Lou Reed made it onto many a person’s naughty lists, but Lemmy Kilmister, the frontman of Motörhead seemed determined to take it one step further, wishing death on the former Velvet Underground frontman. The Motörhead bassist felt that Reed was a worse influence than he was, largely due to his support of heroin.
“Yeah,” declared Lemmy, “but at least I didn’t do a Lou Reed on the kids. How many kids died because of [Velvet Underground hit] ‘Heroin’? It makes you into an evil person, heroin. It makes you into the sort of person who’ll purposely infect a kid just so they have someone to shoot up with. It’s a monstrous drug, the worst drug ever! I don’t remember anyone dying on anything else, just heroin and downers. I never saw anyone die of a heart attack from speed, and I never saw anyone die from cocaine because you couldn’t afford it!”
In another interview, he said he would call for the deaths of Reed and writer William Burroughs for their glorification of the drug, particularly as it claimed so many lives. I suspect he felt these two men were directly responsible for the deaths of thousands, so he likely thought he could add their bodies to the ever-rising pile. Whether or not he would have done that is anyone’s guess, but Lemmy was known for his temper-just ask the filmmakers of Nevermind The Buzzcocks.
But to say ‘Heroin’ glorifies the drug is like saying that Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting eulogises the effects of opiates. Neither of them explicitly state that heroin is good for you, in fact, quite the opposite, but they both show the highs that can come from the drug. Trainspotting is known for its nuance, capturing the elation of the needle, and the horror the characters feel when they realise that their negligence has cost a baby its life. And there’s Reed’s tune, which tells the tale of a man who feels that heroin is as good as death for him, bolstered by a collection of violent-sounding violin strokes.
Indeed, if anyone was guilty of romanticising heroin it was Brett Anderson, who spoke of the wonders of the “dragon” on Suede’s excellent ‘So Young’. What Anderson added was a towering presence, but he seemed anxious to distance himself from the past indiscretions on the 1994 album, Dog Man Star. By then, the sorrow had kicked in, and Anderson was falling victim to some of the myths he had unintentionally spun in the public eye. What emerged from the sessions was a desire to absolve himself from past misgivings, and the songs are all the more powerful for the brave vocal performances he committed to the record.
It seems nobody thinks heroin is a good drug, and although its perfume has been absorbed from John Lennon to Jimmy Page, the after-effects are grander and graver to see. It’s harder to cast off a memory than a mistruth, and as long as a person is prepared to write a certain truth off, then the artist should be free to forgive themselves from a past association in the hope of cleaning their soul from sin. Wash that misgiving away.
But the only sin worse in music than mythologising a mistruth is to misrepresent the truth that swims inside an artist. Boyle felt that for Trainspotting to be commercial, it had to stem from an area of truth, and Reed felt that the best way he could describe ‘Heroin’ was to give a perspective, a penance and an irony that it otherwise would have sorely lacked. And Anderson came to terms with the glories and the gory details of his life on the beautifully well-written Coal Black Mornings, detailing his life as an urchin in London on the brink of great success.
What connected these three consummate artists was their quest for truth, and they refused to settle for a rosier tinted compromise that may have taken some of the edges off their craft. They were artists, and they continued to be artists, precisely because they stayed within the walls of their philosophies and truths.
This isn’t to say that Lemmy wasn’t truthful, because he was, but he wrapped his personal beliefs with thunder and a fire in his belly. As it happens, the bassist outlived Reed by two years, and any bad feeling they may have experienced died with the pair of them. Lemmy was right to criticise Reed’s predilection for heroin, much as it was Reed’s right to write about his experiences with the drug.
And although both approached their respective canons in completely different manners, they were both happy to compose as they saw the world from their crisp, kaleidoscopic lens of the planet. But why should we tear into them, when we can enjoy all four artists mentioned for their respective services?
Stream The Velvet Underground’s mighty ‘Heroin’ below.