10 Classic Heroin Tunes

Smack is back, and we've got a sound track. Okay, heroin never really went away after creeping out of the ghetto and emerging into society at large in the 1960s, but in recent years, it's seen a resurgence of popularity, due in part to crack down on prescription opiates and due in part to its relative cheapness and availability. Current estimates of the number of regular heroin users range from 620,000 to more than one million. 

The white powder is a harsh mistress. It's an old story, and one musicians have been singing about since that original heroin boom in the '60s. Many bemoan it, some embrace its ambivalence, a few revel in it. Listen up, there are some lessons to be heeded. 

1. "Heroin," Velvet Undergound (1967)

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 and dead
Because when the smack begins to flow
I really don't care anymore

Well, of course. If a list of heroin songs was only one song long, this would be the one. While the West Coast was awash in a haze of pot smoke and psychedelia, Lou Reed and the band had the perfect antidote to too much incense and peppermint. With "Heroin," they brought their dark, amphetamine- and heroin-fueled downtown Manhattan sensibility to bear, recreating the smack experience both lyrically and sonically, with Reed's hopeless vocals matched by the droning buzz of the band. In a just world, the Velvets would also make the list for the dope-scoring anthem "Waiting for the Man," but we want to make room for other artists, too. There are hard truths in the latter tune: "The first thing you learn is you've always got to wait." Between "Waiting for the Man" and "Heroin," you've got a skag rock opera in two acts.

2. "Cold Turkey," John Lennon (1969)

Temperature's rising
Fever is high
Can't see no future
Can't see no sky

My feet are so heavy
So is my head
I wish I was a baby
I wish I was dead

Cold turkey has got me on the run

By 1969, it was no more "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" for the erstwhile Beatle, who had gone from pot and acid to heroin, getting briefly strung out with his lover, Yoko Ono. Lennon once tried to claim the song was about a case of food poisoning he and Yoko suffered, but nobody believes that. The live version here really amps up the angst.

3. "Sam Stone," John Prine (1971)

"There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes, Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose."

Songwriting giant ("Dear Abby," "Illegal Smile") John Prine penned a powerful masterpiece with this sad tale of a Vietnam War vet who brought his habit home with him. It's as achingly beautiful as it is sad. Everybody sing along now!

4. "Your Own Backyard," Mott the Hoople (1971)

I've been sitting here thinking

About when I started out drinking.

I went on to the dope, surely just to change my life.

I cried a tear in a beer for me

I lost everything near and dear to me

Namely, my children and my wife.

Back before David Bowie took them under his wing and made them successful young glam dudes, Mott the Hoople was a struggling working-class band from Herefordshire. Like the Brain Capers album on which it appeared, their cover of songwriter Dion Dimuccis' ("A Teenager in Love," "Runaround Sue") ode to junkiedom and recovery never got much attention, but it is a heartbreaking tale of the price of addiction, with just a hint of hope for redemption at the end.

5. "The Needle and the Damage Done," Neil Young (1972)

I've seen the needle and the damage done/A little part of it in everyone/But every junkie's like a setting sun.

The Canadian folkie and rocker was no stranger to the hard drug scene during his days with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Here's a lovely acoustic lament about the toll it takes. It's pretty simple and straightforward. "A lot of great artists get affected by that," he said, introducing the song before one live performance. "A lot of great art goes down the drain."

6.  "King Heroin," James Brown (1972)

I came to this country without a passport
Ever since then I've been hunted and sought
My little white grains are nothin' but waste
Soft and deadly and bitter to taste

I'm a world of power and all know it's true
Use me once and you'll know it, too
I can make a mere schoolboy forget his books
I can make a world-famous beauty neglect her looks

I can make a good man forsake his wife
Send a greedy man to prison for the rest of his life
I can make a man forsake his country and flag
Make a girl sell her body for a five-dollar bag

The Godfather of Soul occasionally turned his sights to social issues ("Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," "Don't Be A Drop-Out"), and in this harrowing spoken-word recitation of a Manny Rosen poem, JB takes on junk in the hood. No ambiguity here; heroin is bad news, but the song worked out pretty well for Brown—it hit number 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number six on the Billboard R&B charts.

7. "The Needle and the Spoon," Lynyrd Skynrd (1974)

I've been feelin' so sick and tired
Got to get better, lord before I die
Seven doctors couldn't help my head, they said
You better quit, son before you're dead

Quit the needle. Quit the spoon
Quit the trip to the moon

The star-crossed Southern rockers warned, "Don't mess with that needle!" in this driving anthem. Ronnie Van Zant and the rest of the band were living hard on the road, with drink and drugs aplenty, and they might have been looking in the mirror when they wrote this. The song also contains the lyric, "I'm coming home on an airplane flight," a chilling reminder of the 1977 plane crash that killed three band members, including Van Zant.

8. "Golden Brown," The Stranglers (1981)

Golden Brown texture like sun

Lays me down with my mind she runs

Throughout the night

No need to fight

Never a frown with Golden Brown

No angst here; this is a song that's unambiguous about the pleasures of smack and has nothing to say about any downsides. It was also a massive hit for the Guilford, UK-based band, which began as mid-'70s pub rockers, transformed themselves into punks, then transcended easy genre classifications entirely by the 1980s. Lah-dee-dah, a languid, happy heroin tune.

9. "Carmelita," Flaco Jimenez and Dwight Yoakum (1992)

"I'm sitting here playing solitaire with my pearl-handled deck,

The county won't give me no more methadone, and they cut off your welfare check.

Carmelita, hold me tighter, I believe I'm sinking down,

And I'm all strung out on heroin on the outskirts of town."

This wistfully evocative tune was written by master songwriter Warren Zevon ("Werewolves of London," "Lawyers, Guns, and Money"), but Flaco's quivering norteño accordion and Yoakum's quavering country vocals paint the definitive aching portrait of junkiedom on the edges of Los Angeles. "I hear mariachi static on my radio…."

10. "Heroin Girl," Everclear (1995)

I heard the policeman say 'Just another overdose! Just another overdose!' Now I'm living in my white trash hell with my heroin girl.

Junk never really went away, and Art Alexakis and the boys earned an entry in the heroin songbook with this crunchy, angst-ridden gem of a '90s rocker. Throbbing power chords  and Alexakis' aching vocals tell the tale of love and loss among the lost kids of the day. A very bad case of ennui, indeed.


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