When Making Music Breaks Your Body
Meric Long had been playing guitar for three years when he realized the instrument could be more than his hobby — it could be his way of communicating, too, of feeling he had something important to say.
At a high-school friend's house party, Long, then an anxious California teenager, smoked too much weed and meandered on an acoustic guitar for several uninterrupted hours. He assumed he was improvising for no one. But people listened, captivated by the sudden volubility of a 16-year-old who considered himself awkward and uneasy.
"I always thought, if I say anything, I am going to say something stupid," Long remembers with a laugh. "I realized that moment is what it felt like to speak and have people value what you were saying." Even now, when he talks to other parents at the daycare of his 3-year-old daughter, Tegra, the guitar gives him something to discuss, a "cool job"-as-icebreaker. "If I could walk into every socially awkward situation with a guitar," he admits, "I would."
When Long started The Dodos, his Bay Area duo with drummer Logan Kroeber, in the mid-2000s, that feeling was still driving him. Having fallen in love with fingerstyle guitar — playing the strings directly, without the aid of a pick — in his early 20s, he resolved to take it to an unconventional extreme: He wanted, as he put it before a recent weekday rehearsal, for "every string to sound like a different drum." The idea became the pair's animating mission, the spiritual center of ecstatic songs that felt too mighty to be dubbed "acoustic rock." As Long yowled quarterlife missives about sleeping in, breaking up or questioning God, he clawed and hammered the strings, with Kroeber throwing jabs at each strum like a welterweight bullying his opponent.
Toward the end of the aughts, those punchy songs briefly made The Dodos rising indie rock stars. Their distinctive concerts — Long seated, his body unnaturally warped around the guitar like a tree swallowing an old metal sign — made them festival favorites, playing 100 shows per year at their peak. But despite the popularity and seven full-length records, Long felt like he'd never truly captured his guitar the way he'd hoped. In August 2019, a month before his 39th birthday, he realized he might have only one more chance.
He and his wife, Noela, had taken Tegra to Spain to spend the summer at his in-laws' sylvan cottage, and he'd been playing lots of guitar in the woods. He was working on "Annie," a plaintive new number about seeking forgiveness within a doomed relationship, when his left pinky refused to stretch across the frets. "I had experienced pain there before, but I had always forced myself through it," Long remembers. "This didn't just hurt. It was a limitation." Back home in Oakland a month later, a blood test confirmed rheumatoid arthritis — an autoimmune condition with punishing effects on the joints. What's more, his decade-plus of aggressive guitar playing had, almost certainly, been quietly exacerbating the damage.
In mid-November, The Dodos issued the kinetic Grizzly Peak, their eighth album and, likely, their last. The duo's imminent end underscores a little-publicized truth about making music — it can, and often does, wreck bodies.
"I started writing down all the things wrong with me that I can attribute to playing in Superchunk," says Laura Ballance, the North Carolina band's bassist for three decades. Ballance quit touring in 2013 after dealing with hearing loss and hyperacusis, where certain sounds become incredibly grating. Her full index of ailments includes COPD, bone spurs in the neck, bunions in the feet, a crooked spine and, she quips, self-diagnosed brain damage. She's been off the road nearly a decade, but the time away hasn't magically fixed her. Hearing woes mean it's still hard to see bands live, hindering her ability to run Merge Records, the label she co-founded.
Hearing loss and tinnitus, tendonitis and arthritis, mouth calluses and vocal cord nodules: These are only a sliver of the vast collection of maladies a musical life can bring. A 2017 study of more than 700 orchestral musicians in Germany found that two-thirds of them endured chronic pain, many for at least five years. And while it's fairly well understood that music careers are an endurance sport, requiring rigorous practice and few days off, the physical consequences often go unadvertised, hidden from fans for the sake of shows that must go on.
"We all abuse ourselves for the sake of performance, but nobody talks about it," Ballance says. "I'm not the only one."
Near the end of 1981, Max Weinberg felt like he might actually be the only person injured by making music. By that point, Weinberg had been the drummer in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band for nearly a decade, earning the moniker "Mighty Max" for his gusto behind the kit. As the group finished a sprawling tour of arenas and auditoriums for The River, Weinberg noticed that the space between his thumb and index finger on both hands — where he gripped his sticks for three hours every night — ached, the sinew inflamed. At one point, he couldn't open his hands at all, even when he pushed against his fingers.
When Weinberg learned about Leon Fleisher, the classical pianist who developed a left-hand repertoire after losing the use of his right, he realized he might have a chance at recovery, too. He went looking for help. The first doctor he saw told him to find another line of work. The second, esteemed St. Luke's–Roosevelt hand surgeon Richard Eaton, knew better. A condition known as trigger finger had morphed into severe cases of tendonitis and tenosynovitis; Weinberg underwent seven operations in two years.
