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Positive Feedback ISSUE 56
Goodbye to Lee Weiland...
It is with a heavy burden of shock, grief and loss that I announce the passing of Lee A. Weiland, proprietor of Locus Design Group and CryoParts. He slipped away peacefully in his sleep sometime on Friday, August 19th, 2011. He was 46. Lee was my closest friend and most trusted business advisor for nearly twenty years, and I have chosen to write about him here not in the dry, factual style of an obituary, but rather from the perspective of an intimate friend who is reminiscing fondly and gratefully about two decades of deep and abiding friendship. I hope my thoughts and anecdotes will not only augment the cherished memories many of us already hold of him, but also provide a vicarious opportunity for those who have never met him to make the acquaintance of a singularly remarkable man.
Lee and I met, to the best of my recollection, in 1993. He was then manager of a tiny neighborhood electronics sales and repair store called Alpine Electronics, the sort of slightly seedy but fascinating establishment you don't see anymore in this age of ubiquitous, generic big box retailers. His store was right down the street from where I lived, and I was introduced to him through a mutual friend who knew of the fledgling speaker company I had started called Sonicweld. Lee expressed an interest in coming over to hear my first attempt at a commercial speaker. In fact, Lee was the first person I ever played a demo for, and though I recall that he didn't seem as impressed as I had hoped, he was polite, kind, seemed genuinely interested, and it was clear he knew a lot more about the industry than I did. As a young and somewhat naive college student, Lee could have easily shot me down with a few words of casual dismissal. Instead he befriended me, and soon I was hanging out at Alpine several times a week, where the roots of our friendship were minted. There was a local pizza dive in Provo called Sounds Easy Pizza, and they had a perpetual lunch special whereby you'd get a personal size pizza with all the toppings you wanted, breadsticks and sauce, and a 32 oz drink for the unbelievable price of $2.50. I'd pick up five bucks worth of cheap lunch, drive it up to Alpine, and Lee and I would sit in the upstairs demo room and listen to music or enjoy the home theater system as we ate.
These cheap lunches were the genesis of a deep connection over food that would burgeon over the years and define a major aspect of our association. Lee and I were both delighted by food, especially anything that was delightfully different, spicy, or beautifully prepared and presented. We had a special fondness for discovering new ethnic places together, and I found that I would happily try new things in Lee's presence that I might think twice about otherwise. In the last few years, we developed a voracious appetite for Vietnamese Pho and sushi, and had a standing lunch appointment on Thursdays at our favorite sushi haunt. These were the times we talked about business, life, new product plans and strategies, friends, politics, religion, and the state of the world. We also played little jokes on each other: we had an unspoken rule that a dare over a meal could not be turned down. Accordingly, Lee dared me to eat an entire mound of wasabi at a sushi restaurant once, and laughed at me through his tears as I suffered through my own. I subsequently dared him to order a durian boba drink, which is a sort of Vietnamese frozen drink that is flavored with the most foul, malodorous, bizarre-tasting fruit that can be imagined. I knew Lee's honor was at stake, and he knew it too; he struggled valiantly to finish the whole thing as I taunted him. After cursing at it vehemently and fighting with it for an hour, he pitched it disgustedly into a bin at a gas station. I was amused to no end, and the horrific wasabi burn he foisted upon me was worth it ten times over.
Lee encouraged my nascent design efforts with an unwavering stream of positive comments, and I soon came to rely upon him as a trusted confidant and business advisor in addition to being a friend. I learned nearly everything I know about sales, retailing, pricing products, the personalities of reviewers and audio companies, what the standard audiophile recordings are, and how the quirky high-end audio industry works from Lee. As I reflect on the early years of our friendship, I realize that I was the beneficiary of two of Lee's best qualities: he readily shared his knowledge with others, and he saw and cultivated the best in people.
