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Lou Reed and Nico by Mick Rock, Blake’s Hotel, Lon
Lou Reed and NicoMick Rock

The history of heroin as a lyrical muse

From Lou Reed to Lana Del Rey, musicians have been using the drug as both a literal and symbolic reference point for decades

It's always been cool to glamorise drug use in the music industry, with hard partying and substance abuse being a sad, all-too-often accepted consequence of the live fast, die young culture. The 27 Club immortalised the danger and risk of such close and frequent dabbling, with the list of musicians succumbing to tragic chicken-or-the-egg fame-fueled addictions including luminaries like Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse.

Throughout the past century, certain substances have even become the drug du jour, dominating the pop culture conversation for decades at a time – LSD in the 60s, cocaine in the 70s, crack in the 80s, ecstasy in the 90s, pharmaceuticals in the 00s, and so on. But heroin has consistently eluded this ebb and flow, from its prominence and influence in the jazz and blues era of the 30s, 40s and 50s (Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Chet Baker) to the rockers of the 60s, 70s, and 80s (Keith Richards, Sid Vicious, Nikki Sixx) and the heroin chic trend of the 90s, made popular by Calvin Klein’s ‘waif’ models and further pushed by the grunge movement (Kurt Cobain, Hole, Alice In Chains, and more).

In the 21st century – and specifically in the United States – the opioid epidemic is now at an all time-high, with The New York Times citing it as “a modern plague” with 59,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016 alone, the largest annual jump ever recorded in the US. With the country’s “drug-infested dens” (as President Trump so tactfully described earlier this year) becoming a national crisis, the topic of heroin addiction is coming out from under the bridge – and with it comes its resurgence as an inspiration for today’s pop stars, as seen most recently on Lana Del Rey’s latest chart-topping LP Lust For Life, whose haunting Topanga, California lullaby “Heroin” appears alongside high profile collaborations with The Weeknd and A$AP Rocky.

Below, we look back at the trajectory of chasing the dragon as a lyrical muse, with ten songs that highlight how music has developed a sour-yet-starry-eyed affair with the drug – from the explicit to the symbolic – and acted as an inspiration even for those who haven’t used it.

LOU REED – “PERFECT DAY” (1972)

For anyone familiar with Lou Reed’s discography, smack was an omnipresent force of inspiration for the late rock pioneer and The Velvet Underground leader. It was showcased most robustly on the group’s seminal LP The Velvet Underground & Nico – see the jerky, frantic cuts “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting For The Man” – but it was Reed’s solo debut LP Transformer, produced by disciple David Bowie, where Reed harnessed the drug’s idyllic, isolating qualities best.

The sunny-yet-tragic “Perfect Day” was aptly featured in Danny Boyle’s cult classic heroin case study Trainspotting. Over demure piano, Reed coos about drinking sangria and going to the zoo with an unidentified ‘you,’ representing his love affair with the substance. “It was such a perfect day, I’m glad I spent it with you,” he sings on the heartbreaking chorus, before accepting his inevitable fate at the close: “You’re going to reap just what you sow.”

JAMES BROWN – “KING HEROIN” (1972)

The Godfather of Soul’s spoken word anti-drug anthem appeared on his 1972 LP There It Is. The warning song finds Brown recounting a dream in which he meets the drug heroin personified, a man boasting of his power to control people of all walks of life. “I’m a world of power and all know it’s true, use me once and you'll know it, too,” he spits over a gloomy beat. “Some think my adventure’s a joy and a thrill, but I’ll put a gun in your hand and make you kill. For the white horse of heroin will ride you to Hell.” The track proved that life imitated art, as Brown re-released the track in 1991, three years after he checked himself into an outpatient drug-dependency clinic.

JOHNNY THUNDERS & THE HEARTBREAKERS – “CHINESE ROCKS” (1977)

Penned by Dee Dee Ramone, this iconic punk anthem was inspired by the pursuit of ‘the score.’ “Hey is Dee Dee home, do you wanna take a walk, do you wanna go cop, you wanna go get some Chinese rocks,” the unabashed melody snarls, referencing the slang term for a potent blend that saturated New York at the time. The songwriter initially wrote the track to spite his pal Richard Hell, who said “he was gonna write a song better than Lou Reed’s ‘Heroin’,” Dee Dee recalled in Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. “I wrote it by myself, in Debbie Harry’s apartment on First Avenue and First Street. Then Richard Hell put (a) line in it, so I gave him some credit. 

