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"Heroin" consists of two chords. Db and Gb. That's it. Melodically? Well, there actually isn't a melody. The song is remarkable in how fully it breaks with pop convention. It doesn't have any obvious pop precedents, or any real conventional use of anything.
Of course, the gaps left open in the song by its lack of a standard pop structure, chord progressions, or melody, gives the Velvet Underground the room to try something new and establish their own precedents in experimental music. Where Lou Reed refuses to sing, he sing-speaks, and where the song structure remains the same for seven entire minutes, the band is able to experiment with dynamics and tempo, seemingly making the music itself mirror the highs and lows of heroin use.
The tempo and the dynamics—or the volume level—of the song track Reed's lyrics that make it sound almost as if we're listening to the internal soundtrack of a heroin bender in real time.
When Reed sings "When I put a spike into my vein," for example, Moe Tucker's drumbeat doubles in speed and the guitars begin strumming rather than plucking the chords. Tucker's rhythm, as simple as it is, sounds like a heartbeat, speeding up with the injection of the drug and then coming down when Reed sings, "Well I guess that I just don't know."
Meanwhile, John Cale plays one steady note for nearly the entire duration of the song. This is what is called a "drone." It's exactly what it sounds like, a sustained note that lasts basically forever. Cale's use of the drone in "Heroin" was influential in bringing the drone to rock (or "post-rock," rather). The drone rises in volume with the rest of the instruments during the song's "highs" but only gently, like the ebb and flow of a nice calm breeze. The drone gives the song a surreal kind of half-conscious peace. The feeling of stability that Cale's drone gives to the song makes the atonal collapse that defines the end of the song all the more powerful.
The two-minute screeching of Cale's viola might be the real "high" of the user, but that doesn't change how utterly unpleasant it is to listen to. Many have called "Heroin" a decadent song about drug use, but there's nothing decadent about the feeling of disintegration that the viola creates in the song's last minutes.
The viola becomes a representative of self-destruction; this is, in short, the miserable sound of addiction.
At the time it was released in 1966, The Velvet Underground & Nico was noted for dealing with the issue of drugs more directly than anything else out there. The tracks "I'm Waiting for the Man" and "Heroin" were about overtly about drugs, and several other songs on the album addressed the subject more obliquely.
"Heroin" remains the album's best-known song, and perhaps one of rock's most famous drug songs of all time. The Velvet Underground got plenty of bad press for the lyrics, with lines like "Heroin, it's my wife and it's my life" and "it makes me feel like I'm a man when I put a spike into my vein" causing many to hear the song as a simple glorification of drug use.
But songwriter Lou Reed has defended his words, saying that he had only the intention of giving an "accurate reflection" of the drug subculture of New York, showing both its allure and, just as starkly, its consequences. (And really, who wants heroin to be his wife and his life?) Nevertheless, listeners and the media personalities who are so inclined to judge these things have at times labeled the song a decadent endorsement of heroin use. Apocryphal tales of users overdosing while "Heroin" is playing on their record players are widespread. The song has become known as must-have for heroin users all over.
The irony, for those who would hear "Heroin" as a pro-heroin anthem, is that the lyrics are really, really bleak. Lou Reed's words in the song are those of a person who is nihilistic, unstable, and borderline incoherent. And worst of all, none of this seems to bother him much.
Reed bounces back and forth between four different themes in the course of the song. First, there are times when the focus is seemingly on celebrating heroin use, as in, "'Cause it makes me feel like I'm a man when I put a spike into my vein."
Second, and more frequently, Reed seems depressingly and problematically nihilistic about his heroin use. The drug is equated with nullifying his very life, "be[ing] the death of me." And he seems to enjoy his own sense of meaninglessness. "Then thank God that I'm as good as dead / Then thank God that I'm not aware / And thank God that I just don't care," he sings.
The third theme is escape. Heroin is known to give users a sense of relaxation and euphoria. Euphoria is a rare, almost non-existent feeling in everyday life. Relaxation, too, is fleeting. Perhaps self-destruction, through drug use, is a means of escape. Reed sings, "I wish that I was born a thousand years ago...that I'd sail the darkened seas... Away from the big city," creating an elaborate fantasy that celebrates an isolated and peaceful life. Where these fantasy lands are longed for, Reed makes the real world into a sort of antagonist. The town he's living in, New York CIty, is filled with "evil"—perhaps the heroin itself—and is a place "where a man cannot be free." The "jim-jims," the "politicians makin' crazy sounds," "everybody puttin' everybody else down," and the Vietnam War are all negative forces that the lyrics invoke to justify the need to escape. Perhaps the strife of day-to-day life is the cause of heroin use, and perhaps the heroin use is, in turn, the cause of much of that day-to-day strife. So, let's all just pretend to sail away.
But then, nothing is totally clear, and that's the song's fourth and final theme, stated clearly in the repeated refrain, "I guess that I just don't know," which ends all but one of the stanzas. It could be that Reed is conveying his lack of interest in anything through the refrain, but something darker might be at play. Each stanza sort of rises in action, just as the music does. The last stanza, for example, begins rather plainly, and then gets this vigorous sense of energy through Lou Reed's use of repetition. The word "blood" is repeated in two consecutive lines, and the following three lines are all variations of "thank God that I'm..."
It's just like when someone excitedly tells you a story; it ends up being a bunch of "and thens" thrown together. But at the end of this stanza, as with the others, whatever Reed had to say gets cut off by, "I guess I just don't know." At times, he seems toe be just starting to form a thought when the refrain disrupts the grammar of the sentence. These incomplete thoughts signal perhaps the most negative lyrical aspect of the song. The speaker seems incapable of conveying what he is attempting to say.
Jim Morrison of the Doors said—before he died of heroin use—that drugs are a gamble with your mind. Jimi Hendrix—who choked to death on his own vomit after taking too many sleeping pills—said that the thing he missed most after using drugs was his mind. The broken sentences that end Reed's stanzas here hint at the danger of following Morrison and Hendrix down that tragic path.