Members of Journey, including Ross Valory (far left), and Jonathan Cain(far right).
As we know from Adele’s recent visit to the Hi-Lo Diner, Lady Gaga’s love for the Turf Club, and Miley Cyrus’s strolls around St. Paul, Twin Citians are intensely interested in what rock stars do when they are not performing.
Rock royalty of a certain age have different priorities, however. That’s why yesterday, during their day off before tonight’s concert at Xcel Energy Center, two members of the legendary eighties pop-rock juggernaut Journey—bassist Ross Valory and keyboard player Jonathan Cain—spent the afternoon at Starkey Hearing Technologies headquarters in Eden Prairie, being outfitted for new hearing aids.
Standing in front of a Marshall four-stack for forty-plus years can take its toll, and protecting what’s left of their hearing is, for these guys, a form of job security. “Technology can fix poor eyesight and surgeons can repair your body, but once your hearing goes, that’s it,” says Cain, who began wearing hearing aids about fifteen years ago, after a doctor in Germany accidentally injured his left ear while flushing it of impacted ear wax. A hearing aid helps counteract the painful tinnitus that Cain has experienced ever since, and, he says, makes it possible for him to enjoy everyday life and continue performing at a high level.
Cain has since become a rather passionate advocate for hearing protection, not only for himself and his band mates, but for his audiences as well. “Most rock concerts are way too loud,” he claims. “I went to see U2 in Vancouver a couple of years ago and had to leave after two songs. It was too loud. Same with Van Halen. I walked out. Even my kids couldn’t take it. Those guys were crazy loud.” Journey concerts are loud, too, he admits—but not that loud. “102 decibels is about as high as we go,” he says—whereas many acts push it into the 120-40 decibel range, into white-noise territory, past the so-called “threshold of pain.”
Long-time Journey bassist Ross Valory knew for years that his hearing was going too, but didn’t bother to do anything about until about five years ago, when Cain convinced him to take the hearing-aid plunge. Valory looks like a prototypical aging rock star: craggy skin, a preternaturally skinny frame, and a bleached, coiffed mane of hair seemingly transplanted from a man thirty years his junior. “What they can do these days with the technology—it’s phenomenal. The model I’m getting today, I can control the whole thing with my phone. I can even take calls on it,” he says, taking a bite of a sandwich. “It’s crazy.”
He can actually do a great deal more than that. The hearing-aid Cain and Valory are upgrading to is Starkey’s latest and greatest, a Bluetooth model with the appropriately space-aged name, Halo 2, which comes with its own iPhone app. Through the app, users can take phone calls, stream music, choose from twenty-four different “modes,” geotag individual location settings, and basically control every aspect of their listening experience, in any environment. It’s the kind of hearing device that doesn’t just improve people’s hearing—it gives them such bionic precision and control over their aural environment that even people without hearing problems may soon become interested in them; not to achieve “normal” hearing, but to enhance and improve their natural hearing.
Journey’s Jonathan Cain is on that path. “I don’t just want to hear better, I want to hear music the way my sound engineer hears it,” says Cain. “When we’re mixing a song, I need to hear every element.” Neither Cain or Valory wears hearing aids in performance, because they have equally sophisticated in-ear monitors onstage, but both recognize that if they want to keep performing, they’re going to need their ears.
Hearing loss is an occupational hazard of rock-and-roll, they know, especially for aging boomers. According to a frequently cited German study, professional musicians are four times more likely to experience hearing loss as they age than other people. Phil Collins stopped touring a few years ago because of his hearing. Eric Clapton blames his early years cranking his amps as high as the would go for the tinnitus he suffers from now. Many other aging rockers—e.g., Neil Young, Sting, Paul Stanley (Kiss)—have become late-in-life advocates of hearing protection as well, because they all know first-hand that loud music can be a lot of fun; until it isn’t.
The irony of rock stars preaching the gospel of sensible sound levels is not lost on these guys. Yes, they ushered in the era of arena rock, and continue to make a comfy living from it. But age and perspective and not a little bit of pain have prompted them to sound like parents warning their kids to “turn it down!”
“At a certain point, it becomes hazardous,” says Cain. “Concerts don’t need to be that loud.”
So if you go to Journey’s show, pay attention to your ears. If it’s not “loud enough” for you, and you start wishing they would crank it up, you might want to have your hearing checked. “Our mix is perfect, crisp, right where you want it,” insists Cain.
Any louder and they’d be in danger of sounding like U2.
Or worse: Van Halen.