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Thursday, January 05, 2006

Pete Townshend Didn't Consider THIS Health Risk 

Remember Patti Smith? Well, I was listening to music on my HP rx1955 PDA (as long as I remove the SD card before shutting down, I don't have any problems). Specifically, I was listening to "E-Bow the Letter" from R.E.M. (from the same album that includes "Binky the Doormat"), which features a guest appearance by Patti Smith. The headphones were on, I was grooving away...

...and the next thing I knew, I was singing the words "I'll take you over"...audibly.

I immediately apologized to my co-workers, but they didn't seem to notice.

And no, Pete, I wasn't wearing ear buds.

For the record, here's what Pete said:

In the seventies I discovered I had badly damaged my hearing. I stopped touring with the Who a few years later. Hearing problems - made worse by my lack of self-care because of my heavy drinking on the road - were my chief concern at that time. When I refused to tour as a solo artist quite a few people called me lazy. When I began work in the quieter world of book publishing quite a few people thought me pretentious, despite my considerable success. I did feel churlish, and felt maybe I had overreacted.

Subsequently in 1989 I found that if I was careful on stage, and used smaller guitar rigs, my hearing didn't get any worse during a tour. A lot of fans complained my sound was not what it used to be, but there was no way I could back to massive six foot high amplifier rigs.

Another grand tour is now promised in 2006. This is a tour that rather depends on me writing new songs. This process has taken a long time. Many people may wonder why such a simple thing as recording a demo should take so long. I've spoken about the problem of cracking the right kind of material for the Who - but there is something else going on.

I have hearing trouble.

I have backed away from saying anything to medical or music journalists about my hearing. I think I am lucky, my case is not typical. I stopped touring and rock recording early enough to prevent the damage advancing too fast.

I've often said that although the Who have a reputation for being loud, as a live band we were usually only as loud as everyone else. We were, with Pink Floyd, simply one of the first UK bands to develop effective PA systems. People often confused the size of the rigs we started to use with loudness, not improved quality. By the way, this is not exclusively a British disease: the main leap in volume at live shows started in San Francisco with Bill Graham and the Grateful Dead.

But today, this very morning, after a night in the studio trying to crack a difficult song demo, I wake up realizing again - reminding myself, and feeling the need to remind the world - that my own particular kind of damage was caused by using earphones in the recording studio, not playing loud on stage. My ears are ringing, loudly. This rarely happens after a live show, unless the Who play a small club. This is a peculiar hazard of the recording studio.

The point I'm making is that it is not live sound that causes hearing damage.

Earphones do the most damage.

In a studio there are often accidental buzzes, shrieks and poor connections that cause temporary high level sounds. Playing drums with earphones on is probably a form of insanity I think, all those gunshots, so much louder than a real gunshot, but how else can a drummer hear the other musicians? When I work solo now I often avoid using a drummer, simply to keep the overall sound levels lower. Also, one might have to work for several hours to perfect a studio performance. As the work progresses, the ears shut down and one needs a higher volume. If you stop to rest your ears (and you need to do so for at least 36 hours to do any good) you lose the current performance. It is a tough call.

I have unwittingly helped to invent and refine a type of music that makes its principal proponents deaf. It takes time, but it happens. This is, I suppose, no worse than being a sports person or dancer who knows they have a limited working span, and their body will suffer. The rewards are great - money, fame, adulation and a real sense of self-worth and achievement. But music is a calling for life. You can write it when you're deaf, but you can't hear it or perform it.

Last night, I was working with a piece of music that depended on me finding a correlation between the harmonic clusters in a piece composed using a computer - rather electronic in nature - and the overtones of a normal acoustic piano. With my hearing rolling off severely now at around three or four kiloherz, I don't have much luck with high harmonics or piano overtones (I can still hear speech OK). Needless to say, I didn't finish what I started. I drift back to the familiar tools of acoustic guitar and piano with my experimental tail between my legs.

If you watch the movie currently playing on TowserTV (I write this on December 29th 2005), the Who performing at Irvine in August 2000, you will see John Entwistle attempt to play his grand bass solo on the song Five Fifteen. You may find yourself wondering why such a fluid, expressive and accomplished player should continually drift out of time with the drummer (Zak Starkey). It happened because John couldn't hear properly. John still gives an astounding display, but he rarely stayed in time in that solo.

Hearing loss is a terrible thing because it cannot be repaired. If you use an iPod or anything like it, or your child uses one, you MAY be OK. It may only be studio earphones that cause bad damage. I only have long experience of the studio side of things (though I've listened to music for pleasure on earphones for years, long before the Walkman was introduced). But my intuition tells me there is terrible trouble ahead. The computer is now central to our world. If downloading has a real downside it may not be the fact that musicians will get their music stolen - in truth, they appear quite ready to give it away for nothing. The downside may be that on our computers - for privacy, for respect to family and co-workers, and for convenience - we use earphones at almost every stage of interaction with sound.

I am forced to continue to take my time in the recording studio. Those 36 hour hearing rests are infuriating now that a tour is announced, frustrating and agonizing, but compulsory.

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