Frankly Speaking

My Life with Harry Pearson

I worked for Harry Pearson full-time for many years in the late 1980s through early 1990s as technical director, managing editor and pop music reviewer and wrote for The Absolute Sound from 1984 to around 2000. I think it’s safe to say I got to know him as well as anyone.

Forgive me for being lengthy (and violating Copper’s semi-informal word-count rule)…believe me, I could go on and on. Harry was complex, and maybe I can impart a small if rambling glimpse here of what it was like to know the guy.

Like most I first became aware of Harry through reading The Absolute Sound, in the late 1970s when I was in my early twenties. When an issue arrived, time stopped. I would sneak the magazine into work and read it under the table, like a kid in elementary school with a comic book, and devour the reviews of the mythical equipment I thought I’d never hear or afford.

But especially I’d be amused, entertained, outraged, sometimes shocked and yes, even a little scared at what people would say to each other, which was often nasty, condescending, opinionated, egotistical and impassioned…with HP as the agent provocateur behind it all, who seemed to revel in the maelstrom. It only added to the mystique of The Great HP, who really was a mythical figure to us back then.

The author and Harry Pearson, fall 1988. Harry didn’t like being photographed. Photo by Bill Reckert.

Over and over again I would read something and think, “Man, I’d never want to be in the middle of all this. These people are crazy!” Yet as a music lover and musician who wanted to hear my favorite music at its best, TAS was a compelling portal into a world of sound I dreamed of hearing.

In the early 1980s my friend and fellow audiophile Robert J. Reina (RIP), who I had gone to high school with and who was then writing for TAS, told me they were looking for a pop music reviewer. To make a long story short (maybe someday I’ll tell the long version if anyone cares and if I can remember all the details), Harry hired me. I was thrilled. Good lord, I was a TAS reviewer! I would be known by my initials! I had actually spoken to The Great HP (in conversations that already had ranged from the inspiring to the humorous to the snarky to the incomprehensible). I’m not worthy!

But I still hadn’t met him. That would come nine months later when I was invited to one of his now-legendary friendship parties at Sea Cliff (even the name of the town sounded exotic). I had to rent a white tuxedo. I was so nervous I was worried about not peeing in those white tux pants, and wouldn’t drive. (Bob Reina drove us.)

I got to the party, a whirlwind of people on the porch. Someone introduced us. The details are now a blur. My first impression of Harry was a man of presence, a good-looking, confident guy, and when he spoke I felt somehow intimidated and put at ease at the same time. Lord knows what his first impression of me was.

I can’t remember what he first said to me. (I was having trouble processing the fact that here I was, a few years out of college and had somehow found myself in the center of the high-end audio world.) It was something humorous and complimentary. He then insisted he show me around the house. I was touched…here’s this big party going on with all these big shots and you’re taking the time to break away and show me around? And then for the first time I saw all that mythical equipment, now manifest—the Goldmund Reference turntable. The Infinity IRS V speaker system. The Audio Research SP-11 preamp.

The late Arnie Nudell of Infinity Systems and Genesis Advanced Technologies with Harry, fall 1988. Photo by Bill Reckert.

I was awed. I had a wonderful time at the party and met so many of the great, great people who have been friends since.

And of course, I wanted to hear The System. Harry clearly knew what I was thinking and invited me to come back for a listen. I wasn’t holding my breath, as he had stood me up a few times before. But I wound up coming back a week later. We went to an excellent dinner (Harry always did have good, and expensive, taste in dining out; ask anyone who picked up the bill).

Finally, time to hear the fabled Sea Cliff system. I was about to enter the listening room when Harry stopped me, looked at me with frightening intensity and said:

“I want you to really think about this before you enter that room. Because if you do, your life will never be the same.”

(Holy sh*t, what am I getting myself into?) I hesitated.

For a second.

He was right. The sound…orders of magnitude beyond what I had ever heard. Soundstaging, imaging and a sense of weight and scale that truly did make you feel like you were in the presence of the performers and the orchestra. Incredible low end, midrange and highs that were more detailed than anything I thought possible. Clarity, transparency…mind-boggling. Fiesta In Hi-Fi, Dafos, that Propaganda record, Lt. Kije…record after record…astounding. But these words are a pale shell of the totality, the experience, the magnitude, the sheer beauty and majesty of the system. I knew my life had been irrevocably changed.

To the point where, a few months later at the prodding of Reina (hey, what are friends for?) I refinanced my condo so I could buy an SP-11, Mark Levinson No. 23, Goldmund Studio…seemed crazy but sometimes you just have to go for it.

When, a couple of years later, Harry asked me to work full-time for him, I had to think about it for more than just a second as I knew that if I did, my life was really going to change. Especially since, as a now-TAS insider, I knew how hard Harry could be to work for, alternately charming, temperamental, always demanding the best when it came to the writing you handed in (he made me re-write an intro to a piece I did on Les Paul four times before he signed off on it), sometimes pissing manufacturers and staffers off, on occasion refusing to see manufacturers when they had come all the way to visit Sea Cliff, postponing appointments… Yes, Harry could piss people off, including me at times (to nuclear-force proportions on occasion, and I know there are people who view him less warmly than I do), but what friend, family member or lover do you know who doesn’t have foibles?

I took the job. I saw it as the opportunity of a lifetime. It was.

I essentially became Harry’s right-hand man for more than five years.

Harry and I were fundamentally different personalities, but maybe because of that I think we were perfectly suited to work with each other. We were opposites in many ways—he loved controversy while I was pained by it; he would stand people up (including me) while I would struggle to return everyone’s phone calls; he would push handing in copy to the limit and I was always on time (but man could Harry type fast!); I would love going to trade shows, meeting my friends in the industry and hearing new gear while he was mortified at the prospect (until later in his life, and even then he would go grudgingly).

