Thommy Ford Reads

A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library

“Heroin” by The Velvet Underground

Track #31 on Thommy Ford’s Playlist


“Heroin” is track #7 on the album The Velvet Underground and Nico. Check it out from our Rock section (781.66 VEL).

In 1967 there was nothing in popular music that sounded quite like this. Sure, drug fueled psychedelic experimentation was common enough in music at the time, but “Heroin” is something else entirely. There’s the droning and jangling guitars only playing two chords. There’s Moe Tucker’s deceptively simple pounding on the toms—a tempo that builds and builds and breaks, then builds and builds again. There’s John Cale’s humming, then howling, then squealing, then screaming electric viola. There’s Lou Reed’s brash but fragile voice. And most importantly, Reed’s lyrics, which take drug use and abuse seriously.

That’s not to say the song moralizes. Reed’s candid depiction of heroin use is bleak and purposely ambiguous, not a celebration like much of the drug-themed music to come out of the sixties. “Heroin” is just dark stuff:

I have made the big decision
I’m gonna try to nullify my life
‘Cause when the blood begins to flow
When it shoots up the dropper’s neck
When I’m closing in on death
And you can’t help me now, you guys
Or all you sweet girls with all your sweet talk
You can all go take a walk
And I guess that I just don’t know
And I guess that I just don’t know

Surround those lyrics with the building tempo, the droning and the squealing, you get an uncomfortable, even scary piece of music. It’s one of those songs that might be a great experience, but never, ever a truly pleasant one. And that’s why, to me anyway, “Heroin” is the moment when rock became artistically mature. It wasn’t just experimental in the way The Beatles were experimental at the time, The VU sacrificed all apparent pop appeal in sound or lyrics in order to make a very unsettling statement through rock music. And to think that the VU were performing this song in essentially the same arrangement as early as 1965, three years before The White Album, it’s no wonder they’re often thought of as one rock’s most influential bands.

So stop by and check out The Velvet Underground and Nico, and don’t worry, there’s enough pop appeal elsewhere on the album to lighten the mood just a little. Plus, we’ve got Joe Harvard’s excellent book on the album from the equally excellent 33 1/3 series.

Review by Matthew

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This entry was posted on August 4, 2013 by in Music Review, Rock, Thommy Ford's Playlist.
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