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The Meaning of Sublime’s “Pawn Shop”

“Pawn Shop” by Sublime is a fan-favorite track off their 1996 self-titled album, famously released following the death of frontman and guitarist Bradley Nowell.

While the popularity of “Pawn Shop” may have been overshadowed by the album’s numerous other hits, it remains one of the band’s most iconic songs, and one that seems to capture the essence of Sublime quite well.

The track infuses the band’s signature mix of reggae, ska, and punk into a haunting narrative about the struggles of life and society’s underbelly. This, of course, is told through the lens of a pawn shop.

“Pawn Shop” Origins

As Sublime were apt to do, the bass-driven arrangement for “Pawn Shop” is based off a classic reggae song called “War Deh Round A John Shop” by the Wailing Souls, released in 1984.

Sublime’s version preserves the core reggae rhythm but elevates the tempo, adding layers of complexity that appeal to a broader audience.

Wailing Souls – “War Deh Round A John Shop” (1984)

It is also widely-known that Bradley Nowell struggled with drug addiction that ended up taking his life. There are stories of him pawning his guitar to pay for drugs, only to have the band’s producer and friend MichaelĀ “Miguel” Happoldt go and buy it back so they could play shows.

So, I guess you could say that Nowell had a certain affinity for pawn shops, which helped to inspire his writing of this song.

“Pawn Shop” Lyrics Meaning

Lyrically, “Pawn Shop” explores the natural themes of desperation that often come up when discussing a pawn shop, as they are often places where people go when they are in a pinch. They are also places where one can find some very interesting things for sale, such as guitars owned by famous musicians, for instance.

Nowell turns this into a commentary on society, even weaving in larger themes that suggest the pawn shop may also be a metaphor for prostitution, or any exploitative transactional relationship.

Let’s dive in, starting with the first verse:

Down there at the pawn shop, it’s the way-only way to shop
Down there at the pawn shop, if it’s not in stone
Down there at the pawn shop, it no way, no way to shop
Down there at the pawn shop

First verse to “Pawn Shop” by Sublime.

On the surface, this line describes the pawn shop as the go-to place for shopping. Yet, the “only way” hints at the absence of alternatives, signifying desperation or compulsion.

What has been told
Albino made of stone
Just remember that it’s flesh and bone

Pre-chorus to “Pawn Shop” by Sublime.

Essentially, Nowell is saying that things that are said to be an “Albino made of stone” may not actually be as inhuman as it seems.

This could be related to the items that are being pawned, and their connection to their owners. It could also be a reference to a person who is pale and lacking in emotions, as one might describe a sex worker, but human nonetheless.

Moreover, the lyric could also be an existential comment on the materialistic focus in society. Nowell may be reminding us to look beyond the material possessions and remember the humanity behind the objects or people involved.

An instrumental break is followed by the chorus, which just relishes in the space that is a pawn shop:

So, why I’m down here at the pawn shop
Down here at the pawn shop
Down here at the pawn shop
Down here at the pawn shop

Chorus to “Pawn Shop” by Sublime.

The post-chorus brings back the idea presented earlier, about how things for sale at a pawn shop may not be as they seem:

What has been sold
Not strictly made of stone
Just remember that it’s flesh and bone
And I have heard
Light like a bird, yeah
But just remember that it’s flesh and bone

Post-chorus to “Pawn Shop” by Sublime.

Here, he directly states that things that are described as “made of stone”, meaning cold and lifeless, may are actually living entities.

Again, this takes the song outside the doors of the pawn shop and out into the surrounding streets. It encourages listeners to consider the unique perspective of all people they come across, even those who have found themselves in unfortunate positions.

Nowell claims that he has heard good things about this particular item, that it’s “light like a bird”. This brings to mind a feeling of being high and weightless, a feel-good freedom. My mind goes to this being a reference to drug addiction.

The chorus hits again, followed by an instrumental section that includes one of the best Bradley Nowell guitar and instrumental sections in the Sublime discography, complete with scatting from Brad.

Then, we reach another chorus, this time with lyrics that become difficult to decipher. Lyrics in the brackets are my best guesses (let me know in the comments if you think he says something else):

Down here at the pawn shop, it’s a [different] way to shop
Down here at the pawn shop, it’s an [episode]
Down here at the pawn shop, it’s an [if you never] shop
Down here at the pawn shop

Chorus to “Pawn Shop” by Sublime.

This chorus is interesting, and the lyrics being so ambiguous leaves room for a lot of different interpretations. Nowell sounds like he’s blending multiple words together, and even perhaps throwing in a bit of Spanish.

If we want to dig deeper, one could guess that these lyrics are intentionally obtuse, lending itself to the murky nature of pawn shops and the seedy side of town in general.

Finally, another post-chorus and chorus combo comes to close out the song, and it just fades into a groove.

Watch the music video for “Pawn Shop” by Sublime below. The Pix3lface-created video was released in 2021 for the 25th anniversary of Sublime.

Sublime – “Pawn Shop” (Video)