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.