impermanence and the fragility of my own life, my family, and my beloved bulldog, Abigail. None of us last forever. And I also recognized that the passage of time alone cannot heal old wounds. We must attend to them. My refusal to accept the departure of Lou Dog (and, subsequently, of my innocence) only existed because I failed to confront it. I know that I must learn to live with death, loss, pain, anger, and fear. These things are an unpleasant but natural part of being alive. I cannot avoid them, I cannot hate them, or even loathe them. They just are.

I never personally knew Bradley Nowell or Lou Dog. But I knew them and I loved them. So I thank Sublime and Bradley Nowell for their inspiration, their great music, and for the many smiles they gave me during times when the Sun didn’t want to shine. And to Lou Dog: Goodbye my old friend. I’ll check in from time to time.

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