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Harry Pearson, Jr.: Godfather of High-End Audio, Sonic Explorer, and Southern Gentleman

11-15-2014 | By Michael Mercer | Issue 76

Harry Pearson was an extraordinary man.

He was always curious, and could turn an acidic, negative situation into fine wine and smiles with a quick-witted retort to a verbal challenge anytime. (Well, except after imbibing too many chocolate martinis). He loved knowledge, and was always reading something in the morning hours following his daily sunrise-walk. For a while, I could count like clockwork – while working for him and after – where he'd be during the day and evening. He loved his daily routines too: Daily doses of his favorite coffee from a local shop (which changed over the years), a deli sandwich from his current favorite deli, seeing a movie with a friend, or taking a usually long afternoon nap. He worked odd hours, and sometimes, as many of us know, he decided not to work at all for periods of time.

He loved his cats, his "pussies" as he affectionately called them. He once told me that he knew I was "destined for greatness" because Butch (one of his pussies) loved me so much. He always had a huge fish tank, and he cherished his alone time – on the top floor of his gorgeous National Historic Landmark-stamped Victorian home in Sea Cliff, New York.

There were two very different rooms up there, and he loved them equally. One was his writing tower, which was literally the tallest point in Sea Cliff at one time. The town even fought with him over the construction, following a fire in the ‘80s, but Harry always had a trick up his sleeve. He was restoring the house to its original design in order to achieve Landmark status. He also wanted a beautiful house, quite frankly, as he said. So Sea Cliff, being a Long Island sound/beach-based town on the North Shore, long known for its wonderful views and historic architecture, allowed it. The tower was tiny. It had room for a decent-sized desk and a couple of chairs. That's all he needed.

I used to bring him his bagel and coffee up there in the tower. Since he's gone on his journey, I can safely say now that I loved that tower for another reason. My friends and I, whenever I got to watch the house while he was away, had some amazing times up in his rooftop! But for Harry, it was his little writing cocoon. There was a bedroom under the tower, but it was across the hall of the open-air steps to the tower. So he had all his set-up guys put a nice small-scale system in there. This way he could hear the music while writing in the tower, or step downstairs and right into a room with a system. Those were the days.

Anyway, the other room on the top floor of his house was his bedroom. It was like a man child's finished dream space. It got terrific light up there; plenty of windows, and it had one of the coolest bedroom surround-sound systems around. The system was literally built around his bed, so he could sit up in bed and watch movies in incredible surround sound! The system/bed was also built into a sort-of giant would-be walk-in closet area, set apart from the main room up there, so Harry could hang these insanely thick curtains and black everything out for his films in that space. And believe me: It sounded amazing! I watched a bunch of movies in that little magic home theater. A bunch of his friends have enjoyed watching films up there. He had two Nola Thunderbolt IIIA subwoofers at the front-end of that lil' theater system. It was crazy, but once the movie started the walls literally melted away, and I felt like I was in a huge space. The large-scale theater was downstairs of course, but there was something so different and cool about the system upstairs! Harry called it his "playroom" a few times over the years. With an ear like Harry's – you could squeeze good sound out of anything, anywhere. So I'm not ashamed to admit that, to this day, after building a few, and experiencing some incredible home theaters (actual dedicated theater rooms), some of my favorite theater sessions were up in that room! Harry loved film, and he was also a world-class film critic (hence his short-lived Films In Review magazine, under the long-gone Pearson Publishing). Roger Ebert once said Harry was one of his favorite film critics.

He also loved getting lost in his music, and boy did he have "the best toys," as he often called his systems. He was giving me shit for not staying long enough during a visit back East a couple years ago, and when I tried to tell him I wanted to stay longer – but I had to go pack for my departure! – he said, "You know I have the best toys, and you've got to hear that Radiohead record you sent in room two"! He knew just what to say, where to stick it in so I would feel bad for not hearing Radioheads' Kid A on an incredible system, and guilty for not staying longer! That's a masterful social tactician, which is what he always was.

He had such an amazing sense of things, thus his obsession with Astrology. He loved doing charts for people he found interesting, and his friends. He also got a kick out of doing charts for new people in his friends' lives! I think it was his way of checking them out. He was protective, sometimes even overly-so, of his friendships. I was psyched when he did Alexandras' chart (my wife – then girlfriend when he met her) and everything met with his approval. Sounds funny I know, but it meant I wouldn't have to hear him give me shit about a choice I made for many years to come! He was deeply committed to having an impact on people, even though, despite some opinions, he was never completely comfortable with all the attention he got in the high-end audio world. Because Harry was human, Hp was larger than life.