In recent years especially, Lee would often introduce me to customers or people in the industry with language like "Josh is the most skilled high-speed digital designer in the industry today." Though I understood and appreciated his motivations and his desire to build the "Josh" brand, I never told Lee how profoundly uncomfortable I was with this description of me. Increasing age and experience have compelled me to acknowledge that the more I know, the more keenly I'm aware of how much I don't know, and that there are few real experts in a field as broad and deep as electronics. But I am also grateful to Lee for the faith reflected in the way he spoke to others about me, because it pushed me to become the person he thought I was, and also reinforced how much belief he had in me and my dreams. I will always feel ineffable gratitude for the depth and constancy of his faith and hope in me, and how it played a central role in making me who I am today. I am aware that Lee has nourished many of his other friends with this same nectar of belief, confidence, and encouragement, blended with just enough criticism or constructive feedback to push them to realize their full potential.
Lee was an unselfish and generous person, always willing to sacrifice for a friend. We have always exhibited together at audio shows since our first, the Hi-Fi '98 in Los Angeles. My first tradeshow preparation experience was harsh; my new speaker design wasn't even close to being ready to ship in time arrive at the show and set everything up. Lee offered to drive the pieces that had been machined as well as all of the room decor from Utah to LA, and I stayed behind to slave over the final pieces on the CNC machine. Not only did he drive there by himself through the night, he unpacked the van and commenced the herculean task of setting up the room in my absence, and that was such a comfort to me in a time of acute stress and feeling overwhelmed. When at last I arrived on a plane carrying the final critical pieces, an entire week's worth of unwashed funk making me smell as ripe as a bag of state fair garbage in the hot sun, I'll always remember Lee's warm smile and victory embrace as he greeted me in the airport. We put the speakers together for the first time in our exhibit room, never having heard them before that day. We had two rooms that year, a sort of receiving room with a product on static display, and an active room with a scripted demo. Lee is a natural salesman and communicator, so he was the obvious choice to man the room and explain the product. We kept the air conditioning off in the demo room so as to preserve as much signal to noise ratio as we could, but consequently the place was like Dante's Inferno. I'll never forget the periodic glimpses I would catch of Lee as the door would open every fifteen minutes; he was absolutely drenched with sweat, but smiling and flashing me an enthusiastic thumbs up. What a leap of faith that was, to throw in his lot with some unknown, unproven speaker designer! I was so grateful for this and many more such sacrifices Lee made over the years on my behalf.
Lee's well-known and loved sense of humor was a prominent thread in the fabric of our friendship. Once, after a tiring day of exhibiting at an audio tradeshow together, Lee and I retired to the hotel room we were sharing. Lee seemed exceptionally fatigued and in a rather black mood, and he left to get a bucket of ice. When he returned, he promptly dumped about half of its contents onto the carpeted floor at the foot of his bed. I was taken aback by the deliberateness of this inexplicable act, but chose to assume that it was an accident, so I bent down to pick up the cubes and begin putting them back in the bucket. "Leave them there!" he growled at me, dumping out what I had put back, then scattering them around the floor haphazardly with his bare foot. "I wanted them there!" This little act of rebellion and mayhem—done, I'm convinced, to just make himself feel a bit better, like kicking the cat when you get home after a hard day—struck me as uproariously funny, and I collapsed onto the floor in a fit of tearful laughter. Lee began to chuckle too, and his mood lightened right away. We stayed up late into the night, laughing ourselves sore as Lee tossed out rapid-fire snide and smart-aleck remarks about each and every commercial, show, or actor that dared to appear on the television screen as he flipped through the channels. How I will miss these simple, carefree moments of laughter, the pure joy of being immature and silly! Sometimes living in the adult world of constant weighty seriousness can be so tiresome, and Lee was nearly always up for a bit of levity to escape it for a time. As one who didn't take himself too seriously, he was never afraid to regress back to his fourteen year-old self, and I loved him for that.
Lee was a fiercely loyal and steadfast friend. Once you had a balance of friendship in Lee's account—which was not hard to earn provided you mirrored his own genuineness—it only appreciated in magnitude and was never voided or diminished. Many years ago, there was one brief occasion on which I doubted Lee's loyalty and the truth of his friendship, and to my everlasting shame, I caused him hurt and pain by briefly rejecting him out of misguided and unjustified fear. Lee responded by simply telling me that he loved me like a brother, and that he didn't understand my actions. I immediately realized the sincerity and depth of his love for me as a friend, and that I had grossly misjudged him. I was embarrassed and ashamed enough of my folly that it took several months for me to gingerly rebuild our friendship to its former level. That he accepted me again with unquestioning and open arms is a testament to the generosity and magnanimousness of his character.
