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.
Written 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: