Friday, September 13, 2013

I'm Sorry, I Had My Headphones In.....

     I know that headphones, Walkmans, and CD players long out-date my own existence, let alone my time as a Dead Head, but there is an undeniable difference between the listening habits of now and back in the day.  Today's technology allows me to go virtually anywhere with a mind-blowing assortment of music in my tiny black San-Disc device.  On any given day I can be seen walking around sunny (or not so sunny) Ithaca with my ear buds in, my head in the clouds, singing anything from "Born Cross-Eyed" to "Foolish Heart."  While there seems to be nothing wrong with this (there isn't, I swear!), I end up asking myself some questions about it from time to time.

     While I've had to concede to my dad that nothing beats a good set of speakers playing LOUDLY, I truly appreciate the perspective on music that headphones provide.  Forgetting for a moment the obvious advantage in mobility that headphones have, they do have some perks that a speakers lack.  They create a unique and enclosed sonic space in which you are the center.  They are also fairly impermeable, so outside noises don't intrude on a soft "Dark Star" or the more delicate ballads.  While sometimes that means you might get run over by the occasional truck or school bus, more importantly it gives a really intimate feeling to the music: these guys are playing straight out of '73, and only I can hear them!  Which can be pretty weird when you're sitting on the bus listening to, say, the jam out of "The Other One" on Dick's Picks 1, and the guy on your left doesn't even know the world is dissolving around you!  Just as weird, but perhaps easier on the brain, is just laying in bed, sitting in the library, or chilling on the couch with your favorite show surrounding you.  You really can hear every nuance they play and every bad joke that Bobby makes without worrying that anything else will drown it out.

     However, while doing exactly that, I've found myself asking if this is really the way to be listening to these shows.  Can you just load up a psychedelic payload of Dead shows from the archive and bring the band and the entire show anywhere?  In reality, whatever show you're listening to was performed REALLY LOUDLY, for thousands of people, in a very specific time and place. While the Dead's songs may be timeless, individual performances of them are very rooted in the "here-and-now"...of the "then-and-there."  So in some ways, they can lose a lot of their power when you just take them anywhere.  I'm sure I've missed many of the most inspired jams in a show just because I was trying to cross the street safely (what a loser) or get on the bus.  In fact, there have been times where an entire set would go by, and I'd only half hear it because I was busy doing things like studying or working!  The horror!!

     But really, there are times where I feel that I'm almost doing the show an injustice, because even though I can hear Phil clear as day, I know that those bass bombs are meant to be flying free and wide.  Jerry's solos are meant to rocket into the night sky, or to careen wildly off the walls of Winterland, not just the walls of my skull.  So sometimes I will have to postpone a show, or even a particular song, until I get home and can crank it on the stereo.  My stereo and living room may not be the Wall of Sound and Winterland, but at least I can feel Phil there, not just hear him.

     Another benefit to speakers, even car stereos, is that you have a sort of ritual space where you can control the other variables of life, and just focus on the music.  Sure the maintenance guy might decide to mow the lawn right outside your window right when Phil and Billy are trying to musically tear down your house, but then I guess you can switch to your headphones.  The speakers make better use of that ritual space, but headphones allow you some privacy in it.  Having a designated space to freak freely, jam out, or whatever other euphemism you prefer for the listening to the Dead, keeps your mind on the music, and not whatever daydreams you may otherwise entertain.

     So does that mean I'm going to stop listening to the Dead everywhere I go?  Hell no!  It's just a matter of finding the right time and place to really listen to them.  While it's more acceptable to zone out during yet another "Jack Straw," or my thousandth "Sugaree" (nothing against either of those songs, of course), there are few things worse than realizing you just missed the entire fist half of a '73 "Eyes of the World" because you were walking around, lost in your thoughts.  Do any of you go through similar experiences?  Know the real flaw with headphones?  Leave it in the comments!


  1. I date from the "large speaker" era and wanted to make two observations. Some of my most fun times have been listening to music with friends: all of us experiencing the same music at exactly the same time and sharing our impressions of it. I'm afraid the value of this has been overridden by the convenience of individual experience. Also, when I was in college and then as a young adult, you could tell where the cool people hung out by the music blasting out their windows. If it was the Stones or Creedence that was cool, but if was the Airplane, the Allman Brothers, or the Dead, that told you a lot. Some friendships were based on, "I was just walking by and had to stop in to listen to what you're playing!"

    1. Point very well taken; that's the reason I'm friends with my neighbors! Some of my best times listening to music have also been with my best friend, listening to the Dead in the car, the house, or even with speakers outside. However, I think there's something to be said for the possibilities of synchronicity afforded by two or more people with their headphones in, listening to their own music. One of the most profound musical experiences I've ever had was with that same friend, on a sun-baked day in the wetland area of Ithaca College's campus. We were both listening to our own playlists, and made eye contact at a point when we were both the top of the roller-coaster, to coin a phrase. We both took one of the other's headphones and put it in, and the collision of Mickey Hart's "The Chase" with a mystery "The Other One" (we never could figure out which one! Maybe '73...) blew both of our minds to pieces, and then glued them back together as one! Of course, none of our friends understood why we were rolling on the ground laughing after that, but that's their problem!

  2. I'm listening through nice Bose earbuds to a mp3 from 1977 (11/4 to be exact) right now and it is definitely doing the trick. But one problem with this is that there is none of the bleed from one ear to the other that you would get with speakers or a live band. It's especially artificial when listening to board tapes with hard-panned signals. It sounds weird. There are headphone amps that will allow you to adjust and blend the two sides, and that sounds like a good idea although I have not tried it. Generally, I think there is a time and place for each mode of listening and both can be satisfying. We could get into a long discussion about the meaning of "stereo", something Owsley Stanley taught me via a long email conversation years ago. But that is another story and worthy of a blog post all its own.