Over the last few weeks I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time trying to decide when, exactly, the Velvet Underground started. There are numerous ways of looking at it, but I keep coming back to the moment Lou Reed and John Cale ran into Sterling Morrison on the subway. Before that Lou and John had been playing as a duo, busking and cutting folky demos; had they continued down that path they might have ended up as the evil Simon and Garfunkel, and though this is something the world could have used, it wouldn’t have been worth it at the cost of the VU.

But once Sterling joined they became a band. Of course, they would not become exactly the band we think of as the VU until Moe Tucker arrived on the scene; that would be another acceptable answer to the question. As would the day of their first live performance, or the day they officially adopted the name. You can decide for yourself.

Progress on this blog has been slowed by my discovery of a formidable new resource: Richie Unterberger’s White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day. As implied by the title, this is an exhaustive chronological account of the band’s entire existence that runs to almost 1600 pages in the Kindle edition. They’re short pages, but still; it’s a mountain of material. Unterberger seems to have done a yeoman’s job of sorting through source material that’s often sketchy or downright contradictory. I will be spending some time with him in the days, weeks, probably years to come, but were I to attempt to absorb it all before continuing I would probably go blind. So: Onward!

When push comes to shove, there are two songs that define the Velvet Underground in most people’s minds: “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin.”1

They’re about the same subject, but are much different animals. The former hews closer to some recognizable form of rock’n’roll, with a rumbling train rhythm and straightforward verse/chorus structure. The latter is a truly sui generis composition, with a framework built around the lyrics and delivery. It ebbs and flows, it’s calming then startling, it’s pretty and it’s cacophonous. It’s a whole little universe unto itself.

“Heroin” dates to Lou’s college days, when he first started experimenting with the drug in question. “Why did he go there?” asks Will Hermes in King of New York, then answers:

Why not? he might’ve replied. He’d already learned consciousness was a chemistry set, between booze and cannabis in high school, then ECT and anti-anxiety meds. His impulse may have been basic hedonism, adolescent risk-taking, and/or the desire for bragging rights, informed by the aura of criminal coolness surrounding heroin, and the underlying myth linking it to musical creativity, especially in the world of jazz musicians he admired. It might’ve been an existential temptation. And it might’ve been creative writing field research, in service of the sort of “lived experience” [Delmore] Schwartz taught him was at the core of great literature. William S. Burroughs’s groundbreaking Naked Lunch — a frank dissection of heroin use, among other things… — was brand-new, published in the United States in 1962 and swiftly banned in Boston for alleged obscenity. Reed had surely read it.

Aidan Levy’s Dirty Blvd., meanwhile, links Lou’s first heroin use to the Kennedy assassination — which seems like a reach, but who knows? He also says that Lou had started writing “Heroin” before he ever took the drug, which leads one to wonder how much of the song is “lived experience” and how much artistic license. Not that this question can ever be answered; it’s just something to ponder.

So Lou already had “Heroin” in his bag when he met John Cale. In May 1965 the two of them recorded it for the demo documented in Words & Music:

This is recognizably the song we know, but spare and unfinished. The push/pull dynamic is only starting to develop and the folky feel seems a bit mismatched to the subject matter.

In July Lou, John, and Sterling Morrison would cut a version in their second Ludlow Street session:

At this point it’s started to grow teeth. Cale’s keening viola adds an air of menace. But it is not yet the monster it would become when it appeared on the album. Moe would help with that, as would the use of a real recording studio, along with the time the band had spent playing together by then.

We will revisit “Heroin” in the future. I just now made a big decision: to make this a chronological recording-by-recording account, which means that some songs will appear more than once. At the moment this seems like the right approach, though I’d be curious to hear from anyone who has an opinion.

“Heroin” is very close to the feeling you get from smack. It starts on a certain level, it’s deceptive. You think you’re enjoying it. But by the time it hits you, it’s too late. You don’t have any choice. It comes at you harder and faster and keeps on coming.
—Lou Reed

“Heroin” has at times been a controversial song, with some people saying it glamorizes the drug. Does it?

On the one hand, it is at times a harrowing listening experience, and Lou moaning that it will “be the death of me” is hardly an advertisement for junk. On the other, how can you not be curious about the mystery at the heart of the matter — the substance of which he says, “It’s my wife/It’s my life”?

I never tried it and I feel pretty solid about that decision. I asked people on Reddit to weigh in on this and most said the song didn’t make them want to try the drug, though one said:

I listened to it as a kid and it made it seem cool to me. I did go on to try it many years later, I wouldn’t blame Lou reed for that though. It was kinda presented as the ultimate drug by media in general. What’s cooler than syringes to a 17 year old? The song was a favorite for a long time, but heroin almost ended my life several times and destroyed quite a few relationships. Now I rarely listen to it.

In theory Lou is just documenting a user’s experience in a non-judgmental way. The words are ambivalent; the singer keeps coming back to “I guess that I just don’t know.”

And I guess I just don’t know either. Let’s leave it there for now.