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.”

Psychedelic Lunch

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 Circa 1967

The Velvet Underground & Nico, Venus in Furs is inspired by the novella of the same title, written and published by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch in 1870. It tells the story of a man who wishes to be dominated and treated as a slave by the woman he loves. We get the word “masochism” from Sacher-Masoch’s last name, and the entire practice of dominance and submission from this and the works of Marquis de Sade, a male author who wrote from the opposite position of dominating women and treating them as slaves.

Today’s modern lifestyle knows this song’s subject as “BDSM.” That’s a combined acronym: “B&D” for “Bondage and Discipline,” “D&S” for “Dominance and Submission,” and “S&M” for “Sadism and Masochism.” That last part was originally written “sado-masochism,” and in the 1960s was regarded as a mental illness and a deviant behavior, to be treated with electro-shock therapy and abhorred by society.

Even today in the United States, similar to the outdated laws against homosexuality, there are various state laws against practicing any BDSM-associated activity. That is, even using a whip or handcuffs to play with your spouse (even with their full consent!) can land you in jail, or in other states merely selling such paraphernalia (such as a frat paddle or nipple clamps) is a heavy offense. This stems from the original association with prostitution – it was thought at the time that no one would be willing to participate in gratifying such “perverted” desires without being paid for it. For this reason, it became yet another consenting-adult, victimless-crime prosecuted by law and thus subsequently embraced by the counter-culture, which explains why it was a popular theme for both underground arthouses and underground bands.

So, with this song and the band’s name, was Lou Reed kinky? Probably not, since, as given in The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side, he called the band’s namesake book The Velvet Underground “the funniest dirty book he’d ever read.” However, it was the association of kink with the sexual revolution and the counter-culture lifestyle that made it an indispensable part of shocking the sensibilities of 1960s audiences.

In the book Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, by Punk Magazine co-founder Roderick Edward “Legs” McNeil, an interview with Exploding Plastic Inevitable dancer Ronnie Cutrone has this to say about this song’s subject: “S&M sex fascinated me even though I knew nothing about it. I had a natural curiosity, so I asked Lou ‘What’s Venus In Furs about?’ Lou said, ‘Ah, you know, it’s some trash novel.’ I said ‘Where can you get a copy?’ Lou said, ‘Ah yeah, just down the block there’s a store.’ So I went and bought the book. I was still in high school, so I’d go to class with my Venus In Furs and Story of O and Justine, and sit there reading this stuff.”

The album cover was painted by Andy Warhol.

Perhaps as a result of the influence of this song, punk rock and the BDSM lifestyle have been intertwined ever since. Many punk bands have made alternative sexual practices part of their image or made songs about kink, and even Goth rock, which carries over some influence from punk, has made BDSM elements, such as wearing leather collars, part of its culture.

Lest we think that “Venus In Furs” broke new ground here, legendary singing satirist Tom Lehrer sang “The Masochism Tango” on his 1959 album An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer. And for a final hit of surrealism, check out this Dunlop tire commercial using Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs”, created by London director Tony Kaye. Wow.

Psychedelic Lunch

Written By Braddon S. Williams

The Velvet Underground & Nico

Sometimes great art takes awhile to be recognized. Such is the case with The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967), the debut album from the notorious New York City band The Velvet Underground.

Initially, the album went virtually undetected in the marketplace, selling around 30,000 copies. Musician Brian Eno was quoted as saying that everyone who bought that album in the beginning all started their own bands.

This created a ripple effect, and eventually The Velvet Underground & Nico accumulated glowing reviews from respected rock critics and wound up on lists such as The Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time (it placed 13th). It was also added to the 2006 National Recording Registry by the Library Of Congress. Not bad for a little record that flew in the face of the Summer Of Love with its dark, street level subject matter; themes of drug addiction, prostitution, sadomasochism, and sexual deviancy.

For every action there is an opposite and equal reaction, and The Velvet Underground were apparently the reaction to the hippie movement.

Led by Lou Reed and John Cale, this iterary masterpiece of a debut included the songs Heroin, I’m Waiting For The Man, Venus In Furs, Femme Fatale, The Black Angel’s Death Song, All Tomorrow’s Parties, and Run Run Run.

Oh yes, Nico only sang lead vocals on 3 of the songs, but she had a pretty hypnotic sounding voice that fit right in with what was going on.

Andy Warhol himself painted the iconic banana cover art, and as a guy who has been known to wear a banana suit from time to time, you know that scored major approval points from me! Bottom line is this: go out and get a copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico and start a band!


Influences And Recollections of a Musical Mind