Lee and I frequently joked about ourselves as being "the odd couple," and we derived great amusement from the funny looks we'd get in public when we hung out together, or from speculating what people probably thought about us. We were remarkably different in many key ways: I have been devout my whole life; Lee was not overtly religious (but had a genuine respect for those who were). Lee's children are grown, and I'm just starting my family. I've never had a drink in my life, whereas Lee had a deep appreciation for and encyclopedic knowledge of Scotch whiskey. Lee adopted his trademark hirsute appearance in his later years, with long hair and an untamed beard, while I've always had short hair and a rather clean-cut appearance. You wouldn't intuitively pick the two of out of a crowd as a pair of best friends. Yet we were, and I think in part it is because we both had an unconditional respect and acceptance of the other. This was one of Lee's defining qualities: he did not judge on appearance; he was an equal opportunity friend to all. He had friends of every color, persuasion, economic class, and educational level. He spoke the language of friendship just as fluently with millionaire CEOs as he did with the blue collar worker repairing his car.
Lee and I took turns buoying the other up over the years. Fortunately, it often seemed to work out that when one of us was down or frustrated, the other was in a position to offer hope and encouragement. A few years ago, when I was feeling profoundly discouraged about the difficulty of building a successful audio business, I floated the idea to Lee of marketing a device that would eventually become the Sonicweld Diverter. Lee did not hesitate to offer a supremely confident response: anything you build, I will sell. I was really in a rut, and had convinced myself that any attempt I made to bring a product to market would end up in failure, but Lee kept reassuring me that things would work out. And with Lee's tireless promotional and sales efforts, they did work out. I'm not able to articulate the profound debt of gratitude I feel to Lee for lifting me out of the confusing and self-deceiving fog that enveloped me at this time in my life.
Lee had a keen respect and appreciation for the craft and skill of others regardless of the medium of expression. He was attuned to the aesthetic and creed of the artist, because the same blood ran through his own veins. As the son of an artisan baker, he learned at an early age to value the qualities of hard work, craftsmanship, and quality, and these are characteristics he would carry with him and amplify throughout his life. Whatever Lee decided to engage himself in, he put his whole mental and physical faculty into the endeavor, whether it was his storied retail sales career, designing world-class audio cabling, collecting rare Scotch, or even something as trivial as memorizing Monty Python dialogue. Lee believed that if something was worth doing, it was worth doing well. As a lauded innovator in the audio industry, Lee left an indelible mark on our world with the creations of his sharp and incisive mind.
Lee commanded an enormous personal intensity which he skillfully modulated in social situations. This could run the gamut from a friendly but piercing gaze he might use to convey interest in a conversation, all the way up to a rarely seen side of his personality he called "Bad Lee" which was the equivalent of unleashing the Kraken. Pity the hapless object or individual who was at the receiving end of all the persuasive tools and fiery powers at the disposal of Bad Lee! If things got to that point—and I only saw it occur a few times in all the years I knew him—whatever objective Lee had in mind was accomplished with astonishing alacrity. Despite Lee's ability to project a prickly exterior when the situation warranted it, Lee also had a soft, vulnerable underbelly that was only visible when his guard was fully down. I saw it manifested in his gentle manner with small animals, something I've always considered a sort of character litmus test. Lee had a beloved Pomeranian toy dog named Buffy, and when they were together it was like Europa orbiting Jupiter. Their relationship seemed to nurture and bring out his innate kindness. One of the last photographs I saw of Lee showed him in repose on his bed, petting a tiny kitten relaxing on his chest with a protective and soothing hand that dwarfed its tiny body.