"I had unusual demands as a drummer, playing at a very high intensity level," Weinberg says. "But it wasn't from playing hard — it was from playing incorrectly. I lacked a finessed technique."
After these surgeries, Weinberg became a public apostle for the awareness of such injuries. He offered interviews about his struggles, served on the board of the Miller Healthcare Institute for Performing Artists and became a zealot for a regimen of warming up, cooling down and improving technique. In 1986, U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr. told Weinberg he had endured intense pain for a year, especially while playing "Pride (In the Name of Love)." Weinberg sent him to his surgeon, who said exploratory surgery might be necessary.
"There was an obsessive prejudice on the part of musicians to hide their injuries. You would suck it up, play through the pain," Weinberg remembers. "No one was talking about it, so I took the spotlight of the E Street Band and shined it on performance-related injuries. There are so many conservative things you can do to help."
Still, nearly four decades later, 25-year-old guitarist Yasmin Williams encountered similar isolation and confusion when her right thumb began aching, locking and spasming. Williams' star has risen quickly during the last year, multiplying schedule demands in spite of COVID-19. She assumed she was just too busy. But when she struggled even to open a bag of chips after a string of fall shows, she posted to social media, wondering if other guitarists had experienced similar pain.
"I was asking for advice, but I didn't think other musicians had the same problem," she says, laughing at her own naivete. "Turns out most of my musician friends have had surgery or extended periods where they couldn't play or sing. I don't hear about that at all."
And yet, even after a doctor diagnosed her with focal tendinosis, Williams herself became reluctant to speak about her symptoms in public. She feared it would cause booking agents — already under financial strain from the pandemic — to think twice about offering contracts, lest she become one of those performers infamous for canceling. "We're treated like athletes who are supposed to just push through pain to make people feel entertained," Williams says. "But talking about pain shows that you're real."
Leo Kottke, the 76-year-old acoustic guitar titan, knows the shame such suffering can bring. A Navy veteran discharged due to hearing loss, Kottke once played 23 consecutive nights in Germany with a raging fever, penicillin pumping through his veins. Part of being a performer, he assumed, was working hurt. In the late '70s, he opened a college concert for blues legend Son House, by then an ailing septuagenarian unable to stand much. In a fit of frustration with his instrument, House tossed his heavy steel guitar down in a clatter and slowly willed himself out of his chair, as he improvised a haunting a cappella tale about bats flying from a deep well. Not yet 30, Kottke was both flummoxed and inspired. "It was perfect Greek tragedy," he says.
But a decade later, on a small stage in Denver, Kottke's right arm froze, so that it felt like he was "playing guitar with a baseball bat." He'd long used fingerpicks — small metal or plastic pieces worn on the fingertips that make it easier to strike a string — which meant his wrist was constantly turned inward, straining his forearm. Kottke dropped the picks to save his wrist, but it took three years for him to feel satisfied with the sound. He never told the crowds about his dissatisfaction or discomfort, fearing they wouldn't like any musician who hurt too badly to be good.
"It's the only time I've ever acted like I was having a good time," Kottke says from his home in Minneapolis, weeks before joining jazz drummer Dave King and Phish bassist Mike Gordon for separate duo stands. "The guitar saved my life as a child, and the prospect of losing it propelled me to keep being a disaster."
It seems almost counterintuitive for musicians to feel shame discussing their woes, since pain enjoys such a mythical stature in art at large, the impetus behind so many tormented masterworks. Frida Kahlo's splintered skeleton prompted many of her most acclaimed paintings. George Orwell endured the final stages of tuberculosis to finish 1984. Herman Melville's many ailments and the impact they had on his work, especially after Moby-Dick, remain a topic of scientific debate.
Similar stories pour from modern music, as though proof our heroes possess a tenacity we cannot comprehend. There was Neil Young's back pain, the partial source of Harvest's acoustic canter. There is Iggy Pop's battle-scarred body, a testimonial to the rigors of rock. There was Björk's vocal polyp and her insistence that its surgical removal widened her range. When icons like Tom Petty or Prince die from painkiller overdoses, fans ascribe meaning to the tragedy — relief from the torment that allowed them to help us.
But Chad Clark wants no part of the idea that artists need to suffer more than the average person just to work, that pain is a necessary part of the process. The leader of the Washington, D.C., band Beauty Pill, Clark nearly died in 2007 when his heart began tearing apart from a viral infection. Doctors split his sternum for emergency surgery. He was dumbfounded when he encountered fans daydreaming about the music his brush with mortality might inspire.
