’90s Song of the Week: Sublime’s “What I Got”

Life is too short so love the one you got. –Bradley Nowell, “What I Got”

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There’s a kind of amazing symmetry at work here.

Everyone knows the story by now. Sublime was released in July of 1996, barely two months after the death of frontman Bradley Nowell. The chorus of  “What I Got,” the album’s lead single, is based off of reggae artist Half Pint’s “Loving.” The lyrics  above are the song’s summary. The rest of the song is Hakuna Matata manifested in pop/ska/reggae. Nowell vacillates between lamenting certain aspects of his life, proclaiming that he doesn’t lament certain aspects of his life that maybe he should, telling us how he lives his life, and telling us how to live our lives based his own personal experiences. It’s a catchy tune, but damn, is it preachy and heavy-handed. I don’t care for it, or just about any other Sublime song. “Badfish” has survived on my iTunes playlist due exclusively to its link to my college memories.

I was at the water park with Mad on Monday and I heard a woman’s voice call after what I assumed was her child. I looked up from lunch and saw two bikini-clad Caucasian women. Behind them walked a train of toddlers, the oldest right around Mad’s age, I’d guess the youngest was three. I pegged the women as my age, plus or minus two years. While the large, dark glasses both women wore obscured their faces, I could tell by their tattoos. Both had lower back tattoos, one a figure from some Asian culture (I’m not even going to pretend to know), the other was a bunch of barbed wire-ish black strips that converged into the shape of an inverted triangle. You know exactly what I’m talking about. I used to see those all the time. I went to college with these women. Well, not them, per se, but women just like them. On a shoulder, one of the women had a tattoo that vaguely resembled the cover art of another of Sublime’s albums, 40 oz. to Freedom. Based purely on observation, I am confident in saying that a decade ago, these women wearing the exact same things would have provoked a much different reaction from me. But man, time is hell on the human body. And all of that is how we got here.

Oh, why not?

Oh, why not?

I don’t want to spend much time here, so I’ll set you up with the abridged version: when I was a younger man, I was a f*ck-up. I was never arrested and mostly avoided drug addiction, but I was notoriously irresponsible. To frame it in the context of my parental parlance, I often made “bad choices.” Who chain smokes cigarettes in a (non-smoking) national park while climbing up rock faces?  I did. Because I could, Smokey the Bear be damned. On this day pictured, I hiked 4.6 miles downhill, then hiked those same miles uphill in the same day. If I tried that now, I would have re-enacted the Liam Neeson film The Grey, but my version would have been 10 minutes long assuming it took the wolves 9 minutes to find me. I spent just under a decade consistently making questionable life choices of varying significance, then bouncing back from them like nothing had happened at all. No hangovers, no stiff joints, no tight muscles. The elasticity of youth is incredible. Skinny Phil could do all kinds of amazing things that 2014 Phil scoffs at in disgust while a small part of him smirks and nods in approval. But I am not a young man. This is the way of things. But not for Sublime.

Nowell’s death gave Sublime’s posthumous release a tragic built-in back story. There’s no way to tell to which degree it aided in the popularity of the music – some might say the album would have sold well anyway, others might argue that the tragedy is what sold the album. Is either of those opinions wrong? No, but one of them feels icky. We don’t speak ill of the dead in our culture. I’m not going to argue that Sublime sucked. I’m not going to argue that Sublime was great. I don’t know. I never really cared about them (an opinion which galled my college friend Kevin, then a Sublime diehard). I do know that if I was in a room with a bunch of people my age plus/minus 10 years and “Santeria” came on, 96% of them would start singing along. I think I know why.

There is only one version of Sublime. This is the version that everyone fell in love with in high school or college or post-college, 15-20 years ago. We have aged and changed, for better and for worse, but Sublime? They never will. They will never release the expensive, highly produced follow-up to Sublime. They will never release the “back to basics” follow up to that album. They will never release the indulgent “this is the album we always want to make” follow up to that one. They will never break up then reunite for the first of three or five “farewell tours.” They will always be peak Sublime. They will never screw up their throwing shoulder. They will never have to get glasses, then contacts. They will never wear shorts shaped like squares rather than a rectangles. They will never regress or evolve. Sublime and their music are in one of Holden Caulfield’s glass cases. The timing of Nowell’s death made Sublime and Sublime immortal, preserved in their perfect states.  To be clear, I am not complaining. I do not prefer to have died notoriously young rather than exist as I am now. As I looked at that tattoo of a weary sun on the bikini-clad woman’s shoulder, I saw the irony. The tattoo – a symbol of permanence – had sagged a little, faded some. Only death is forever.

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