T.J. Linkous, a rockabilly musician living in Poquoson, rolled up his sleeve to show a right arm covered in horror movie tattoos.
Tortured faces from frightening flicks such as "Creepshow," "The Evil Dead" and "Necromantik" stare out from his skin.
"For as long as I can remember, scary movies have been the only kind I liked," he said. "I think it all started with 'Killer Klowns from Outer Space.' "
Linkous, who performs under the name Johnny Trash, has lived through his own personal horror show recently.
As a hard-gigging singer and guitar player, he was exposed to loud music for about 15 years, sometimes as often as five nights a week. Long ago, he noticed some loss of hearing. Ringing in his ears was not unusual.
Earlier this year, it got more intense. Since May, the ringing has been a constant affliction.
"Once it started, it hasn't stopped," said Linkous. "It sounds like a dog whistle in the key of C. It's high pitched."
He hears that note in six octaves. Loud, too.
"I could stand next to a train and still hear the ringing," he said. "It's like having an alarm clock going off in your head that you can't stop. It's very nerve-racking to say the least."
Along with the ringing, other symptoms developed — vertigo, dyslexia, panic attacks. For a time, he became depressed and frustrated and didn't want to leave his house. It was a strange situation for a man as energetic and gregarious as Linkous.
It looked like his life as a musician had come to an end at age 30.
Diagnosed with an unusually acute case of tinnitus, Linkous needed help. "It's so severe, it's become the focal point of everything," he said. "It's almost crippling. It's affected every aspect of my life."
The idea of saying goodbye to music was a big part of his painful new reality.
"I thought, 'I'm never going to be able to do what I love doing,'" Linkous said. "That's a terrifying feeling."
Among rock musicians, hearing damage is common. Awareness of its dangers is on the upswing. Using ear protection doesn't carry the stigma of wimpiness it once did. Professional musicians — those who play venues such as The NorVa in Norfolk and the Farm Bureau amphitheater in Virginia Beach — can often be spotted with yellow or orange plugs protruding from their ear canals.
Still, Linkous says too few rockers — and music fans — have gotten the message. "You can enjoy music without damaging your ears," he said.
Now, as he's getting treatment for his own hearing damage, he's spreading the word about the importance of protection.
"I feel like things happen for a reason," Linkous said. "The more people who read about this at a young age, the better. I used to say, 'If it's too loud, you're too old. Now, I'm eating those words."
Linkous, a Hampton native, has tried to help his friends avoid his fate. Likewise, friends have rallied to help him.
In September, a herd of musicians and bands played a benefit for Linkous at the Olde Towne Tavern in Phoebus. Money raised allowed him to purchase a pair of hearing aids that both amplify sound and help to filter out the constant ringing. At $3,500 apiece, the devices are expensive, but they've given Linkous new hope.
"It's been life-altering," he said. "I heard birds chirping for the first time in years. I cried when I heard that. I had forgotten about that sound."
Tony Bob Merritt — a musician, sound man and close friend of Linkous' — helped organize the benefit.
"He didn't like the idea at first. Men's pride and everything," Merritt said. "I told him, 'You can't help other people if this thing is going to take you over. The only way to help other people is to get help.' In the end, we said, 'Screw it, we're going to do a benefit.'"
Merritt said that his friend's situation has made him think long and hard about protecting his own hearing. "Not that I've started wearing earplugs, but I'm more aware of the volume on stage … Why don't I wear them? It's a stupidity level at this point. Unfortunately rock 'n' roll, it's not all about hearing, it's about feeling. People think that to feel it, it has to be loud. I feel that, too, when I'm watching bands. I want to feel it. Rock 'n' roll is better loud."
Still, he knows that precautions are wise. "I talk about it with every musician I come across," Merritt said. "They ask me about T.J. I tell them, 'Wear ear protection or we're going to be doing a benefit for you in a couple of years.' "
The message hit home with drummer Michael Berlind. When his band, Hey Hey Hooligan, played the Linkous fundraiser back in September, he was already an ear-protection evangelist.
"Hearing loss to a musician is devastating," said Berlind, who lives in Virginia Beach. "If you can't hear you can't play … A lot of my friends don't use [ear protection]. I try to talk to them about it. After years of abuse, you're going to get some damage …It will catch up to you eventually. Hopefully it's not too late."
There's no cure for noise-induced hearing damage and the tinnitus that often comes with it.
These days, Linkous is thinking more about the promise of the future than the mistakes of the past.
"I don't regret playing music. I had such good times," he said. "I wouldn't change it. I just would have protected my ears."
He'd like to continue to play music — even if he's limited to the more acoustic tones of classic country than the raucous, distorted punk and "psychobilly" of his earlier years. On Halloween, he played a high-profile gig at the Jewish Mother in Virginia Beach opening for rockabilly favorite the Rev. Horton Heat.
Linkous knows that, eventually, he may have to give up performing music. A creative person, he's already drafted more than one Plan B.
Linkous is trying his hand at promoting music in addition to playing it. He's organizing a monthly Americana showcase that will be presented at the Olde Towne Tavern.
"I'm also thinking about standup comedy," Linkous said. "Then, if people don't like my jokes, I won't be able to hear them complain."
Watch a video of T.J. Linkous, also known of Johnny Trash, performing and talking about his battle with hearing damage, go to dailypress.com/johnnytrash
Hear him live
What: Dexter Romweber with the Johnny Trash Trio and Little House
When: 8 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 27
Where: Olde Towne Tavern, 31 E. Mellen St., in the Phoebus section of Hampton
Admission: $8 at the door