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Ear today, gone tomorrow? AC/DC singer’s hearing loss should send message

I’m fairly certain my hearing was permanently damaged on May 24, 1991, when I found myself in the front row for AC/DC’s performance at the old Aud.

They were the loudest band I’d experienced in concert up to that time, and in the 23 years since, that particular show was never topped, in terms of the sheer cranium-rattling decibel level conjured by the five musicians, their wall of Marshall amps, and a massive PA system manned by a sound technician who clearly favored blasting the assembled into frenzied submission over a more subtle approach.

Recalling this experience, and the many like it that have followed, I was not particularly surprised when I learned that AC/DC’s show scheduled for First Niagara Center on March 29 had been postponed, after doctors told lead singer Brian Johnson that continuing touring would likely lead to complete hearing loss.

Bummed? Yes. Shocked? No.

Let’s face it: Rock music sounds best loud. I feel comfortable speaking for most lifer rock fans and musicians when I suggest that feeling the bass drum thumping you in the chest, sensing the bass guitar rattling your intestines, hearing the whole ensemble crushing it at the decibel level of a jet engine howling during takeoff – these are part of the experience.

Rock ’n’ roll is a visceral art form. When it isn’t loud, it sounds too polite, restrained, and largely ineffective. (I’m of the belief that jazz, classical and pretty much any other musical subgenre sounds better loud, too, much to the chagrin of my various neighbors over the years.)

Having said this, let me backpedal a bit, and make it clear that I don’t consider hearing loss to be some sort of joke, particularly at the level at which AC/DC’s Johnson is experiencing it.

When I was 13, after years and years of suffering serious (and seriously painful) ear infections, my doctor discovered a tumor in my left ear. It was determined to be noncancerous, and my condition was soon diagnosed as a Cholesteatoma, a cyst that grows into the middle ear and mastoid.

The thing had gone undiagnosed for too long – we moved from Massachusetts to the Saratoga region that year, and by necessity, my parents found me a new ear specialist, who spotted the tumor right away, and was flabbergasted that my previous doctor hadn’t caught it. So by the time I was diagnosed, the cyst had wrapped around all of the bones in my middle ear, decimated the eardrum, and worked its way into my lower skull. Needless to say, I suffered immense hearing loss when the offending mass was removed.

By this point, I was already slavishly devoted to music, and I played it loud, too, blasting the stereo when my parents weren’t home, or slapping on my beloved pair of Koss headphones – the noise-cancelling ones with the big ol’ foam ear cushions – when my father didn’t find the prospect of hearing Rush’s “Hemispheres,” the Who’s “Live at Leeds,” or Led Zeppelin’s “Physical Graffiti” rumbling through the floor after a hard day at the office particularly enticing.

I started playing guitar right around this time as well, and as soon as I saved enough money from my paper route to buy a halfway decent guitar and sizable amplifier, I was routinely kicking out the ferociously loud (and even more ferociously rudimentary and awful) jams in various basement and garage combos.

I knew I was hurting my hearing. But I did it anyway.

I’ve been playing music at high volumes and attending concerts nonstop ever since. Somewhat miraculously, my hearing in the affected ear has improved since the surgery, quite possibly because I’ve trained that ear to hear again by using it constantly, and have seriously curtailed my use of loud headphones for the past 20 years or so. (I never use earbuds. Those things are terrible. I’m convinced that the long-term effects of blasting music directly into your ear canal will be a negative one.) I also protect my ears when performing or attending loud concerts, particularly when situated adjacent to the PA columns.

Anyone who goes to rock shows needs to wear hearing protection. Even the cheap, squishy earplugs you can buy in bulk at the corner drugstore will do the trick. You need to protect your hearing from the upper mid- and high-end frequencies blasting through state-of-the-art sound systems. Anything over 85 dB can cause damage; the average rock show routinely reaches 120 dB, and some artists – think AC/DC, for sure, but hip-hop, country and alt-pop shows often push the limit, too – can exceed 130 dB.

This is why Johnson has no choice but to stop touring. He has destroyed his hearing by overexposure to the most damaging frequencies. Artists like Pete Townshend of the Who, Eric Clapton, Neil Young and Ozzy Osbourne are in the same boat.

Music is my life. Suffering hearing loss has been a real handicap, one that I’ve overcome only through sheer bloody-mindedness. I wouldn’t wish it on any fellow music lover.

Imagine a world without music. I think I’d agree with the quote scrawled on the exterior of Nietzsche’s in Allentown, attributed to the club’s namesake philosopher – “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

Protect what you’ve got. You’ll be glad you did.


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