The Treble and the Damage Done

Author Brett Anderson
Publication Twin Cities Reader
Date January 11th, 1995

Rock machismo lives, despite the threat of permanent hearing loss.

Sometimes my ears ring dull and low. I hear something that sounds like a cross between the hum of a Hammond organ and the purr of a well-tuned luxury car. Other times the noise is a faint, high squeal that alternately surges and recedes like surf. Most often, my head hisses like the inside of seashell, causing a cool sensation that feels like my ears are leaking gas. As unpredictable as the nature of my own private echoes might be, it's certain that I will awake from a night spent sucking down loud rock music with a hangover that has nothing to do with booze.

I'm not alone.

For those often exposed to seriously loud entertainment -rock musicians, roadies, club employees, regular clubgoers -dealing with the occasional ear abnormality is a commonly accepted side effect of an appetite for noise. Although people's ears don't react identically after being exposed to extreme noise, the most common symptom is a light ringing, similar to what you might hear if a gun went off near your head.

Doctors refer to the sonically induced head cold as a "temporary threshold shift." After showing me slides depicting the delicatehair cells in the ear that are responsible for vibrating noise into recognizable sound, Dr. Sam Levine, an otolaryngologist at the University of Minnesota, proceeds to detail the beating I'm giving my most valued sense.

"What happens is the hair cells are damaged, but they're not dead, " he explains. "As they're damaged, you lose some of yourhearing. Most of the time, if you get out of the environment, your hair cells will recover somewhat. Each day, it [your hearing] comes back, but not as good as it did the day before. Eventually, over a long period of time, hair cells are permanently damaged instead of temporarily damaged."

Most people would rather believe that hearing loss is like car accidents, violent crime and tax audits -- something that affects other people. There are some famous cases. Who guitarist Pete Townshend was perhaps the first major rock musician to bring public attention to the problems of hearing loss. During the band's 1989 reunion tour, the legendary ear-busting axeman had to be isolated onstage, away from all of the other musicians and the P.A. equipment, and he strummed an acoustic guitar, because of a severe case of the hearing condition called tinnitus.

Two years later, rumor spread widely that Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner had tinnitus. Although he never has confirmed it to the press, his band's sudden turn to acoustic music and the temporary use of a sound- deflecting barrier around Grant Young's drums lent credence to the report. Bob Mould has spoken out about his heating loss, telling Rolling Stone last year, "I know I'm reaching the end of what I can do because of my hearing."

No one who witnessed Husker Du or Soul Asylum muscling the volume knobs ever higher during the 1980's should be surprised to hear that Mould and Pirner now mumble the occasional, "Wha'd you say?" Same goes for Townshend, whose Who made the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's loudest rock and roll band.

Dr. Levine says regular exposure to noise that exceeds 85 decibels "is considered to be dangerous." For perspective, the doc says a normal conversation should measure about 50 dB,and a chart in his office has a food blender checking in at 88 dB, a jet flying overhead at 103 dB, a rivet machine at 110 dB and a rock band topping out the list at 114 dB.

Bill Batson, lead singer of the Mighty Mofos and stage manager since 1983 in the 7th St. Entry, estimates that Entry shows average about 112 dB, but he concedes that on occasion "there are probably hotter frequencies." Conrad Sverkerson, stage manager in First Avenue's mainroom, says that an infamously loud My Bloody Valentine show was said to have reached "like 120 dBs back at the house [sound] board."

Levine, speaking at a hearty 70 dB ("I'm loud because I talk to people who are deaf all the time"), says that repeated exposure and certain pitches are the biggest contributors to permanent ear damage. High sounds (like guitar squeals and cymbal crashes) wreak the most havoc on hearing. Sitting in front of the speakers with unprotected ears at a Jesus Lizard concert is hardly a brilliant move, but your ears do get time to heal during band's between-song lapses and your own trips to the biffy.

Cows drummer Norm Rogers says he only notices hearing problems when his band is on a busy tour. At the tail end of a grueling European jaunt, for instance, he says the scene in the band's van was like "being in a geriatric home. It was pathetic. We were screaming at each other because we just couldn't hear a thing."

People react to the effects of hearing loss in different ways. As someone who's been treating his ears with the same affection a boxer re-serves for his speed bag, I have compensated by learning to get a freakish thrill out of the sounds in my head, or to tune them out if I so please.

Rogers, who doesn't wear ear-plugs and says he isn't terribly concerned about hearing loss, echoes the opinion of many musicians. "I'm just at a point where I know if I'm going to play music I'm going to have to deal with some ear dam- age" he says. "But, I mean, I don't need to hear the worms crawling underground or anything."

Benno Nelson, leader of the band National Dynamite and a First Avenue staffer, can't shrug off ear damage with such ease. Tinnitus gives him a constant ringing in his ears, a sure sign of partial hearing loss. Levine explains that everyone has the ringing in their ears, but "because most of us have normal hearing, our hearing of environmental noises masks out the sound. If the hair cell is damaged or destroyed, what comes out is an abhor-mal sound that's not physically created. It's a sound that's literally 'in your head.'"

Because of his tinnitus, Nelson has a hard time playing live with his band and has to steer clear of most concerts, be-cause the loud music only intensifies the ringing in his head. "The most depressing thing for me is it affects what I do," says Nelson, as he displays a high-tech assortment of earplugs he has to use while playing or when he's at a club. "It's like you're a writer and someone says you can still write, you just can't read anymore.

Most annoying to Nelson is teasing from people who for whatever reason are able to withstand big noise without hearing loss. "My friends say I'm a puss, and I'm just like, 'Look, if you could be inside my head, you wouldn't think that.' I mean, sometimes it will get so bad, I'll think to myself, 'Could this drive me crazy? Will the ringing ever stop? "It fucking sucks."

No hard data explains why people react differently to hearing loss, but Levine confirms the variations. "You and I could literally have the same hearing loss and it could drive you nuts and disable you from working, and yet I might be able to be fine with it."

Given the treble and the damage done, why aren't bands turning down the volume ? Why are 25-cent earplugs still such a relatively rare sight in clubhounds' ears?

Like anything that's bad for your body, absorbing healthy doses of deafening monster rock happens to be awe- some. For me, wearing earplugs during a show is akin to eating a hoagie without the mayonnaise -- it's dry and altogether unsatisfying.

One local musician insists that high volume is simply part of the package. "It's totally fucking cool. It's rock and roll," says the musician, who also suffers from tinnitus and lives with "a gentle, soothing ring at about 6 kilohertz."

"My ears used to get like warm," he says of his days before tinnitus. "They'd get warm and tingle when I'd totally be jammin' to loudness, and I love that sensation."

Batson, who sometimes will wear protection while he works, says turning it down or throwing in plugs aren't really options when The Mofos take to the stage.

"Decibels or volume, to me, are like a mask," he says, getting to the root of the sound drug. "I can wear it and I'm not me anymore. Also, I'm not so sure wearing earplugs onstage is the best way to be creative."

But could continuing to go without earplugs lead to deafness? "Absolutely, " Levine says. "There's no cure for tinnitus or hearing loss. Your ears are trying to tell you something. That ringing is the scream of your hair cells dying. Each time you do that, more and more damage is done."

Notoriously Ferociously Loud Live Bands:

Hammerhead, Cows, Motrhead, Prong, My Bloody Valentine, Sugar, Skinny Puppy, Einstürzende Neubauten, Sonic Youth, Babes in Toyland