The handful of lyricists involved in the '67 triumvirate we have been discussing were writing satires and critiques of the then-nascent counterculture, and these satires and critiques were aimed at the center of said counterculture. Elders in the West would've liked for the counterculture to remain marginal, but by '67 it was massive enough (backed by the Baby Boomers' demographics) that it was impossible to ignore. What was counterculture, taken to the nth? What types of characters dwelt in the margins of the counterculture? In New York, Pop-Art icon Andy Warhol was bypassing the countercultural center and making movies employing the junkies, speed freaks, transvestites, and deviant fetishists who were too left even for the left- marginal characters leading extreme lives. Warhol's protege Lou Reed produced a cache of songs in '67 which reflected similar concerns. The characters who populate The Velvet Underground and Nico have an inverse relationship to the Beatles' Everyman who dominates Sgt. Pepper- Reed's characters, like Jean Genet's, manifest extreme Otherness. To add "Heroin" as a centerpiece to the triumvirate of centerpieces I have already erected ("A Day in the Life," "2000 Light Years from Home," "When the Music's Over"), is to flip a bunch of positions at once. "Heroin," lyrically, is a dramatic monologue in the first person- it is the closest rock has ever come to Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Rather than being crushed by banality because he is part of it, as in the Beatles, Reed's protagonist rebels against banality by crucifying himself on the cross of his drug.
The dynamic between "Heroin" and the Stones is even more intriguing- Reed's subject owns his own loneliness, is fully cognizant of the destructiveness of the society he lives in and is staging a conscious rebellion. He may be alienated, but in his self-possession he is certainly "home." It's his marginal position which allows him to see his society so clearly- what's visible from the outside in isn't necessarily visible from the inside, and if you're seeing clearly there's no chance to fly off into space. The Doors and the Velvets back and forth set up a dynamic between a personal and a generalized apocalypse- Reed grants Morrison's digressions a concrete center. Reed's protagonist talks from inside "What've they done to the Earth/ What've they done to our fair sister?" The rebellion enacted in "Heroin" is against destruction with more destruction- the degradation of the protagonist's body is a manner of elevating his soul. It's the spiritual trumping the material, and the act of ingesting heroin (which is rendered dramatically in the rise and fall of the music) a manifestation of courage and heroism, just as the Beatles' Everyman cowers behind routinized behaviors and the Stones' space cadets pretend to be enjoying their trips. The irony is that we don't have to grant Reed's protagonist the premise he presents- we can interrogate whether or not we find him to be courageous for injecting heroin. What if we find him to be merely narcissistic? He wants us to believe it's more transcendental (and spiritual) not to care, to disengage or not even register "the dead bodies piled up in mounds," to "nullify (his) life."
Living on the margins is a double-edged sword- you get to see the massive and imposing center more clearly, but what (and who) sustains you? What's your community? There is no "you" to the "I" in "Heroin"; but the "you" is there in the background, and Reed's audience was (and is) encouraged to put together the clues as to how this particular Hamlet became this haunted. It would be difficult to read "Heroin" as a satire- the lyrics are presented in deadly earnest, and we are encouraged to sympathize with the protagonist. In many ways, it's the warmest of the four centerpieces, and the most human. That's a distinguishing characteristic of Lou Reed's writing, right up until the present day and against Jagger, Morrison, and Lennon-McCartney- his characters breathe, they have an emotional life. Other songs on The Velvet Underground and Nico, like "I'll Be Your Mirror," represent the joy of simple (and complex) human connection in a way that eludes the Beatles, Stones, and Doors. It's an interesting conglomerate of sensibilities- marginal characters leading lives on-edge, but still able to relate, rather than alienated center-dwellers. The fact that male and female voices alternate on the album adds a sense of androgyny to the songs- it could be glossed as simple bisexuality (as if bisexuality were ever simple) or an enactment of the communal impulse that the Beatles, Stones, and Doors skewer.
It's another irony that's difficult to steer around- that margin-dwellers are capable of maintaining closer relationships than centrists. One reason that the deviant sex of "Venus in Furs" is so evocative is that the roles participants play in S & M scenarios are intimate. If "Venus in Furs" didn't sound so intimate (and distinctive, owing to John Cale's contribution), it would be merely imposing and eerie. As is, it's also touching. There's a whole history of this kind of literature- the intimacy of marginality and transgression. But before Lou Reed and the Velvets, there'd never been anything in popular music quite like this. In a sense, the Velvets rebelled against the timeliness of the Beatles, Stones, and Doors with timelessness- naked portraits of human essences rendered in such a way that they aren't limited by the confines of '67.