WOSTER: Rock bands, farming work and hearing lossI have maybe the worst hearing of anyone in the western hemisphere.
I have maybe the worst hearing of anyone in the western hemisphere.
I don’t know just when I started to lose that sense, but I know that for several years I used to change strings on my guitars to get some brightness out of the instruments. I recall telling Johnny Askew at A&Z Music that I wanted to try a different brand of strings for my 12-string guitar because the ones I’d been using were flat and hardly carried any tone at all. He shook his head, but he offered me a different brand. That evening after I changed strings and tuned the guitar, I hit a couple of big chords and sighed.
I’d like to tell you that years and years of standing in front of a massive wall of Marshall amplifiers making rock ‘n’ roll music for the masses deadened my hearing. I’d like to, but I’d be lying. There’s a movie in which somebody in a band says their amplifiers go to “11.” The volume knob on most amps goes as far as “10.” When I played with the Sensational Standbys all those years, our amps went to “10,” but at most of the VFWs and American Legion clubs we played, if we cranked it up past about two and one-half, the men and women sitting closest to the stage would start motioning to pump down the volume.
Once, in fact — true story — we were setting up for a gig and an older woman approached the stage to ask if we’d turn down the volume. We were surprised. We hadn’t switched on the sound system yet. Larry, the bass player, pointed that out. The woman shook her head and said, “Well, you look like it will be loud.” Really? Four middle-aged guys with second-hand guitars, a three-drum kit and a squeeze box? I was pretty careful on the sound that evening, but to tell you the truth, I probably wasn’t the best guy to be running the thing. I just went by the numbers on the dial, not what I was hearing.
So, if it wasn’t loud rock ‘n’ roll that ruined my hearing, what could it have been? How about all those years on the farm? We had a number of vehicles, pickups and tractors and combines, that roared in a most outrageous way. Out in the middle of Lyman County, a guy doesn’t have to worry too much about making noise. If a muffler falls apart, sometimes replacing it isn’t the priority. Those old John Deere diesels had a powerful pop to them.
Once I left the farm, I spent several years with The Associated Press. The AP bureau in the Capitol building was a bandbox with a marble floor. It had carpet halfway down the wall, but the clatter of the two teletype machines ricocheted through the bureau like hail stones on a tin roof.
I got my first set of hearing aids at age 50, nearly 19 years ago. The first time I walked out of the audiologist’s office into the world, I was terrified by the noises that assaulted my ears. Birds, leaves rustling, a train whistle, everything was foreign — and loud. When I got home that evening, I picked up my guitar and gave a strong strum. The sound that erupted from the instrument was overwhelming — and simply beautiful. I change strings now about every 10 years, whether the guitar needs it or not.
Here’s another story about my hearing. My granddaughters have gotten pretty good at watching to see if I’m hearing. They know I’m listening. They also know I can’t hear a lick. When I’m in Brookings, I always know when I’ve missed something in the conversation because Lara is looking at me with a small smile and a twinkle in her eyes. At Chamberlain, Frankie pays close attention, too. Sometimes during a family gathering, she nudges me gently and says softly, “Grandpa, Jackie is talking to you.”
The guitar notes are lovely, the birds and rustling leaves and train whistles are marvelous. The sound of a granddaughter’s voice? That’s something that simply must be heard.