There’s a cliché that, like many rock fans, I’ve said often: if it’s too loud, you’re too old. It was once a generational brag (and diss), the rock fan’s version of a red badge of courage. Maybe it’s not so funny anymore. Now I wince when I hear it.
Last month, I watched electric guitarist/singer Bob Mold blow down the doors of Paradise in Boston. The rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of a jet engine taking off, the sound ripping through every part of your body.
I had seen Mold many times, dating from his band, Husker Du. He is always in a trio, with a bass player and a drummer on board. Mold has damage to his ears – at least tinnitus – and his playing has always been rock ‘n’ roll max volume. I always come prepared, with custom-fit earplugs that filter highs and lows equally. To hell with protective preparation, they played for 75 minutes and my ears rang for days.
A long time ago, Neil Young wrote a song about heroin addiction called “The Needle and the Damage Done.” Call this piece “Music and the Damage Caused”.
If you’ve played in bands or attended lots of rock shows, chances are it’s your life that has, even unintentionally, caused ear damage.
The brain processes the music – releases those endorphins when it’s great – but the ear is the conduit. If doing something you love kills the pleasure of what you love, there is a very painful irony. There’s a math: is that journey through mega-decibel country the acceptable cost to enjoy what you love?
I’ve been a rock fan since childhood and a professional rock critic since I was 19. The period from yesterday to today encompasses more than four decades and several thousand concerts. Did I slowly kill the organ that gave me so much pleasure?
Years ago, I interviewed The Who bassist John Entwistle after he played a crushing gig with his one-man band. The Who have long been considered one of rock’s loudest bands. Entwistle’s group was similar. His initial response was the same for every question: “What?” With a repeat of the question, he could mostly follow.
I probably chuckled a little. I now know where it came from.
I’ve always liked it very much. No, not painfully, but the gig volume issues were out of my control. I saw Ramones at CBGB in 1977, front row, and it was punk rock nirvana. No pain, exactly, but my ears rang for a week. I considered it a justifiable risk and thought I dodged a figure bullet. But, eventually, you realize that hearing loss doesn’t necessarily occur immediately after a loud bang, but builds up gradually over time.
And there have been many other notable sound booms over time: gigs from Motorhead, AC/DC, The Who, Black Sabbath, Swans and Pixies, to name a few.
My audiologist, Megan Ott, says I have “pitch and high frequency loss in both ears, a sharp drop in the 3000-8000 hertz range, and a 40-50 dB loss.”
This damage, she adds, results in “moderate hearing loss” – difficulty picking up a conversation in a crowded restaurant, difficulty hearing speech in some movies and TV shows and, as my wife can testify, issues with where the female voice is often spoken. .
Ott says anything over 85 dB can cause hearing loss. Workout classes in the gym can exceed 100 dB, rock concerts can reach 115 dB.
I asked several musicians with damaged ears if it was worth it and how they got away with it. Guitarist Roger Miller had to break up his rising post-punk band Mission of Burma in 1983 due to worsening tinnitus. (They got back together in 2002, with Miller wearing rifle-grade hearing protection.)
Miller, also keyboardist for the silent film band Alloy Orchestra, recognizes what he has lost but also what he has gained. He’s 67 and made peace with tinnitus a long time ago, thinking “part of me knew I had to make a really good rock record and I made this really good rock record with [Burma’s] ‘vs.’ And I pay so much attention to sound, sometimes I transcend my tools. I can listen to a stream and hear how many different sounds are there.
Jonathan Kane, co-founder of Swans, has played in dozens of downtown New York bands, including the massive electric guitar ensembles led by Rhys Chatham and the raunchy avant-garde minimalist La Monte Young. A 2009 album under his own name is called “Jet Ear Party”.
The 62-year-old has always been a self-proclaimed hard-hitting drummer.
Kane has chronic hearing loss and tinnitus. He professes no regrets – “I lost my hearing trying to play music that matters to me and I’m proud of it” – but started wearing earplugs in 1991. had to be redone,” he says, “Maybe I would have worn earplugs sooner. It’s not fun, but it becomes a necessity after a while.
It’s still something a lot of musicians don’t want to talk about, adds Kane, “but I’m way beyond that. I prefer to operate as a public service announcement for people.
As for me, not on stage, but in the crowd, I would second that emotion. At some point, and I guess this point is now for me, you have to strike a balance. Enjoy the music, but bring earplugs to every gig, even if you don’t need them. Recognize that quality of life – from enjoying a concert to participating in a conversation – is affected by hearing loss. You cannot reverse the damage done, but you stop doing that damage.