“Would you rather be deaf or blind?”
I always said blind. It was one of the more tame “would you rathers” I asked and answered in childhood. My only impairment was preteen suburban malaise; after outgrowing playing pretend on the playground, we exerted the privilege of imagination on hypothetical dilemmas. Having never met a blind or deaf person, I cited music as a chief consideration for choosing blindness, convinced that words could paint a picture better than an image could sing a song. The key of life was something to be heard.
The absence of one sense often sharpens the others, so it’s no surprise that Wikipedia lists more than 208 notable blind musicians, the most famous being a toss-up between Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. The first album Little Stevie Wonder recorded was A Tribute to Uncle Ray, a 1962 compilation of Ray Charles covers. Only 11 years old, Stevie was pressed to recreate some kind of blind man magic. The album flopped.
Of course, Stevie soon found his own voice, a signed and sealed legacy delivered by the end of the decade. His audience grew from acquaintances to soul mates in the 1970s as Stevie matured from a hit machine to an artist, releasing no less than five inarguable masterpiece albums in a row. 1972’s Music of My Mind marks his first collaboration with a British electronic duo called TONTO’s Expanding Head Band. Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff had invented The Original New Timbral Orchestra (TONTO) just two years earlier, the largest and most capable analog synthesizer in history. Accompanying Music of My Mind’s deep bass lines and rolicking guitar hooks are beeps and hums never before heard in soul music: ambient sounds that defy onomatopoeia. Listeners could not picture the instrument such tones could be coming from. Today, anyone can Google image search to see the curved wall of buttons and knobs six feet high and 20 feet across, but in 1972, the machine was out of sight. These new sounds came from whatever shapes your mind conjured. Music of My Mind is a visual album, but not in the Beyoncé sense. The album cover, on which Steve’s face is reflected in his sunglasses, hints at this deconstruction of the senses. Think you can’t make eye contact with a blind man? Just put on Side A.
The synth began as the academic pursuit of a few white people in the mid-60s; Robert Moog’s genesis and Wendy Carlos’s Switched on Bach set the tone for Bookends and Abbey Road. For 12 years, Motown Records had been in the business of reclaiming music stolen from black Americans, but this time around, Stevie had taken a white man sound and made it not only digestible, but groovy, expanding heads like no pasty Brit ever could. A semblance of justice.
Now for some hindsight: my stating a preference between being deaf and being blind was grossly insensitive. (Who would have guessed that “would you rather have pubes for teeth or teeth for pubes?” would end up being the less offensive childhood quandary?) It was also generally misguided. I’d imagined that a blind person experienced life in the same way I did when I closed my eyes, but of course it doesn’t work like that. Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles didn’t even see the world in the same way. Stevland Hardaway Judkins was born in Saginaw, Michigan in 1950, six weeks premature. The oxygen therapy that saved his underdeveloped lungs caused his retinas to detach, meaning he never had functioning eyes in waking life. Diagnosed with glaucoma, Ray Charles lost his sight gradually, from ages four to seven. There’s a community of blind people who have adapted their keen hearing into a form of echolocation, using sound to navigate the structures surrounding them. It’s a perception I might not recognize, but to have spatial reasoning is to see.
I’ve wondered what role Stevie plays in designing his album covers—can the visions in his head be described in words? Can he visualize someone else’s concept? I’d like to think that when Stevie hits the piano, he’s swaying his head to the beat and to the view, something like those sunset rings on the cover of Songs in the Key of Life.
In my early 20s, I went on a date with a man who was born deaf. He had cochlear implants and communicated like anyone else I’d gone on a date with. When I asked him about his favorite bands, he told me that he didn’t care for music, in fact, most of time he found it grating and unpleasant. I didn’t hold it against him, because of course he heard sounds differently than I did, but I found myself struggling to keep the conversation rolling. I realized how much I relied on music as a topic during those getting-to-know-you conversations. We never went out again, and looking back, I wish I’d asked him more about the media he did love—movies or paintings or poems. Without being wrapped up in the background noise, he would almost certainly notice things I wouldn’t have. Why privilege one sense over another? I think if I couldn’t hear music, I’d find it somewhere else. And even if I didn’t, I’d keep looking anyway.