Yet we shared so much. Above all, we loved music. I know that sounds like a cliché, a vacuous platitude, but it’s true. Music was joy, solace, excitement, emotional release. Music was it for us. (That never changed, did it?) When we would first hook up a revelatory component, and there were many, we would sit down, look at each other and laugh, literally shout, sometimes just shake our heads in awe at what we were now hearing from favorite recordings that we had never heard before from those cherished discs—and how astonishing the performance of the components was and how the music sounded. When we got our hands on a new record, whether something I found at a used-record convention or a Classic Records, Chesky, Reference Recordings, Wilson Audio or other audiophile recording, we would very often drop everything and run and put it on. And be thrilled at what we heard and have to hear it again and again.

We saw manufacturers constantly, sometimes three times a week or more and I can’t count the great times we had with, essentially, a who’s who of the high-end manufacturing community.

Since we were both single at the time we hung out after hours a lot. Between that and the fact that I was working at TAS full-time, I got to see quite a bit of Harry, from his charming best, welcoming a visitor with Southern hospitality, to just after waking up in the morning, grumpy, unshaven, barefoot in a bathrobe and not all that happy to see me and start the day. I witnessed HP the legend and Harry the guy, Harry the center of attention to Harry lonely and looking for a friend to share a drink with on a Friday night.

I knew him when he was conducting brilliant interviews and listening sessions with people like Wilma Cozart Fine, and coming out of his writing tower with reviews I knew were landmark pieces the moment after I finished reading them, to when he yelled at me to drop everything one day because he had to have Velveeta cheese on his sandwich and there was none in the house.

Yet as so many others will tell you, he truly was an inspiration. He was incredibly passionate about music and about the gear. (Though not a tweakaholic gearhead; he left that stuff to me.) I, and anyone who worked with him closely in those listening rooms can tell you that Harry could hear the essence of what a component was doing in five minutes.

He was remarkably talented. Anyone who reviews equipment knows how difficult it can be to put what you’re hearing into words—as Frank Zappa said, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” but Harry at his best had a way of conveying what we were hearing in his writing which made you feel like you were in the room with the gear and knew what it sounded like. Harry I think almost single-handedly defined high-end audio writing (well, along with J. Gordon Holt of Stereophile) and as others have noted gave us much of the terminology we still use (and sometimes abuse and misuse) today, and especially, defined many of the concepts of high-end audio writing. Not that great audio writing hadn’t been done before, but Harry made high-end audio writing a reality in the same way that, while Leo Fender didn’t invent the first solid body electric guitar, Fender was the one who put it on the map.

Harry with J. Gordon Holt, founder of Stereophile, fall 1988. Photo by Bill Reckert.

I’ll say it again—he inspired people. In his reviews he would pick out a component’s flaws, often at the not-inconsiderable wrath of the manufacturers—who would then go back and improve their creations. He was a voracious and fast reader, loved movies, doted upon his Maine Coon cats (I was never sure whether cleaning the cat box was actually part of my job description) and could talk at length about any number of topics. When he was in a good mood he’d be a charming person to talk on the phone and have dinner and drinks with. He could meet someone and get to the essence of that person’s inner core in moments and strike up a lifelong bond. (OK, sometimes when he met someone it was more like oil and water mixing, on both sides.) There are dozens, probably hundreds of people in the audio industry and legions of readers who have felt his influence.

In the early 1990s I moved from TAS and kept writing for it until around 2000 but always kept in touch with Harry. (Or tried—making an appointment or dinner date with him never did get any easier.) He wasn’t happy that I left, but understood. (I’ll leave the details for some other time.) We saw each other intermittently and kept in touch by e-mail and phone.

Around mid-2014 I heard the news that he had slipped on a patch of ice, broke his hip and was in a rehabilitation center. I quickly went to visit him. He was clearly dealt a blow by having such a serious injury at such a not-so-young age, and it was a shock to see him in a hospital bed looking frail. Still, my heart leapt to see him. We reminisced about the times we had spent together and I felt wonderful, and also scared that this had happened to someone I always regarded as something of a larger-than-life figure. Here was The Great HP, the man behind the curtain, founder of the mythical French University of Canadian Kings (check the acronym), Corvette enthusiast, subject of a New York magazine cover story, one of the creators of an entire industry, now lying in a hospital bed looking so weak and fragile.

Yet when we started talking and joking around it was like we were transported back in time, sitting on the porch at Sea Cliff again and not in some depressing, medicinal-smelling rehab center. The world became just the two of us reminiscing about the past and looking forward to more good times ahead.

I saw him a couple of more times in the rehab center and was thrilled when I heard that he had been released and was back at Sea Cliff. I went to see him there. Again we had a wonderful time, laughing about some of the outrageous times and crazy things that happened at TAS and elsewhere, gossiping, talking about friends, carrying on. Although he looked weakened and needed a walker, and the house was more than a little bit of a mess, I thought he was on the mend and we talked about going out to dinner again soon.

When I got the e-mail the morning of Wednesday, November 5, 2014 saying that he had passed I was stunned. I could not believe it and it took a very long time for it to sink in that I would never be seeing Harry again. I should wax more eloquently here. I can’t.

The last few times we met, Harry told me he considered me to be one of his greatest friends. It meant a lot to me then. It means a lot more to me now.

 

This was originally posted as a comment on the TAS Blog. It’s published for the first time here (with a few slight updates) by permission of The Absolute Sound.