Sublime Played Their Most Powerful Song at Their Last Show

Aaron Gilbreath
59 min readApr 3, 2020

“The Ballad of Johnny Butt” is one of the California band’s most moving songs, even if it’s the least-serious sounding

Sublime playing Warped Tour in Asbury Park, NJ 8/18/1995. Getty Images

“Lovin’ is what I got. Said remember that.” –Bradley Nowell

For a perpetually stoned band that took very little seriously, the California band Sublime played some seriously powerful music.

Twenty-plus years after their dissolution, you might not think it’s cool to like Sublime. You might think of them as a white boy reggae-punk “SoCal” band for backwards hat frat boys who smoke herb but hate peace and ride longboards to their college classes even though they live in Ohio. And in many ways, that’s what Sublime represents to some people. But Sublime’s music still means a lot to many people. It’s the soundtrack to their lives. It’s the sound of southern California in the 90s that still sounds like southern California today. It’s the sound of freedom, rebellion, youthful good times, of sobriety for some and permanent summer for others. Twenty years on, you can still hear fierce originality in many songs and surprising depth in others. Because trust me when I say that underneath Sublime’s cool, tattooed beach dude image — always holding beers, rarely wearing shirts — and beneath the proud Long Beach, low-rider, cholo-style regionalism — was some incredibly tender, emotionally charged music, some of it built from the same improvisational abilities as jazz, except drunker. Not the fast songs that spun the moshpit, like “New Thrash” and “Seed,” which are awesome. Not the irie, upbeat, joyous jams like “Foolish Fool,” “Doin’ Time,” and the reggae cover “Kingstep,” which are timeless, too. I mean the pained, heartfelt songs like “Badfish,” “Pool Shark,” “Jailhouse,” and “Pawn Shop.” Sublime’s music mixed reggae, dub, punk rock, surf rock, hip-hop, acoustic porch jams, even Blues. It was diverse, and within that range of styles you find songs that inhabit the more sensitive side of the musical spectrum, especially their final live performance of “The Ballad of Johnny Butt.” A fan recorded them playing it the night before singer Bradley Nowell died of a heroin overdose in his motel room at age 28, in the bed next to his drummer Bud Gaugh. To me, few songs capture Sublime’s maturing talents and wounded beauty as this final live version, and few songs embody the band’s…

Aaron Gilbreath

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.