Listening to Who…

In 1989, when I was 9 years old, we climbed the stairs at Busch Stadium (the old one) and took our seats for a night that would change my life. Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle, and a host of others took the stage and I witnessed my first Who show. “The Who on Ice” Roger called it…he didn’t like the pomp and circumstance of the horn players, the extra percussionists, and the background singers. In hindsight, he was right…it was a fun experiment that ultimately didn’t QUITE come off as well as Townshend thought it would…but it didn’t matter to me. I looked down at the stage and saw these powerful, foul-mouthed, brilliant musicians playing songs that felt like they could make the world end…  I saw Townshend swinging his arm through the air, jumping, and giving all he had… And I thought, “I want to do that.”

It is 27 years later. I am 35. I’ll be 36 in May. And tonight, I climbed significantly fewer stairs at the Scottrade Center, sat in my seat, and watched Pete and Rog do it all again–sadly John left us in 2002. It was a hell of a show. And I still found myself thinking, “I want to do that.” Although it would probably be a mistake at this point/age to put in my two-weeks and give it a shot…

But I also thought something else. I thought about the 27 years in between. The other times I’ve seen The Who since. The band’s I’ve been in that covered Pinball Wizard or The Seeker. The personal losses I’ve experienced that only Quadrophenia could’ve gotten me through. The personal victories that only that same record could’ve helped me celebrate. That the week after seeing them in 1989, I was in church explaining Tommy to the other kids and the teacher, because it seemed just as important as the Bible. That I am, I think, STILL the only graduating senior from my Bible College to give my senior sermon after showing a PowerPoint presentation with a Who song as the background music (it was The Real Me).  That after that same event a professor said to me, “so you like The Who?” and I unblinkingly replied, “No. I LOVE The Who the way some people love Jesus.” That on every record I’ve done, I’ve either directly thanked The Who or referenced them in a lyric (see “Beautiful Disaster” on the new record). So, watching them tonight, I thought, “I DID that.” And I wouldn’t have, without them. I’m not sure I’d be breathing without them, in fact. (No hyperbole. The Who’s music has reminded me to keep living more than once.)

The show was great. That’s under-selling it. The band seemed to be having fun. They were funny and smart and played wonderfully. They were loud…but not TOO loud (once you’ve survived a Motorhead show, your definition of “loud” changes). They played most of what I wanted to hear and nothing that I didn’t.

…and they made me happy. Few things in life have managed to make me happy in the way The Who does. They’ve been there for me through a lot. But it’s more than just happy…  They make me feel strong. And not just even strong…but strong ENOUGH. In my deepest, most frightened, most dark, most bitterly depressed moments, I will listen to Quadrophenia and by the time Dr. Jimmy is playing, I feel like I can overcome whatever I need to. I’m strong enough to do it. I’ve still got passion inside me to get out and fight. And the hell with those who stand in the way!  The Who empowers me.

Tonight, they pulled off a clear example of how I’m not alone in that. They’ve done that before…anyone who watched the concert for 9/11 knows that they lifted the mood that night and changed lives–The Who told the world that it was still okay to have fun after 9/11, and more of us should really thank them for that… But tonight they did something that caught me off guard. They played the instrumental piece “The Rock” off of Quadrophenia. In the story of that album, The Rock represents an emotional climax for Jimmy (the main character) it’s a turning point where he ultimately faces his own emotions and demons and on the other side calls out for love to reign over him. It’s a gripping piece, if the album/story means a lot to you. But tonight they did something different with it. They usually show sea imagery and play into the narrative of the piece…but this time it was out of context. So the screens showed images of note throughout history… The war in Vietnam. President Kennedy’s death. Princess Diana’s wedding and death. The announcement of Elvis’ death. The war in Iraq. Reagan and Gorbachev. The Berlin War. Images of the dust cloud from 9/11. A small floral decoration with a sign reading, “Pray for Paris.” All of this mixed with peace signs. With protest signs. With slogans that state that acts of violence are forgetting who we are. That refugees are WELCOME here. It was powerful. I don’t mind saying that I had to swallow hard a couple of times to hold myself together. It was midway through Love, Reign O’er Me before I remembered it was a rock concert again.

…because that’s what The Who does for me. Their music has always and WILL always help me confront the ugly things. And then I’ll remember that I’m supposed to be having fun. I’m strong enough to get through it and to end up laughing and singing in the end… “No one knows what it’s like to feel these feelings like I do…” And I blame The Who.

This was very likely the last time I will see The Who. They’ve been calling this a farewell tour. And 50 years in, it’s hard to blame them. They’re in their 70s and guys they used to share stages with have been dropping right and left. They’ve earned their retirement. But still…that was the last time I will see that. I’m a little sad about it. It’s like my church has closed it’s doors. But…I do still have the records. I’m still strong enough to do this…

I wish I could communicate any of this to the band. I wish I could sit in a room with Daltrey and Townshend and just SAY to them, “Do you have any idea how much that meant? I’ve had crippling depression for years and you guys made me feel better and unafraid…” But I’m unlikely to meet them. And that’s okay. Not every Catholic gets to thank the Pope, either.

That was my last Who show. And I went with my dad and brother, with whom I went to my FIRST Who show. (Rob Horner was also there in 89…but whatever.) I’m glad the three of us were all there. I’m glad we all DID that. And I’m glad The Who has been in my life these 27 years.

