“Lovin’ is what I got. ” Simple words written by a simple man. A simple man who was not a poet, or a master lyricist for that matter. The front man for Sublime. Brad Nowell was a happy go lucky soul with a rock star attitude. He first laid his fingers on the wood and wire at the age of thirteen and immediately began to develop his own niche in the music world. Inspired by reggae and his Southern Californian upbringing, his unique guitar playing burnt up auditions and shows alike and would eventually propel him to a record deal. However, Nowell was never anything extraordinary.
His melodies were catchy and his upbeat ska sound made feet tap yet Nowell never had the essence of Dylan or the soul of Hendrix. By the time he died in May of 1996, Brad Nowell looked like he would go down as a simple man who had a short life and an even shorter time on the radio. That is, until Santeria hit the radio on July 30th of that same year. A little over a month after Nowell passed away, his final album with Sublime was released. One song in particular stood out and would later come to define Sublime and their recordings.
That song was Santeria, and although it would become the defining work of Nowell, it was nothing like anything that had ever come before it. The poetry in the lyrics was nothing like the early and quite often meaningless ballads written by Nowell and the accompanying music was slower and full of soul unlike the hard hitting roughness of the reggae that had come to be expected from Sublime. A perfect example of one such meaningless Nowell ballad was Date Rape. The song drags on for over three and a half minutes as Nowell recounts in an almost monotone fashion a story of what seems to be irony.
He tells of a man, who after raping a woman, ends up behind bars and is now occasionally raped himself by fellow inmates. The story is somewhat repulsive and the accompanying music is repetitive and quite obnoxious. Comparing such ballads that were the standard of Nowell to Santeria is nearly impossible because of the outstanding differences. Santeria is a beautiful piece of art mixing poetry with music. Nowell describes his love life in a narrative fashion. At first glance, Santeria appears to be a revenge fantasy, Nowell who has just lost his girlfriend to another man describes how he wishes to extract vengeance upon the man by illing him. However a second look may disclaim Santeria as purely a story of hatred. Nowell refers to his ex girlfriend as the “hienna” and her new lover as “Sancho. ” These terms have been used in Mexican Folk Music for generations as slang terms for unfaithful women and their lovers. By stereotyping them as just run of the mill people he degrades their respectability and their worth to him. Never once does he give a physical description of his “hienna” or her “Sancho” or any other kind of description for that matter, discrediting the idea that extracting revenge upon them is his true obsession.
This “hienna” and her “Sancho” are nothing to him but mere objects of pain, and his wish to destroy them is a wish to eradicate this pain from his heart. Going along with this feeling of eradicating the pain Nowell comes to his deepest hope, one that is far deeper than mere revenge. He exclaims at the beginning of the second verse that, “My soul will have to wait ’til I get back, find a “hienna” of my own. ” What Nowell truly wants more than anything is not simply revenge, but to find a faithful woman that will not leave him for another man.
By saying his soul will have to wait he introduces the idea that even though he suffers greatly, spiritually he must hold out because he knows deep down that mere revenge is nothing compared to escaping his pain with love for another. Nowell says in each verse, it is the only line that he repeats throughout the entire song, that, “What I really want to know, is my baby. ” He doesn’t say he wants to know revenge, he says he wants to know his baby, a woman who is not the “hienna” but instead one he can affectionately refer to. He also says that, “What I really want to say is I’ve got mine,” and “that there’s just one. He doesn’t say that what he wants to say is I killed Sancho or that I’m going to kill Sancho, he truly wants to say that he has a faithful woman and she’s the only one for him. It was the beauty of Santeria that took Sublime’s reputation as musicians and artists out of the gutter. The deeper meaning in Santeria was a one-eighty for the band.
Comparing Santeria to another song of Sublime called Wrong Way is almost like comparing the Mona Lisa to a couple of Crayola Coloring Books. Wrong Way, like Date Rape, is a repulsive story about a twelve year old whore put on the streets by her Father whom Nowell has sexual relations ith. Lacking any deeper meaning or morel whatsoever Wrong Way, as it was so appropriately named, truly turns ears in the wrong direction. Even musically Santeria was shaking up the standard Sublime accompaniment. The album released prior to Sublime’s album containing Santeria, included a song called Lincoln Highway Dub. Lincoln Highway Dub was an instrumental that actually contains the exact same chord progression and timing as Santeria. It even shares bits and pieces of Santeria’s solo. However there is undoubtably something different about the way Nowell performs the progression.
By mixing up the strumming patterns and adding some well placed bends and slides he adds what seems like a bit of his soul to the progression by the time it’s used in Santeria. Brad Nowell seems like the last person a song like Santeria would come out of. Santeria is nothing like any of his other songs and if anything, it shows a potential that Nowell should be ashamed of for not living up to all the time. Even though most of Nowell’s music can be easily disregarded as meaningless and at times repulsive, he deserves a fair share of credit for the art that is Santeria.