Cooler than you: the Velvet Underground

The three songs on the list so far have all been about sex and/or love (in rock’n’roll terms, there’s not much difference between the two). So where’s the third leg of the holy tripod? Where are the drugs?

There aren’t many drug songs from rock’s first decade or so. Certainly it wasn’t that people weren’t taking them; it’s just that they weren’t writing songs about them, or if they were, they were doing so in code. It just wasn’t socially acceptable to write overtly about drugs, or at least not commercially acceptable. By 1967, the Beatles certainly had experience with marijuana and LSD, but they never wrote a song identifiably about ganja, and John Lennon famously and disingenuously denied that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was about acid. Even Jimi Hendrix, poster boy for the psychedelic lifestyle, ended “Are You Experienced?” with the disclaimer “not necessarily stoned, but beautiful.”

It took someone like Lou Reed, a Warhol-influenced degenerate with no consideration for social conventions or chart success, to openly write songs about drugs. And not happy psychedelics either, but hard drugs, street drugs. The Velvet Underground’s first album, released in the same year as Sgt. Pepper and the aforementioned Are You Experienced?, contained two such songs: “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin.” I’ve chosen the former as a better exemplar of a rock song about drugs because it is simpler, more propulsive; “Heroin,” while a magnificent song, is a beast of another color. Lyrically, the two cover much the same territory, presenting an unflinching and unusually honest view of drug addiction, both the undeniable highs and the unavoidable lows. “I’m Waiting for the Man” brilliantly sets the scene in its first two lines:

I’m waiting for my man
Twenty-six dollars in my hand

Reed delivers these lines in the jaded deadpan of a guy who’s been there a thousand times and knows the score. There’s a dangerous glamour in that tone, a glacial kind of cool that every hipster for the last 41 years has coveted. The Velvets were ahead of their time in expressing the nihilism that was the flip side of the hippie drug culture’s professions of peace and love. Starting in 1968, that corruption would infiltrate and finally overwhelm the light side; the Velvets just got there first. There was no summer of love for them.

Musically, “I’m Waiting for the Man” is about as simple as it gets: two chords and a chugging train rhythm, though with a lot of interesting textures draped on top. Given this, there are surprisingly few recorded cover versions; frankly, I think people are just scared of it. Among those who have had the courage to try it are David Bowie, Bauhaus, the Modern Lovers, and oddly enough Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (better known to the world as OMD). It has also been reconfigured in various ways over the years by former VU members Reed, John Cale, Nico, and Maureen Tucker.

The journey the song takes is pretty simple, too. At the beginning, the singer is desperate for a fix, “sick and dirty, more dead than alive.” The specificity of “twenty-six dollars” tells you that 26 bucks is everything he has; he’s just hoping it will be enough. After enduring the taunts of the locals (“hey white boy, what you doing uptown?”) and the humiliation of public exposure (“everybody’s pinned you, but nobody cares”), he finally gets his hands on what he needs. The last lines of the last verse say everything there is to say about the addict’s mindset — and I don’t mean just the drug addict, I mean all of us, whatever our habit:

I’m feeling good, I’m feeling so fine
Until tomorrow but that’s just another time

And that goes for bloggers too. As soon as I post this, I’ll be feeling so fine. Tomorrow? Well, that’s just another time.

In the meantime, here’s a VU video shot by Andy Warhol for your amusement: