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March 12-18, 2009The sound of silence
Deaf guitarist Steve DiCesare struggles to keep
the music in his head alive
by Dylan Otto Krider
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford opens with the line, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” I don’t know what the story of Steve DiCesare is, except amazing. For a musician, blindness might even turn out to be an asset, but DiCesare is almost completely deaf, which you would think would be like a mute orator, or blind photographer. Not. Possible.
But it is.
DiCesare plays with a local band called Wide Mouth Grin and says he has lost 85 percent of his hearing, but it seems like more. We meet in a coffee shop in Old Town Louisville, only blocks from his house, away from the kids where it will be easier to read lips. What little hearing remains is all in the lower register.
“Twenty percent, all bass,” he says. There is a noticeable nasality to his speech.
DiCesare plays guitar, something decided by a coin toss in junior high. Mark Brummer lost, and DiCesare, who is 39, has never played with another bassist since. The two met in grade school in New York by knocking and passing notes beneath the divider separating classrooms; they were pen pals for some time before they finally met face to face.
Why didn’t they switch, if DiCesare started losing his hearing at age 10?
“I think it’s better to play off him,” DiCesare says. “I can hear him.”
It’s said the rhythm section gives the foundation for the leads to shine, and Brummer is DiCesare’s bass — and base. Ask DiCesare: how does he tune his guitar? The answer: Mark Brummer. How does he choose his settings? Mark. The name is always said emphatically: Mark. I can tell DiCesare is driven, determined not to let the music go, yet he recognizes his remarkable achievement is one of symbiosis, a communication of subtle cues and intuition developed over a lifetime.
“We’re afraid to get a divorce,” Brummer jokes. “What else are we going to do? Who else are we going to play with?”
The hearing loss was so slow and gradual that they both had time to adapt, and he hardly notices, though Brummer admits “I’m going deaf” is not exactly what you want to hear from the lead guitarist who writes your music.
If DiCesare has known for so long that his hearing was fading, why did he pursue this career? Was it because of, or in spite of, his hearing?
“Both?” DiCesare says.
“He could be clinging to it, in fear that it’s going away,” Brummer says. “This is his whole life. It must be a pretty scary deal.”
DiCesare’s brother, Chris, plays classical guitar and also suffers from hearing loss. (“I can hear the guitar to some degree, in one ear, with the use of a hearing aid,” Chris told me. “I probably wouldn’t play if I couldn’t hear the guitar at all.”)
Mark suspects part of their drive to pursue music is because Mariah Carey sang with their band at their high school graduation, which put the idea of “making it” in their heads at an early age.
The two eventually staged an “escape from New York” and relocated to Colorado to make their fortunes, where they met drummer Peter Solveson at a party in the ’90s. He had a cast at the time, and so they played a few songs with a deaf guitarist and a one-armed drummer.
“[DiCesare’s hearing] has always been an issue as long as I knew him,” Solveson says. “I thought it was really interesting and was fascinated with his ability to keep time. His music sensibility is so strong, he can really hear a lot more than a lot of musicians I’ve played for.”
They’d form bands, and as things started to happen, someone would leave, either due to the limitations of playing with a deaf guitarist or the usual band stuff. As DiCesare’s hearing deteriorated, he could no longer listen to music, and it would take a lot of work to learn something someone else wrote. He can’t do covers of songs that were written since the ’80s.
He is now a musician writing in almost total isolation. He has no idea what type of music is played today, though his friends tell him
it’s some kind of techno vibe. The music is all composed in his head, and DiCesare says he “hears” the notes as he plays and composes.
Research has shown that deaf people feel vibrations in the same centers of the brain meant for hearing. Though some scientists have tried to uncover an evolutionary advantage to music, others see it as an off-shoot of language — something that is enjoyable because it stimulates the same parts of the brain. There is even some thought that notes in an octave correspond to the sounds of the human voice rather than any physical law. It seems music may have very little to do with hearing after all.
But is Wide Mouth Grin’s music any good? The songs are solid, yet there is something slight askew. I found it impossible to evaluate without falling back into the awe of what the band has managed to do, so I sent a track to some local musicians for a blind taste test.
Stewart Erlich of WadiRum was enthusiastic: “These guys sound like great musicians — the rhythm section is pretty slick. For the local scene, I think they are definitely better than average,” he says.
What about the guitarist?
A solid lead and rhythm guitar player, he says.
“I love the bounciness of the tune, and the guitar is in large part responsible for that.”
And if we told you he was deaf?
“Wow — that is a testament… to his musicality and rhythm.”
“We’ve been together so long, I’ve really come to appreciate what we do. I like the stuff he writes. I really dig it,” Brummer says.
If anything, Brummer thinks the loss of hearing has influenced the music in positive ways. “It all comes from within,” he says. “If he could hear, I’m not sure he would write what he’s doing now.”
Then again, he says, DiCesare’s music has always been a little odd.
All three think DiCesare’s music may be a little more mathematical and rhythmic than the stuff other people write, and since his influences cut off in the ’80s, it’s not like what you hear today. For Solveson, too, it’s about the music DiCesare writes. As a drummer, he is particularly fond of DiCesare’s innate sense of rhythm and timing.
Lately, DiCesare has had to give up singing, and on the latest album, he wasn’t able to be involved in the mixing.
“It’s frustrating,” DiCesare says. He uses that word a lot. “It’s very frustrating for me that I wasn’t able to be a part of it.”
His wife would say, “I really like the harmonica,” and DiCesare would go, “What harmonica?”
There are some tricks he can do — he has the producer use an octave box to lower the music to his frequency. “Mark plays a lot of bass,” DiCesare says, and often wants to turn it down, but as Brummer points out, the bass is all he can hear.
It’s unclear how much longer DiCesare can go before the memory of the music fades.
“I almost wait for his accuracy to fall off,” Brummer admits.
In rehearsal, DiCesare says “make every gig count” because he never knows if there will be another one.
A sad story?
As opening lines go, Tolstoy’s “All happy families are the same” is the saddest I’ve ever heard. But for inspiration, I always turn to Dylan Thomas:
Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
On the Bill
Wide Mouth Grin performs at 9:30 p.m. on Friday, March 20, at the Draft House, 2027 13th St., Boulder, 303-440-5858.