Heroin isn't mentioned in "Perfect Day". The subject lurks in the sub- text, the lair of the interpreter. Of course, decoding song lyrics carries the danger of over-interpretation. But there's little doubt "Perfect Day" is about heroin. Many genres of music have their drug of influence. For reggae it is marijuana. For rave music it is ecstasy. Only once you have listened to Bob Marley when stoned does the lilt of reggae click into place. Listen to dance music when under the influence of MDMA and finally rave makes sense.
The link between heroin and the music of Lou Reed is well established. An essay in the International Journal of Drug Policy quotes one former heroin user who said he thought "Lou Reed was rubbish now that he had stopped using heroin".
On the surface "Perfect Day" is a bittersweet ballad about two lovers who spend a day together, drinking sangria in the park, at the zoo. That's the sweet bit; but the relationship here is as easily read as not the author's love for another person, but his connection to something equally transforming. The relationship in the song is fed by the push and draw of addiction. "You just keep me hanging on", sings Reed. The object of the singer's affections transforms him, but the change is temporary: "You made me forget myself. I thought I was someone else, someone good." The "you" in the song is heroin.
If you understand the lyrics of this song as only the story of two lovers, then the last line doesn't make much sense. "You're going to reap just what you sow". Who is the singer talking to? The lover? The listener? The lines make sense for the BBC as a curt little reminder of the virtue of the licence fee. If you understand the song as about drugs, it makes perfect sense.
Interpretation can always be pushed too far. But this song is not about transvestism, say, or electroshock therapy, the subjects of two of Reed's other songs, "Walk on the Wild Side" and "Kill Your Sons". It was no accident that this is the track used in Trainspotting when the lead character, Renton, overdoses on class A narcotics, but "Perfect Day" is not about heroin because it was used in Trainspotting. The song was used in Trainspotting because it is about heroin.
Okay, say "Perfect Day" isn't about heroin addiction. It's about two people who have a really nice day and the only sub-text is that they might have held hands. In that case, Ionesco's Rhinoceros is simply about people turning into pachyderms and Brazil is what film-maker Terry Gilliam thinks the future will actually be like (especially the hats).
Not that one has to be aware of the drug subtext to enjoy "Perfect Day". It is a great song, and the BBC has produced an astonishing video, and I agree with the message. It's a wonderful version of a wonderful track. I'll be among the first to buy it. Jane Frost, head of corporate and brand marketing at the BBC, who was among those who chose the song, insists "this song has nothing to do with drug use". The point is, this song expresses more about drug use than it does about the fact that an organisation like the BBC should be funded by a system like the licence fee. "Perfect Day" is too good a song to be reduced to the status of a strapline. To throw Reed's words back at the BBC's marketing team, "you're going to reap just what you sow".
The writer is media editor of `Wallpaper' magazine.