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Miscellaneous - Velvet Underground and Soul Music

  by Mark Rowland

published: 6 / 9 / 2010

Miscellaneous - Velvet Underground and Soul Music


In our 'Soundtrack of Our Lives' column, in which a different writer writes each month about the personal impact of music on them, Mark Rowland describes how an an unhappy adolescence led to him discovering both the Velvet Underground and soul music

This has been very difficult to write, for two reasons. One: I’m not used to writing something so personal, and two: after the brilliant, heartfelt entries that other writers have produced for this column, it was hard to know how to follow them. Anyway, I had a pretty tough time of it at school. With hindsight, it could have been worse. I could’ve been beaten up every day, or scarred, or something. I got verbal abuse more than anything. But it all mainly centred around aspects of my looks, or something similar, and if you’re hearing that sort of stuff regularly, it can take its toll, particularly when you’re a teenager, because you tend to worry about that stuff. So by 16, I was deeply insecure about the way I looked – my weight, my face, my hair, even – I worried about them constantly. My self-esteem was at rock bottom, as was my confidence. During the summer after I finished my GCSEs, I left the house just once. I got the bus into town, walked straight into a music shop, bought an album, and got the exact same bus on its return journey back home. The rest of the time, I just listened to music and watched the old Basil Rathbone 'Sherlock Holmes' films – they showed one every day on BBC Two during the week. I had a group of friends, but I didn’t really trust them, and never felt myself around them, so I didn’t bother hanging out with them. By the time I went back to school, the lack of human contact had made me pretty weird. I have to point out that this was not some deep-seeded clinical depression. It was a pathetic, teenage sort of misery, the kind you can get over. It took me about two and a half years to completely get my head sorted and lose my hang ups altogether. The fact that I was nearing the end of my teens by then is probably no coincidence, but I believe that it could have affected me for a lot longer if, with the support of a few friends, I hadn’t fought against the feelings of inadequacy that had ruined my teens. Music, of course, played a big part in that. All through my teens, I knew I could trust music. It always made me feel better. First, it was all grunge and Nirvana, then punk and metal. Then that started to get boring, so I slowly started to diversify. Nowadays, I’ll pretty much listen to anything, as long as it’s good. The music that I particularly want to write about is the stuff that reminds me of being 19. I think that was the first time I felt comfortable and confident, and a lot of things stated to improve for me. As a result, the music I was listening to at the time can’t help but make me smile. There are plenty of honourable mentions: Pavement, Daniel Johnston, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, Jeff Buckley, Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson, Wilco, the Flaming Lips, Quasi, Jurassic 5, Antipop Consortium, Public Enemy – I associate all of them with that year, and all of them can raise a smile without fail. But now, I’ll get to the point. I consider the Velvet Underground to be a bigger deal than all of those. I got into them when I was about 18, and they quickly became one of my favourite bands. I listened to them a lot, and I actually expanded my circle of friends through a shared love of the Velvet Underground. I remember having pub conversations about 'Pale Blue Eyes' – we were under the impression that it was the greatest love song ever (a tall order, but we were still young). That song came to have greater meaning when I met a lovely blue-eyed girl in my first few weeks of university. We’ve been together ever since. So, for me, the Velvet Underground will always be associated with those first, part-formed feelings of love. Even more important for me in that year was the discovery of soul, which I consumed at a rate of knots throughout that year. It was fast paced, bright, and above all, it made me want to dance. Not chuck myself around in a mosh pit or throw shapes in moronic clubs, really dance; express myself without thought or self-consciousness; to lose myself in the music, for want of a better phrase. There was a little toilet of a club called the Union Bar in Maidstone, which had a reputation for being a place for dirty grungy types. In fairness, they usually would play rock and metal for the first hour of the night. But after a brief selection of indie hits, the place would play soul music, 60s beat, and a little funk. From that point onwards, I wouldn’t leave the dance floor. I would go there and dance at least two nights a week. I was probably the fittest I’ve ever been during that time. That’s not to say that I was actually a good dancer, but being a good dancer wasn’t really the point. In a way, it taught me not to care what other people were doing and concentrate on what I enjoyed. Plus it was bloody good fun, and between its regulars, there was some sense of community. I’m very glad I had a year of working and having fun before heading to university, where I was able to fully embrace my newfound confidence. Of course, a lot of people discover themselves and become more confident around that point in their lives. I’m not special. But I’ve been fortunate enough to live a very happy and comfortable life, and those teenage years are the closest thing to drama I’ve ever had. Still, it’s nice to remember that year, and how much fun it was. I don’t do anywhere near as much dancing now, and these days I would probably be a bit more self-conscious. But without that opportunity for self-expression, I might not be as outgoing. Now before this starts to sound too much like Kevin Bacon’s rubbish speech from 'Footloose', I will bid you farewell.

Visitor Comments:-
350 Posted By: Lisa, Chicago on 18 Sep 2010
But, then again, Mark, how many songs would not have been written if it had not been for "teenage misery?" Thank you for sharing such a sensitive part of your life. Many of us can really relate... Lisa

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