My love affair with headphones began when I was about eight years old, when my mother lent me her clunky silver Walkman on a long-term loan. The thing was big, made of metal, and had two headphone jacks. At the time, it was state-of-the-art. What I discovered with the Walkman was that it allowed me to tune everyone else (and everyone else’s music) out, and drift into my own little world, where the soundtrack was entirely of my choosing. I borrowed tapes from my mother and father, and eventually I collected a few of my own (some of which I’m not so proud of, like the New Kids On The Block). I could play my tapes as many times as I wanted without anyone becoming sick of what I was listening to, and I could rewind and fast-forward to whatever songs I liked best.
This habit eventually led to the frequent compilation of mix tapes, which were largely taped off the radio at first, and later compiled from CDs that either I or my friends owned. The tapes were mini-soundtracks to my life–collections of songs which made me feel a certain way whenever I listened to them. At first, the tapes were just random collections of songs I liked, but eventually my mix-tape skills advanced to the point that I had certain tapes for certain moods (loud, angry, happy, sad), themed tapes (love, insanity, drugs, drinking, death), and I also made tapes for friends which contained songs that made me think of them, whether because of a memory or because I knew they liked the songs.
As technology has advanced, so has my method–one of the most exciting things about purchasing my first laptop was that it came with a CD burner, so I could make as many mix CDs as I wanted without having to camp out at a friend’s computer for hours with my boxes of CDs, and the double tape-deck boom-box was a thing of the distant past.
And then came the iPod–the ultimate in personal music experiences (aside from, of course, playing music–which I suck at). With a swivel of my thumb, I could change my music with my mood. I could make endless, melancholy playlists that were good for a long contemplative bus ride, or I could make short, upbeat playlists that would last the length of a bike ride or a workout. Whatever the situation, I’d have the appropriate music at my fingertips without lugging around a case of CDs and changing them all the time.
I know I’ve mentioned before how profoundly the death of my iPod has affected me–but I realized the other day while listening briefly to my father’s iPod before returning it to him, that it’s more than a simple desire for musical accompaniment, or the want to drown out others. There are times when I need the music to set me straight.
Most of the music on my father’s iPod comes from my own CD collection. I have not updated its contents since I gave it to him, so what is on it is primarily my Blues collection (my father is the one who got me to love the Blues). I made a playlist for the train ride to the hospital to visit him the other day, and without really thinking about their connection, I chose a selection of the most incredible guitar songs on the iPod. I chose them because they were my favorites out of what was on the ipod–but I didn’t realize that I chose them because I needed them.
The thing is, I love the guitar. I do not play (yet), but I listen–and when I listen, I react. When I was walking to the train, plugged into Dad’s iPod, I found myself unable to stop smiling–not because things were going well in my life (quite the contrary), but because great guitar playing makes me smile. Jimi Hendrix’s “Born Under A Bad Sign” slows me down to a speed in which the world is manageable, and I find my feet moving to the addictive rhythm while my hands and head move along with the bending, fluid lead. With its guitars alone, The Allman Brothers’ extended version of “Whipping Post” makes adequate justification for a single track to be longer than ten minutes. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Blues At Sunrise” makes me think of slow-dancing in a smoky barroom in a small nothing town…
That train ride spent smiling (and illiciting peculiar looks from strangers) was the longest period of time in weeks that I’ve been purely happy–and it was a happiness caused by music, and completely my own. It was the right therapy at the right time. That’s the thing about portable, private music–having the right music available when you need it is like having the right friend around when you need consoling. If you want to wallow, you can listen to The Cure or Matthew Ryan; if you don’t have time to wallow or you’ve wallowed enough, you can listen to Janis, and you can mouth the bluesy words while your body changes its tune from a slow, shuffling loaf to a foot-tapping frenzy of energy. With headphones, music becomes therapy you can take with you–and keep to yourself.
A spontaneous smile is so much more sublime when you know that everyone around you is wondering what the hell you’re smiling about.