The Great Songs: The Velvet Underground – Heroin

by Eric Melin on December 15, 2010

in Columns,The Great Songs

I usually don’t like long songs (so I thought), but writing this list, I’ve realized that I may be fooling myself. In The Great Songs, I’ve already written about Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” and Television’s “Marquee Moon” and now it’s time to add a seven-minute epic about heavy drug use.

velvet_underground_nico-back coverWritten by Lou Reed in 1964 and appearing on The Velvet Underground‘s 1967 debut self-titled record The Velvet Underground and Nico, “Heroin” actually attempts to approximate what it feels like to shoot heroin. Using only two chords, it starts with a pretty guitar and Reed’s hushed singing: “I don’t know just where I’m going/But I’m gonna try for the kingdom, if I can.”

Then Maureen Tucker‘s crazed, slightly off-time drumming starts to ramp up and Sterling Morrison‘s guitar chugs away: “‘Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man/When I put a spike into my vein/And I’ll tell ya, things aren’t quite the same/When I’m rushing on my run/And I feel just like Jesus’ son.”

John Cale‘s electric voila (yes, an electric viola) drones away, becoming more prominent and screechy as the song goes on. Its presence alone gives the song an otherworldy quality as Reed sings about the escape that his beloved drug provides. At the same time, though, he declares “It’ll be the death of me/It’s my wife and its my life.” Is its a cautionary song? That depends on how you look at it.

A couple more rounds of tempo changes, and Reed’s lyrics take on a more hallucinatory scope, as “all the dead bodies [are] piled up in mounds.” What I find so interesting about this tune, aside from the fact that it STILL sounds like nothing else out there, is that it is a more honest exploration of drug use than anything that was made during San Francisco’s drug-fueled Summer of Love. Was it perhaps a harbinger of things to come?

Aside from all the social context, “Heroin” remains a timeless track. It sounds great today, 43 years later, and it will sound great in another 40 years.

The Great Songs series so far:

The Great Songs: Big Star – Thirteen

The Great Songs: The Kinks – Waterloo Sunset

The Great Songs: The Jayhawks – Blue

The Great Songs: Pavement – Summer Babe

The Great Songs: The Zombies – Care of Cell 44

The Great Songs: The O’Jays – Back Stabbers

The Great Songs: Queen & David Bowie – Under Pressure

The Great Songs: George Jones – He Stopped Loving Her Today

The Great Songs: Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart

The Great Songs: KISS – Deuce

The Great Songs: The Flying Burrito Brothers – Hot Burrito #1

The Great Songs: The Flaming Lips – Do You Realize??

The Great Songs: Pink Floyd – Astronomy Domine

The Great Songs: The Beach Boys – Surf’s Up

The Great Songs: Marvin Gaye – Let’s Get it On

The Great Songs: Slayer – Angel of Death

The Great Songs: Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Beyond Belief

The Great Songs: The Replacements – Unsatisfied

The Great Songs: Cheap Trick – Surrender

The Great Songs: Guided by Voices – Motor Away

The Great Songs: The Louvin Brothers – Knoxville Girl

The Great Songs: Badfinger – Baby Blue

The Great Songs: Ray Charles – That Lucky Old Sun

The Great Songs: Television – Marquee Moon

The Great Songs: Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Cortez the Killer

The Great Songs: David Bowie – Life On Mars?

The Great Songs: Thin Lizzy – The Cowboy Song

The Great Songs: The Delfonics – Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)

The Great Songs: The Beatles – She Said She Said

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers and regular critic for KCTV5. He’s a member of the BFCA, VP of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also the current 2013 Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Phil Fava December 15, 2010 at 10:32 am

One of my favorites.

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2 jack duhamel December 22, 2010 at 12:52 pm

right on

- Jack Duhamel

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