There are countless "classics" I'll never be able to remember where I was the first time I heard them. It's a true test of my mettle to remember my locale when "Like A Rolling Stone", "Smells Like Teen Spirit", "Born to Run", or "Rapper's Delight" first spilled forth into my consciousness. I'll never forgetting hearing the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" for the first time. I'd bought the first LP on a whim, assured by every mythos-building review I'd read it was a transformative record. As it ebbed and flowed from delicate pop to snotty protopunk I was already convinced of the power every review promised, but nothing could have prepared me for "Heroin".
The opening shimmer of Reed's guitar in the song remains some of the purest playing I've heard on record, made more "ironic" by the impending maelstrom. Reed was never a great singer in any traditional sense, but the opening line of "I don't know just where I'm going" delivered in his beatnik croon possesses an unmistakable, if fractured beauty. It's a line imbued with the same uncertainty as Dylan's "how does it feel in?" howled in "Like A Rolling Stone", but masking a quiet rage courtesy of that shimmering guitar. Those iconic two chords continue on for the song's seven minutes, ratcheting up as Reed's vocals become more frenetic. When I first heard them hit that frantic crescendo, where any pretext of arrangement flies out the window, I can remember being genuinely terrified. Frightened that such a skilled band was so doggedly committed to throwing everything out the window to chase their muse into a repellent world of: howling viola, galloping caveman drums, and feedback burdened guitar. The "crazy sounds" Reed sneered about was a classic undersell.
Hearing of the passing of Lou Reed and re-listening to "Heroin" I can't help but sit in amazement. One of my friend's simply responded with the message "Lou Reed shouldn't be allowed to die". In the pantheon of performers like Iggy Pop or Keith Richards, Reed's swagger seemed larger than life. More than anything his passing at 71, reminds me of his mortality, and then I marvel that any mortal would be capable of such Herculean efforts. Second only to Hendrix, Reed advanced the guitar further than anyone could've ever imagined. Where Hendrix teased the promise of feedback, Reed and the Velvet Underground fully delivered. For the Andy Warhol endorsed band, feedback wasn't a side-attraction, it was the main event. Reed would push the limits of guitar to it's extreme on 1975's solo effort Metal Machine Music, like a sadistic child playing with a Stretch Armstrong figurine. However, he hit the perfect dosage on "Heroin". And while such a self-assured debut only yielded some 30,000 copies sold, music luminary Brian Eno mythically summarized the album's impact "everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band." So whether you know it or not, "Heroin" is likely in your blood, and you have Lou Reed to thank.
The sweep of Reed's career certainly extends far beyond this song's expansive seven minutes, and I'd encourage you to listen to any of his VU or solo work to fully appreciate the man. Listed below are a few choice cuts to get you started.
1. "Femme Fatale"- The Velvet Underground & Nico
2. "Venus in Furs"- The Velvet Underground & Nico
3. "European Son"- The Velvet Underground & Nico
4. "White Light/White Heat"- White Light/White Heat
5. "Here She Comes Now"- White Light/White Heat
6. "Sister Ray"- White Light/White Heat
7. "Candy Says"- The Velvet Underground
8. "What Goes On"- The Velvet Underground
9. "Pale Blue Eyes"- The Velvet Underground
10. "After Hours"- The Velvet Underground
11. "Sweet Jane"- Loaded
12. "Rock & Roll"- Loaded
13. "I Found A Reason"- Loaded
14. "Perfect Day"- Transformer
15. "Walk on the Wild Side"- Transformer
16. "Satellite of Love"- Transformer
17. "The Kids"- Berlin
18. "The Bed"- Berlin
19. "Crazy Feeling"- Coney Island Baby
21. "Coney Island Baby"- Coney Island Baby
22. "Street Hassle"- Street Hassle
23. "Waves of Fear"- The Blue Mask
24. "Average Guy"- The Blue Mask
24. "Turn to Me"- New Sensations
25. "Dirty Blvd."- New York