Another thing I'll never forget, that he said to me years ago: "You know, Mercer, (he loved to call me Mercer or Moishe) a lot of people know Hp, but they don't know me." I told him I felt connected to him when I read his words too, and I knew him well. He was talking about the hype that came with the "man who coined the phrase high-end audio." Sometimes it blew his mind, he'd tell me. But I'd always remind him that he needed to own up to his contributions to the community he helped shape!

I think one of the quotes from his interview in Rolling Stone showed the side of Harry that didn't take it all seriously better than I ever could right now. He was interviewed as that man, the one who coined the term "high-end audio" and literally created a new language for audiophiles to describe things sonically. Hp took the baton in some ways from J. Gordon Holt of Stereophile and pushed it forward, helping birth the industry around the high-end two-channel hobby today. He published a Glossary of Terms, literally, in the pages of The Absolute Sound, the magazine he founded nearly forty years ago. He gave us phrases like "micro-dynamics" and "macro-dynamics," and gave clear definitions of words like soundstage and others. He was a true hi-fi pioneer, founding the magazine that has been a bible, globally, for audiophiles for over thirty years! He could write the most interesting, detailed, and passionate reviews of audio components, music, and film, period. He was the Michael Jordan of the audiophile world, and what was that quote I referred to before, that Rolling Stone decided to blow up in the middle of the page (you know how they do that sometimes) of his interview? It was brilliant:

"If you plug it in and it works it's not high-end audio"

Harry Pearson – Rolling Stone

Now, unfortunately more of you know what he's talking about than you'd like to admit, but there's truth to that snarky remark. It also cost us some advertisers in the magazine at the time, but he didn't give a shit.

Harry also got a real kick out of some of the egos in the high-end world. The funny thing there? Many of the most respected and widely-read audiophile journalists today came up under Harry; from Michael Fremer at Stereophile to Neil Gader and Jonathan Valin at The Absolute Sound. Yup, Harry had a role in many successful careers in the wacky world of high-end audio, and not just other audio journalists either. There was a time when a positive review from Harry, or, even better, when a company's products became part of his reference systems, would all by itself generate sales and buzz. The trust he'd cultivated in his dedicated readership was that strong. That's the dream of any journalist, to impact the lives of their readers.

Hp achieved that level of respect not just with audiophiles, but from professionals in the music industry as well. Mastering legend Bob Ludwig was an avid reader, and even sent in a letter to Harry now and then. He was a true authority on high-fidelity playback, and if you were lucky enough to experience a listening session with him, you'd find out why. Just ask Michael Hobson, for example, Founder of Classic Records and owner of Themusic.com – a source for music and high-end audio gear. Harry had super-human hearing. I know, it sounds like bullshit, but there are other people who can back that up! Give the good people at VTL or Nordost a call. They'll testify to that. He could make or break your product at one point, and that's a lot of power to yield. He worked hard for it. He was just a terrible business man, as many geniuses often are. But his contributions to the high-end audio community are timeless.

And you know what he'd say following that sentence? I know, because I said that to him once, and wrote down his response! I have a ton of Harry quotes all over the place, whatever I could write on at the time. And the response to the last statement in the above paragraph:

"Not bad for a queer boy from the South, huh, Mercer?"

Harry grabbed life by the balls. Unfortunately, he also used that term in an autograph to Ahmet Ertegun (Founder of Atlantic Records) that I was supposed to deliver. He signed a copy of The Absolute Sounds' 25th Anniversary issue to Mr. Ertegun that way – and I was supposed to give it to him! Well, it was close:

"To the man who grabbed life and the music by the balls and changed the world, I salute you


That's how authentic he was. Whether you agreed with him or not, whether you respected him or not, whether you liked him or not – he leaves a legacy that speaks for itself. One of the reasons he was able to build that legacy was that he truly believed those words above – whether politically correct or not. That passion, that fire behind words like those: It lives on in the writers he's influenced, the companies he helped build with his words, and an industry shaped around all of that. It took a man like Harry Pearson to achieve that level of success, beyond any financial wealth, where you leave a mark on the world that continues to echo long after you've turned to dust. And for those of us who knew him: We all knew how crazy, and how extraordinary he was, pretty much the first moment we met him. I'd like to think that's true anyway. But it wasn't easy for him, in the beginning or the end, but it's the journey that counts, right? His personal journey was wild.

