After Live Aid and Farm Aid, Hearing Aid May Be Next for Unwary Victims of Rock

updated 01/23/1989 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/23/1989 01:00AM

It's "one of the little sacrifices you make for rock," John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants once observed. He was talking about the severe hearing loss that can come from overexposure to rock's thunderous sounds, and the remark was in jest—intended, presumably, for those who could hear it. Kathy Peck wouldn't have been amused. Earlier this year Peck, once the bass player and lead singer of an all-female punk band, helped found Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers (HEAR), a San Francisco organization intended to persuade high-decibel musicians and fans not to turn a deaf ear to a serious problem.

From painful experience, Peck knows that all those mothers who warned their kids against loud music were right all along. For Kathy the big noise began when her group, the Contractions, made its professional debut in 1980. Their opening gig was, with unintended irony, at a place called the Deaf Club. The bartenders were deaf, as were many of the patrons. They kept the beat by feeling the band's vibrations. At the time the Deaf Club was also one of the few punk spots in San Francisco where women rock musicians were tolerated.

Over the next four years the band rehearsed three times a week, four hours at a pop, in a practice room filled with giant speakers. At night the group blasted out sets in low-ceilinged clubs, drums exploding like a machine gun next to Peck's ears. In April 1984 the band hit the big time when it opened for Duran Duran at the Oakland Coliseum. "We were real powerful," recalls Peck, referring to both the quality and the volume of the sound. The next day she awoke with a sort of aural hangover: Her ears wouldn't stop ringing.

Peck gradually lost her hearing until she noticed that some people she spoke with seemed to move their lips while making no sound. Soon a test revealed that she had a 40 percent hearing loss. "Then I realized that it wouldn't get better," she says. "That was the hard part. Knowing that my hearing loss was permanent."

Peck gave up singing, but, because of her disability, she had trouble finding and keeping regular jobs. About a year ago, after being fitted with a small hearing aid, Kathy got up the courage to sing with bands again. Currently she performs out front with a rock group called Mystery Train.

HEAR, though, is Peck's major concern. Working with Dr. Flash Gordon—Bruce Gordon before his legal name change—she makes the rounds of Bay Area rock clubs, handing out foam earplugs to fans before shows. "HEAR doesn't have any income or funding yet," says Gordon, 40, a rock and roll fan who serves as medical director of the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic. "It's been running on my ideas and Kathy's energy."

Still, their message comes through soft and clear. The problem, says Gordon, is that the cilia, the hair cells in the ear that change sound waves into nerve impulses, weren't designed to shake that hard. Your hearing can be damaged instantly by a loud enough sound or by sustained noise, depending on its volume and length. The sound is dangerously loud when it causes either a ringing in the ears or a temporary inability to hear very quiet sounds. It's important to realize that because cilia have no pain cells, hearing damage isn't necessarily painful.

"I like to tell people that rock and roll is like any other sport," Gordon says. "You need protective equipment. When I'm riding my motorcycle every day, I wear my helmet and gloves. When I go to a rock club, I put on my earplugs. After all, we have safe sex nowadays. We can have safe music and safe listening."

Peck and Gordon realize that educating rockers is one thing but persuading them to behave differently is another. Do they really want their music muffled? Is it still rock if it's not earsplitting? Now that she has gone public, Peck says she occasionally gets encouraging calls from singers and studio engineers. "They support what I'm doing," she says, "but they're afraid to admit their hearing loss because they might lose business."

Undiscouraged, Peck and Gordon continue to believe that change is coming, dictated by plain common sense. "Someday, somebody in a band is going to look out and see that everybody in the audience is wearing earplugs," Gordon predicts. "And all the band members will be wearing them too. 'Okay,' that somebody will shout, 'take those plugs out, and we'll turn it down.' "

—Ned Geeslin, and Dianna Waggoner in San Francisco

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