There’s a steel train comin’ through,
I would take it if I could. And I would not lie to you
because Sunday morning soon will come
when things would be much easier to say
upon the microphone like a boss DJ
when I would walk upon the sea like it was dry land.
The boss DJ ain’t nothin’ but a man.
No trouble no fuss, .. I know why.
It’s so nice, I wanna hear the same song twice.
It’s so nice, I wanna hear the same song twice.
Rumours flyin’ all over town, but it’s just stones and sticks.
‘Cause on the microphone is where I go to get my fix.
Just let the lovin’ take a hold, ‘cause it will if you let it.
I’m funky, not a junky, but I know where to get it.
Oo-we girl, oo-we girl
There really ain’t no time to waste, really ain’t no time to hate.
Ain’t got no time to waste, time to hate.
Really ain’t time to make the time go away.
So mister DJ, don’t stop the music, I wanna know,
Are you feelin’ the same way too?
I wanna rock with you girl, oo-girl.
I’ve been thinking about afterlives a bit, lately. I don’t mean in the spiritual sense — though that may come into it as well — but more about how we remember after the fact.
I was thinking particularly about this because of the song Boss DJ by Sublime. I didn’t know the song until relatively recently. Really, I’d never paid much mind to the band at all until the last few weeks. The band’s success was a bit before my time, and I’m not sure how much it transcended its particular era.
The reasons the band has not transcended its particular era is what has made me think of afterlives. Most obviously, probably, is the fact that for not entirely clear reasons a particular music scene in California became a very big deal in the mid- to late- 90s. It was a mashup of reggae and ska punk and what was then known as “alternative” music. It has not been a particularly big deal since, though, which has tended to either complicate or compromise the legacy of bands who achieved success out of that scene.
More significantly for Sublime, though, is that the band has something of a difficult history. Literally, they released nine albums, a box set, and an assortment of EPs and demos. Of those nine, one was a live album, five were compilation albums, and only three were studio albums. Of those three, the last was the only one to be released on a major label. They had one No. 1 single. It was in 1996 and it was called What I Got. A rescue Dalmation featured more prominently in the video than any member of the band. And that was the last thing ever properly heard from Sublime. You see, their lead singer and guitarist Bradley Nowell died of a heroin overdose shortly before the band made their major label debut. The compilation albums and the box set all came after that.
By all accounts, their record label was on the fence about whether or not to release their album. I imagine they’re glad they did, though, as in the end it spent 122 weeks on the charts and was certified five times platinum. This was back before the age of Internet music, mind you, when people still bought albums.
This is where the idea of afterlives interests me, though. There’s no way to tell how or what Sublime would have done had Nowell not died how he did, when he did. One can’t really put too much stock in historical conjecture, because there are far too many variables of which to conceive. I’m not going to try to predict how their career might have gone, for good or ill. I think it would be a dick move to postulate that they would not have been nearly so successful without the timing of that tragedy, though I know that some (rather cynical) critics have put forth that theory. I think it would be equally foolish to predict they would have done incredibly well, though, which others have said. Their major label debut is a good album, but that’s not necessarily indicative of how good their subsequent albums would have been. History has demonstrated to us that more money and more access is not great for people with self-destructive and expensive habits like heroin addiction. Regardless of the genius of the artist, we all know that addiction ends in tears, both for their bodies and for their art.
The point, then, is not about historical conjecture, but about a legacy as it stands. That’s why I’m finding Boss DJ quite poignant. It’s not actually off this much-lauded major label debut, but from the album before that, called Robbin’ the Hood. It’s an acoustic number, and not all the lyrics make a lot of sense. The ones that do sometimes have that infuriating habit of reversing the sentence construction so that it rhymes but doesn’t sound like something anyone would say. And actually, in this case, it doesn’t even rhyme as well: “Sunday morning will come soon,” would rhyme better “soon will come” and it would make more sense.
Sorry, that’s not completely relevant. The point is, there’s a particular poignancy to the album, and to the song. A lot of it is about struggling with heroin addiction, and the whole thing is sadder when you realize that Nowell left behind a wife and a very young son. Regardless of what the band’s success might have been, to my mind its afterlife has to be the sadness and the dramatic irony of lines like, “I’m funky, not a junky, but I know where to get it,” as much as it can be about the music itself. He did know where to get it, and that killed him.