Every now and again the world is gifted with a simple set of words that is tied to a simple melody that simply speaks with profound honesty. What has been sold is not strictly made of stone/just remember that it’s flesh and bone. At a length of over six minutes, Pawn Shop is the longest song on Sublime’s self-titled album, yet it, essentially, consists of just one musical motif and one set of lyrics. On an album that runs the gamut of punk rock, reggae, dub, and is packed in with more words (in multiple languages) than a really heady rap record, how does the longest song just repeat one riff and one refrain? Because it speaks the truth…and in the world we live in, the truth deserves repeating and, maybe, just a little extra time.
Bradley Nowell, leader of Sublime, was, by many accounts, a junkie. To people my age, he was the singer of a great band who OD’d before his band became popular. He and Kurt Cobain were the mythical dead rock stars: the John Bonham’s, the Jimi Hendrix’s. Brad, however, had a distinct difference from most other musicians – he borrowed from the music he loved and tweaked it to let anyone who would listen know exactly what was going on with him (in a way he probably never felt as comfortable talking about(just speculation here)). Pawn Shop is one of many songs Sublime recorded that were almost musical clones of lesser known songs with only the lyrics changed. Those lyrics were important though. Keeping the music that inspired the words was important as well. The emphasis was not on creating a song to be celebrated, he just wanted people to hear what he was going through.
Nowell thought he needed Heroin to survive. He would, as common folk lore attests to, need money to buy his medicine and pawn his guitars for quick cash. When his band/friends realized this, they would find out where he had been and scrape together cash to go buy his gear back. They weren’t supporting his habit. They were trying to help a friend at least keep his method of earning intact – no guitar = no music = no money. That lack of rock bottom, not being able to play because he had sold his guitar, may have let him keep pushing until he overdosed, missing out on watching the new album become an instant classic. He had sang about his habit before on Pool Shark, “I want more and more, one day I’m gonna lose the war.” Pawn Shop, however, strikes me as the real cry for help. It’s one thing to know, intellectually, what you’re doing will end badly. It’s another thing completely, to understand that what you do right now affects the people that matter to you, making them sit in the wake of your destruction, and have to run down to the pawn shop and buy your gear back. This song is as much a warning as it is an apology. It is brutally honest…with just one set of chords and one set of words.
The longest song means something. The song with the fewest words means something. Bradley Nowell was rote telling everyone who would listen exactly what his problems were. The end customer saw a great discount on some musical equipment but they weren’t buying musical equipment, they were buying his soul. He wanted people to understand that, often, your good deals, your luxuries, are at the expense of someone else’s weakness or someone else’s soul. Not saying that you shouldn’t take a good deal when you see it, just be cognizant that the actual world is actually much different than the way you perceive it through your own eyes.
I wish more music was as simple and honest as Pawn Shop. It took me over 600 words to sort of explain what Brad’s 23 words make perfectly clear. Musicians and artists: Be direct and honest, speak with your true voice, especially, when it makes you look ugly.