When Kathy Peck came up in the San Francisco music scene in the early ‘80s, nobody was talking about hearing protection, and noise-induced hearing loss was more or less unknown. Her power-punk trio, The Contractions, dubbed “the hottest all-woman group ever to come out of the Bay Area” by BAM Magazine, played with everyone from The Go-Go’s, Joan Jett, and the Jim Carroll Band to Oingo Boingo and Black Flag. Peck laid down the bass lines, rubbed elbows with top acts, and found herself flying high.
Today, Peck hasn’t slowed down one bit, though now she focuses much of her energy elsewhere. As the co-founder and executive director of H.E.A.R. (Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers), she advocates for auditory health education and the prevention of hearing loss and tinnitus within the music community. And for Peck, it’s personal—because it was at one of those adrenaline-charged shows back in the Bay that she experienced deafness herself.
One Night in Oakland
In 1984, The Contractions opened for Duran Duran at the Oakland Coliseum, where the English new wavers were filming one of their early concert videos for the then-new MTV channel. Peck set up the giant bass cabinet stack she borrowed from a friend, and turned up the power for an audience of screaming female fans. Soon after, she noticed a ringing in her ears. Within a few days, she had lost her hearing to the point that she couldn’t understand everyday conversation; she saw lips moving, but heard nothing that came out.
Because Peck had an unusual combination loss, she was eventually able to have her hearing restored, and now she wears musicians’ earplugs whenever she knows she’s going to be exposed to noise. In the years between that last show and the corrective surgery, though, she spent a lot of time looking for resources on her condition, only to come up short.
In 1988, she decided to do something about it, and founded H.E.A.R. alongside Dr. Flash Gordon (his real name), a doctor at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic. While small, the program operated out of this clinic, offering free screenings and audiologist referrals. Then, in July of 1989, Rolling Stone published an issue that affected H.E.A.R.’s trajectory in a big way.
28 Years of H.E.A.R.
In the magazine, The Who’s legendary Pete Townshend revealed that he, too, experienced hearing loss and tinnitus, still hidden epidemics at the time. He attributed it to a particular incident, when drummer Keith Moon set off explosives in his kit during a live performance of My Generation. Dr. Gordon quickly contacted Townshend, and the next month, H.E.A.R. board members attended The Who’s reunion concert at the Coliseum to meet Townshend, who presented them with a generous donation for their cause.
Thanks to this initial funding, grant support from the Les Paul Foundation and the Bill Graham Foundation, and ongoing grassroots donations, H.E.A.R. has been able to grow into a force recognized the world ‘round. These days, the nonprofit organization leads on-site seminars and outreach programs at public schools, colleges, music camps, workplaces, and events. It also offers custom ear impressions, professional-grade earplugs, in-ear monitors, and other devices and services, both locally in the Bay Area and nationwide through its partner network.
Key Initiatives & Awards
In 1995, H.E.A.R. launched HEARNET.com, one of the first 1,000 websites on the Internet, as another free resource for musicians and music lovers, particularly teens and young adults. The site gets more than a million hits per year from around the globe, and was even the subject of a trivia question on VH1’s Rock & Roll Jeopardy. (The question was posed to Mötley Crüe’s Vince Neil, and he answered correctly.)
In 2002, Peck and her team ran the Save Your Ears for Music Campaign, which resulted in the passing of the San Francisco earplug ordinance for entertainment venues—the first ordinance of its kind, and one they hope to expand to other cities in the U.S. and beyond. In 2003, H.E.A.R. released Listen Smart: Safely Handling the Power of Sound, produced by Dan Beck (HAMF) and directed by Pamela French. This “rockumentary” and winner of the Cine Golden Eagle Award features interviews with Les Paul, Pete Townshend, Wyclef Jean, Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Harry, Lars Ulrich, Moby, and more.
Peck herself is the recipient of countless awards, including the American Academy of Audiology’s Thomas Jefferson Cup from founder Roger Ruth and the National Association of Music Merchant’s “Believe in Music” Award. In 2008, she was inducted into NAMM’s “200 Women in Music” oral history library. This year, H.E.A.R. will be awarded the “ANNIE,” a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association for pioneering music hearing conservation, named for the renowned Annie Glenn.
Noise-induced hearing loss is preventable, and its likelihood depends on a number of factors ranging from sound intensity and length of exposure to family history, medications, and previous damage incurred. To minimize your risk, Peck says the following steps are a good start:
Turn the volume down on your listening device. Limit your exposure to loud noises, and when you are exposed, remember to take short breaks from the sound source. If you’re a musician, monitor sound levels at your rehearsals and performances. And finally, find the earplugs that are right for you (foam, rubber, moldable wax, custom-made silicone, etc.), and wear them with pride.
Want the deets on environmental and musical decibel levels, from French horn to space shuttle takeoff? Not sure which ear protection to choose? We’re turning the mic over to Kathy Peck to answer any and all of your questions. Submit them in the comment section below, and look for the answers in a follow-up post.
Learn more about H.E.A.R.: HEARNET.com
See the organization’s custom earplugs and IEMs: #ShowYourEarplugs
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Images courtesy of Kathy Peck and HEARNET.com.
H.E.A.R.’s board of directors includes Dr. Joseph Montano Ed.D, Director of the Hearing and Speech Center at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center and VP of the American Speech Language and Hearing Association; Dan Beck, Trustee of the Music Performance Trust Fund and former VP of Sony Entertainment; Jerome Goldstein, retired VP Emeritus of the American Academy of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery; and founding board members John Doyle, Esq., Flash Gordon, MD, and Kathy Peck.