Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series, where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore psychedelic tunes from the 60’s and 70’s. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!
The Velvet Underground & Nico, Heroin
While there are many alternative interpretations of this song, it seems to be the case that Velvet Underground leader Lou Reed was merely describing the effects of the drug, while neither condemning it nor condoning it. It might have been done merely for shock value, or because Reed liked gritty subjects, or as a dark poem of addiction; the beauty of this song is that it works on all of these levels, and many more, at the same time. In many of his songs, we have cases where Lou Reed kept the focus on providing an objective description of the topic without taking a moral stance on the matter.
For the record, Reed spoke of the meaning of some of his songs in a 1971 interview with Creem magazine: “I meant those songs to sort of exorcise the darkness, or the self-destructive element in me, and hoped other people would take them the same way. But when I saw how people were responding to them, it was disturbing. Because, like, people would come up and say, ‘I shot up to ‘Heroin,’ things like that. For a while, I was even thinking that some of my songs might have contributed formatively to the consciousness of all these addictions and things going down with the kids today. But I don’t think that anymore; it’s really too awful a thing to consider.”
Lou Reed wrote “Heroin” while attending Syracuse University – he would have been close to the age of 18. During his attendance, he also played guitar with several bar bands and hosted his own radio show on campus, in which he featured the works of various jazz and R&B legends. According to The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side, Reed would amuse himself by using his electric guitar to blast screeches at the marching ROTC cadets on the green outside his dorm window, an act that impressed his new friend Sterling Morrison.
Also according to the above-mentioned biography, an original acetate recording of The Velvet Underground & Nico, including this song, was discovered at a yard sale in 2006. One Warren Hill, street-shopping along Chelsea Street in New York City, spotted the find. It was later verified to be the recording made at their first session at Scepter Studios under producer Norman Dolph. Hill bought the acetate for 75 cents and later sold it on eBay for $25,000.
The unique screeching, droning viola sound in this and other early Velvet Underground songs was produced by bassist John Cale, a classically trained violist, playing an electric viola with three guitar strings, a cello bow and plenty of feedback. This preceded The Creation, who were the first to play a guitar with a cello bow in 1966. Few other bands exploited feedback and noise to the same degree as the Velvet Underground until the noise-rock scene developed in the 1980s.
“To this day I could kill the rest of the band,” Tucker told Prism Films while discussing “Heroin.” She said it with a smile.
Tucker explained that, though most people don’t notice, her drums stop in the middle of the song – it happens around the 5:20 mark. That’s because Tucker couldn’t hear anything once the song picked up and got loud. So Tucker stopped, assuming the rest of the band would do the same to ask her what was wrong. No one else stopped, though, and Tucker was forced to simply jump back in mid-track. “Having that on the record just kills me,” she said.The line, “And I feel just like Jesus’ son” provided the title for Denis Johnson’s short story collection Jesus’ Son, which was made into a movie in 1999.
The song appears in the Oliver Stone movie The Doors.
Weezer’s Brian Bell and Patrick Wilson covered this when they portrayed Lou Reed and John Cale, respectively, in the Edie Sedgwick biopic Factory Girl(2006).
Before forming The Pretenders, Chrissie Hynde was a music journalist, and one of her subjects was The Velvet Underground. Here’s what she wrote about this song as part of a review for their 1969 Live album:
“‘Heroin’, long before it was the hip thing to yell out at a Reed gig, used to shake up the audience every time. I mean here you are, some cheerleader with your jock boyfriend, straying into some daring night club behind your parents’ backs, and this guy’s singing ‘When the blood shoots up the dropper’s neck and I’m coasting in on death,’ and you’re staring into your cherry coke thinking ‘Omigod!’
What can I say, you having probably heard this song 200 times anyway. The nail file on the teeth ending – it’s all here.”