It was around the mid-70's when I was born into a world pumped full of melodies with all my family being music nuts, a very broad cross-section encompassing pop, rock and country and western (can I just point out that I have never forgiven my parents for their, erm, well, 'influence' I suppose, of Country and Western music every Sunday at home, argh!). One of my earliest memories is me sitting cross legged in awe at Top Of The Pops showing the video for Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)’ whilst trying to decide whether I liked tomato ketchup more than brown sauce!
Being born in the 70’s gave me a healthy dose of rock and pop music with the likes of Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath and Queen, through
and T-REX then onto Slade, ABBA and Gloria Gaynor. Never purely identifying with just one genre, although I must admit to leaning more towards the rock side of things, you can blame my eldest sister Lesley for that influence! The family emigrated to Bowie in 1980, keeping my enthusiasm for rock going with KISS as they were absolutely huge over there at the time. We returned to the UK in 1985, the charts filled with the likes of The Communards, Pet Shop Boys, Culture Club, Japan and Frankie Goes to Hollywood and of course my new rock favourites; Iron Maiden. This was my last year of being able to hear music as unfortunately an attack of Meningococcal Meningitis rendered me with a permanent hearing loss. Upon waking from the coma my first words were to my mother, “Tell me later mum, I can’t hear you”. It’s not all doom and gloom though, not by a long shot! Australia
It was a long and hard re-learning process, not only for my family and me, but also with my friends, at times it was just sheer frustration. Leaning to lip-read enabled me to keep myself part of the so-called ‘mainstream world’ and a strong determination soon developed. Looking back, the bullying endured in, and out of, school only made me a stronger person.
I never gave up on music, I bought ‘Smash Hits’ magazine for the printed lyrics and watched ‘Top Of The Pops’ religiously which was by then being shown with Teletext subtitles. At this time the family had a video recorder with a ‘subtitle-recording’ option. It was a fantastic piece of machinery and was put to very good use across the years. I created a lot of music videos all with subtitles on that I still watch to this day having now converted them to digital formats. ‘Later With Jools Holland’ began and kept me up to speed with with the lesser known bands performing alongside the more established acts such as Bjork, Aerosmith and Radiohead. ‘Later With Jools Holland’ was a breath of fresh air for me as the bands were not just performing their current chart hits, it had more depth than ‘Top Of The Pops’ and this added to my hunger to hear quality music again. My eldest sister has helped a hell of a lot by taking me to rock concerts, the most memorable being Alice Cooper’s ‘Trash’ and ‘Hey Stoopid’ Tours. She kept pushing with the music side of things. I had already learned to follow music by feeling the beats through vibrations from various objects.
People often ask me how I appreciate(d) music without being able to hear it. The lyrics used to be memorised first from a sheet in front of me until I had the whole song off by heart in my head. After this I settled with a recording of the singer on the television and lip-synch word for word until I can follow the whole track (this does not necessarily have to have subtitles too, I can work from music videos as well). Watching the body language usually gives the pitch of the lyrics away; high notes are usually denoted by the singer lifting their head, low notes by them dropping their head (a good example of this is with Skin from Skunk Anansie). I used to work from my memory of music and instrument sounds. I scared the hell out of my sister when Meatloaf came on the TV, ‘I’d Do Anything For Love, But I Wont Do That’, I had it all pitch perfect and completely in sync, the poor love thought I had got my hearing back! Eight times out of ten I was never far off the original score. My eldest sister has played a huge part in my life, especially with music, she kept me going
At 20 years of age the opportunity for an artificial cochlear implant arose, having got through all of the tests I pulled out at the last minute. I was terrified of what to expect, it was the big ‘music question’ putting me off the most… “What if I can’t hear music again, what if it doesn’t work, what if it just confirms that I won’t be able to hear again… ”. It is very hard to put it into words having lived my life under the premise that I WILL hear music again, in its full entirety, its full clarity, telling myself that I will hear it as I used to be able to. My teenage years and early twenties were turbulent, still coming to terms with being deaf, and indeed being incredibly naive, it took me a long time to ‘settle’ through incredible upset, anger and frustration.
I moved away from the parental home at the start of the noughties, up to Tyneside, this was probably the best decision ever made up until that point. Things started to change, now being fully independent I started to re-think the cochlear implant. I had longed to hear Skin’s voice from Skunk Anansie, one of my all-time favourite bands, I knew she was a very powerful vocalist, and I just wanted to hear her voice. Something ‘clicked’ after I went to see Marilyn Manson in concert, the ‘Grotesk Burlesk Tour’, the whole performance just blew me completely away. On the train back I said to myself that there was nothing to lose, everything to gain and that any hearing is better than none at all. Next thing I knew I was back talking with the cochlear implant specialist at the Audiology Hospital and then going under the surgeon’s knife to have my artificial implant fitted.
