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Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 248
Tues. Nov. 05, 2013

“Heroin”
Lou Reed & The Velvet Underground

1967

“♫ I
guess
I just
don’t
know
♫”

I remember the first time I actually tasted the sound and voice of Lou Reed’s “Heroin.” Like many young Doors fans in the spring of 1991, it was in the movie theater while watching Oliver Stone’s film The Doors. It was the scene when The Lizard King goes to the Factory in NYC to visit Andy Warhol. There was something about the way Oliver Stone had his cinematographer Robert Richardson film that floating scene that actually made the audience in the theater feel like you were high. It that moment as Morrison wandered through the glorious tripped out carnival world of Warhol’s Factory, the soundtrack of The Velvet’s brought Lou Reed’s vivid “Heroin” lyrics to life on the big screen. More than just a song about getting high, The Velvets song made me feel like I wanted to know so much more. Reed’s lyrics opened my eyes to new sounds and sparked a life altering creative life change. “Heroin” is a cut that still inspires me hit play on his song to this and every day.

“Heroin” was more than just a song about getting high. Lou Reed even said as much in Victor Bockris’ Transformer, “At the time I wrote ‘Heroin,’ I felt like a very rather negative, strung-out, violent, aggressive person. I meant those songs to sort of exorcize the darkness, or the self-destructive element in me, and hope that other people would take them the same way. ‘Heroin’ is very close to the feeling you get from smack. It starts on a certain level, it’s deceptive. You think you’re enjoying it. But by the time it hits you, it’s too late. You don’t have any choice. It comes at you harder and faster and keeps on coming. The song is everything that the real thing is doing to you.

Reed’s song was more than just about injecting the drug into your veins, to me; Lou made ‘the real thing’ from his drug sound like a literal heroine. It felt like the intoxication notice of Lou’s mythical flame was actually inside your veins, taking over very aspect of your mind, body and soul. It was more than waiting to get high but it was as if Reed was bringing to life the enraptured ecstasy of falling in love with a person, place, a drug, or a fling. Lou opened the doors of my closed off sanitized virgin vanilla lifestyle and wanting to experience more of a life that was reflecting creatively, and not literally, inside Reed’s inspirational lyrics.

But I wasn’t the first and for this fact, according to Nigel Williamson and his book White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day by Day, Reed and The Velvet’s experienced lots of backlash for releasing “Heroin” on their 1967 debut album as he wrote, “Over the years, Reed and the Velvets will weather their share of criticism for their support of sensationalizing and glorifying or even advocating the use of the drug. But in presenting his largely objective account of heroin in such a poetic fashion, he might perhaps make the prospect of using the drug more attractive than many find comfortable. (“It wasn’t pro or con,” Reed later tells the 1992 BBC documentary Curious, “It was just talking about heroin, from the point of view of someone taking it.”)” I won’t deny that Lou’s song sparked in an interest in wanting to experiment with mind altering substances but Oliver Stone’s The Doors movie and Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy tripped out drug fantasies were more influentially inspiring a need to experience drugs on that same illuminating level.

Reed defending his poetic license of using “Heroin” as personified fodder for his very popular song with The Velvets to Q Magazine, as quoted in Joe Harvard’s splendid 33 1/3 tome on The Velvet Underground & Nic0, “I was really fucked up. And that’s all there is to it. It’s like I really encouraged it. I did a lot of things that were really stupid and I don’t know how they could sit and listen seriously to that stuff. […] It was such a big deal, a song called “Heroin” being on an album and I thought that was really stupid. I mean, they had it movies in the ‘40s—The Man with the Golden Arm, for Christ sakes. So what was the big deal? People were offended because we did a song called “Heroin” but there’s plenty of stuff about that in literature and no one gives a shit but its rock and roll so we must be pushing drugs or something. I thought after all that stuff about “Heroin,” well…If you find that shocking, take a look at this. It was a stupid, childish attitude I had but, you know, as long as they were going that way I thought, “Fuck it, I’ll give it a little push that way, a little street theater.” Getting involved in all that was like going along with it, pandering to it. I don’t think it brought out the most attractive features in me.