The track was passed on by Tommy Ramone, who initially refused to record it due to its drug connotation. Hell brought the tune to his band The Heartbreakers, who released it after his exit from the group, with Johnny Thunders as frontman.

THE STRANGLERS – “GOLDEN BROWN” (1981)

In his 2001 memoir The Stranglers: Song By Song, Hugh Cornwell – frontman of the UK baroque pop outfit – states that the group’s famed single, off their 1981 LP La Folie, works on two levels because it’s “about heroin and also about a girl.” (A common theme for this list, it seems.) “Every time just like the last, on her ship tied to the mast,” he belts over rococo guitar, before closing with the false prophet claim: “Never a frown with golden brown.” Despite the carefree hook, the track takes a sinister turn on the bridge, which lets spin an airy, dizzying guitar solo, followed by a wash of hazy, tripped out vocal layers.

THE LA’S – “THERE SHE GOES” (1990)

While it appears on the surface to be a light, carefree song about the infatuation that comes with falling in love, Liverpool pop group The La’s “There She Goes”, off their 1990 debut (and only) album, is now infamous for its drug undertones. As lead singer-songwriter Lee Mavers’ lyrical hook describes the feeling “racing through my brain” to “pulsing through my veins”, the ode to the intravenous substance becomes clear. The single earned a second life with covers by Sixpence None The Richer, Robbie Williams, and The Wombats, though The La’s unfortunately never surpassed this early success.

ELLIOTT SMITH – “NEEDLE IN THE HAY” (1995)

“Strung out and thin, calling some friend trying to cash some check,” the late singer-songwriter slurs in frantically-lulled despair as he reflects on a life of dependence, and a specific trip to score at ‘6th & Powell’ in Portland, Oregon. “Go downstairs to the man, he’s gonna make it all okay,” Smith sings on the heart-rending chorus. “I can’t beat myself, and I don’t want to talk. I’m taking the cure so I can be quiet, whenever I want.” The defeated ballad also famously soundtracked Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson)’s suicide attempt in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums.

MGMT – “TIME TO PRETEND” (2007)

Alongside “Kids”, “Time to Pretend” was one of two singles that transported then-19-year-old Wesleyan undergrads Ben Goldwasser and VanWyngarden to global fame, a label deal with Columbia, and a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist in 2010. “Time To Pretend” was written about the quest for the rock-star lifestyle. The aim? To “make some music, make some money,” and “find some models for wives,” VanWyngarden boasts on the hedonistic hook. “I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin and fuck with the stars, you man the island, and the cocaine and the elegant cars.”

LADY GAGA – “DOPE” (2013)

The pop star née Stephanie Germanotta famously performed this Artpop standout in tears at the YouTube Music Awards in November of 2013, less than 24 hours before her highly publicised split from longtime manager Troy Carter over “creative differences.” “I’m sorry mom and (sister) Natalie, this is for my fans, I’m sorry too,” she says mournfully before pulling off her sunglasses. “This is for my lover, I love you too. This is for anybody that has that pain inside that they don’t know what the fuck,” she said in a deep exhale.

The stark, poignant ballad, produced by Gaga alongside Rick Rubin, is about having to decide whether to give up “dope” or lose a lover, with the singer-songwriter passionately revealing her decision on the tragic hook: “I’ll keep on searching for an answer, ‘cause I need you more than dope, I need you more than dope.”

LANA DEL REY – “HEROIN” (2017)

With the release of Lana Del Rey's latest album Lust For Life, the singer-songwriter continued her reign as dark alt-pop purveyor, treating fans to high-profile collaborations with The Weeknd (“Lust For Life”) and Steve Nicks (“Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems”) while continuing to push the needle sonically and even making a point to acknowledge the US political situation in 2017. But it’s the nightmarish lullaby “Heroin” that feels the most timely in its haunting delivery and comment on the opioid epidemic. “I’m flying to the moon again, dreamin’ about heroin,” she sings on the moonlit chorus, before acknowledging the substance’s ultimate power and hold: “how it gave you everything and took your life away.”

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