A quick recap of the lesson learned from Requiem for a Dream and Trainspotting: Heroin is bad news. The drug has claimed the lives of too many young actors and musicians, and often the particularly brilliant ones. The danger is part of the allure, and that said, heroin is responsible for plenty of fascinating art, so we took on the arduous task of narrowing this list down to 10 incredible songs about heroin (in no particular order).
The Velvet Underground - Heroin
"Heroin, be the death of me / Heroin, it's my wife and it's my life / Because a mainer to my vein / Leads to a center in my head / And then I'm better off than dead."
Let's kick it off with an obvious choice. Lou Reed gives us a feel for what it's like to be high on heroin, in the accurately titled "Heroin." (For the experience of buying it, check out "I'm Waiting for the Man.") "Heroin" is absolutely terrifying, moving from a glory blurry haze to a cacophonous, apocalyptic breakdown, as Reed shouts, "I guess I just don't know." Then, it slides back for a moment into that idyllic lull. Harrowing!
Lou Reed - Perfect Day
"Oh it's such a perfect day / I'm glad I spent it with you."
The guy had a subject, and he stuck to it. Here, Lou examines the more pastoral vibe of the drug. After all, if it wasn't kinda awesome, why would anyone do it? Reed has a fantastic day drinking sangria in the park and feeding animals in the zoo with his good ol' pal heroin.
Pink Floyd - Comfortably Numb
There is no pain you are receding / A distant ship's smoke on the horizon / You are only coming through in waves / Your lips move / But I can't hear what you're saying
The clips from The Wall in this video are pretty terrifying. I mean, c'mon, let the poor kid keep his rat. Believe it or not, they make great pets. At least we can guess from the lyrics that the guy passed out isn't in any pain ... or so we hope, until he starts to rot.
Ministry - Just One Fix Blood keeps drinking away / Certain of its destination / Driving through New Orleans at night / Gotta find a destination / Just one fix
You know you've got a legit heroin song when beat poet/legendary drug explorer/all-around-interesting-fella William S. Burroughs makes an appearance in your video (which is chock full of scary shit).
GG Allin - Carmelita Carmelita hold me tighter / I think I'm sinking down / And I'm all strung out on heroin / On the outskirts of town
GG covers this Warren Zevon classic with a heroin needle sticking out of his guitar. His self-destruction was always more theatrical than Zevon's, but if you can look past the shock schtick, there's a pained sincerity to what he did. Bur seriously, you gotta look past a lot of awful shit: He planned on committing suicide on stage, but an overdose ended up getting to him first.
Iggy Pop - Lust for Life Your skin starts itching once you buy the gimmick / About something called love / Oh Love, love, love / Well, that's like hypnotizing chickens.
This song is constantly used in advertising — whose job is it to figure out if the songs they want to use in a commercial is about, oh I don't know, heroin? Maybe it's that bouncy beat, a perfect post-punk Bo Diddley pound, but really, people need to stop using this song in bank adverts.
The La's - There She Goes
There she goes / There she goes again / Pulsing through my vein
Can any single song more encapsulate the aching romance of H than this one? Let's say no — with its jangling leads and heartbroken vocals, it's as wonderful as it is devastating. Like "Perfect Day," this could easily be mistaken for a love song, but it's about the sadness first and foremost: Heroin can keep even the most lonely folks company ... until those withdrawals start to kick in.
Red Hot Chili Peppers - Under The Bridge
Under the bridge downtown / Is where I drew some blood / Under the bridge downtown / I could not get enough
This song started off as a poem Anthony Kiedis wrote looking back on his addiction and feelings of isolation. Once again, there's some scary stuff in this video — apparently shooting up is like running from an A-bomb.
Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers - Chinese Rocks
I'm living on Chinese rocks / All my best things are in hock / I'm living on Chinese rocks / Everything is in the pawn shop
A little too much China white will do that to you.
Elliott Smith - Needle in the Hay
Your hand on his arm / The haystack charm around your neck / Strung out and thin / Calling some friend trying to cash some check
Is it alienation or addiction? Is there a difference? That's the beauty of Smith's words: They don't have to be specific, but they're beautifully lush with imagery.
Editor's note: This piece first published on August 10, 2012, and was updated for publication on June 27, 2016. The piece originally ran with the following introduction:
Sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. It's in many ways the enduring holy trinity of pop music. Like it or not — we're not advocating anything — drugs are responsible for lots of great songwriting. So every Friday in August, we're going to take a look at the impact of drugs on popular music.