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Having played bass for two of the most influential bands of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Spacemen 3 and Spiritualised, and latterly as part of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Curruthers is no stranger to chaos and noise. Here he describes, with some beauty, the insistent unwelcome drone of tinnitus that haunts his waking moments:
In the quiet times, and especially at that point in the night when the city is mostly at rest, I have a constant and un-reassuring companion. Growing and feeding on silence and the slow burn of entropy, ghosts of the heat and light that once lit my joy and fuelled my abandon, wail through endless plains of sharp thin noise. Having torn the thin veil between the worlds I am now haunted by spectral visitors from the other side and it seems there is no persuading these noisy genies back into their bottle.
If I am lucky I get two tones, slightly differing in each ear and stubbornly disharmonic. The highest of the two is faint and distant. A high and lonesome sound like a heart monitor from a tv hospital drama proclaiming the absence of the recently departed but with no attendant nurse to flick the switch so the screen might fade to black and allow the final credits to roll. The noise goes on and on and on. Yawning around this pulseless machine dirge is a broad wash of tinny metallics that seem to echo from a sea shell that only dimly remembers a synthetic ocean without the rhythm of the tide to calm the call. These are high, untuned drones that ebb and flow but which are constant enough to deny absolute peace and which fluctuate sufficiently to make any bored acceptance and subsequent ignorance of them incomplete. They are the yawning void and the last cry of cells submitting to the extremes of a dying empire and black mass in a cathedral of sound that they never grew to endure. It is how I imagine space might sound, if space had a sound.
There is a low end sound which comes and goes and I am very grateful to it when it goes. Sometimes it throbs and thrums like an idiot bassist and a half cut drummer in a stumbling rhythm section who can’t decide which song to play, or even if they should bother to play at all.
These noises are sometimes triggered by external sounds until, straining for what it can neither recognise nor process, my inner ear spirals around itself, dizzy and searching for memories of frequencies lost in dementia and the damage done by random bursts of soundcheck feedback and punishing music in the loud clubs and dark rehearsal rooms where I have spent some of my previous thirty years making music.
And then there was the recording. Days of re-takes and overdubs, sat at the screen lapping up feedbacking headphone loops and repeating riffs until meaning itself lost its sense and point and I would finally go to bed with a ringing in my ears that would always fade in time. When I wasn’t making music I worked on building sites and in factories with drills and metal saws, hammers and grinders, labouring for dinosaur machinery that I was too stubborn and poor to quit. I was brave in the face of all that robot power, driven by the chant of invention and intoxicating volume that nobody was strong enough to endure for long. John Hardy the steel driving man …battling machines that knew no fatigue, knocking in nails of noise with a fragile eardrum and biology that was sensitive to everything but its own limits. One day the ringing sound came and it didn’t go away.
It is not only the self-generated idiot noise I suffer but also a hyper sensitivity to external sounds. I hear too much and too loud. A passing siren leaves me wincing at the side of the road with my fingers in my ears. Loud music and the whine of machinery sounds like a warning. That which I loved and gave my life to, turns me away as I turn from it until I am left alone with the sirens of negative melody.
And now, I fear the touch of music as a lover might recoil from the object of their desire. Somewhere between my brain and my inner ear a lost lover keens for lost love.
Where once I ran to it, embraced it and was lost in it to the point that it became me and I became it, loud music is now a source of revulsion and regret for me. I repent at leisure, muffled and shut out of a world that is too sharp to bear unprotected, lurking at the back of the club trying to find a place to hide from the painful sounds behind the stupid little earplugs I should have learned to wear when I thought I was invulnerable. But then, experience is a comb they give you after you have gone bald. I guess that’s the price you pay for getting too wild, too high and too loud for too long. I don’t play in bands anymore and I don’t work in a sheet metal factory either. I write and make books mainly. Writing is quiet and at least I don’t have to sit in a van eating crisps for six weeks at a time anymore.
My grandfather also suffers with tinnitus. His appeared at the top of the Normandy beaches on the 6th of June 1944 and were caused by bombs and gunfire. I would imagine that my memories of the causes of the affliction are easier to bear than his. I am grateful for that.
Every cloud has a silver lining and sometimes maybe an attendant ringing sound, like a silver bell, calling and calling and who knows exactly what for?
Will Carruthers. August 2016
Will Carruthers’ memoir, Playing the Bass with Three Left Hands, tells the story of one of the most influential British bands of the 1980s, Spacemen 3. It will be published by Faber & Faber August 18