Harry grew up in the South during the fifties. As a young gay man, he witnessed some of the worst bigotry and prejudice in our country's history. That didn't stop him from joining the service (the Navy) and doing his bit for his country, however. Whether you believe it or not: Harry held strong in his convictions, and I believe much of that came from his personal struggles, coming of age during a time of great moral turmoil and divisiveness. I can't imagine what it must've been like for him during those tumultuous times. I know this much: He often spoke about music, and also his early hi-fi systems, and how they were "gateways into other worlds." He often said listening to music at home became more than a hobby and an obsession for him at one point, but also a place of exploration.

He loved live music, and I mean he F'in loved it. The only other job he ever wanted was to be a classical conductor. But the job he ended up in before founding The Absolute Sound? He was always a writer, from his high school newspaper to eventually landing his gig as an investigative reporter for Newsday on Long Island in the late sixties to early-seventies! He ended up the Environmental Editor, as he was always concerned with the environment and social issues. He told me he started going to classical concerts more often, and that's when his system at home became more important than ever. I get confused in the timing of it all, but Neil Gader did a fabulous job with his essay on Harry and those details at The Absolute Sound.com.

Harry told me he was a fan of Stereophile, but he was tired of waiting so long for his issues to arrive, so he had the idea to start a newsletter for fellow hi-fi enthusiasts. He told me that he purchased a pair of Bose 901s because of all the rave reviews, and he thought they were awful musically. He told me that he had a few moments like that before getting the idea to start a hi-fi newsletter. That newsletter later became The Absolute Sound. Ironically, that same problem haunted Harry years later (subscribers not getting their issues on-time, if at all). He learned the hard lessons of trying to run a money-making artistic enterprise without serious financial footing, and fiscal responsibility. Plus: Playing nice with your advertisers doesn't hurt. Well, one thing nobody can ever take away from Harry is that he held onto his old school journalistic standards of decorum. He believed, as do I, and many that have learned under his watchful eye, that editorial and advertising issues should always be separated. Now, that's not so easy to do in the 21st Century (self-bloggers and such), but it can be done. Harry had more scruples that anybody will ever know. But again, that doesn't mean he wasn't a shitty businesses man!

The same thing happened to J. Gordon Holt and his Stereophile magazine. We're not all meant to be business owners. Long-story short: TAS was ultimately bought, and saved when it comes down to it. Some people didn't particularly care for the new editorial direction of the magazine, but hey, it's a business. Harry remained an editor in the shadows for a while, appearing in his Hp's Workshop in the pages for TAS less and less over the years. He left the magazine in 2012. It was difficult then, as it was in the beginning.

Harry was human, and he had his flaws. He could be like a child sometimes, frankly. He loved to mess with people in restaurants. He wasn't a graceful drunk, and he wasn't very fond of paying the check if you went out together – well, if you asked him out. He found a nice old school values loop-hole there. Traditional my ass, if we head out to eat, its Dutch unless somebody offers to cover it all! Might just be me. But I didn't mind paying for his lunches. His dinner taste ran beyond my pockets. Harry also loved fine dining, and he knew his wine and food.

He was interested in so many things, and he commanded a skill I've always admired: Reading multiple books at once, and comprehending each wholly. He would have three or four going at once sometimes, but he could speak intelligently about each if prompted. His thirst for knowledge never ceased. He wanted to soak up the world. Big Sur was a place near and dear to his heart. When I saw it for the first time, I thought of Harry and Jack Kerouac's mind-bending novel, Big Sur. One day we'll spread his ashes there, over the Pacific Ocean.

I could write about Harry's accomplishments in the high-end audio industry for pages, but he was so much more to me. I think her deserves more than accolades based on his past. Those are important. They were to him as well, but you know what was more important? Keeping an eye on his friends, and them keeping an eye, or a thought, on him. He demanded loyalty, that was for sure. Sometimes he could get a little crazy about it too – but his aim was always clear: He loved the company of his true friends, whether via telephone conversations or visits face-to-face. Whether people believe it or not: Harry wasn't comfortable with all the hoopla surrounding his initials. He put on his best face, when out at the rare audio show or event, but he would've rather been back in his little castle in Sea Cliff – listening to music or watching movies. He enjoyed people; he'd just get overwhelmed.

