There were several signs that Q-tipping wasn't enough: I could no longer hear the difference between Coldplay's mushy whine and U2's throaty self-satisfaction. I couldn't hear the drunken hippie standing mouth-to-ear inside the Poor House yelling last week's RatDog set list at me. I couldn't hear Mike Jones bark about "Still Tippin'" through a grill full of platinum fronts over my crappy car speakers.
When a music critic can no longer distinguish among house, deep house, and progressive house, he's lost his edge, and something has to be done. Short of seeing a doctor, I was willing to try anything.
Enter, via copious Googling and e-mailing with some alternative-lifestyle types in San Francisco, the ear candle. Which is exactly what it sounds like a waxen tube you stick in your ear and light on fire. Ancient cultures observed that the candle's flame creates a slight vacuum by consuming the oxygen within the tube. Modern holistic healers claim that, along with ordinary ear wax, the vacuum draws out impurities built-up aural smegma, stale toxins, and bad vibes from the ear canal and on down into the sinus and cranial cavities. Skeptics say it's all bunk, of course.
I set out to uncover the burning truth and maybe decipher the lyrics to "Louie Louie" in the process. I started by asking one of those musicians who always has his hands to his ears.
"The last time I went to a doctor was when I was 19 years old," Andrew "DJ Le Spam" Yeomanson told me before his band's weekly Monday-night gig at Fort Lauderdale's Blue Martini. "I'm 36 now. It's not ideal, and I wouldn't recommend anyone not go see the doctor, but I pretty much look after myself."
Expecting to blow the slick-domed DJ's mind, I brandished a sand-colored, ten-inch-long wax tube and asked him, right there at the bar, "Ever seen one of these?"
"An ear candle? Yeah, it's never worked for me."
Oh. OK then.
"My ears are extremely waxy, and I have a problem with the sound levels, where four or five times a week I'll go home with my ears ringing," he continued. "So about two years ago, I went into an audiologist, and he stuck this camera into my ear, and I had a little screen in front of me. It was horrible! He was like, 'You gotta get your ears cleaned!' I was so embarrassed. So I went to a friend and tried doing the ear candles, but they didn't pull the wax out. I've tried it maybe three or four times, but it never really worked. But maybe the wax in my ears is the only thing that's protecting them anyway, so now I just leave them alone."
Yeomanson soon took to his decks, spinning that black wax you actually want hogging your eustachians. Once the rest of the Spam Allstars joined him on Blue Martini's elevated, behind-the-bar stage, it was obvious that, candle or no, his hearing was A-OK.
"It's possible that it just didn't work for him," was the response I got the next day from Jackie Bressler, manager of Revolution. "You gotta fit it just right to get the suction going." Through dumb luck, I had encountered a true ear candle practitioner. "I'm not a coneologist, but I do love it," she said, then described the meditation room in her house where she'd candled countless musician friends to keep their orejas in top shape. "I try to set up a nice atmosphere, light candles, play music, have them lie down and relax. I think you need that for it to work. They say there are a lot of spiritual elements to it emotional cleansing and purifying of the spirit but I don't get into that. I think of this as a nice hour you spend with someone in a very relaxed state. And your ears come out a little cleaner."
If anyone was gonna save Beatcomber's best assets, it was Bressler. Unfortunately, she was in typical overdrive mode and had no time to slurp the crud out of some volume-damaged journo's hearholes. So I took matters into my own hands and made arrangements to suck the matter out of my own ears.
Actually, I had a friend do it.
There I was a few nights ago, lying on my side on Inside Scoop's floor with a candle pointing north out of my left ear. A sheet of tin foil was all that separated the flame from my hair, which I've learned over the years is surprisingly flammable. She leaned over and lit the tube.
The first thing I noticed was the sound, like the fizz of soda poured into a glass, rising into a slow, sautéing sizzle. Then warmth, distant but certain and very soothing, in my inner ear. From the sizzle, I could feel tiny Pop Rocks crackle in my ear, and the sound of speaker static grew louder as the flame neared my ear. There was a slight pressure change, and from the corner of my eye, I saw smoke from the candle rising toward the ceiling.
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"It looks like a giant, smoking joint," Scoop said.
The sputtering hiss never rose above a close whisper but still sounded rather unsettling. There was no Hoover-to-the-ear sucking sensation, but when Scoop doused the flame in a cup of water and I sat up, something had changed. The left side of my head was lighter; it wanted up while the right side wanted down. We took the burned remains of the candle about three inches of singed, wax tube and scissored it open. The evidence: a thick, ochre glob of congealed goo. It was earwax, clearly of a different consistency than the candle, that looked as if it had seeped up from my ear and into the bottom of the tube. It also looked quite foul.
We were grossed out and totally astounded. We did my other ear. Then we did hers.
"I feel like I'm high," I said afterward, a little loopy and exceedingly mellowed. Inside Scoop concurred, but she was high before we started. The clarity that Jackie had described was there, but so was a giddy, open-headed sense that if you could unblock your ears with a candle, anything is possible. Even hearing something to like in Coldplay.