Thursday, May 2, 2013

Going Deaf for a Living

There is a parachute school just up the road from the Chicken Ranch. During the summer we hear the planes climbing in circles prior to chucking their students out at 10,000 ft (or whatever height you make your first jump from). I did a bungee jump once and have some idea how it feels to stand on a threshold trying to take a step that 10 million years of natural selection has told us is 'not a good idea'.

They say that public speaking comes just ahead of parachute jumping in the list of 'scary things to do'. Until the mid-1990s I would have put them equal first, but at that point I had not been pushed out of a plane in the line of duty...

For six years I was tour manager with John Watts' band, Fischer Z. John is a particular individual with very strong ideas about what he wants. For most of the time we toured together he did not like being introduced at the beginning of a show and many gigs would start with him wandering on stage strumming his guitar and taking the audience by surprise. This changed on the last tour I did with him. He decided that he wanted to be introduced and he wanted me to do it.

I am a backstage sort of chap, I am not a performer. In fact I have always tried to avoid having anything to do with the actual process of running a live show, but if Wattsey wants something he usually gets it and I gave in. After all, I thought what can go wrong? I stand up in front of an audience of (mostly) foreigners and talk bollocks for a few minutes and end up introducing the band.

What could go wrong was that he wanted me to start off talking about something important and suggested AIDS would be a good topic. And then after a couple of minutes I could introduce the band.

John baffles RPJ with a song which may (or may not) have been aboutAIDS

It is the first night of the tour. I cannot think of anything to say about AIDS but think I can get away with some nonsense and leg it back to the safety of backstage. This is based on my experience of the Fischer-Z audience who are invariably supportive, enthusiastic and, well, nice. I work on the basis that regardless of how good their English is, they will think I am immensely cool and clever and will not suspect that the words I speak are tosh and nonsense.

Anyway, I have faith that something will occur to me, if not I will say something like ‘AIDS is bad, don't get it, here is Fischer-Z’ and go and hide somewhere with a beer.

Keeping my head down backstage with the accounts.

We are playing The Paradiso in Amsterdam. The stage is set, the band are waiting in the wings, well, The Paradiso does not have wings as such, but they are waiting to come up from the subterranean dressing rooms. I am standing down-stage centre.  The lights dim and I am looking at a room full of expectant faces. Looking up I notice they have opened the balcony as well. This is a full house. I have no idea if they understand English. Well, this is Holland, so of course they do, but how well? 

What can I say? I start with a fairly safe opening: "Hello". They shout "Hello" back. I say that John has asked me to say a few words about the state of the world and how we should all be looking after ourselves, especially our health... at this point my mind, working at some fabulous rate that has more to do with fear than ability, comes up with something which I cannot remember now, but seems to meet with general approval and I leave the stage with applause ringing in my ears.

This was not an entirely new experience. I have spent much of my working life and leisure time in close proximity to loud music.

My first working gig, cuddled-up to the PA - and probably talking shit.

I have lost count of the times I have come home from The Marquee, The Roundhouse, Dingwalls or some gig in a squalid pub with a loud ringing in my ears. It would still be there in the morning and would slowly fade during the day. Over the years I learned that this wasn't a good thing. When I started touring with John I started wearing earplugs during soundchecks and shows. I did not intend to join the squadron of my colleagues with tinnitus. But I did not make a big deal of it because it is cissy. Real rock’n’rollers just kick out the jams with no-nonsense, head-banging boogie, turned up to Number 11, hoping to die before they get old - and talk a load of shit.

At the next gig I am back on stage, looking at a crowd of young, impressionable people. Many of them may well find some of the gigs they attended too loud but do not want to admit it. They go to many more gigs than I had at their age, they have stereos at home to rival some of the early live PA systems, they have portable tape and CD players and listen on headphones everywhere they go. Music is ubiquitous. Young people today seemed to have more opportunities to be deafened by the music they love than ever before.

My subconscious  may have remembered what my conscious mind had completely forgotten, that the second Fischer-Z album cover featured an ear being attacked with a pneumatic drill. The album  was called Going Deaf for a Living. This may have been a complete coincidence, but it is then that I realise I am really  wimping out. Not by wearing ear plugs, but by not proclaiming it. All that will change,  I will do something good, something worthy.


“Do you like music?” I ask. “YEEEEES” comes the emphatic reply. “Do you want to listen to music forever?” Another "Yeees".

“Well, you won’t be able to if you go deaf. And some of you will go deaf.”…  I blurt out and continue “Most of my colleagues have hearing problems… being deaf is not cool… that’s why I wear ear plugs on stage…” and I pulled them out and wave them about a bit… This thesis develops as the tour proceeds and my half-minute turns to several minutes. I am in my stride, ear plugs are cool… And then it is over. I have no idea if it changed anything. I fear not.

Anyway, that was nearly 20 years ago. In the inertevening years I have met a lot of people with tinnitus from years of working with bands. Most of them regret their failure to protect their hearing. Tinnitus is serious stuff and I have always been thankful for my good fortune or good luck in remaining unafflicted.

Around 5.30 on the morning of 23 October 2011, I woke to the distant sound of the parachute school  plane circling overhead. It does not usually start that early in the morning, and they tend not to jump in the dark. I pull the pillow over my head in a pathetic attempt to get back to the silence of sleep. But there is no silence. There is no plane. There is just a very low pitched buzzing sound that will not go away. 

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