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Deafness, music and ... me

by Charlie Swinbourne

12th February 2006

Charlie listening to music on his headphonesThere's an assumption out there that being deaf and being a music fan are two things that don't necessarily go together.
A case in point: on a recent car journey, a melodic jazz tune came on the radio. This was the cue for our perfectly hearing family friend to start talking about a re-discovered group of incredibly talented elderly Cuban jazz musicians.

"You mean Buena Vista Social Club?" I said. Cue silence from the back. I looked in the mirror. He looked surprised. "But how do you know about them?" he said. I felt offended.

Where music and being deaf is concerned, I say: assume nothing ...
I've been partially deaf since birth, yet music - when I finally discovered it - became one of my first loves. More than that, listening to music actually helped me hear. And in the deaf community, I'm not alone in my appreciation. To elaborate on this topic it is necessary to go back to my early years.

My family happens to be deaf. And as with many deaf families, the amount we can hear varies from person to person. My Dad, one of my brothers and I are all partially deaf, able to hear with the help of our hearing aids. Meanwhile, my Mum and another brother are profoundly deaf, and depend on lip-reading and signing to communicate.

Since music wasn't something the whole family could appreciate, our house generally didn't play host to much audiological mayhem. Unless you count the sound of us kids playing, that is. We were pretty wild.

The only time we'd listen to any music was on long car journeys, where we had one cassette tape - a kid's compilation called The Runaway Train Rides Again! We adored it. As far as I'm concerned, this tape was a real classic, the greatest kid's tape of my generation.
Rolf Harris: one of Charlie's formative musical influences
Our favourite song was Rolf Harris's Two Little Boys. We thought it was pretty cool. Well, me, Dad and one of my brothers did, at least. The rest of the family weren't that fussed.

At first we couldn't make out the song's lyrics. However - as if by magic - by the time that tape broke, after being played on repeat more than a thousand times in three and a half years, we'd learnt the words off by heart. Indeed, by then we'd come to realise that Two Little Boys is actually a very, very sad song indeed ...

The pattern of repetition, repetition, repetition which began with that kids tape was repeated - but I cranked it up to another level - a few years later with a different musical obsession.

The new era began when I heard The Beatles' song Yesterday in a school assembly.
The Beatles became Charlie's next musical obsession
This one act of populism by the teaching staff dragged me straight into a new obsession - the Fab Four - though they had split up many years previously. A Beatles' tape became the resident sound in our car - along with a whole new set of songs and lyrics for us to set about learning.

Soon, music even entered our home. A family friend gave me their old record player, which my Mum quickly realised was a big mistake. I remember being amazed that simply slipping a needle onto a shiny black disc could produce such a huge sound on the speakers.

What I hadn't banked on was that within seconds, my Mum (profoundly deaf, remember) had run upstairs in a panic, screaming at me to turn the music down. It turned out the pots and pans had been rattling from the vibrations ... all the way downstairs in the kitchen. Oops!

Recovering from that mishap, and feeling like I'd discovered a whole new world, between the ages of 10 to 14 I dedicated my weekends to hunting down John, Paul, George and Ringo bargains in second-hand record shops. I bought anything remotely related to The Beatles - though it has to be said that at the time, I hadn't realised that Paul McCartney's solo work suggested that he had a hearing impairment of his own ...
Noel Gallagher of Oasis: may sound a little like The Beatles
My Beatles obsession only came to an end when I bought the single Wonderwall, by Oasis. I thought (as did everyone else) that they didn't sound so different from The Beatles. From there, I was into Blur, then Radiohead (who I saw playing just up the road in Oxford), and soon REM too.

I went to gigs in Oxford whenever I could, always trying to look like I was of legal drinking age. I'd got far better at picking out recorded lyrics, but live music was something else. It was so loud that it broke up the sound on my bog-standard NHS hearing aids. Most of the time, I couldn't hear the singing above the music. And so it was that music appreciation returned to my bedroom - albeit rather loudly.

Not only did my Mum frequently come to my room and threaten to (permanently) disconnect my speakers, but she also regularly swore that I was playing music far too loud in the car. This I simply couldn't understand. "You can't hear it!" I used to tell her. But she always insisted that she could.

It was only years later I realised that the bass level was turned up so high - by whom I have no idea - that the vibrations reverberated through not only the car's chassis but also through my Mum's entire being. So ten years later, it's time to say a sincere and public: sorry, Mum!

The amazing thing about this time in my life was that I soon got far better at picking out chatter at school. By the age of 16, I could even occasionally work out what people were saying without having to look at them.
Charlie's iPod: his latest way of listening to cool tunes
Sure, I'd initially thought that Madonna's Like A Virgin was really called Like a Bird King ("plucked for the very first time ..."), and that The Beatles' Paperback Writer was titled It's About Right Girl. Listen to it and you might get the idea.

The gift of music was that I could listen to tunes for the pure fun of it - without the pressure of having to figure out what someone was saying to me. And while the real world often afforded me only one chance to pick something out - and I was lucky if I got it - a song could always be played again. And again. And thus, they were.

My preference always was and still is for mellower tunes. My best mate has tried to introduce me to some heavier bands: Guns and Roses, AC/DC, even Metallica. But it hasn't worked. Thus, while my mates at university listened to hard house beats before heading out on the town, I'd be the one steadfastly locked in my room, listening to Tracy Chapman, chilling out to mellow tunes.

The Deaf Rave team, meanwhile, are the opposite. They put on heavy dance evenings which vibrate right through people's souls, while many deaf bods I know continue to turn the bass levels on their car stereos right up to the max, almost religiously. I think everyone knows about this and so I'm not a typical case, by any means.
70's folkie John Martyn
Right now, I'm into 70's folk music, particularly John Martyn, who specialised in slurring his words. While I can't make out most of his lyrics, the great thing is that it's the same for almost all of his fans - whether you're deaf or not! I like the sound, and that's all that counts.

So there we are. A fond tribute to music, by a deaf man. Not that there should be any eyebrows raised at that. You might not share my tastes, but you should remember that I'm not the first deaf guy to come clean about an obsession, or love, for sweet soundin' tunes. Ever heard of Beethoven?
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