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From Clark Johnsen's Diaries: When Harry Met Clarkie, or, Harry Pearson, R.I.P.

11-12-2014 | By Clark Johnsen | Issue 76


Only my oldest, dearest friends call me "Clarkie", so be careful – but it does make for a better title, so, yeah. / The author

When I first met Harry it was on the lawn of the St. Tropez Hotel at a C.E.S. some years ago. But we had had a history that, in its various intrigues, seems worth recounting, now that the grand old man is gone and unable to be embarrassed by some bad behavior. But we made up and even exchanged friendly e-letters later.

It all began in 1988 when I sent a copy of The Wood Effect to TAS for review. A favorable piece was duly written, by Sallie Reynolds IIRC, but was at the last moment withdrawn. When I inquired of my back channel sources as to why, I was told that HP was extremely displeased with the thing and with myself. Why?

Just to recap: Regular readers know that the book is about Absolute Polarity (a.k.a. acoustic polarity) and its unduly, even dangerously ignored role in making critical decisions in audio. (The subtitle reads, Unaccounted Contributor to Error and Confusion in Acoustics and Audio.) Records of either polarity just do sound better when played on a system of compatible polarity. Moreover, all recorded media can come in either of the two polarities albeit sometimes rather helter-skelter, and audio systems are fixed similarly in one or the other mode. Therefore roughly half of recorded music will sound well on any system, the rest not so well, and you naturally tend to prefer those in the former group. As an item of proof I noted that all thirteen entries on Harry's then-current Bakers Dozen list of best-sounding records were of one single polarity, which I suggested functioned as an almost double-blind positive test result because nothing else had guided his decision in any direction.

So far, so good.

What happened to anger Harry?

Towards the beginning of my research project in 1984 I realized that simple designations of the two modes had to be chosen, and since I had made my initial call with John Lennon's "Starting Over" I declared that record (a Japanese 45rpm single) to be in the "N" polarity, because starting over is altogether normal. What then would be the opposite term? I chose "R".

Better it should have been "P" and "Q" (as in Mind your P's and Q's) because all discs on HP's list turned out to be of the "R" persuasion. I had sent out several review copies and comp copies and some wag had teased Harry that Johnsen said all his favorite records were "reversed". The poor man blew up and yanked the article, but so at the last minute that it remained in the Table of Contents.

At that point he clearly had to read the thing and discovered a couple of quotes from TAS, from which "not a single word may be reprinted without permission", as his rules then phrased it. I received a written blast from the man, but I was ready. Not only did I plead "fair use" (the quotations were brief, and I had consulted an IP attorney) but also I had a permission letter from his staff manager Brian Gallant, to whom I had submitted a proof copy of the relevant pages. (No fool I, having already heard some worrisome tales.)

But even all that was not enough to mollify the man. To my attorney he sent a handwritten note that read, in part: "If I thought Clark Johnsen had more than a dime to his name, I'd sue the pants off him."

Well, my goodness, isn't that special? I said to myself.

Later, somehow, technical director Frank Doris and I got into communication and I brought the subject up. While I cannot find the letter now (it's here somewhere I'm sure), Frank well recalled the episode although no one had spoken to him about it directly, and Brian Gallant had not been seen in years.

Thus ended that phase of my relationship with TAS and Harry. Although, come to think, after I received my copy of Vol. I Issue 1 I did write him a lengthy, laudatory letter that probably would embarrass me to publish now, but I promise I'll look it up in my files—it would be a carbon copy, though, and unscannable. Just as well perhaps.

Another Phase - Judith Reilly

One day the intelligence reached me that a professor at a local university had been doing experiments on the deleterious effects of playing digitally-sourced LPs—effects not on the ear or on the brain, but on the turntables and cartridges themselves. Well! That seemed a promising line of enquiry to all of us who in those days detested the sound of digital. Dr. Reilly made several visits to my place The Listening Studio where we hashed it out and she showed me her graphic evidence. Before long something seemed sorely awry, however, and my interest diminished. Although not hers.

In fact she told me she had strong support at TAS and they had a story in the works already. At that point I joined with my old friend Tony Lauck and his Mac, calibrated strobe light and detector and we did our own tests with totally negative outcomes. Judy was not using such a solid procedure for data gathering and what she ended up with was a set of aliasing artifacts, not actual results, we determined.

I wrote the whole experience up in greater detail than here, for Fanfare, where Judy's story had first appeared under the byline of audio critic Neil Levenson, normally a sober writer. But they refused it, so the privilege went to Stereophile. Later I wrote a memorial piece of sorts for Positive Feedback, and in my opinion it still makes jolly good holiday reading: A Carol to Judy.

Oh, yes. TAS. I communicated my serious doubts to someone there (Sallie?) and received a galley proof back in the mail, which showed that they had swallowed it all—hook, line and sinker. Immediately I advised them not to print the thing and sent a galley of my own upcoming piece.

Dr. Reilly has not been heard from since. A shame, since she was otherwise a very nice lady.

So there I was out on the lawn

At the St. Tropez c.2007 holding a Bud in my fist and someone said, Want to meet Harry? Ubetcha! The intro effected, I said, "Harry, I know you're a wine person, and so am I at home, but let me buy you a beer." He demurred, but indicated that he knew who I was and said, "Let's be friends." Then: "I don't know where you got all that stuff about my not liking you or your book, it was a terrific piece of work and I learned a lot from it."

Wow. Presumably he had some back channels too, to know those things. Anyway, hugs were had and pictures were taken, then and later:

Clark with Bud

Harry and Clark on the lawn

Harry and Clark at the Venetian

Now, of course, I really regret never having had a sit-down with him to discuss movies, music, wine and audio. Harry, old man, Requiescat in pace. And be sure to let them know in Heaven how those trumpets should sound.