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Rock singer’s hearing loss is an important moment for change

rock singer's hearing loss is important moment

The lead singer of rock group AC/DC, Brian Johnson, was told recently by his doctors that he risked total hearing loss if he continued to tour and perform with the band. What seemed like an individual musician’s tragic heartbreak has turned into a cause célèbre and is resonating throughout the music industry. And that’s a good thing. 

Specifically, Johnson was advised that if he continued to perform at large venues, he risked total deafness. He later told Rolling Stone magazine, “While I was horrified at the reality of the news that day, I had for a time become aware that my partial hearing loss was beginning to interfere with my performance on stage. I am not a quitter and I like to finish what I start, nevertheless, the doctors made it clear to me and my bandmates that I had no choice but to stop performing on stage for the remaining shows and possibly beyond.”

But many things have been said since then, that has brought into view a slew of issues that all musicians, those who listen to music, and those who attend concerts might keep in mind – for the “times, they are a changin’.”

Denials, disclaimers, accusations, medical claims, offers of help and proactive moves have flowed in as a response to the rock singer’s hearing loss predicament. There’s even been some fun thrown his way when it was satirically announced that AC/DC would “replace a singer who could not hear with a singer who could not sing.” (Axl Rose of Guns and Roses) 

Later, in an interview with a friend, Johnson claimed that his hearing issues were being blown out of proportion and that he was being unfairly released by the band. Another doctor told him that his hearing damage wasn’t as bad as he was initially led to believe and that he can continue to record in studios and he intends to do that. But the band has said no more. Johnson remains hopeful.

There was also apparently more to the rock singer’s hearing loss story than originally divulged. In a 2014 interview with celebrity interviewer Howard Stern, Johnson dismissed the loud music and the use of cannons as stage props as the cause of his hearing loss. He said that he believed that it was the result of “sitting in a race car too long without earplugs. I heard me eardrum burst, because I forgot to put me plugs in under my helmet. That’s how it happened. Music had nothing to do with it.” When asked about the tinnitus he was experiencing, he told Stern, “Ah, you know, you forget about it after a week.”

What is clear from all this are several things. One, knowing the cause(s) of your hearing loss is important. It’s also important to have a professional diagnose your problem. Have you gotten additional opinions from specialists in the field? Whose opinion will you listen to? Additionally, what methods of treatment are being recommended? How do you know what treatments will work best for you and who should administer them? In short, what is the best strategy to avoid hearing loss and what is the best way to deal with the situation after experiencing hearing loss?

It’s not a simple thing and many musicians, myself included, have experienced their own catastrophic hearing losses at pivotal moments in their careers – whether from loud music, canons on stage, race cars,  or the sudden hearing losses that can appear from any number of maladies. I knew I was in trouble during a jingle recording session in 1978 when the hearing in my left ear started cutting out and I began losing correct pitch. It was a quick downhill from there. A year-and-a-half later I had to quit music altogether – with hearing loss in both ears and severe tinnitus. It happened not only at the worst possible time for my musical aspirations, but it was still the “dark ages” in hearing-music research and advances, and I had little help to guide me through the woods.   

Today’s circumstances are far better and Johnson may have hope and the help he needs. 

And fortunately for all of us, more influential musicians are being proactive to protect themselves and others from the effects of loud music. The band Pearl Jam has joined MusiCares to provide earplugs to all attendees of their upcoming tour. Foundations such as Hear the World also distributes earplugs at live music venues and festivals around the word.

“Don’t be careless and lazy at loud rock shows or cranking tunes through an old Walkman like I was thirty years ago,” said Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament in a statement. “Wear hearing protection or you’ll end up with a 1.5k ring in both ears every night when you go to bed or worse when you are trying to enjoy the serene quiet of an empty desert or forest, again like me.”

Producers and DJ’s who have long understood the benefits of ear protection are also becoming more forthcoming about their own strategies and are helping to identify the wide variety of hearing protection now available. 

Out of Johnson’s tragedy may come some very important information we can all pay attention to. As we follow his story it would be a good thing to see ourselves in his position. You don’t have to be a rock star to suffer his fate or the confusion that often follows.   

Stay tuned.

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Stu Nunnery
Stu Nunnery is a professional writer, speaker, composer, musician, recording artist, actor and activist from Rhode Island. He has a special kinship with musicians and singers with hearing loss, but writes and speaks on a variety of hearing issues from his 35 years experience with bilateral sensorineural hearing loss. He has hearing in one ear and sight in one eye, which makes for interesting sensory challenges from time to time. He seeks to be of help, hope and inspiration to those of whom he affectionately calls the “hearing lost.”

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