Heroin Chic

There’s a story about the movie Pulp Fiction. In case you’re not familiar with the movie, one of the lead characters is Vincent Vega, a heroin-addicted mob hit man. When Quentin Tarantino offered the role to John Travolta, Travolta said he’d take the part as long as the movie didn’t make heroin seem cool. Vincent Vega dies a decidedly un-glamorous death and as a bonus we get to see Uma Thurman overdose on smack, which is not particularly cool either.

Heroin addiction is not pleasant and smack is far from glamorous. But for whatever reason many great songs have been written about the drug. Here are a few of my favorites.

GG Allin “Carmelita” (Warren Zevon)
I was driving along when Warren Zevon’s “Carmelita” shuffled to the top of my iPod’s playlist. I’m the kind of guy who sings along with songs about being strung out on heroin, and as I sang I thought about all the music that has been written about heroin. So you can blame this week’s theme on Warren Zevon. By the way, I also enjoy singing along with songs about cannibalism but there aren’t nearly as many of those.

Cowboy Junkies “Dead Flowers” (Rolling Stones)
I’ve always wondered how this song became a staple of classic rock radio playlists. The song basically says that you broke my heart and left me for some rich guy, so I’ll just shoot smack. Was there payola involved? Was it just because it was a Stones song and nobody was paying attention to the lyrics? And now that it’s on those playlists it will never come off, no matter how strong the antidrug sentiment in this country becomes. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.

David Bowie “Waiting For The Man” (Velvet Underground)
Picking just one Lou Reed song about heroin is a challenge. He’s written songs about what it’s like to shoot heroin, what it does to your life, and this one about scoring smack in uptown New York. Lou’s pretty boring these days since he’s sobered up and married Laurie Anderson, but after the life he’s led he’s probably earned the right to be boring. But man, he wrote some great music when he was all messed up on drugs.

Cheap Trick “Cold Turkey” (John Lennon)
This is one of those songs that has quite a few covers, with most of them sounding just like the original. This is a nice arrangement with an introspective acoustic introduction that that devolves into a jagged electric version that emphasizes the deep despair of heroin withdrawal. Not at all the happy pop music one has come to expect from Cheap Trick. Special thanks to George Blowfish for bringing this song to my attention.

The Pretenders “The Needle And The Damage Done” (Neil Young)
And for every Lou Reed who does heroin, writes great songs, and lives to tell about it are many more musicians who don’t. This is a nice muscular version of a song that is too often delivered as an acoustic dirge.