"I didn't want people to see it in this romantic way," Clark says, after a long walk with his dog, Stanley. "It gets offensive, the way people view artists as alien creatures with special abilities. I didn't survive the virus because I am a superhuman artist. I was just hoping to live."
When Long's pinky froze for the first time in Spain, he was confused, then angry, and, soon, more motivated than he'd ever been.
Spurred by his arthritis diagnosis, he stopped drinking and changed his diet. He was glad to have health insurance, a relative rarity for musicians who command small or midsized audiences. But he also understood that the window for The Dodos' original quest — to make guitar music in which each string sounds like a drum — was rapidly closing. For two decades, fingerpicking the guitar had been his identity. Knowing he might be on the cusp of losing that ability, he wanted to get it right, no matter the work it took.
He surveyed almost every audio engineer The Dodos had ever employed, and fellow experts at the Oakland studios where he now works as an engineer, asking how to capture the sound he had long imagined. After Tegra went to bed each evening, he would head for his soundproofed garage, sometimes writing and experimenting until 3 a.m. Playing as he recorded could be painful for his hands, but "the possibility that I was going to make it to the other side," he remembers, "was the feeling I was after. The rest of the world didn't exist. That completely saved me."
Long was so focused on pushing past pain and self-pity that The Dodos were nearly done recording Grizzly Peak before Kroeber learned of his bandmate's condition — let alone that many of these songs were tentative goodbyes to the band itself. But the drummer says he understood, having weathered his own "Tiger Balm years," when performing entailed slathering so much of the Singaporean analgesic on his sore joints that he often smelled like a menthol manufacturer. He still loves being a band, but he hates to see it punish Long.
"It's easy for me to take for granted what he does. He's so talented that I don't think about physical limitations," Kroeber says. "But he's been putting his fingers through the wringer for decades. How long could I expect him to perform at that level?"
Grizzly Peak, released Nov. 12, does make good on The Dodos' original aim. Its 10 songs suspend listeners like marionettes above the guitar's sound hole, most every strum rumbling like a little earthquake. The album rumbles open with "Annie," the song Long was writing when it all went wrong. Riffing directly on the pain behind the scenes, the surging "Pale Horizon" is an anthem against old age and the long odds it can impose. Kroeber's kick drum mirrors the guitar's every movement on "Sustainer," one friend helping another fend off reality's blues. "I never had much to say, but I said it with a guitar," Long sings at one point, soundtracking his own crisis.
Working through existential angst on record isn't new for the band, who over the last decade has alternately added vibraphone, electronics and electric guitar — partly to evolve beyond its initial charge, partly in answer to changing tastes and shrinking crowds. Long took to asking himself after every record if the duo was simply finished. (He has done this so much that, despite the diagnosis, Kroeber gives The Dodos a 65% chance of continuing.) But he always returned to the question of what he would be without the instrument: "Who am I then?" he remembers thinking. "What do I have to add?"
If nothing else, arthritis may have given him an answer — a reason to see himself as more than a guitarist. The arduousness of recording this album has rippled into his work as an audio engineer, motivating him to help other guitarists sound great. And he has his family. On the overcast eve of the first leg of the Grizzly Peak tour, he sounded sullen about leaving home for the first time in more than two years. He had just given his dog, Maple, a bath, speaking about it like atonement for his impending departure.
Kottke understands Long's predicament — and its possibilities. When he stopped using fingerpicks to stave off tendonitis, he realized he could feel the guitar's strings again, a change that has arguably made him a better player in time. "Your deficiency is what defines you," he says. "And it's often what liberates you. It gives you a way in." Max Weinberg says he relearned how to hold his sticks and passed the lesson on to his son Jay, the drummer of Slipknot. His credo for safe drumming is steadfast: "Remain as relaxed as you can."
Williams, the young guitarist, will soon get her first steroid injection, and she's developing the sort of warmup routine Weinberg insists every musician should have for their sport of choice. Burdened by the heft of the guitar after surgery, Clark incorporated more electronics into Beauty Pill and began writing songs without instruments altogether, singing into his cell phone. "Disability is not the end of the story at all," Clark says. "And if your art can lead people to a more optimistic outlook, that is a profound value."
Earlier this year, with Grizzly Peak done and any concerts then months away, Long left his guitars alone for a while, focusing on family, work and the rest of life. When he finally sat down to play, curling his body around the instrument's body, his back locked so badly he couldn't move. He made his way into bed, and stayed there for 24 hours — a daylong reminder of the pain his career has inflicted.
Long's diagnosis may very well end The Dodos and prevent him from being a guitarist in the future. But it has allowed him to consider what else he is, and can become. "My fundamental relationship with guitar was so simple. Now that it's taken away, I've realized it's OK if I don't have anything else to say with it," he says. "I found other ways to talk — without the guitar."