Lou’s Velvet Underground bandmates were quick to defend Reed’s “Heroin” song like guitarist Sterling Morrison when he said in Victor Bockris and Gerald Malanga’s book Up-tight: The Velvet Underground Story, ““Heroin” is a beautiful song too, possibly Reed’s greatest and a truthful one. It’s easy to rationalize about a song you like, but it should be pointed out that when Reed sings he’s only glamorizing heroin for people who want to die. The real damage, particularly in New York, has been done through the cult of personality. Rock fans have taken heroin thinking Lou took heroin, forgetting that the character in the song wasn’t necessarily Lou Reed.” Lou and Morrison’s band mate drummer Maureen Tucker, the straightest-edge of all the members of The Velvets also stood up for Lou in Harvard’s 33 1/3 book when she said, “It started as a sort of theater which the audience took to heart. Because we sang “Heroin” people assumed we were junkies; because we played “Venus in Furs” they thought we beat each other. There were no smack heads in [The Velvet Underground].”

All of this negativity towards Lou’s song would all be for not if Reed hadn’t composed the literal lyrical equivalent to William Burroughs’ Junky on wax. Yes, “Heroin” the song is that good, in the literary and poetic sense or else would we still be talking about this mind altering song over forty-five years since its original release on The Velvet Underground and Nico in 1967. It’s not like Reed was the one who created the drug and used his song to make profits from the sale of “Heroin.” Lou was using his poetic license to thrill and the act of being enthralled with the idea of losing yourself inside of the moment whether it is with a drug or a person. If Reed hadn’t had been so successful, all of this criticism and conjecture about his song story wouldn’t exist. But it does, “Heroin” the song is better than the act of doing the drug as Joe Harvard wrote in his 33/13 book on The Velvet Underground and Nico, “In no way is [Lou Reed’s song] meant as an endorsement of heroin as a means of spiritual growth! I would point out that transcendence isn’t everything; if you think being junkie is romantic, just wait until heroin has you “transcending” the ability to keep a job, maintain a relationship or control your bowels, among other wicked spiritual stuff.


But Reed’s “Heroin” is powerful stuff because Lou does evoke a very beautiful sense of transcendence. And that’s what we look for great art in books, music and movies to do for us, to take us away from our own mundane existence. And what better way to inject some excitement in your life than to inhale a glimpse of Reed’s mind-altering song. Good luck trying to relive that elation in your next hit of the drug because you’ll need more and more of the substance to get you there. That’s why music is the only thing that keeps me high these days. And Reed’s “Heroin” is proof of this because, this Velvet Underground cut get’s better and better with each listen; this makes Lou’s song far better than the real thing because the euphoria you experience from listening to Reed’s lyrics, you can recapture by simple dropping the needle on your vinyl spinning the uplifting sounds of “Heroin” over and over again.

When I listen to the opening strands of “Heroin” it’s like I’m like I’m that naïve twenty-two year old in that movie theater in San Antonio watching Oliver Stone’s The Doors and experiencing the mind-altering sounds of Lou Reed’s music for the first time to my young-at-heart virgin-like ears.

More than just a song about getting high, Reed’s song inspired one of my first college poems as a university freshman where I personified “Heroin” as a woman that I craved even more than that illicit street drug. This Velvets song inspired me to open my mind to new forms of art, literature and music that went deeper than your average disposable pop culture flavor of the minute. Reed’s song opened me up to William Burroughs which introduced me to The Beats and Allan Ginsberg…all of this because I heard Lou’s song in The Doors movie. Some people just ignored the tripped out scene with “Heroin,” Lou’s song sparked me into a life-altering journey of me becoming a poet searching for meaning on the page like Reed did in rhythms and lyrics of “Heroin.” I may have never tried the junk but my mind will eternally be altered by experiencing the glorious effects, while inhaling the inspirational hit sounds of Lou Reed’s “Heroin”.

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