14th Street runs perpendicular to the Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach. I grew up in a tall, beige house just a few blocks from the beach, nestled alongside others of the exact same build. My elementary, middle and high schools were located farther up the street, and though the road slightly bent, my life proceeded down a straight and narrow path.
I spent hours of my adolescence studying in a dimly lit room, procrastinating by watching the same “New Girl” episodes over and over again. Sometimes, I would make my way to Tower 17 and find the place between the inner and outer break where the waves didn’t crash, just rolled. As I floated on my back and stared at the cumulus clouds, I’d let the current carry me farther and farther away.
As I look back to those days, my memories are always accompanied by the sound of Sublime. My high school self held a certain infatuation with the band, but it began to border on obsession during my sophomore year. One day, a boy with half-red, half-blond hair in my AP Chemistry class placed his oversized headphones over my ears and played “Doin’ Time.” I feigned annoyance, but I fell hard.
Twenty minutes from Sublime’s birthplace of Long Beach, Huntington Beach swam in the spillover of third-wave ska. The band was mapped onto the very geography of my hometown: At every surf store, every cafe and every tourist attraction, the dull yellow sun with drooping eyelids was there to greet me.
But, at the same time, Sublime stood as the antithesis to the suburban bubble I had grown to detest. Pictures of orange groves and Disneyland rubbed right up against songs about having sex and getting high by the beach. The band was inseparable from the place I called home, but it also channeled a deep-seated disconnect from the values that dominated Orange County — the result was a palpable tension I embraced wholeheartedly.
As I wandered deeper and deeper into the sound, I came to recognize Sublime as the soundtrack to teenage resistance. Yet, its cover of “Scarlet Begonias” by the Grateful Dead felt like it was unequivocally mine. A heavy, reggae-infused beat sits uncomfortably beneath an aggressive sort of rap-sing. Bradley Nowell’s lyrical modifications make little sense, but they’re not supposed to. As I listened, each mounting tension felt like the perfect punch to the face of my Disneyfied existence.
In those days of unchecked teenage angst, I desperately longed to be the mysterious woman at the center of the song, the one who wore tight tie-dye dresses and listened to the blues. I wanted to be dangerous, yet unattainable — the object of the attention of someone like Nowell. Listening to “Scarlet Begonias” was about stepping outside of my sheltered existence and embracing this other sense of self. In the privacy of my room, I was refashioned anew, even if those changes never materialized in any meaningful way.
For me, Sublime was the excitement that wove its way into the eternal sameness. It was the promise of an alternative but parallel life where I was fun and wild and not always in my head. I had always felt stuck in a tug of war between who I was and who I wanted to be, and Sublime became the perfect channel through which I could express my ambivalence toward myself and my hometown.
My high school years came and went. The boy with the two-toned hair dropped out to pursue a career in music. Some of the relationships I treasured most have wilted and lost their crimson color. When I come home during breaks, I run into old friends on Main Street and at the mall. I’m two years removed from that world, but the discomfort always finds a way to come creeping back.
My relationship with Huntington Beach is not something I can entirely put into words. It is as messy as the music it embraces — as awkward as a ska cover of a Grateful Dead song. I’m always a bit embarrassed to admit that I listen to Sublime; I feel an obligation to explain an attachment I don’t completely understand.
Yet, no matter where I am — in my room, on the street, driving across the Bay Bridge with two people I’ve only just met — the sound of Sublime takes me back to those days in Huntington Beach, gently floating in the mid-channel as the water gently rises and falls beneath my head. I never know how far the current will take me, but perhaps there is beauty in the uncertainty.
The waves of ennui and doubt are always there. Sublime just taught me to roll with them.