The Meaning of Sublime’s “Badfish”

Bradley Nowell live with Sublime in 1994.

One of Sublime’s most beloved songs is “Badfish”, track six off their debut studio album 40oz. To Freedom, and the namesake for the most popular Sublime tribute band around. The song sounds on the surface like a laid-back summertime party tune, but the meaning of “Badfish” is a tad darker than the good vibes conjured by the musical arrangement.

The word “Badfish” is slang for a person who is into hard drugs (specifically heroin) or heavy drinking, and rather than keeping their bad habits to themselves, prefer to influence those around them to join in their dirty vices.

Listening to the lyrics, it’s clear that “Badfish” is about a shady character such as this: “But I’m a parasite,” Bradley sings in the first verse. “Creep and crawl, I step into the night.”

From there we follow our protagonist around a party, where he hopes the night will never end as he goes around looking for more people like him. “Are you a badfish too?”, Bradley sings.

Although he seems to be having a good time, the undercurrent is that he’s heavily under the influence, numbed-out and cutting loose while feeling the pull of temptation from the substances. What we’re seeing here is a broke addict, crashing a party and trying to bum drugs and alcohol off others, while simultaneously trying to convince them that it’s cool to do drugs.

Perhaps the truth is that this person hopes to get their act together, but can’t find their way out from the grips of addiction:

Ain’t got no quarrels with God
Ain’t got no time to grow old
Lord knows I’m weak
Won’t somebody get me off of this reef?

Lyrics from “Badfish” by Sublime

Here, Bradley’s words display some recognition of the narrator’s condition, and even a call for help. While “reef” is more commonly used slang for weed, Bradley seems to use the word as a substitute for any drug of choice, like a metaphor for being stranded on a reef and waiting for a rescue.

As we know, Sublime’s Bradley Nowell died of a heroin and cocaine overdose just a few short years after the release of “Badfish”. Perhaps the song was a cry for help, in a way, or at the very least a sign that Bradley recognized the problems caused by the habits in his life, but couldn’t find the strength within himself to break them.

Watch the music video for “Badfish” by Sublime below.

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