When music critic and music lover Clara Heathcock perforated her eardrum it meant that she wasn’t able to listen to music. The experience led to a period of introspection and, ultimately, a book. Victoria Bailey is absorbed and impressed
The title of this book reads like a punk band name while the cover could double as a punk band poster. This text is different: think hybrid, high-end fanzine. PERFORATED EARDRUM!!! is a collection of 10 essays written by music critic (and music lover) Clara Heathcock, focusing on her experience of perforating her eardrum. This experience results in her spending a significant amount of time not being able to listen to music. Her insights are accompanied by Patrick Wray’s supporting artwork.
We measure sound in decibels, that is, in measurements of ten. Given the serendipitous and symbolic framework of this book, I’m going to make 10 points of review in response to reading it.
1. This book is nothing if not unique. Haven’t you ever, sometimes almost uncontrollably so, wanted to know what others are listening to on their headphones or seemingly singing along to in their car? I always think it’d be nice just to swap whatever listening device I’m using with strangers I come into contact with on the train or in the coffee shop during the day to compare, or to take turns in public spaces getting to play our favourite songs for one another. In this book Heathcock provides these kinds of insights and so much more. We get to hear about (OK, read) what the writer misses, aurally speaking, and furthermore, what her ears, her brain, what she, craves to hear.
2. The pondering and sharing of Heathcock’s experience and observations functions as a prompt or gateway for her to reflect on greater personal and social issues as diverse as housing instability and personal social connection. She also discusses the politics of wearing band t-shirts at concerts – that’s definitely worth a read.
3. PERFORATED EARDRUM!!! is an example of how a hybrid text can work well. With a DIY zine textual and visual tone, this book is a mix of words and images both of which have a collage quality to them. Heathcock also speaks of multiple art mediums such as music (obviously), film, poetry, writing and books, and this significantly adds to the layers of observation and reflection the book has to offer.
4. After reading PERFORATED EARDRUM!!! I went back over the essays again but this time I also listened to the respective songs that Heathcock mentions in each entry. It really adds to the text and I would highly recommend it. In fact, given the book’s focus and Heathcock’s detailed listing of the tracks at the back of the book, it would’ve been nice to see those details at the top of each page working like a kind of adult read-a-long if you will. A tight edit might have brought this about and resolved a few other very small issues, but – and it’s a big BUT – I also think a sterile-level clean edit would’ve taken away from the tone of the text, so overall, it’s not really a lack. However, I highly recommend listening to the mentioned tracks as you read each entry, it really alters the reading in a powerful way.
5. Each essay section is not simply accompanied with illustrations, it is matched with a piece of art by Patrick Wray that not only echoes but enhances the power of Heathcock’s words. These images emphasise the personal reflection in the essays whilst also encouraging the reader to do the same. Wray seems to truly understand Heathcock’s messaging and their creative partnership seems to have proven positive for the purposes of this project.
6. The essay collection format also works well; like a playlist/jukebox – you can drop in and out of the text easily without compromising the impact of each entry or the book’s overall effect. Like music, there is a rhythm to the text. Heathcock’s voice is clear and consistent throughout yet sometimes she shares her messages loudly, sometimes more quietly, and both tones work well to add to the intimate style Heathcock employs.
7. In the book’s informal introduction, Heathcock writes about the blurring of boundaries between music and the body. Striving to describe in words the pain of perforating her eardrum she states: “It was a bit like hearing the guitar when it’s your hands playing it. The noise becomes kind of internal and wobbly, like it’s part of your body and not the air around it.” I’m not sure if the use of the term eardrum is coincidence but the title and the essays also work to pose and examine conceptualisation of the blurriness of borderlines between mind, emotions, body and external sound in interesting ways. Heathcock also gently explores and shares personal insights into how music can impact mental health and how the songs we select can work to create a deep sense of connection or, at the other end of the spectrum, be applied to promote disassociation in multiple ways. Again, these observations are respectful, accessible and insightful.
8. Given the complexity and depth of this book it still manages to maintain a cohesive accessibility throughout – it doesn’t lose that zine flavour. As a reader, you could imagine being sat on a train and Heathcock just happens to be sat next to you; the two of you strike up a conversation and then she shares: “Last time I was on this train I perforated my eardrum …” and then you get to pass a considerable amount of what would have been a rather boring journey (if not for what was in your headphones or the book in your hands, or, fittingly, both) not in isolation but in hearing about the profound insights she experienced through her injury and ensuing healing process.
9. Heathcock does touch on feminist issues. For example, in entry four she speaks about experiencing gender wage disparity first-hand. Given the gendered experience of music artists it would have been interesting for Heathcock to speak more about this aspect of what music she craved and why. Which leads me to my next point…
10. Just hours before I read Heathcock’s book I listened to a podcast in which one of the interviewees, a musician, spoke of the creative benefits of staring at walls – I think they meant both literally and figuratively. The point being, in silence and withdrawal and just ‘being’ without distraction we get quiet enough to hear our inner thoughts and sometimes begin to notice things a little differently and form new ideas. To be clear, I would never wish a perforated eardrum on anyone, especially on Clara Heathcock for a second time. But I hope she’s found some comfort in silence and I also hope she continues to enjoy it from time to time as even without her much loved music, she is capable of truly interesting, valuable and unique observations.
Perforated Eardrum is out now