Frankly Speaking

Confessions of a Setup Man, Part 10: No Direction Home

I was a shy kid. The fact that I was skinny, had big ears, a big nose and big teeth, developed psoriasis when I was 13 and probably wouldn’t have been Michelangelo’s first choice for a model might have had something to do with it. It took me a long time to become a more outgoing person. Playing the guitar helped.

By the time I was out of my teens though, I had become somewhat less-awkwardly proportioned and I started feeling a little more confident, but was no Tony Robbins. A certain lack of esteem remained when I started writing for The Absolute Sound in 1984. When I first met TAS founder Harry Pearson, the legendary HP, I could barely get any words out. When he hired me to work for him full-time as technical director in 1987, I had to figuratively pinch myself. Of all the people who would be qualified for the gig, why did he pick me? Surely there were dozens of more qualified people in the audio industry, which I wasn’t even a part of yet, really.

As I’ve mentioned previously in my tribute to Harry (in Issue 102), manufacturers would come to his house in Sea Cliff, NY and bring their latest components for evaluation. They were the top people in the high-end audio world and the stakes were high. After all, we had to uphold the reputation of being the arbiters of high-end audio equipment – and their wares were expected to deliver a cosmic listening experience. No pressure there.

After a few weeks on the job in the fall of 1987, with great excitement Harry informed me that Jeff Rowland of Jeff Rowland Design Group would be coming to visit and would be preceded by the arrival of the Coherence One preamp. This would be the first time that I would be meeting with an Audio Luminary. It would also be the first time that I would have to demonstrate my setup skills and knowledge to someone in the high-echelon of the industry. I felt excitement – soon overcome by extreme nervousness. I was going to meet a man who was an electronics wizard, a high-end audio company founder and a purveyor of equipment which I had never even touched before, let alone set up for a high-stakes listening session. The fact that I had no idea what he was like didn’t factor into my state of mind.

(What a magnificent piece of equipment the Coherence One was, an immaculately-built solid-state preamplifier that exuded quality, from its stunning gold-anodized faceplates to its soft-touch click switches and custom-machined knobs. You could place the preamp section directly on top of the power supply section and hear no hum.)

Jeff Rowland Design Group Coherence One preamplifier.

Fast forward a couple of weeks. As the day of Jeff’s visit approached, I grew more and more nervous; the shy-kid part of me ironically coming more and more to the forefront. The day before Jeff’s visit, Harry and I decided to have dinner at Kokura, his favorite sushi restaurant and scene of many a night’s revelry. I certainly felt in need of a calming drink. Or two. Or possibly more; I don’t remember. It was a cold, wet night after a rainy day. Harry drove; he always insisted on driving his Corvette, the Red Rocket, and making a grand entrance wherever he went.

By the time we’d returned to Sea Cliff, I needed a few hours to try to come down. I failed to hide my nervousness from Harry. I will give him credit; he assured me everything would be fine when he could have teased me, which would have been like shooting a proverbial fish in the barrel. Finally I wanted to go home. It was getting late and I had to be back at Harry’s in the morning. I got into my red 1985 Firebird, my pride and joy, and hit the road home.

And quickly got lost.

I had only been on the job for a few weeks and didn’t know the area well. Sea Cliff also rivals Boston in its Byzantine street layout. OK, the truth? I have a terrible sense of direction. If I make more than two quick turns in a row I get completely disoriented. And the streets were badly lit. It was fall and there were leaves all over the road and the ground, making it impossible to tell where the sides of the road ended and the ground began. I began to worry.

Then I made a right turn and…CLUNK!

The right front of my car pitched forward. What the? OK, I’ll just back up and get outta here. Except my car wouldn’t move. What the hell? I tried driving in forward and reverse and rocking the car. It wasn’t moving. I grabbed a flashlight, got out and looked.

I had driven my car into a ditch at the side of the road.

Because it had been raining, a layer of leaves was floating on top of the water-filled ditch, camouflaging its presence.

I got back in the car and tried to extricate it again, to no avail. Now I started to panic.

This was in the time before cell phones and I had absolutely no idea where I was. Sea Cliff is a small town, though, so I figured if I just got out of the car and walked I would quickly find the police station or fire department or someone whose phone I could use. I started walking. Five minutes. 10 minutes. 20 minutes. I wasn’t getting anywhere closer to town. So I thought I’d better get back to the car and knock on the door of someone’s house.

Except I had gotten even more lost and now I didn’t know where my car was! In my nervousness I hadn’t bothered to keep track of my surroundings. Now I was thinking I’d better just sit down somewhere until the morning, and then maybe I could find my way to help once it was light out.

I started walking again, not really knowing where, when I noticed the lights of a car behind me. A police car. Uh oh, now what? An officer got out and somewhat quizzically asked what I was doing. I explained, “I drove my car into a ditch and it’s stuck and I’m looking to find help.” He replied, “you mean that Firebird stuck at the side of the road about a mile back? We heard about that.” “YES, that’s the one!” “OK, get in the car and I’ll drive you to it.”

Wish I still had that car. Photo taken circa 1985.

I complied and the officer asked, “Where’s the car?”

I thought for a second or two. “I don’t know.”

“Do you have any idea?”

“It’s around here somewhere!”

So, there I was, in a car with a police officer driving around at random. The one thing in my favor was that the officer didn’t think I was drunk, although I’m sure he did think I was an idiot. I certainly didn’t feel impaired – well, not blood-level impaired, anyway.

We saw lights up ahead on the right. The lights of a tow truck, pulling my beloved Firebird out of the ditch. I had to avert my eyes. “That your car?” asked the officer. “YES!” He pulled up, got out and talked to the tow truck driver, who proceeded to give me a look that could be charitably described as withering. Then the officer checked my license against the car’s registration, gave me a once-over and unceremoniously declared, “OK, you can go now.”

I shakily got in the car and slowly drove away, keeping the car in the middle of the road and relieved that I hadn’t been thrown in the clink for the night. I kept going straight until I found a main road with a direction sign and started driving towards my home, somehow eventually finding my way there. I caught a couple of hours of sleep and then drove back to Sea Cliff.

Gathering what shred of composure I could muster, I braced himself to meet Jeff Rowland, who I envisioned as an Audio Lord on High.

And met one of the nicest, warmest, friendliest people in high-end audio or anywhere. Jeff is a tall, soft-spoken man with an even disposition. When I told him I was so nervous at the prospect of meeting him that I had driven my car into a ditch the night before, he just gave me a puzzled look that seemed to ask, why would such a thought even go through my head?

Harry, of course, was laughing hysterically, utterly beside himself.

The rest of the day and evening went wonderfully. The Coherence One sounded superb – you’ll forgive me if I don’t remember the details of the rest of the system – sumptuous, authoritative, magnificent. The experience gave me the confidence boost I needed and the thought that, yeah, maybe I could really do this high-end audio thing.

Jeff Rowland and I have been friends ever since, although I don’t get to see him, or hear his gear, as often as I’d like.

And my Firebird? Not one scratch. Perhaps the leaves cushioned the blow. Or I just didn’t look that carefully.