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!