Lee was generally uncomfortable with the verbal expression of emotion, though he softened considerably in later years; I think passing through the crucible of his own trials forged a deep empathy for others and gifted him with a new emotional vocabulary. One winter evening of last year is sharply etched in my memory. I knew Lee was often emotionally weighed down with many cares, and I had issued a standing offer to talk or render any assistance I could at any time of day or night. One night I was working at my shop very late as I often do, and was surprised by a call from Lee in which he asked me to come over right away. This was alarming to me not only because of the hour, but because Lee was usually averse to phone conversations, preferring text or email as methods of communicating at a distance. Fortunately, his shop was only minutes away from mine. Fearing something was gravely wrong, I rushed over. I found him sitting in his listening chair, music playing, tongue loosened and thoughts lubricated by several glasses of the single-malt Scotch he so enjoyed. He invited me to sit, and I soon realized that he simply wanted companionship. We quickly settled into the groove of easy, relaxed conversation that only true friends enjoy. That night, he repeatedly told me how much he loved me, how much he cherished our friendship, and that considered me a brother. I was struck and deeply moved by his sincerity and the simple beauty of his words, and I left feeling filled by a warm glow of friendship and love that I will never forget.
Lee was my most trusted listening companion. Most of our sonic tastes and priorities seemed cast from the same mold, and we spent thousands of hours listening together to a wide variety of music. Many of these experiences are ones that I treasure as almost sacred. Music moves us in inscrutable and powerful ways, and it is rare for me that I'm able to experience the most potent feelings music can evoke while in the company of others. This was not so in my listening sessions with Lee; we had a bond of trust and familiarity that allowed us to both slip into the same musical plane, and somehow the experience was magnified and made richer for each of us by the presence of the other.
I feel compelled to share an illustrative experience we had together at last year's RMAF: on the last day, we left the show after closing time and retired to the home of a local friend and customer who lives in Denver for some musical relaxation. Our close friend Michael Mercer was with us also, and the four of us enjoyed a magical evening together while noshing on pizza. I remember thinking at the time that it was a singular and special experience I would long remember, but the loss of Lee makes it all the more cherished and poignant. After Michael took our collective breath away with a selection of Tori Amos' "Me And A Gun," I knew Lee would want to hear his two favorite tracks of all time, the ones that had a more entheogenic effect on him than any others: "Doughnut Song" and "Hey Jupiter" from the Boys for Pele album, our mutual favorite. I sat directly behind Lee, and it was electrifying and fascinating to watch his response to these tracks. He listened with his whole body; he seemed to shrink and grow and sway with the ebb and flow of his music. It was obvious that each escalation and release of musical tension was intimately familiar to him, and it was equally clear that he was having a transcendent experience, but not an entirely private one; it was if he was conducting the room like an orchestra, and we were invited to ride this wondrous current with him. Being an emotionally private man, Lee only allowed himself to manifest this kind of musical euphoria in the company of close, trusted friends. Afterwards, he arose from the couch with tears in his eyes. I saw the music of Tori Amos evoke this sort of reaction in Lee more than any other. He shared with me on many occasions that Tori was his therapy, his salve.
One of the things I loved most about Lee was his consistently genuine manner and affect towards others. He did not put on airs, lord it over people, or indulge in arrogance. He was real and authentic with everyone. You always knew where you stood with Lee; he had no hidden agenda, and he had a talent for making other people feel at ease around him. He was the sort of person who naturally attracted others with his special kind of irresistible gravity. Lee had an exemplary level of tolerance and respect for those who harbored a belief system or viewpoint different than his own, but by the same token he did not suffer fools gladly, and would not hesitate to call someone's bluff or dress someone down who was being an obnoxious idiot.
I recall an experience from a tradeshow one year: an attendee came into our room, and after a cursory listen, tossed off a few critical remarks about some aspects of the sound. There was something about his delivery that caused Lee to bristle, and I sensed that some sort of confrontation was imminent. Lee squared his jaw, looked the man directly in the eyes, pointed one of his meaty fingers at him, and said with unconquerable confidence, "I disagree with you." He then proceeded to tell the guy exactly why he was mistaken, and instructed him that if he would go back and listen for X, Y, and Z, it would be readily apparent that Lee was correct. Such was the forceful conviction and authority with which Lee spoke that the man immediately shrank back and became quiet. He said penitently that he would give it another go and listen again. After a much longer time in the prime listening position, he presented himself once more and told Lee that he now understood his point, and that Lee was correct. I watched this whole scene unfold with a sense of admiration for Lee and his ability to read people and situations so adeptly. If someone approached me and criticized the performance of my products, I might ask a few probing questions and try to calmly address their concerns, but it would never occur to me to forcefully confront someone about the validity of their opinion. In this case it worked brilliantly, and it was because Lee was such a naturally skilled communicator. He was unapologetic about advancing any cause or truth he believed in passionately, but he never resorted to ad hominem attacks or boorish behavior to make his point; he did it in a way that did not offend, but rather piqued the interest of his adversary and ultimately earned his respect.
