Tinnitus: When the music stops

A rare condition left critic Nick Coleman unable to hear the music he adored. Here, he explains how he learned to listen again.

Nick Coleman resolved to get music back into his life again after suffering from The Calamity. Photo / Thinkstock
Nick Coleman resolved to get music back into his life again after suffering from The Calamity. Photo / Thinkstock

In the summer of 2007 the music stopped for Nick Coleman. For 30-odd years he had steeped himself in music - singing in a choir, playing trombone, soaking up medieval and modern-classical influences from his father, drenching himself in 1960s rock'n'roll and 1970s "prog rock" - until it became his greatest love and his career. For 25 years he wrote about music for the NME, Time Out and serious British national newspapers (including The Independent). He lived and breathed notes, chords, cadences, riffs, rhythm, harmony, melody - and then came what he calls The Calamity. As he sat on his bed one morning, his right ear went stone deaf. And soon, his left ear - as though in a well-meaning but painful attempt at compensation - started to make appalling noises.

"The inside of my head began to resound like the inside of an old fridge hooked up to a half-blown amplifier ... torquey skeins of sound punctuated every now and then by clanks, zizzles, and whistles ... It was deafening in there. A fight, a riot."

In hospital, comatose, stricken, unable to keep his balance and nauseous from steroids, he learnt that the doctors had no clue what was wrong, nor what the future held. So Coleman, at 47, was sent home to contemplate a life without the sense that mattered most to him, while a mad throng of hooligans maintained an unrelenting cacophony in his weary brain.

His book, The Train in the Night, published this week, brilliantly evokes this grisly experience, the horror of tinnitus (not just the uproar of white noise, but the non-deaf ear's hypersensitivity to everyday noises) and the author's struggle to get music back into his life. But it does much more. It delves back into his past, to examine how music defined the identity and set the emotional template of British schoolchildren in the 1970s.

We meet at his home in rackety-but-fashionable Stoke Newington, London, one street from Johnny Rotten's childhood home and a stone's throw from where The Clash recorded London's Calling. Coleman's pride and joy is his collection of vinyl LPs stacked alphabetically from ceiling to floor in the living room, a palpable danger to the foundations. Bald and goatee-bearded, Coleman resembles the grown-up Peter Gabriel. His daughter Berry plays keyboards, his son Tom electric guitar. His wife Jane is currently the family breadwinner. He makes coffee, gives me the sugar bowl and a spoon, and talks about some heavyweight friends he's encountered since going deaf.

"I published a piece in the Guardian soon after The Calamity, and Pete Townshend wrote me a lovely long letter full of interesting thoughts and benign advice about how to address, philosophically, the problem of losing your hearing. And I met Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout who had a variation of the same thing and was very ill for ... could you please stop doing that?"

I look down. Without realising, I've been stirring my coffee for a full minute, the chinking spoon against the china sounding like a kango hammer in Coleman's head.

I apologise (quietly). "Pete Townshend says he got tinnitus as a result of playing in front of banks of speakers night after night. Isn't your condition the result of too many Motorhead concerts?" "No, no," says Coleman. "I never liked high volume."

The most salient advice he got came from Professor Oliver Sacks, the neurosurgeon author of Awakenings. Sacks told him that the old depth and spaciousness with which he used to hear music could be triggered again by association with memories. So he set himself to remember everything about music in his childhood.

Born in 1960, Coleman grew up in the Fens and attended the same school - The Perse - as David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. In those days, Cambridge had six record shops. "We were a musical family. My dad ran music groups for local kids and adults. He was a very ordinary pianist but a fan of David Munrow [of the Early Music Consort] and amassed a stack of early music. My two sisters are far more talented than I am. I adored music but discovered early on that I don't have what it takes. The humiliation of my teacher saying, 'Nick, you have to remember, you're not a musician, you're a music lover.'"

In 1973, when Coleman bought his first records, Sixties pop, soul and hippie psychedelia had yielded to heavy metal, glam rock and the elaborately structured, multi-key-signatured, annoyingly pretentious "progressive rock", as exemplified by Pink Floyd, Genesis and Yes. It was the natural choice of ambitious Cambridgeshire teens.

"What chance did I have? I was 13 in 1973, and it was the most challenging thing there was. There's a widely held view that musical taste in those days divided strictly along class lines - that only working-class people liked soul and only middle-class people liked prog rock. Bollocks. Me and my two friends Andy and Lorry were a demonstration of that. I was the most middle-class of us - in his own mind, Lorry was a working-class antihero of the first order. But we were serious-minded. We were engaging with a discussion with ourselves about who we were and what our place was in the world."

He remembers the three visionaries sitting on a Cambridge bus in the early 1970s, discussing whether "Stairway to Heaven" should be the new national anthem, "safe in the knowledge that no-one else on the bus was tackling such serious issues. We were the freak Brains Trust at the front of the bus, scratching our stubbly chins." Thirty-something years later, after The Calamity, Coleman tried listening to Zeppelin again - at a cinema preview of a remastered The Song Remains the Same, the band's 1976 movie. It was horrendous.

"The music didn't make any sense. The drums were out of time, the bassline detuned and inaudible, Jimmy Page's guitar was a storm of white noise - and yet Robert Plant's voice was in tune, in the right place and totally coherent. My brain was messing with the message, it was literally unreadable, it no longer held its musical sense. That was really scary - I thought I'd literally lost music for a long time."

The confusion and pain, worsened by insomnia and the "sloshed vertigo" induced by movement brought Coleman to the brink. "I didn't want to die, but I really felt I'd be better off dead. I'd no prospect of getting better. After 12 weeks at the Royal London they said, 'We'll see you in six months, Mr Coleman,' when I was hobbling on two sticks, bent double, I couldn't see straight and or walk more than 25 yards. Muhammed Ali used to talk about 'the Near Room' - the place he went towards the end of fights with Joe Frazier, when he felt dead but functioning purely on motor memory. That's where I felt I was."

He escaped from the Near Room when he was re-referred to the Royal National. "It wasn't a target-hitting general hospital, it was specialist. I was talked to. They asked me questions. They talked about the future. Once I was there, I started making progress very quickly."

In eight months, he could walk again, ride a bike, drive a car and endure ambient everyday noises (kettles, potato crisps, tinkling spoons) without exploding. Betablockers for the migraines of which he'd long been a victim and "Mindful Meditation" to subdue, or placate, the tinnitus. And miraculously, music - provided it's played at low volume - has come back to him. Through effort and pain, headaches and determination, Coleman forced himself to listen to a favourite album, Exile on Main Street by the Stones, and heard it better than ever before.

The book ends in a heartening exploration of the art of "listening better" and a two-page listing of all the music of his life, newly restored to him, that would make anyone weep.

"If Tumbling Dice is your all-time favourite song," I said. "What are your other seven on Desert Island Discs?" He gave me an old-fashioned look, as if to say, "What kind of crap, High Fidelity-style question is that?" But then he started: "Okay, I'd have Equinox by John Coltrane which isn't well known but is meditative and spacious and beautiful, I'd have to have Miles Davis, probably Teo from Someday my Prince Will Come, and I'd certainly have Marvin Gaye, probably Everybody Needs Love. I'd have to have George Jones doing I Stopped Loving Her Today and I'm in love with early Rickie Lee Jones, her jazz standards on Girl At Her Volcano, and I'd need something contemporary - maybe Justin Townes Earle, Steve's son ..."

And Coleman was off, talking about his life's passion to which, like a knight in an old fairy tale, he has battled so long through storm, strife and extravagant pain to be reunited.

- INDEPENDENT

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