Down here in Florida, I've been known to get off my ass once in awhile and get out and walk 3-4 miles. It's a morning ritual: drag out of bed, run fingers through hair, put on dirty shorts and t-shirt, grab condo keys and cell phone, oh yeah, and an iPod and headphones.
I bought a pair of inexpensive Klipsch cover-your-ears headphones from some online site a few months ago, and they have become my go-to pair. This morning as I walked down the steps to the road, I scrolled through the iPod and settled on The Cars' first album as my walking music, and off I went.
As "Let The Good Times Roll" began, the rhythm guitar started alone on the far left and a dipsy-doodle synthesized bass thing joined in from the left. Within ten seconds, I had the epiphany that I had never heard this record before, even though I've, no doubt, listened to the hits off of it hundreds of times.
(And, as a side note, if the Cars' music is something you ho-hum at this point in your life, give it another try as party music, workout music, driving music. Each song is a tight, little pop gem, deeper cuts like "I'm In Touch With Your World" are worth exploring, and, if you didn't already know, Elliot Easton is one of rock's finest lead guitarists, bar none, whose chops, versatility, and ability to make the most of a 15-20 second solo are astonishing.)
The first pair of headphones I ever owned came from Radio Shack. There was a coupon in the paper that offered them for free just for coming into the story, so I convinced my mother to drive me out to the mall on a Tuesday school night, no easy feat. The headphones came as a kit, so I "built" my first pair (the fact that I could do that means it was an awfully simple kit). This must have been 1972.
The reason I know that is because the record I used to test them was Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's Trilogy, a prog-rock masterpiece from about that time. The sonic range of those free earmuffs can't have been much, but, like this morning's experience with The Cars, the opening moments of hearing that album through headphones led me into another world.
Accidentally, it was the perfect test record because it began with a back-and-forth between Keith Emerson's Moog synthesizer and Carl Palmer's huge pile of percussive instruments, including, most memorably, a conga. I could hear the modulation of the Moog, I could hear the reverb that played out behind the conga, I could hear the silence between. The music rose up and down, from aggressive crescendos to single notes. Had I been sitting on a stool, I would have fallen over when my ears received the full brunt of it. And then the next song, "From The Beginning," opens with beautifully-recorded, intricately-picked acoustic guitar.
I could not contain the feelings that the music stirred in me. I looked around for someone to share it with, but I was in my room, my parents were downstairs in front of the television, and my brother hid out upstairs in his teenager's loft. And, of course, I was wearing headphones, the ultimate solitary experience. There was nothing to do but listen to these passages over and over again so that mind could begin to get used to them and to process that this was what it was going to be like for some time. Had I owned a copy of Dark Side Of The Moon, I probably would have had to jump out the window out of sheer joyous aural overload.
Today, headphones do not serve the same purpose. We fear too much noise, and rightly so. I certainly have paid some of that price. If you see a young person on a train or in a school hallway, usually their headphones are set on drone, not stun. Their music functions as a kind of low level white noise, not that different from the sound machines some people use to get to sleep. And it often plays in a car that same way.
Not that today's world is designed to allow us to experience music in isolation.
But a great (or not-so-great) set of headphones as the vehicle for listening to an incredible piece of music remains an unparalleled sonic experience. If the world will leave you alone long enough to revisit a favorite in its glorious, uninterrupted entirety, you will not be sorry for the time spent. And if you tie it in with exercise, people will probably leave you alone, especially if you are moving quickly away and can't hear them anyway.