Lee had a deeply ingrained sense of fair-mindedness, equality, and of right and wrong. He was deeply troubled whenever he witnessed meanness, pettiness, selfishness, and especially professional malfeasance and fraud. This was readily apparent in the way he chose to run his businesses. His philosophy was the embodiment of the oft-prescribed "the customer is always right" maxim—he treated others the way he wished to be treated. I can think of innumerable occasions on which I watched him give his customers the benefit of the doubt, in the process absorbing without complaint the costs which were necessary to apply balm to whatever wounds plagued the customer, whether real or imagined. This was not only savvy business practice in the sense that it garnered a very loyal customer base, it also cultivated fertile ground from which many lasting friendships sprang. Dealing with Lee was dealing with a real, caring human being, not some soulless corporate entity bent on maximizing self-advancement.
When we know and care for someone intimately, it often seems the case that we notice and become accustomed to their quirks, and even develop an affection for them over time as the things that distinguish them as individuals. I could list a myriad of things that are uniquely "Lee," but for reasons I can't quite sort out my mind seems to have fixated on two of them. One was how Lee neatly wrapped up his electrical cords—things like power adapters and such that plug into consumer electronics devices. He had a novel method of precisely hand-winding an end section of the wire around itself in a bundle, then tucking in the last little bit so the whole thing was a self-contained package. I've never seen it duplicated by anyone else, and it was always enjoyable to watch his hands work quickly when he did it. The second was the way he would sign his name: he would inscribe a gigantic "L" by guiding his pen over the paper in a rapid, curvaceous, fluid flourish, and then would finish with an indecipherable and comparatively Lilliputian squiggle. I don't think I ever really told him that I always got a kick out of seeing him sign a credit card receipt or endorse a check. I will miss these and a hundred other habits and characteristics of my friend.
I've touched on only a few of Lee's fine qualities. Perhaps the most meritorious among them is that he was a family man. He was a model of quiet and consistent devotion to his wife and children, and he spoke to me about them often, sometimes with fond fatherly love, and other times with concern and worry. During the last several years, when his wife Robin was confronted with serious, protracted, and often overwhelming health challenges, Lee was always by her side when she needed him most. I cannot conceive of how many anxious hours and sleepless nights he spent in the hospital with Robin, or of how he was able to draw upon a deep wellspring of strength and love to lend support to her when doing so must have required great discipline to suppress his own cares and worries.
The human condition is defined by struggle and opposition, and how we react to those dark forces that grip all of us at various times in our lives. Those who knew Lee best were frequently and painfully reminded that he was no stranger to adversity. He fought many a vicious battle with his demons in the private chambers of his soul, but came off conqueror in the end. I am immensely proud of him for enduring the challenges that were his lot, and feel inspired by his longsuffering to be more patient in my own trials. I am so glad I told him I loved him just days prior to his passing.
I think it's apropos to conclude with the word "peace," because it was Lee's way of closing most of his emails and internet forum posts. I confess I didn't give it much thought when Lee was still with us, but now that we are robbed of his company it seems to take on new gravity and significance. I think he invoked the word not only as a wish for the world and for his friends, but also for himself. In the last few years of his life, Lee was oft times denied the sense of inner peace he hungered for. May he now find it in the sleep of death. Rest well, my dear friend, until the arrival of a coming day when I shall embrace you again, for I believe and hope that I shall. Until then, I will miss your rich baritone voice, sonorous laugh, honed wit and irreverent humor, wisdom, friendship, skill, guidance, generosity, and companionship; but I will miss your freely and unconditionally proffered love most of all. My life is forever more rich and full because I had you in it, and your memory will ever burn bright in my heart.
Via the PayPal link below you can donate money to support the loving family that Lee has left behind. As the sole source of family income, Lee's passing has left his ailing wife with no income. Please give generously.