Music October 2011

I Gave My Ears to Rock and Roll

Wearing earplugs could have saved the author’s hearing, but at the cost of his soul.
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Courtesy Jone Fine: Original photograph by Martha Bayne

Above: The author playing guitar in New York City, in the late ’80s, his hearing more or less intact

What do you hear when there’s nothing to hear? Seriously. I want to know. A quarter century of playing rock music—all variations on an aggressive, highly amplified strain found in the post-hardcore American underground of the ’80s and ’90s—is permanently inscribed in my inner ear. For me, it stays loud when things are quiet. When I wake up and shut down the white-noise machine, I hear one everlasting tone, which generally hovers around A. One recent morning, a different note—fainter than the root note, but easily discernible—pealed distinctly in the middle of my right ear, a lone stalactite hanging in a cave.

Music is forever, especially if you turn it up enough, and many 30- and 40-something indie-rock grads have long subjected their ears to truly astonishing stress. I liked to lean my forehead on my amp’s speaker enclosure when I played guitar. I liked the vibrations it sent into my skull. Sometimes, mid-song in my first band’s practice space, I’d stick my head in the bass drum. On tour in Europe in 1990, I ended one song each night by getting within inches of my (very loud) amp to produce some feedback. At times I’d get sudden spikes of treble that would turn my stomach and make me stumble, as if they’d briefly deranged whatever whorls of plumbing in my ears govern balance.

Extreme volume is nerd-macho. I couldn’t bench-press 250 pounds—actually, I couldn’t bench-press half of 250 pounds—but my band was much louder than yours. I sneered at those who wore earplugs at their shows. Earplugs turned the picture to black-and-white. Why would you do that? Onstage, your eyesight whiting out from the stage lights and your ears roasting from the decibels, the air seemed suffused with pure adrenaline. It lit you up like a city at night.

I finally started wearing earplugs onstage in 2002, after playing a particularly deafening show. When I went to bed that night, I heard not one but two distinct tones ringing in my right ear. Others have worse stories.

“I had a really weird experience playing our penultimate show,” says Pat Mahoney, the drummer for the just-disbanded LCD Soundsystem. “We started playing a song we hadn’t played in a long time. And it was so loud and my ears were so fatigued, it was like being snow-blind. I could tell there was tremendous noise, but I couldn’t identify any of it … It was fucking terrifying.” (Mahoney, as you may have guessed, wasn’t wearing earplugs.)

I haven’t experienced anything that dramatic, aside from that feedback-induced near-emesis. But I have to lean in, far in, to hear people in noisy rooms. A meal or a drink somewhere loud means I lose my voice, especially if my wife isn’t there to remind me that I’m shouting in order to hear myself.

Not good.

When I visit an audiologist, Dr. Andrew Resnick, a guitarist who treats many New York musicians, he asks if I have trouble hearing: Left ear, right ear, both ears? (With background noise, both.) Ears ring? (Yes. But that doesn’t bother me too much.) How many hours a week on an iPod? (Maybe four.) Do I have a history of loud-noise exposure? (Heh. Yes. Lots.)

Over to the soundproof booth, where Dr. Resnick has me strap on some form-fitting headphones. The room is still and quiet. The ongoing symphony in my ears isn’t. This won’t work, I think nervously. I won’t hear anything over this ringing. The doctor plays a bunch of tones, low to high, quiet and quieter. He turns on background noise, like you’d hear at a bar or a party, and runs voices against it. He plays with the volume until the conversation I am supposed to decipher disappears in the clatter.

Here is where I’m supposed to say I’m sorry. Here is where I say we must respect the delicate membranes within our ears. Here is where I beg, in cloying tones, that we teach the children to learn from these mistakes.

Screw it. I don’t regret a thing. Sound transported us to places most people never get to see. When my old band got asked to reunite this year at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in the U.K., our concerns centered on practice logistics and plane schedules, not on our battered eardrums. The old basketball star walks gingerly on aching knees. Me? My ears ring. I can’t hear a thing you’re saying in this noisy bar. And it turns out that my left ear’s hearing is noticeably weaker in certain frequencies—it has what ear docs call the “noise notch” that afflicts those exposed to serious sound. But I’m okay enough. If not, well, I accept the physical penalty without complaint. For now, at least.

“I think I sacrificed some of my hearing to do this right,” LCD’s Mahoney tells me. “I have absolutely no regrets about that. But talk to me when I’m 60. It may be a huge bummer.”

After I visited Dr. Resnick, I called to interview him for this article, and at the end I asked if he’d worn earplugs onstage. “More often than not, no,” he admitted. “I found it a little difficult to wear them while performing, especially if you’re doing any singing.”

Maybe he’ll sort of understand, then, if we crank the volume all the way up, just a few more times, hoping nothing too bad will happen.

Jon Fine, a New York–based writer and advisor to digital ventures, is happily blowing his ears out with the reunited Bitch Magnet.
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