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Clark Johnsen:  The End of an Audio Diary

04-16-2020 | By David W. Robinson | Issue 108

Clark Johnsen, Private Ear (series drawing no. 1, by Bruce Walker, 1993)

I got the news first thing in the morning last week.

Clark Johnsen has passed away of cancer, at the ripe age of 78.

I wasn't surprised; a mutual friend had warned me four or five months ago that Clark was in a hospice, fighting cancer. It didn't look good at all.

And now he's gone…and I'm remembering….

The Genesis of an Audio Friendship

Ye Olde Editor, properly equipped for a phone call with Clark Johnsen (photographer unknown...one of my MBA students at DeVry University)

"OK, so you're David Robinson! Why should I care?"

It was 1992. A friend in high-end audio had told me that I should get in touch with Clark Johnsen, since he was a good writer and might be interested in writing for Positive Feedback.

He might also be crazy.

Good warning.

I had called Clark to see what kind of person he was, and to extend an invitation to join us if it looked like a good idea.

Tone Quixote (drawing by Bruce Walker)

Our first conversation on the phone was not encouraging. It opened as you see above. I identified myself, and then walked into a surreal zone of Clarkisms and a dialog with an audio agent provocateur. As it developed, I got to hear about Clark's recent win in a Stereophile review-writing contest, about which he was pretty pleased, truth to tell.

Maybe he didn't need…what was that name again?...Positive Feedback. Perhaps John Atkinson would hire him as a reviewer at Stereophile, a much more prestigious position, no? After all, he had won a review competition!

And! Well! Polarity!!!

Phasing the Music (drawing by Bruce Walker, 1992)

Did I realize its supreme importance in the world of audio, or was I one of the audio ignorati? Had I bothered to pay attention to POLARITY?! No, damn it, not "phase"…POLARITY!!! Could I possibly be so ignorant?!

Lots more of that, in what I would come to know as Clark's typical mocking, laughing, teasing fashion.

Yeah, well…meh.

Digital Hell No. 1 (cartoon by Bruce Walker, c. 1993)

And, this being 1992…the curse of digital. 44.1kHz/16-bit PCM. Which it was, indeed, given the state of the art in CD playback at the time. No argument there.

And 78 RPM records!!! Did I realize that they were amazing, in some ways very much superior to what we have now?!

Next up:  Clark with "Well, why should I write for you, and you be the editor? Why shouldn't I be the editor, and you can write for me?!"


"Oh, well!!"

And so on, and so on...

To tell you the truth, I wasn't too impressed, and I was even less taken with Clark's rather bumptious and combative approach to conversation. It was like bullfighting, or a game of chicken, or several rounds of "nyah, nyah, nyah!" after dropping LSD, or an attempt to arrest a nasty public drunk…or all of them stirred up together. I'm reasonably patient, but after 40 minutes of this, I was pretty much done.

"Well, Clark," sez I, "I called you because I had been told that you were interested in writing for Positive Feedback. It doesn't sound like you are. So, if you want to, then fine; if you don't want to, then fine. But don't waste any more of my time. If you're just going to harangue me, then you can go to hell."

Clark's immediate response:  "Oh no! We're just fine!! Of course I'll write for you!"

"We've achieved smiley phase!" (Drawing by Bruce Walker, 1991)

Yep. That's how Clark and I connected, and became good friends over many years.

And that also tells you a lot about the kind of person he was, and how he went about things.

Good thing I'm patient….

Clark Johnsen, private ear…hot on the trail! (series drawing no. 3, by Bruce Walker, 1993)

Not that Clark was simply an audio crank, that creature that high-end audio is all too cursed with, or some sort of worthless curmudgeon. Far from it. In fact, as John Atkinson himself noted in an article in Stereophile a number of years ago, "The author [Clark Johnsen] is a Harvard Physics graduate, with published academic work in the fields of image processing and the measurement of sight objects. He has worked on holography, surveillance satellites, the Mars Lander camera, and the Orbiting Space Telescope."

Clark told me about his background over the years. There was much more to him than met the eye.

Although, very strange to say, he eschewed the role of being an "audio reviewer." In fact, he rejected that task with vigor.

To see why, you'd have to go all the way back to Issue 12 of Positive Feedback. You can read his summary and fascinating rationale for his stance right about HERE. He had little use for audio "reviewers" in general, with the qualified exception of PF's Dave Glackin.

And he was consistent; Clark remained an essayist, contrarian, and stirrer of storms until the end. For example, THIS.

Clark Johnsen was actually a serious scientist, an iconoclastic scholar, and a brilliant thinker. His collection of 78s at his beloved Boston salon, The Listening Studio, went into the thousands. (No, I never made it there.) Besides which, he could write up a storm, and was a passionate lover of the audio arts. Clark was unique.

Clark with Stan Ricker at VSAC 2001 (photograph and image processing by David W. Robinson)

So, while I might have made it sound like Clark was something of an infernal bassturd, the fact is that we developed a real friendship over the 28 years that followed. Once you got to know him, and got past the occasionally prickly exterior, you found a real heart of gold. He was massively opinionated in matters audio (he's certainly not alone in that), yes, but he also had a heart that was quite kind and sympathetic at surprising moments. Christmas. Easter. Great classical music. Excellent beers. Good audio friends of superior intelligence capable of jousting over interesting topics…including UFOs, black ops, the JFK/RFK/MLK assassinations, the "secret history" of America, and so on…and on…and on.

"Can I have another beer?!"

Two great PF stalwarts of the very first order:  Clark Johnsen and Dave Glackin. Both dear friends, and both now departed. (Photograph by Dave Clark)

Did I mention beers?