Known as the Who’s biggest fan, Irish Jack Lyons stuck them with the moniker of, “The only band that ever mattered.” He sold them short.

Taken from my seat in the opening moments of the show.

On Brian (not the Messiah)

First things first, sorry I haven’t written in a while. Laptop has been down and it’s difficult to write from the phone, as I’m doing now. But hey, if I was going to skip a month, at least it was the short one. Moving on…

Today, we all found out that AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson is having to step away from the band (for good?) lest he risk total hearing loss. I can’t claim to be the world’s biggest AC/DC fan. I don’t listen to them often and when I do it’s usually the Dirty Deeds record. But they’re part of the hard rock family tree. They’re pretty much the step between Blues and Heavy Metal. I grew up playing their songs in basements because they were catchy and easy enough to learn, but still a challenge for your lead guitarist. And I respect them.

There’s a lot up in the air for the band. Rumors are already flying about what they’re going to do (and who with) and as much of the community is compassionate as is understanding. And that bothers me. Brian should have everyone’s support. He’s had to stop doing something he’s done forever, and although he’s stated a desire to walk away for about 10 years, that’s a scary decision.  It’s made scarier by the threat of going deaf if you keep doing something you love.

I don’t talk about it too often outside of situations where it needs to be known, but I’m deaf in my left ear. 100%. Since birth. I think there are maybe some extreme high frequencies that slip through–like I can tell there’s a soundwave there if I’m wearing headphones, but if I take the right one away, I can’t distinguish what I’m listening to. (True story: The Velvet Underground has a song called “The Gift” where the spoken/vocal part is in the left channel. For more than a year when I first got into them, I had no idea and thought it was an instrumental.) In general, the left ear is just there to keep my glasses up. There are some issues that come with it. I have terrible balance, I have no depth perception to my hearing (no clue where emergency vehicle sirens are coming from in traffic), and 5.1 audio mixes are completely lost on me. But in general, since it’s been that way my whole life I don’t miss it.

But losing hearing in my right ear is my biggest fear. Yes. More than spiders. It’s that serious.

I’m not presently facing retirement for my hearing. It’s still reasonably good, because I do what I can to take care of it. And I’d like to make a handful of recommendations to anyone out there with at least one working ear…

1. Limit your headphone usage–especially ear buds. I know this is a big request in the days where all of our phones are MP3 players. But you’re damaging your ears with headphones. You ARE. You’re putting a speaker that is sending vibrations and compressed soundwaves right into your ear canal. You think that’s good for you? Even at low volumes, it’s doing damage. Ask any office worker who wears a headset to answer phone calls every day for 20 years if they’ve noticed a decline in their hearing. Their reply will be, “what?”  (Sadly, my headphone use at work has increased in recent weeks and I need to find a way to correct that. I’ve noticed a drop in clarity in my hearing that I think and hope is still recoverable.)

2. If you do use headphones, do it responsibly. If you’re wearing the type that are cans that cover your whole ear, put an ear plug in underneath them. If you’re using ear buds, play the music as softly as you can. If you use them at ALL, give yourself breaks from use. My “studio” rule is that for each day I use headphones, I take two days OFF from using them. As I mentioned, I have been wearing ear buds too often at work lately…so on weekends, I barely listen to music at ALL, but I especially leave the buds on my desk. By Monday, I’m usually mostly back to normal (but I still need to stop it–and the news about Brian was a good reminder of that).

3. Wear ear plugs at concerts. Even the quiet ones are louder than what you’re used to. A lot of times, I even wear them in movies if it’s a loud action flick. Every loud noise has the potential to be the last one you’ll hear. You might need to slip them out during the quieter moments, but better that than to never enjoy those moments again.

4. Clean out your ears and don’t take an earache lightly. If you’ve got an earache, you probably have an infection. The step after infection is expansion of the ear drum. Then perforation. Then rupture. And that’s it. You’re deaf. Do what you can to keep your ears clean and if you do start developing ear issues (likely from a headcold or similar) mention them to your doctor when you ask for antibiotics.

5. Turn it down. Seriously. I like my car to shake with the bass too…but it’s irresponsible. It’s damaging. (And it’s an irritant to people who think your music choices suck, to boot.) We’re all going to turn it up once in a while. But full-volume shouldn’t be your default. Save it for the special songs, when you really need it. Or if you’re going to turn it ip, open your windows. Give the sound somewhere to go.

Those are just a few tips. There are a lot more. But long and short…  Hearing loss is a scary thing. It’s something you and I shouldn’t take for granted. If I lose my hearing, I’ve got a few thousand dollars worth of musical equipment that’s useless to me. And I’ve also lost my primary passion and outlet. That shouldn’t be taken lightly. Even if you’re not a musician…it’d be nice to hear your spouse, kids, grandkids, and/or that weird guy at the deli tell you they love you, right? Appreciate your hearing and do what you can to hang on to it.

And lay off Brian Johnson. He’s doing the right thing. Angus might not be. But Brian shouldn’t be doubted. Here’s hoping the damage isn’t permanent and he can get better enough to keep enjoying hearing the music, even if he can’t still sing it himself.

For those about to rock…good God, don’t fire the cannons until we’ve all got ear plugs in!