The first time I heard Sublime was 18 years ago. It’s late fall and Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX for the original PlayStation had just been released. Like most 11-year-old boys, I’m obsessed with both video games and all things extreme sports. From the first time What I Got came across the videogames soundtrack, I was hooked.
Drugs and Rock & Roll go together like Peanut Butter & Jelly and it will always be that way. Substances have tragically taken the lives of numerous musicians before they had the chance to reach their full potential. This has happened so frequently that at some point we created the 27 Club comprised of prominent musicians who passed at the age of 27. Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Amy Winehouse are all members. Had Bradley Nowell passed away a year earlier he would no doubt be included among this infamous group.
Given that I grew up idolizing Sublime when Michigan State University put on a screening of “The Long Way Back: The Story of Todd ‘Z-Man’ Zalkins.” Hosted by MSU’s Collegiate Recovery Community (CRC) I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to attend. While I attended the screening because of my love for the band, I’m grateful to say I left with so much more.
In this inspirational and emotionally charged documentary, Todd Zalkins did more than satisfy the Sublime fix that got me in the door. Z-Man perfectly blends the dark side of drugs in rock & roll with his personal struggles overcoming addiction. The result is a must-see for any Sublime fan as well as people impacted by addiction.
Punk rock was king during the early 90s in Long Beach CA and no band embodied that more than Sublime. Todd Zalkins was childhood friends with Sublimes Eric Wilson, Bud Gaugh, and Bradley Nowell, “I lived just about five houses away from Eric as a young boy and was one of the first people Bud met at Rogers Middle School,” Zalkins says. “We all grew up together.” In 1990 Todd took his first Vicodin marking the starting point to his struggle with opioids. Looking back he recognizes his brain was wired differently and he was instantly hooked. Some might recognize Z-Man from the Date Rape music video. The 1992 song became Sublime’s first large-scale success when it found regular airtime on KROC, Z-Man plays the role of the guy Ron Jeremy has his way with in prison.
In 1995 Sublime was on the verge of reaching major commercial success. Brads son Jakob was born that year and the band went on the first-ever Warped Tour although they were asked to leave because Brads dalmatian Lou kept biting attendees. The next year, just as the pieces were falling into place for the band’s new album and nationwide success, Bradley Nowell died of an overdose. Brad called Todd that night but he was burnt out. He recognizes and doesn’t blame himself, nonetheless, he “beat the shit out of himself for a lot of years.”
With Brads passing Todd, six years into his addiction, couldn’t handle the grief and slowly began to unravel. He lived a double life: by day an insurance salesman with a successful firm and by night partying it up with his band the Doggy Dogs. Imagine your insurance agent giving out cocaine like candy, this was Todd. The business ran successfully a while until it didn’t. After being on painkillers for nine or ten years there was a shift, the drugs started taking more than they would give. Todd began schmoozing his doctor’s receptionists in order to get early refills on prescriptions. At the height of his illness Todd was taking the equivalent to 100 Vicodin a day, by his estimate, his monthly intake of substances carried a street value of $23,000.
True to the film’s title, “The Long Way Back” is a story of overcoming adversity. In February 2007 Todd checked into rehab for the third time. He’s been sober ever since and is now an addiction specialist, private counselor, interventionist, and public speaker as well as a published author and with this documentaries release of an award-winning filmmaker. It’s incredible how the universe, a higher power, places exactly what you need sometimes in life. There’s more to this documentaries story of redemption as Todd is able to help Jakob Nowell, Brads son, through his own addiction. As a magnificent tale into the marriage between drugs and rock & roll, how tragedy can catalyze the rise and demise of drug use, and the long way back from addiction to redemption “The Story of Todd ‘Z-Man’ Zalkins” was the best depiction into the road I chose to travel in life that I have ever seen.