Lou Reed can’t help but laugh after announcing the title of a new song, “Heroin,” on a demo recording from May 1965. He then gives a surprisingly folky, almost Dylan-esque performance of the tune, which would become a noisy, droning blast of euphoria on The Velvet Undergound and Nico a couple of years later. His voice creaks as he plays country turnaround on his acoustic guitar, but the lyrics are all there, even if the outro would sound a bit like “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” if he were playing a banjo. The track will appear on the upcoming compilation, Words & Music, May 1965, due Aug. 26 (find it online here).
Reed was 23 at the time he cut the demo as a means of achieving a “poor man’s copyright” – mailing himself a recording and not opening the package. If someone were to steal one of his songs, he could have presented a judge with the sealed, postmarked envelope which shows he wrote the song before that date. The recording contains early renditions of Velvet Underground songs like “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Pale Blue Eyes,” which sound drastically different in their primordial states.
The recording shows how advanced he was as a songwriter as a young age, as well as how progressive his themes were at the time. In 1965, the Beatles were singing “Help” and “Yesterday,” Dylan was doing “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” and Reed was singing about heroin.
A few years back, Reed’s Velvet Underground bandmate, John Cale, recounted how the first song Reed played him was “Heroin” and how that led to the formation of the band. “When Lou played me the songs at Pickwick [Studio] and said, ‘They won’t let me record these songs,’ it kind of pissed me off,” Cale said. “I said, ‘Let’s go and do it ourselves.’ … So my initial reaction was just anger at the arrogance of a record company, which was boilerplate. But any young artist was always looking for the arrogance of the record company.” Their debut LP, The Velvet Underground & Nico, came out in March 1967.