Of greater interest to me as an editor and writer, though, was the fact that Clark showed himself to be a meticulous wordsmith…sometimes excruciatingly so…one of the best that I've known. His vocabulary was quite broad, and was applied with rigor, vigor, and verve, regardless of the topic or the length of his contribution. Some contributions were short, just a few paragraphs; some were longer. Some were a lot longer.

Clark Johnsen and Carol Clark in the halls at T.H.E. Show…don't know the date (photograph by Dave Clark)

In the later 90s…must have been in 1997 or 1998…Clark once sent me one of his longer articles. Something like 24 single-spaced pages. At this time, while Positive Feedback was still publishing in paper ‘n ink, Clark submitted all of his work as hard copy, rather than via email file attachment, or even on floppy disk. This necessitated me running his articles through an HP Scanjet Pro SCSI-based scanner, and then taking the raw file and editing it in Word.

It was a real pain in the ass to do the work, with some late-night hours, but the payoff in the quality of Clark's writing made it all worthwhile.

Clark's audio magnus opus in the flesh… (Photograph by David W. Robinson)

Yes, The Wood Effect. Clark and I talked about his analysis of the problems of polarity in audio production and audio reproduction on a number of occasions. Frankly, I agreed with him, and more and more over time. I think that the sloppiness of a great deal of production work when it came to polarity was at the heart of some of the strange results that I've heard on a number of recordings over the years, and that Clark was right to point to this as a key (unexamined) factor in the audio chain. His book is a carefully researched and quite readable exposition of polarity, as of the time of its publication (1988). If you're interested in learning more about this aspect of the audio arts, this is an excellent place to start. (See also John Atkinson's trenchant commentary from years ago on the subject at Stereophile right HERE.) Note that The Wood Effect has been out of print for a number of years, and is fetching some outrageous prices in the used market online.

Clark returned to this topic again in PF Issue 75, back in the fall of 2014, with a republished essay entitled "From Clark Johnsen's Diaries: The Polarity Problem Redux, Then Redux Again." You'll find it HERE.

But that wasn't all…not nearly. If you search online with keywords like "Absolute Polarity" and "Clark Johnsen," you'll find Pandora's box opening with a rush, and assorted arguments, joustings, and erudite speculations boiling about. Certainly, Clark had a notable effect on certain realms of the audio arts.

Not just polarity, either.

(Photograph by Dave Clark)

Audio tweaks! Lordy, was Clark fascinated by audio enhancements of various kinds. Every time that I saw him at audio shows, he would always have the latest tweak/enhancer with him. It might be a new cable, or a strange new solution, or a CD twiddler, or a crystal, or…or…or.

See an example of his essaying along these lines in Issue 94 of PF, back in the fall of 2017. This was a republication of the original article that Clark wrote back in our print days…from Vol. 8, No. 2, in the year of our Lord 1999. It's right HERE for you.

Digital Hell No. 2 (drawing by Bruce Walker)

Each was championed with joyous gusto and zealous certainty. Sometimes I agreed with Clark; sometimes I didn't. But as far as I am concerned, he was right on in his insistence that most everything makes a difference in an audio system.

Synergy, see…?

Martin DeWulf and Clark Johnsen (year unknown; photograph by Dave Clark)

Memories. Clark's broad and teasing smile…his broad gesticulations, going broader as the amount of beer intake increased…Clark dancing goofily while "feeling no pain"…his unique voice over the phone during our conversations…his shocked grief when I called him with the news that our dear audiobud Dave Glackin had died…his knowing looks when he and Jennifer Crock and Dave Glackin and I talked about high strangeness during the Positive Feedback Powwow in September of 1998.

For many years, Clark was extremely active with Positive Feedback. During the 90s and the first decade of the 21st century, his work appeared with reasonable regularity. But beginning about a decade or so ago, I noticed that Clark was slowing down in his writing for us. His submissions became ever more infrequent, and several of them were in the form of republishing lightly re-edited earlier work from PF's print days. Most of my communications with Clark shifted to email, with me being included in some of his email thread-groups. He was as incisive and trenchant as ever, but more reactive than creative in his writing as he aged.

And I was saddened to see the drop off in his work here at PF as the years went by.

At his best, Clark was one of the finest essayists in high-end audio publishing.

As I sit here thinking about Clark, I realize that there's simply too much history to cover. Every life is beyond easy summation, and Clark's was no simple, uncomplicated life. If I don't stop trying to encompass a friendship of 28 years in this thimble of a memoriam, I shall never finish.

In the future, we'll try to republish or repointer some of Clark's key essays, a number which have been only seen in our print archives. This will take some work, as a number of them go so far back that we are going to have to go to some extraordinary lengths to deal with very old computer file formats…or we'll have to actually scan them in from our master copies of the print issues of PF. That's some real work.

But I do think that select Clark Johnsen's paper ‘n ink essays should be republished in our "New Old Stock" section, as we can transfer them over. It's definitely pro bono publico, and will be our final salute to a memorable colleague.

(Photograph by Dave Clark)

So enough!

Clark was a good audio friend, an exceptional thinker and writer, a joyous and passionate fellow audio-voyager, one whom I'm very glad to have known and to have hosted for so many years here at the audio community that is Positive Feedback. I will really miss him.

Vale! Clark. I'll see you again, soon enough, in that Kingdom without end….

Clark Johnsen, private ear, departs... (Drawing by Bruce Walker, 1993)

Photograph credits as noted. Drawings by Bruce Walker; Alice in Wonderland drawing by Sir John Teniel, in the public domain.