Now, I came into his life after the golden age of The Absolute Sound and The Perfect Vision (the world's first high-end videophile publication he also founded) and just as the Pearson Publishing empire was crumbling. When I got a gig answering phones at Pearson Publishing the late Summer of 1994, most of the calls were from subscribers, wondering where their issues were. The magazine was on its last legs, some of his best writers came together to start another magazine called Fi, another short-lived high-end audio publication (at least that's what I was told, fellas), and there was more shit going on than I'll ever say publicly. It wasn't the future he'd envisioned for TAS, obviously. Things got so tight for a while that all of us went weeks without getting paid. Nonetheless, we pushed forward, hangin' on by a string, enough to be sure The Absolute Sound found would find a willing new owner/buyer. Ultimately that happened, and Absolute Multimedia Inc. was born (current publishers of TAS, Hi-Fi+, and others). I honestly don't recall the exact date when full ownership of TAS changed hands, but I remember going to The Absolute Sound's 25th Anniversary party at Harry's house in Sea Cliff when I just started working for Atlantic Records. It had to be around 1996-97, and it looked like everything was OK. He stayed on as a hired writer/editor, just as J. Gordon Holt did at Stereophile. He seemed happy with the whole situation for a while.

Our friendship started a new chapter during that time, and he started opening up to me about his fascination with the universe. He absolutely insisted that I read The Universe is a Green Dragon at least twenty times before I committed to do so. I never second-guessed him on a book or a film from then on.

His taste in music? Much of it was merely too dated for me. I'm not talking about classical or jazz, but great-sounding, pounded-into-my-brain-by-MTV awful commercial dance like Human Leagues' "Don't You Want Me Baby." Sorry, just a generational thing. As amazing as Human League sounded on the Nola Grand Reference System, or the Sceanas (and it sounded amazing), it's still Human League! I mean, pull, at the very least, one of the Burial vinyl pressings I sent him (and he often did). He was always open-minded when it came to new music, especially electronic music. I know most of you wouldn't guess this, but Harry loved good electronic music. A few years ago, he asked me to start sending him what he called "something that you identify with atmospherically like Hearts of Space, and musically like Kraftwerk or more complex" – again, another Harry quote I kept! I'm so glad I wrote these all over my journals, and later, in my Stickies on my MacBooks when I would see him. Anyway, hearing about where he was going musically, I was pumped. That's my world, or a big part of it. Years later he'd end up packing records and files from Brian Eno to Burial, Shlohmo, and Boards of Canada. I'm so sad we never got an Hps' Super-Disc List (his globally known list of fantastic-sounding vinyl LPs) for electronic music. He thought it might scare away some of his readers that had been with him from the start. That may have sounded silly, but I respected him for feeling like he needed to keep that connection. It's the one we all fight to keep: Trust with our readers.

There were times when I would send him something I wrote, a rough copy, usually my music reviews (my favorite thing to write, hands-down) and he would insist on editing them. I would tell him it's not his job; I was seeking his input as my friend and teacher. I wanted to know if he liked the flow of the piece, did it get its point across in an impassioned and reasonable way? I wanted his approval, no bullshit. Well, it took a lot of years, but thankfully that started to happen more often. But he was vicious when I seemingly "jumped ship", as he said it, into high end personal audio, but I didn't mind the bashing. He wasn't happy with my transition into personal audio (meaning, he didn't want me to stop writing about high-end two-channel), and he demanded that I worked harder, and his criticism was just a lil' rougher. In the end, it made me a better writer.

I know it was the work we're doing now that he's most proud of. So when I think about the fact that I didn't get to say goodbye like I always envisioned (damn, do we ever), there are things I know about Harry that only a handful of people on this planet know. I carry that vault like a battle-scar. The shit it could stir up, the rumor mills that could be spinning, especially after the current outward showing of support, without a single call to any of us that were looking out for him during the last couple of years. Yeah, there's a lot of stuff in that box.

So, I've decided to give you as much access to the real man as I know he wanted all of you to have. But I'm not going to keep digging into his accolades he earned as a worldly audiophile, mainly because he didn't want me to do that, and because plenty of people are doing fantastic jobs of that right now! I'm trying to give you a little window into the world of the man behind the Hp mystique. If all you want to know are the details of his career while at TAS, sorry you've been sucked into this vortex.

Anyway, bottom-line is that his exit from the journal he founded bothered him for a while. I'm not going to offer opinions or my feelings on any of this; it's about how Harry felt, and he felt like crap about it. I'm not going to be politically correct either, as he would never let me live that down. Just recognize these observations do not reflect the way I feel about anything unless I say so. But this is the straight-dope right here. We're not cutting it down for Press Releases and shining lights around this like a glorious thing. Its' been a sad week, and believe me, not just for the audiophile world, but for the world. Harry gave a lil' piece of what he often called "twinkle dust factor" to just about every person he met. He took his never-ending curiosity to the grave, and I love that about him. If you were lucky, he did your astrological chart. Hey TAS old-schoolers: remember TAS Has Twinkle Dust Factor swag buttons? Now, as a former Marketing Director, I think some of the swag Harry came up back then was genius. There was a part of Harry in all of it. That statement has new meaning now. That's the side of Harry I'm trying to illuminate here: The constant seeker, a person who affected others with his charms (for good or bad). Hey, believe me, I know about the dark side of that yin-yang too. He could be a queen, and he could be a bitchy one at that. However, when you were in his presence, he was the HQIC – Head Queen in-Charge, period. Or, so he thought, but it didn't matter.

