If ever you’ve asked for, and received a pair of earplugs at a local club when the music got a little too loud, you can thank Kathy Peck. Her organization H.E.A.R. (Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers) has helped destigmatize hearing loss and made way for thousands of musicians and music lovers to receive help through education and referrals.
H.E.A.R. is why in the City of San Francisco, music venues with a dance floor and a capacity of over 500 must make earplugs and fresh drinking water available.
“I think I nurtured people in the education process,” said Peck. “Almost all the clubs were compliant,” even before the practice became law in 2002 with the help of several city departments, task forces, commissions and then-supervisor Mark Leno. She’s also assisted in national hearing health efforts, as in the recent Affordable Hearing Aid Act pushed forward by Senator Elizabeth Warren.
“It’s unbelievable I’ve been able to do all the things in my life that I have,” said Peck who is hard of hearing. As the executive director of H.E.A.R. for over 30 years, she still makes her own music and participates in improving civic life: She supports the effort to preserve old growth trees and green space organized by her neighbors, Save Laurel Hill.
“San Francisco used to be the place where they cared about beauty,” she said.
“One of the first things the founders of The City did was build Golden Gate Park. Our green space, the air we breathe, the shade, the calm, the peace…instead of dark, concrete blocks and smog.”
Peck is a Texan who arrived here just in time to be among the first wave of ‘70s punk musicians to make, perform and distribute their own music without waiting for a venture capitalist to say yes.
“You just did it,” she said.
As bassist with the Contractions, Peck and her bandmates drummer, Debbie Hopkins and guitarist, Mary Kelley started out in Kelley’s studio, Truth and Beauty Labs. They found an audience among like-minded artists and at willing venues, like Filipino supper club, The Mabuhay Gardens, and The Deaf Club, a storefront where people with hearing problems gathered. By 1984, the band had graduated to the mainstream, opening a show at the Oakland Coliseum for Duran Duran.
“That changed my life,” said Peck, though not in the way you might expect: The combination of the arena’s sound system, teenage girls screaming, and her own congenital hearing defect conspired to blow out her ears.
“The ringing was really bizarre. It was like I heard bongo drums outside the door,” she remembered. She has since had surgery to partially correct the loss and still writes music though she doesn’t play live much. She learned to lip read at the San Francisco Hearing and Speech Center.
Following the incident, she consulted with Flash Gordon, M.D. of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic. “Flash noticed musicians were complaining about their hearing,” she said. ”We started hanging out and he wanted to do a benefit.”
They organized an event at the Rock ‘n’ Bowl on Haight Street, and H.E.A.R. was born.
“We had the metal bands, Exodus and Testament, playing pool against each other. The lanes were filled with bands and club owners competing. Chris Isaak was walking around, Marga Gomez was telling jokes, and we had a guy doing magic tricks,” Peck said. There were also speech pathologists and audiologists to take questions and distribute information. But no one expected to see a line around the building with reporters from Time, Newsweek, People, The Today Show, The New York Times and the Japanese press waiting to speak to Peck about H.E.A.R.
“That was when I realized, this is much bigger than the San Francisco Haight Ashbury crowd,” she said. “I physically felt like there was a snowball beside me starting to roll. I just have to hold on and say yes to the ride.”
As she remembered the night, so did I: Peck so thoroughly educated locals that when I moved to other cities expecting to find earplugs at the bar, I was disappointed. Peck taught a community of listeners we should care about our ears.
Before the ‘80s ended, Dr. Gordon asked The Who’s Pete Townshend to lend a hand (the guitarist had gone public with his own tinnitus).
“He became a founding donor with a $10,000 gift,” said Peck. Other music professionals like concert mogul Bill Graham and the Mabuhay’s talent booker Dirk Dirksen, offered ongoing support and gave away free H.E.A.R. plugs; guitar innovator Les Paul became a sounding board and friend.
“His foundation helped our school program,” said Peck who has made “tens of thousands” of earplugs, encouraging the once-skeptical hearing device industry to invest in prevention, though she’s never sought a patent. “I do education foremost,” she said. She brings hearing education to our local colleges with music programs and other institutions, serving new students, alumni and educators at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, SFJAZZ, San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, among others.
“Other things besides loud music can contribute to hearing loss like medications and diet. It can become a perfect storm,” she said.
Peck did some of her initial research at UCSF which gave her an office at the Laurel Heights campus. She conducted the first 10-year study on musician’s hearing, published and presented at an early conference of the American Academy of Audiology. She still sees clients, not far from the Muni Presidio yard and the UCSF campus at 3333 California Street which a developer has acquired: The proposed flexible use plan could replace the historic, mid-century modern building and surrounding trees with a nine-story structure and excavation project.
“There used to be a cemetery there,” said Peck of Laurel Hill, shuddering at the thought of 15 years of upheaval, the likes of which she and the Save Laurel Hill group hope to prevent.
“I love my neighbors and community,” she said. “I’ve been here 28 years. This house is from the 1880s, built before doorknobs,” she said, pointing to its French doors. “Osbourn Dorsey patented the first doorknob. He was a freed slave,” she added. “I doubt he was ever paid for his invention.”
The Haight’s Rock ‘n’ Bowl is Amoeba Music. The Free Clinic is closed and supporters like the Mab’s Dirksen and Bill Graham are long gone. But Peck remains a unique San Franciscan with her own spot in local rock history. As I leave, reflexively reaching for the doorknob, she drops a final piece of knowledge for me to ponder.
“Sometimes hearing loss is not the culprit,” she whispered. “You’d be surprised how many people just need to try cleaning out their ears.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.