Patton Oswalt in SPIN's Loud Issue: Enjoy the Silence

If it's too loud, you're too old. And you know what? That's okay.

Illustration by Raymond Biesinger
Illustration by Raymond Biesinger
WRITTEN BY
Patton Oswalt

The electric thrum of the power charging up the speakers at the lip of the stage feels like a million unstoppable tanks driven by a million PCP addicts, barely held in check, and then…

One guitar string is plucked by one fingernail, and a shockwave of sound, riding on the collective, slumbering explosion of the crowd, breaks and fires and crashes into all the walls of the club…

And we're, all of us, band and audience, out of ourselves and into the air, seared away by 100 decibels of sonic charging stallions, gulping fire and spitting suns…

(But the song ends. And when it does, wriggling through the ringing membranes surrounding our ears and around us in the club are half-snatches of conversations, a voice we like, ice kissing glass, a nervous laugh, the beginning of an argument, the end of a relationship, the snapping back to the reality that we're each alone — maybe you'll hear and realize all of this or maybe none of it, depending on which way you turn, on what you say, on what you pay attention to…)

THRUUUUUUUUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM…

Anyway, that's how I remember what it was like to see live music, whether you were in a stadium or the back of a bar. A cacophony that melts you into the universe, and then a sudden quiet that snaps you back into the tiny world you inhabit by yourself. And back and forth, throughout the evening and, you hope, your life. It's good exercise, the whipsaw between "particle floating on galactic winds" and "pillar of solitude." The perfect night in front of the cleansing amps of the right performer can accomplish more than a year of therapy.

And I'm not writing this as some false-wise ex–club rat telling you young'uns to wear your earplugs and be careful not to stand too close to the speakers. By all means, blow those eardrums out. It's probably pessimistic of me to say this, but here goes — the longer you live, the more you realize not everything's worth listening to. You don't need the hearing you had in your 20s when you reach your 40s. And no, I'm not saying, "New music sucks," or "People are getting dumber." If anything, music is getting better, and statistics show people are getting smarter.

It's just that, as you get older, you relish the silence, the times when no one's speaking. You crave quieter, more thoughtful music. It has nothing to do with being square or boring, either. It just happens. It even happens to the people who make the music. The 25-year-old Eric Clapton who recorded "Layla" in 1970 thought its apocalyptic opening chords, screaming-eagle guitar figures, and dirty-swamp bass sounded perfect. The 47-year-old Clapton who did the airport-lounge version on MTV Unplugged in 1992 thought it sounded perfect then, too. He was right both times. And he'd gotten to a comfort level, with his age and memories of his youth, to do both.

But you'll never reach that comfort level if you haven't waded into the sonic blitzkrieg at a time when you're fueled more by hormones and less by bemused self-deprecation. You're young? Get near the loud. You don't have that much to say anyway. Drown yourself out. You're older? Keep it quiet. You'll look sage and deep, even though you secretly know you're no wiser or sure of life than when you were bouncing on the trampoline of horny youth. And you're creeping out everyone in the club anyway.

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