I would always leave Harry's house enriched in some way. A grand music experience, find out about a new film, or get a new book and a pile of articles that were cut out of his various periodicals for me to read and report on via email. I once told Joey Weiss, my brother, and first and foremost Harrys' dear friend (Joey took the reins in set-up and acquisitions after me, and was Harrys' last person to hold the post) that I was envious of him because he got to know Harry as an adult. He got to know him so fast and understood him so well. I, on the other hand, would always digress into this student sort-of role when I was with him, until the last couple of years, thank God. But I wish I had more time with him this way. Man-to-man. Because, though everything started to fail him biologically, he would still be the sharpest mind in the room.

That was the main reason Harry Pearson was so fascinating. He could talk about anything it seemed, and do it intelligently. Whatever endeavor he invested himself wholly into: His morning walks, or his writing – he put his soul into it. I know it, because he once said something to me (that I wrote down of course) that actually took me years to figure out. I asked him to read a column I wrote about the rise of personal audio. It was for his site after TAS: HPSoundings – which later joined forces with The High Fidelity Report. Joey Weiss is the editor there, and considering his teacher (Harry) he's amazing, but I had to get Harry's eyes on things sometimes. I usually went to him when I thought I couldn't convey a thought or a feeling about music with my limited language! Harry's written vocabulary was second-to-none, in his prime. He read the piece, quicker than usual, and said, "You're thinking about your readers too much. You don't write for the readers, you write for yourself." I remember thinking, of course I consider my readers sometimes, how can I help that? What he actually meant, because thankfully we got to clarify, was that you must have the courage to express yourself in the best way you know how, and be true to yourself. Even if you think your audience may not like what you have to say, if you believe it completely, you must express it. When you commit to the art of writing so completely that everything else gets washed out, you are, in fact, creating art, touching the infinite.

I am going to work my tail off to carry on. As difficult as that may seem right now.

Harry would've expected nothing less from me, or the many audio writers he influenced. He was a true giant, a man with boundless curiosity about the world, and I was as lucky as any man can get for knowing him. He changed my life forever. Actually, he gave me a life. Sure, I worked for it, but he was the first person to acknowledge my passion for writing, and, insist that I follow it, no matter where it led me. I'll be forever grateful for that. I'll miss sitting across from him at his desk, laughing and discussing everything from religion to Hi-fi to films.

Sometimes we laughed so hard it hurt. I take pride in triggering a laughing spell in Harry that landed him on the floor in his kitchen. We were like children together. He loved to have fun, and despite what anyone might say, he never took himself too seriously. He loved his friends, his pussies, and his beautiful home. He absolutely cherished live music, especially concerts at Carnegie Hall, and I regret I only joined him for two of those. But they were life-changing experiences. He used to grab me so tightly when we used to go see scary movies, it cracked me up. When we went to see Scream he almost tore my arm off! But I'll never forget those times.

Another thing I'll never forget: Harry never took any shit from me, and he called me on it at every opportunity. He always told me not to take short-cuts, and if inspiration hit me, it didn't matter if I stayed up for 48 hours writing (which I often do), because you never know when true inspiration will strike, and you have to see it through. In the end, that's what Harry always was for those of us that truly loved him: He was an inspiration. He made me want to learn more, be more, and make him proud. I sincerely hope I'll do so. I'll never stop trying.

I'll miss his voice more than anything. But it lives on in the rest of us. Where ever he ended up, I hope he's enjoying a glass of Port and some truly thumping classical music. I will be forever grateful for his friendship, his guidance, and most of all: His love.

So, Harry, I'm never going to give up the "good fight," as you called it. Would you expect anything less? And for those of you involved in hi-fi and the pursuit of great-sounding music at home, it doesn't matter whether you knew Harry Pearson or not. He had an impact on all our lives.

His legacy? Well, it will echo throughout time through our music, and our pursuit of the absolute. Every time I fire up the tubes in my system, his voice will always be there. Every time I take a stand for what I feel is right, he'll be there. He'll never be far from my thoughts, or my heart. I love you Harry – and I could never adequately thank you for all you've done for me. But I'm going to spend the rest of my life trying.

Farewell dear friend, you'll never know how much we'll miss you.