Heroin, Tied to the Mast

Different songs engage us in different ways, depending on our life experiences. Some songs look at simple, everyday experiences but present them in new ways that resonate with us even though we’ve never thought about them in those ways before. Other songs echo experiences we’ve had or corroborate conclusions we’ve drawn, reassuring and comforting us in a fraternal way. Finally, there are those songs that speak to the experiences we know await us, that instill us with fear, enliven us with anticipation, make us sad or giddy, and speak to us with other elements of expectation. These songs communicate the intensity of experiences that we’ve never had, and yet based on what we’ve read and heard about those experiences those songs nonetheless ring true. Even though we’ve not yet had these experiences, we’ve lived with the dread of or thrill for those experiences for many years of our lives. 

"Golden Brown" Stranglers picture sleeve 12"
Picture sleeve for 12″ single version of “Golden Brown” by The Stranglers

“Golden Brown” by The Stranglers conveys through words and music the experience of being on heroin. I’ve never taken heroin and never intend to, but I’ve read so many books about it, seen so many movies, heard so many songs, and have taken enough low dosage prescription opiates to get an idea. Unlike The Velvet Underground’s song, “Heroin”, which conveys all the violence, degeneration, darkness and desperation of the junkie, “Golden Brown” romanticizes the experience, using maritime imagery to portray the opiate as a calling from across the sea.

With its “texture like sun,” golden brown heroin embraces the user in a warm-blanket cruise across an ethereal ocean, to nirvana. For The Stranglers, heroin was vehicle, journey and destination, all in a single experience. There are no junkies in “Golden Brown” and no hassles trying to score. There is only the drug and the soul entering a blissful state. The title alone romanticizes the drug, and we are told that on golden brown there’s never a “need to fight” or a “frown”. All is peaceful and serene on golden brown, which takes one’s “might” away.

The user in on a voyage, and so is his heroin, gendered as a “she”, who is tied to a ship’s mast, like Odysseus. Like Odysseus, heroin is the captain of the ship, directing the voyage, and the user is here cast as the ship & crew, not wanting the captain getting carried away, wrecking the boat or going totally off course. The irony is that, in reality, the user’s will is is tied to the mast, his body the ship & crew, all lured towards rocky disaster by heroin’s mellifluous melody. The Stranglers so romanticize the drug that they cast it, rather than the user, as a victim that must be saved from external forces. The song ultimately feels like a dark lullaby, where the user’s might has been taken for the “night” so that he has no needs whatsoever (“never a frown”) as he sails to “distant lands”.  The listener is reminded of a Viking funeral, where the body is placed on a boat with all afterlife comforts stocked on the ship, and sent out to sea.

The lush arpeggiated organ that plays the song’s melody beautifully renders heroin’s warm, leavening, enveloping embrace. The minor chords convey the alone-ness of the experience, while the pumping organ sways back and forth like a ship on the ocean. The drums come in for the last verse signifying a kind of march or momentum that has picked up as heroin guides the ship off to the mythical west, where the sun sets. How beautiful to contrast golden brown’s “texture like sun” with its western destination, where the sun takes its diurnal leave.

The instrumental section in the middle features a lone guitar playing the user away on his final voyage, and that voyage is sung out to the song’s conclusion with a sort of scat singing, signaling, perhaps, the user’s loss of language, or the inability of language to further convey his experience. The song finishes with a rounding refrain of “never a frown”, and slowly fades out. The user departs without a frown. He is gone.

Golden Brown by The Stranglers
Golden brown texture like sun
Lays me down with my might she runs
Throughout the night
No need to fight
Never a frown with golden brown
Every time just like the last
On her ship tied to the mast
To distant lands
Takes both my hands
Never a frown with golden brown
Golden brown finer temptress
Through the ages she’s heading west
From far away
Stays for a day
Never a frown with golden brown
Never a frown
With golden brown
Never a frown
With golden brown
Songwriters: Brian Duffy / Dave Greenfield / Hugh Cornwell / Jean Jacques Burnel
Golden Brown lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group
Primitive Zippo
Doing high dives into the California cannabis industry, cannabis culture, cannabis-friendly music and anything else cannabis-related residing in the vast expanse of my turgid cranium.

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