Waldemar Januszczak on the Velvet Underground’s Heroin
I grew up in the 1960s. I don’t care how many attempts they make on BBC2 to dull the era’s achievements by overexamining them; they will never shake my conviction that it produced the best music ever. Unfortunately, by the time I got to university and finally got my own record player and a room to play it in, it was the 1970s, and music had gone splat. My pet hate was American country rock. I was studying art history in Manchester. Country rock was the antithesis of everything I believed in or loved. One night, after some reggae at the West Indian Centre, I went round to a girl’s house in Didsbury with impure thoughts on my mind. She was a tall, bony brunette with blue eyes, called Christine. Tragically, Christine was only ever interested in talking. She’d light some joss sticks and a candle, and we’d sit in front of the gas fire, listening to her records. That’s when she put on Heroin by the Velvet Underground.
The album it was on, The Velvet Underground and Nico, had been released in 1967. How come I’d never heard it? Because only people with cojones, people such as Christine, played records such as this. Heroin describes the feeling of stabbing yourself with a needle and injecting heroin. It describes the sensations with words that are worryingly eloquent and with music that propels the words into your brain as nails are propelled into walls by hammers. If Heroin weren’t about heroin, but about the best orgasm you’d ever had, only the words would need to change. A melodic guitar begins a duet with some thumping drums. Then a sleazy-sounding Lou Reed joins in, with his deceptively gentle thoughts about not knowing where he’s going. The guitar, the drums and Reed tremble to a mini-climax and then, dammit, they all go back to the beginning for another go. As I said, it’s orgasmic.
Years later, when I was head of music and arts at Channel 4, I started a pop show called The White Room and made sure Reed was on it. He turned out to be taut, wiry and supremely intelligent. I asked him about a line in the song that puzzled me. When Reed sings about not caring any more “about all the Jim-Jims in this town/And all the politicians making crazy sounds”, what exactly are “Jim-Jims”? Reed didn’t know. He’d made the expression up. If you make up the slang, he explained, it can never date.