The operation went much better than we all anticipated with all sixteen electrodes being inserted in my right cochlear, everyone was completely over the moon. There’s a month of silence that follows whilst the scar healed and there’s that inner turmoil asking myself the great ‘what ifs…’, trying to fathom how life would change with hearing, and then what level of hearing would be attained from the implant, even what the ‘hearing’ actually sounded like… and I can say this, nothing, absolutely nothing, prepared me for it.
The big switch on was at the start of November 2004. It was all very bizarre being in a tiny hospital room with a pair of audiologists, full of electrical gadgets and having my head wired up directly to a laptop computer, it was like something from a bad Sci-Fi movie. The first thing I heard were a series of ‘beeps’ (think: ‘Close Encounters’!) as they tuned my implant for the first time. I had to explain whether they were quiet or loud in order to get them synchronised. After this it was all switched on and it was totally mind blowing. Nothing can prepare you for it, that I am sure. It is a completely new way of hearing, nothing at all like what an able-hearing person can hear, well not at first and certainly not in my case. (This of course all depends on how badly damaged the person’s cochlear is prior to the operation).
My hearing at the time would have been best explained like this; imagine an old-style wireless and just before you get the full radio reception you can hear hollow metallic noise that you know instinctly is artificial but you cannot decipher anything that is being said. You can tell the difference between the spoken word and music due to the beats and rhythms, but you cannot work out specifically what it actually is. Kind of 70’s Atari game meets a garbled tinny train tannoy with a kazoo playing over the top of it! This must sound horrendous to the reader, but to me it was a whole new world to get used to, remember I had not heard anything for nigh on twenty years. This new sound was literally music to my ears.
Now, I didn’t grasp music straight away going as far as to telling myself it wasn’t working. You see the implant needs to be continually re-tuned over time, each electrode needs that little kick every now and again to help harmonise the sounds and increase the clarity. (A lot of implantee’s give up at this point and stop wearing the implant, because all they can hear is garbled ‘noise’, it takes a while to get used to it and indeed several re-tuning sessions before you ‘settle’ with the implant, after that you tweak it even further. To people out there considering an implant I would tell you to go for it and persevere with it afterwards, too many deaf people give up on it at the first hurdle which is ridiculous, give it some time, and indeed effort!).
About two months down the line I heard my first set of beats from the TV playing in the background. Thinking that I was imagining it I turned around and the Foo Fighters were performing their then current track ‘All My Life’ on the TV, it was just so incredibly apt I know and I couldn’t stop myself from crying! I emailed my eldest sister immediately to let her know what was happening. She may have got a tad sick of all these emails on her computer! “Oh my god, I can hear ABBA”…”Not too sure about synth music yet”…….. …….they went on for most of the night as I flicked through all the music channels, was completely knackered at work the next day I can tell you! …from here on in a brand new musical world had opened up for me again. This was obviously a total high but again it wasn’t the same hearing as I had prior to 1985.
Fast forward to today, I’ve had several re-tunes since, concentrating fully on the music side of things. Loads of music videos on the music channels have subtitles so I’m continually recording those and all of the music shows on the mainstream channels – Channel 4 is absolutely awesome with 4Music. All of this stuff is recorded and converted to digital. I bought myself an iPod Touch which is now 'my bestest friend in the whole wide world', so I can play the videos with the subtitles. Where subtitles are not available my partner does them instead which is absolutely brilliant and I am incredibly thankful for. I can connect the iPod directly into my implant, the sound these days is far better than it has ever been, I am very happy with the sound. I know a lot of tracks through sound alone and don’t need to look at the screen, which is great when on the move. My last audiologist gave me an adapter for the implant which allows me to wear headphones and thus these push the bass further, bought some big DJ Headphones as the big ear cups fit over the external implant gubbins perfectly. So although I look like a warped Cyberman I’m away in musical heaven when walking around town! Still takes a fair bit of work to memorise the songs but music’s such a big part of my life. I absolutely adore music, all genres, it's all fabulous. OK, maybe not going as far as saying 'fabulous', I must draw the line at Haircut 100, someone has to!
Away from that, I’ve had my eyes (and ears!!) opened further with the theatre, a lot of the ‘Grand Old Dames’ in London and beyond have joined forces with a company called StageText who do captioning, and they are absolutely brilliant with access to the shows for the deaf and hard of hearing. So there’s now loads of theatre involved on top of the main music aspect. The cinema’s too have increased captioned performances, everything is slowly coming together to give the deaf full access. And I am immensely proud to be part of it all.
Anyway, time for me to round off this biblical history lesson.....!
So, this blog will follow my exploits, you’ll get gossip, gigs, music, theatre, bitching, the odd rollercoaster ride and god knows what else all in one!