Sunday night I ventured across the San Francisco Bay to Oakland, CA’s BUDGET ROCK SHOWCASE at the intimate Stork Club. Whilst there, with earplugs thrust deeply into the nether regions of my ear canals, I contemplated the state of my hearing after roughly 23 years of extremely punishing rock shows. To be honest, 10-15 years ago, the thought of wearing earplugs at a show was quite possibly the lamest thing imaginable for me. I don’t quite know why I took such a hardline, keeping-your-hearing-is-for-wimps stance, but I must have been inoculated with a “if it’s too loud, you’re too old, motherfucker!!” stance early on in my rock fandom. So here I am livin' large with the plugs – and when I was at The Stork on Sunday, with even the between-band DJ music being played at ear-splitting volume, the plugs stayed in. Deep. Real deep. How did I get to this point? A few lowlights:
December 1985 – Fender’s Ballroom, Long Beach CA – My friend Tom and I drove nearly 3 hours to see THE DICKIES and THE WEIRDOS, along with awful melodic hardcore acts M.I.A. and THE ASEXUALS. Not only was Fender’s one of the most violent punk clubs in the history of the planet – a notorious hub for white-boy gang activity, much of which was on display this evening, even with this fairly tranquil bill, the show was so damagingly loud that on the long drive home I couldn’t even understand what Tom was saying, nor make out the songs on the tape deck. Until the next morning, I heard a terrible “crackle” sound in my ears every time he spoke or anyone spoke. My first clue that exposure to insanely loud rock music might be a problem.
Sometime in 1988 – Raji’s, Los Angeles, CA – I attended PUSSY GALORE’s first-ever west coast show. After openers TAD and THEE FORGIVEN, I inched up to the front of the stage, right by the monitors and amps and the three guitarists. You can guess what came next. A total, absolute maelstrom of sound, which literally pinned me to the back of the club – in the sense that I couldn’t take the noise in the main room, so I stood back by the kitchen, next to the cubbyhole where I earlier went to pick up my cheeseburger. My ears were a total mess afterward, even standing where I was for most of the show. The thought that Raji’s would have had a plastic jar of free brightly-colored earplugs sitting on the bar for patrons to take would have been laughable. No one worried about such trifles in the eighties!
Sometime in 1995 – The Purple Onion, San Francisco – This fairly short-lived glammy/garage act called DURA-DELINQUENT were playing at subhuman volumes when I decided that enough was enough. I espied an aforementioned jar of earplugs and shoved a pair in, and was profoundly pissed off at myself for having to do so & at the band for making it so. The muffled sounds & dimmed amplification just ruined a central piece of the clubgoing experience for me, which was most likely a masochistic urge to be pummeled by loud and aggressive music, an urge I no doubt share(d) with many.
Sometime in 2005 – The Hemlock Tavern, San Francisco – After dabbling with earplugs in & out of the years, I succumbed last year at an A-FRAMES show and made it a regular and normal part of every showgoing experience, at least those in which loud rock plays a role. I’ve taught myself how to position them just so, so that the precipice between enjoyment of loud music & out-and-out ear damage is not crossed, though at times I still have to adjust ‘em so the balance works to my advantage. If you spot some dork tinkering with yellow foam in his ears at an upcoming show, there’s a mighty good chance it’s me – or one of the many other late thirtysomethings who’ve heeded the obvious, and are acting to save themselves from that one final show that’ll tip them over into permanent tinnitus. And you whippersnappers out there, take advantage of the riches now offered at your shows that those of us in the trenches in the 80s never got – free earplugs and free cold water (!). Next they’ll be having the shows over & done by 11pm – sign me up!