Part of what made the Velvet Underground so special is that they were unlike anything that came before them. Nowadays, it is harder to break new ground because everything has happened already. The reason the Beatles were so big is no one could compare them to anything prior, thus there was limitless potential. Velvet Underground was similar. They created a sound so unique, part-protopunk, part rock and roll that there was simply no predecessor. The Velvet Underground’s debut LP was titled The Velvet Underground and Nico, released in March of 1967 by Verve Records with Andy Warhol producing. Largely ignored and a commercial disappointment, this album is finally beginning to get the recognition it deserves. I can think of no other album that truly illustrates the versatility of a band better and Lou Reed’s lyrics had the courage to broach subjects that hadn’t been brought up in music yet and to this day haven’t been rehashed to the extent that Reed did it.
The above track is entitled “Heroin,” undoubtedly my favorite song not only on this album but of all time. This, as the name suggests, tackles a sensitive subject. The way Reed goes about is tremendous though and it transcends more than just heroin. The pace is fantastic, the foreboding, slow beginning transitioning into the frenetic upswing suddenly, building up steam and emotion only to slow again. The lyrics cover the sheer all-encompassing brutality of drugs, “Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life.” They document how he used drugs as an escape or an outlet and how once he gets high he is able to ignore the greater problems going on in the world. More importantly this song is about more than drugs. It’s about mood swings, bipolar, depression, about from being on top of the world and the ability to be happy about nothing to being in the lowest of lows, a pit of despair. From a feeling of invincibility, to a cowering feeling of shame, regret, remorse, anxiety, fear, this song covers all spectrums. It is both eloquently beautiful and painfully sad all at once.
Lou Reed had the courage to discuss things that at the time weren’t socially acceptable but more importantly he had the skill to weave these lyrics into vivid stories, much like Bob Dylan, that left you feeling satisfied at the end of the song.
Note: The 1999 movie Jesus’ son with Billy Crudup and awesome cameos from Jack Black and Denis Leary was adapted from a collection of short stories by the same name by Dennis Johnson. Johnson’s title is taken from the lyrics of this song