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Music

Listen to Lou Reed's 1965 demo for Velvet Underground song 'Heroin'

Earlier this year, a new reissue of Lou Reed material entitled Words and Music, May 1965, was announced. The material on the new LP will be sourced from a demo tape that Reed mailed to himself in the mid-1960s and never opened. Some of the material on the tape features Reed playing with future Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale, and some of the material is just Reed on his own.

Today, we’re hearing a brand new track from the upcoming album with what is now the earliest known version of ‘Heroin’, the stark standout track from the Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut, The Velvet Underground and Nico. Previously, the earliest recording of ‘Heroin’ was a recording made by Reed, Cale, and Velvets guitarist Sterling Morrison that was put to tape in July of 1965. 

Reed chuckles to himself as he introduces the song, making sure to note that the music and lyrics are his own. With just an acoustic guitar and his voice, Reed sings an early, more delicately folky version of the song. Even though it’s more stripped back and straightforward by necessity, most of the pieces of the final track are in place, including the increasing speed and intensity that gives the song its unnerving memorability. 

Reed claimed in a 2015 interview that he originally brought the song to Pickwick Records, the label where worked as a staff songwriter in the mid-1960s. “I was working for a record company as a songwriter, where they’d lock me in a room and they’d say write ten surfing songs, ya know, and I wrote ‘Heroin’ and I said, ‘Hey I got something for ya.’ They said, ‘Never gonna happen, never gonna happen.’”

There was nothing as plaintive or transgressive as ‘Heroin’ on the radio when Reed originally wrote the track back in 1965. It’s not a surprise that the song was rejected by his label, and when Reed decided to strike out on his own, ‘Heroin’ went with him. Reed had a particular fondness for the track, and it remained a mainstay of his live performances all the way up to his death in 2013. At his final show on August 10th, 2012, ‘Heroin’ was right at the front of the setlist as the second song played that night.

Check out the new demo for ‘Heroin’ down below.