My Psychedelic Love for The Velvet Underground/Happy 30th Birthday To Me

sarah paolantonio

When I found The Velvet Underground’s fourth record Loaded, the pink clouds enamored me. I got lost in their bold, bright color even though I was in a dusty basement record store.

I spent my entire adolescence reading about hippies and the counterculture of the 1960s (my specialty), fascinated by psychedelia. And here on the other side of the country while The Summer of Love was happening in San Francisco in 1967, The Velvet Underground was writing about buying heroin in Harlem.

Before they were The Velvet Underground, they were The Warlocks. Which is also true for The Grateful Dead, a weird coincidence, maybe? Both bands started as a house band to do drugs to, both attracted a certain culture and communality between like-thinkers. Each band developed a style of music still unique decades later. I am constantly wandering between the interconnectedness of both bands’ psychedelia.

The Velvets’ psychedelia comes in short bursts, like a cloud. “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” at the end of Loaded is a great long song and maybe the best sign-off song ever. It’s completely miserable and stellar and crystal clear. The closing high is a form of ecstasy and puts me in a trance. I remember when I heard it for the first time, my mind expanded down a different side corridor where darkness and sadness are OK — a different side of psychedelia that isn’t rolling fields, flowers, flowing skirts, and Technicolor — a different side of classic rock.

When I think about 1967 I think about The Beatles writing and releasing Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band — some say the record that kicked off The Summer of Love — and The Velvet Underground simultaneously writing and releasing The Velvet Underground & Nico (thanks to Andy Warhol, of course).

When The Beatles were writing one of the most psychedelic records in history, one of the most celebrated albums in recorded music, and the first ever concept album… about peace, love, sunshine, a swirling circus, with sitar, and a general celebration of life once you’ve broken your head open on the rock that is LSD and discovered true beauty and freedom…The Velvets were writing about the exact opposite: needles, shiny leather, prostitution, and failed surgery, all to the drone of an electric viola.

This parallel yet alternate storyline to the 1960s through a hanging cloud spiked my brain. The Velvets’ records became an electric daydream to me, something to slip into anytime. As I continue my adult education on all things hippie, the 1960s, and their darkness, this feeling I have of The Velvets as a psychedelic band grows stronger every day.

There’s the backwards-spinning sound of The Velvet Underground. There’s the bend of wire strings in the wrong direction, occasional organ, spoken word, weird noises, darkness, mystery. I had never encountered anything on a record like this before. There was a freedom in it in the way they were being themselves. I fell in love with the music, how different it was, how different it made me feel, and how it projected the world in a completely new way.

Today I turn 30 and it feels great to grow up. I know who I am and what I want. I decided to commemorate this with a tattoo because adults make decisions about their own bodies and this is what I’ve done with mine.

The pink clouds I had carved into my shoulder are mine. I put them in a place where I can choose who sees them, a thought I didn’t realize would mean so much to me until after they’re were there. I got them for myself and no one else.

The Velvets made me change my mind about so much. They made me pay attention to so much more music and so many more feelings. They’re a beginning in my music discovery, when I was slowly realizing that every band is someone’s favorite: there is too much music out there to ever be right or wrong about a song or album or artist; there is too much music out there to even try to hear it all. I will never stop learning about music, and that has become its best part.

When I discovered Loaded I was discovering individuality in myself. I was detaching from a previously inseparable friendship that left me feeling empty. I had no idea who I was when I was with this person, so I made a change. Loaded was happening to me when I was realizing I control how people treat me and I don’t have to waste my time with people who make me feel bad. This tattoo is a reminder of that, to remind me who I am. A reminder of the gritty side of life: that it’s usually pretty ugly but you can’t ignore it. Sometimes, bright colors come with gloom.

The clouds are so pink and crisp I can taste them. They’re a crunch of fresh air on my teeth. When they’re not whispering, the feelings of The Velvets are all sharp elbows. The notes are tight, but they can also stretch like taffy when pulled on. I love this about them. I love everything about them.

A cloud is a haze, and only a wisp when you’re actually up close to it — and we are so rarely close to them. Clouds are a faint memory, a dream, or déjà vu. Sometimes I wish I could burst into a pink cloud and just hover above myself.

The idea of making a cloud permanent only occurred to me after.

sarah paolantonio

Written by

recovered music programmer, merry prankster, MFA. i'll be your hippie.

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