When silence is a stranger: my battle with hearing damage as a musician
Silence has been a stranger to me for over thirty years, I still remember the event that popped my cherry for good and my hearing has never been the same since. Not only do I suffer piercing tinnitus in both ears, but also extreme sensitivity in one ear that prevents me from working on my music with anything other than a volume level comparable to a one or two on most people’s home stereo players.
As a musician, to have a hearing disability can be catastrophic including the fear of going deaf as age progresses. As a producer, working with the fine details of recorded music, its engineering & preparation for public exposure, healthy acute hearing is paramount. I am both, a musician & producer and because of my hearing damage I know, and have come to accept, that my work suffers accordingly.
I have been playing loud music in bands and attending concerts and gigs since the 1970s. A particular gig in 1980, in which I was a punter, caused me irreparable damage as I was very close to the 3 bin-stack high decibel speaker system all night, the room being packed solid with people, my right ear closest to the noise. It is the right ear that I’ve had the most painful issues with since, together with progressively worsening tinnitus in both ears.
When exposed to music, even at low volumes, the right ear feels as if there's an unbearable pressure pushing down on it, hearing sensitivity drops, all the high frequencies fail to register, my concentration suffers; actually I feel as if there's a foreign object in the right of my head that I desperately want to get out. At the worst of times, it becomes like a madness, an invasion within my head that I cannot tolerate.
As well as the right ear swelling sensation, my tinnitus, in both ears, manifests as a multitude of disturbing high pitched ringing tones together with white noise, like the drone of thousands of cicadas next to a busy freeway. Back in those years no one thought of or considered ear protection, as a musician or as audience. I was both and I certainly copped it both ways. A day doesn’t pass that I do not regret my naivety and the ignorance that dominated in that era with regards to loud music and hearing damage.
I began wearing ear defenders in the 1990s in order to protect the remaining hearing I had. Throughout my touring years with Real Life, 1996-2005, I never performed or rehearsed without them but by 2005 it became apparent to me that if I continued I’d be a good candidate for early age deafness. This was the key reason I reluctantly left the band.
Living with a hearing impediment is a bitter pill to swallow as music has been and continues to be my life and love and I cannot appreciate it the way I once did, nor allow myself to listen to it for extended periods. I have a collection of so many albums, a library of music that stretches from the 1920’s to date and I often wish that I could immerse myself into that magic, historic world once more. To appreciate the fullness of audio, its bass low frequencies & smooth, clean tops requires a little volume in order for good ambient speakers (ie not earphones) to work efficiently; even this sensible volume is something I haven’t been able to tolerate for years.
Working on Alien Skin music has forced me to slow down and acquire the patience I never had in earlier years. The torrent of activity which once was my modus operandi now gives way to short periods of patchwork productivity. It is sometimes frustrating to move so slow but it’s my only tolerable method of work. Unwisely I do break that discipline occasionally and suffer the consequences with my right ear. Presently as I write this, I am in such a condition of right ear retaliation and a brain bludgeoning tinnitus level. It’s been like this for 2 weeks and I can only hope each time that it doesn’t remain this way permanently.
Every Alien Skin album I release is consequently a true labour of love & pain. I’m always so relieved to see an album recorded, mixed, mastered and in a CD wallet…and out of the way for good so my ears can begin to heal for awhile.