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TIME September 26, 1988 "A Fire Hose Down the Ear Canal"

These days, even rockers are admitting their hearing is shot BY ANASTASIA TOUFEXIS "You're going to lose your hearing if you keep listening to all that loud music," parents railed right from the beginning. "No way!" offspring scoffed, and gleefully cranked up Hot Tuna another punishing notch.

Today that parental admonition is being echoed by a new -- and more credible -- source: rock musicians. John Flansburgh of the cult band They Might Be Giants half jokingly says: "Deafness is one of the little sacrifices you have to make for rock." Three decades after the rock revolution, more and more performers are discovering that their hearing is permanently damaged. "It's pretty apparent for everyone who has been in the business," notes Charles Blanket, a New York City sound engineer. Commander Cody, a rock musician in the San Francisco Bay area, suffers from tinnitus, a ringing in the ears. So does Lenny Kaye, a journeyman guitarist who played with the Patti Smith Group. Singer and Bassist Kathy Peck, who had a gig in 1980 at a San Francisco nightspot called the Deaf Club, where deaf patrons danced to the music's vibrations, has lost 40% of the hearing in her right ear and wears a hearing aid.

Peck, for one, has found the price of devotion to rock unnecessarily steep. She and Dr. Flash Gordon of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic recently founded an outfit named HEAR (for Hearing Education Awareness for Rockers) to alert performers, technicians and concert-hall staffers to the perils of pounding music and the precautions that can be taken. First among them: regular hearing checkups. They hope the message will filter down to young fans.

The damage is insidious. Noise above 100 decibels -- a whining power saw, for example -- flattens the tiny hairs in the inner ear that transmit sound to the nerves. These hairs usually return to normal, but repeated assaults by high-decibel rock -- concerts routinely hover around 120 -- can cause them to lose their resilience permanently. Stereo earphones blasting away for hours may be a greater threat than concerts. Says Audiologist Dr. Thomas H. Fay, of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City: "It's like the nozzle of a fire hose has been stuck down the ear canal." The strain on rockers' ears is slowly easing. Musicians no longer perform before walls of loudspeakers. Today giant speakers are relegated to the sides of the stage or suspended from the proscenium. "Half the concerts are quieter on the stage than anywhere else in the house," notes Flansburgh.

Many rockers now sport protective gear during practice sessions and even during performances. Saxophonist Benjamin Bossi of the Ordinaires, a New York City- based band, dons headphones before concerts. Fred Schneider, vocalist for the B-52's, stuffs tissue into his ears. Rock Promoter Bill Graham, who is shepherding the current Amnesty International tour, keeps vats of earplugs available for everyone from security guards to roadies. Fans, too, are being urged to plug up. Perhaps the best role model is Alexa Ray, the 2 1/2-year-old daughter of Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley, who flaunts ear protectors at Dad's shows. The ultimate solution, of course, is simply to turn the volume down. Heresy? Perhaps. Better hearing? For sure.

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