The Velvet Underground and Strange Reflections on NYC and Addictions
Lost Souls and the Strange Drug Imagery of Influential Songs
In 1967, Lou Reed, Nico, and the Velvet Underground contributed their talents to an album that easily ranks among the greatest releases in rock history. Despite the brilliance of the LP, it never sold well during its original release. The old saying went along the lines of ''Only about 10,000 people ever heard a Velvet Underground song yet all of them became musicians.''
Lou Reed would, of course, go on and become a mega star so his talents were definitely not ignored. The early Velvet Underground years were not exactly met with huge commercial success.
Quite a number of theories exist as to why the Velvet Underground's music did not catch on with audiences hungry for a new sound. The likely reason is the brilliant music was too atypically removed from the pop styles prevalent at the time. The other reason was lack of radio airplay. Had more people were exposed to the music, they likely would have become fans.
I had never heard of the Velvet Underground until 1990 when I first listened their strangely haunting song HEROIN on the soundtrack to the movie THE DOORS. Soon after hearing the song for the first time, I immediately went out and purchased the 1967 debut album....on cassette, of course, and with the very little money I had at the time.
HEROIN was not the only great song on the LP. The work mixes haunting lyrics with romanticist poetry and eclectically bounces around various different musical styles and equally different themes from song to song. The music on the LP is curiously positive and depressing at the same time. Unfocused could be the cynical way to refer to the album. Visionary would be another and a more accurate one at that.
This is not to suggest there is a decided lack of cynicism in the work. The LP acts as a muse of the soul to reflect on the troubling topic of drug addiction to a degree not seen in virtually any other contemporary work at the time.
DRUG THEMES AND THE CONTROVERSIES OF THE NYC UNDERBELLY CIRCA 1967
Moral relativism is going to be a common criticism directed towards the drug themed songs present on the album. Criticism about the glorification about the use of drugs, in particular, hard drugs, have been levied at the music. Understanding the drug themes of the music requires understanding the cultural context of the time in which the music was released. In the 1960s, drugs were a large part of the revolutionary cultural upheaval at the time. The particular drugs of choice among those heavily experimenting with mind, mood, and senses altering substances were LSD and marijuana.
There were many other drugs being ingested in subcultures at the time and a many of the drugs of choice were far more ominously perceived than romanticized.
Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground were writing songs about life in New York City and several songs focused on the city's darker underbelly. The drug scene of New York was not so much connected with cultural upheaval as much as its connection was with poverty and the breakdown of order as evidenced by 42nd St and Times Square slowly reaching their nadir of decadence. The process of Times Square and the more run down sections of Manhattan declining into what historians have dubbed ''The Devil Playground'' actually started in the 1930s and gradually become worse and worse.
The drug scene for many in New York 50+ years ago did not necessarily share the counter-cultural motivations of drug use elsewhere. New York was crime ridden to the point of infamy. The decay would be captured in films such as Heavy Traffic (1973), Death Wish (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976). The drug trade thrived in this environment.
Heroin was the plague of the underbelly of NYC circa the 19x0's and the experience or heroin addiction is captured on the debut album in an almost blasé non-glory. The mere fact the opiate is the focus of the songs leads to a belief there is some glorification on its use. How one could fathom such an opinion after listening to the tragic extrapolation about addiction in the song HEROIN is perplexing. More understandable is deriving such a belief from the song WAITING FOR MY MAN, a strangely upbeat song about an addict sitting on a street corner awaiting the arrival of a drug dealer.
WAITING FOR MY MAN...AND OBLIVION
The music on WAITING FOR MY MAN may be played at a fast tempo, but this does not necessarily mean the music is upbeat or positive. Lou Reed assumes the role of a particular character singing the lyrics and the character is singing an upbeat tone because he is strung out on drugs. His pleasurable tone and upbeat nature centers on his ability to finally scores enough heroin to satiate his addiction. That is not a positive song. It reflects the pathetic disposition of the addict suffering from his disease. For someone to be thrilled to wait around all day for a dealer to deliver a bag of smack while feeling ''Feelin' sick and dirty'' all of the time is not exactly anything anyone aspires.
Even when the bag is actually delivered, all that can be said is ''I'm feeling good, feeling so fine, Until tomorrow, but that's just some other time '' which is to say the addiction is fed only temporary until the pangs for more begin once again.
HEROIN: LYRICS OF A LIFE LOST
HEROIN is a song that revels in the actual loss of humanity felt during the drug induced haze of someone who now begets a sad complacency with addiction. Living and dying become one and the same as existence is merely the boring point in between the high gained from using the drug. The opening lyrics lamenting ''I don't know just where I'm going'' reflect the utter despair of someone totally lost, discarded, and disaffected from society. Life begins and ends with the use of a drug that ''makes him feel like I'm a man.'' He is not a man because the use of heroin makes him feel powerful as much as it makes him feel alive. He only can acknowledge his own existence when using a harmful drug because the opiate is the only thing allowing him to realize his existence. In a tragic sense of irony, he notes ''I'm gonna try to nullify my life'' revealing he achieves his sense of acknowledging being alive by outright numbing his very existence while ''wishing I was born a thousand years ago'' and able to sail away ''on a great big clipper ship'' as form of escapism from the trials, evils, and tribulations he feels.
There is no glorification of addiction to be found in these lyrics. Instead, there is a dark sense of tragedy that presents more of a warning that a beckoning call to join in on the misery.
Is the music depressing? To a degree, it is. Yet, there is a strange sense of hope within the lyrics because those who suffer from the misery of addiction are still alive. As long as there is life, there is hope.