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Book Alert: The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo by Garrett Hongo

09-07-2022 | By Jeff Day | Issue 123

Did you happen to know that one of Planet Earth's great writers, Garrett Hongo is also a music lover and audiophile? 

That's right, Garrett Hongo is one of us. Garrett has written over thirty works in over seventy publications, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1988 for The River of Heaven, and was awarded the 1996 Oregon Book Award in the Literary Nonfiction category for Volcano.

Garrett's most recent literary work is The Perfect Sound: A Memoir In Stereo, which is the story of the poet's journey through life, a life infused with music and audio. 

The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo, by Garrett Hongo

As I began my journey through the pages of The Perfect Sound, I discovered Garrett's journey in music and audio had its genesis in the early 1960s, as with many of us of a certain age. 

Influenced by his father's love for listening to music with his Empire 398 turntable and Dynakit tube amplifier, Garrett began an adventure in audio and music that has been his poet's muse for over six decades now. 

Garrett ‘talks story' with us as if we were old friends, sharing his musical voyage through life and audio, his explorations of vintage audio, contemporary high-performance audio, and his experiences of the soul transforming power, beauty, and inspiration that audio and music have brought to his life. 

The story opens with a visit to Garrett's stereo room, where he talks story with us about how listening to performances by Mozart, Alfred Brendel, Claudio Arrau, Cream, Santana, or the drama of an opera, allows him to transcend ties to the "… sedate, suburban lives most of us lead," to be transported into a realm of beauty and wonderment in music that only a high-fidelity audio system can deliver so readily. 

Pull up a chair, and take a journey with Garrett, as he tells us about growing up as a young lad in the diverse and turbulent "Dark Ages" of 1960s Los Angeles. Going to school, singing soprano and tenor parts in the Boys Choir, and living for a year in a Japanese Buddhist monastery. The allure of vintage and new audio kit, his library of treasured poetry, his life as a poet, teacher, and writer, along with his travels, which altogether impresses me as a rather beautiful way to have journeyed through life. 

As Garrett shares his life journey, he artfully weaves in his perceptions of the world, his remembrances of times past, family, stories of love and loss, and searching for meaning in life, in audio, and in music.

Reminiscences of childhood, of time spent with his father building do-it-yourself amplifiers. Listening for the differences in Sylvania and GE vacuum tubes. Spinning LPs. Seeds planted that would create a lasting legacy for the love of music and audio. The ongoing mourning for his father after he passed. 

Garrett's discovery of, education in, and exploration of high-fidelity audio provides a fascinating and colorful history infused story of the evolution of music and audio in the USA during the last one-hundred years or so, as experienced by many enthusiasts during that time, but perhaps never so artfully articulated as within the pages of The Perfect Sound.

The first audio system is a milestone for many enthusiasts lives, and Garrett shares his with us as he explores music while in college. Black music. White music. Whites singing Black music. Funk. Rock & roll. The British invasion. Counterculture. Pop and blues. Manfred Mann and His Men. Unhooking a bra under a knit blouse. Joni Mitchell. Cream. The Byrds. Simon & Garfunkel. Elton John. Jethro Tull. Clapton. Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Heifetz and Piatigorsky.

The joys of musical discovery, of meeting new friends who love music. Being Japanese American in an African American culture. Traces of racial tensions related to music, intertwined with differing religious world views, then finding a common ground within differences that allowed for sharing the love of listening to music.

Family Holidays in Hawaii. The joy of being greeted at the airport with family singing & playing Hawaiian music. Visiting grandparents, with sweet memories of their Kamehameha Highway family home and diner. Fish and poi for lunch, and talking story. Listening to American Beauty on his grandparents stereo. Listening to music with younger brother Eldon. Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton. At Fillmore East, "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed."

Poetry. Dylan Thomas. Pablo Neruda, Gary Snyder, Philip Levine, and the American Poetry Review. Cid Corman, "… the lore regarding an elder generation." Whitman, "… the poet of American spiritual optimism, before America had turned to shit." 

The irresistible allure of vacuum tubes. Beautiful to look at. Sensuous to listen to. Steeped in history, science, tradition, and music. A blown vintage tube in a new/used amplifier, and a smoked resistor.

A whirl around the audiophile merry-go-round as Garrett's tastes in music and audio evolve. Listening to HiFi kit in search of ‘the better'. "The luscious ghost in the machine had lost its allure, and what I wanted was something as close to the real thing as possible." 

As you read along you'll see a mirror reflecting daily life in the USA. Garrett's life. Your life. You'll be transported through time, reminded of moments long forgotten, treasured music, treasured friends, treasured audio moments. Reading Garrett's The Perfect Sound can change your life for the better. It changed mine.

Do you really want

to know what lies ahead for

you? Isn't it the

not knowing—not having to— 

makes it all possible?

What a brilliant book. Literally brought tears to my eyes as I was moved to reverie about forgotten life moments.

You know that old friend you can sit with and talk for hours with about life, the past, the dreams, the sorrows, and the love that was intertwined with it?

Being reminded that life is meaningful, even beautiful, to be appreciated even in the small things, and to be shared with others. That's what reading The Perfect Sound felt like. 

Garrett's book is about music and audio, but rather even more about living life, with reflections on family, friends, lovers, the solitary obsessions of poetry and HiFi, the gut punches, the successes, as woven into the fabric of life. 

As I read through Garrett's artful memoirs of his life, intertwined with stories of music and HiFi, I was reminded of many parallel stories from my own life. 

As I read Garrett's verse, I reflected back on moments from my own life, worthy of remembering, but forgotten until stimulated by Garrett's verse. Family, friends, hard times, good times. Love, loss, suffering. As I read along, "talking story" with Garrett, the panorama of my own sentimental journey through the years fell upon my heart and mind.

I recommend Garrett's The Perfect Sound as not only a wondrously enjoyable book to read in its own right, but also as a vehicle for your own self-discovery, for rediscovering your own joys, your own tears, your own story.

Thank you for telling us your story, Garrett. What a beautiful and inspiring book about life, music, and audio! 

The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo (ISBN 9780375425066), by Garrett Hongo, is available from Amazon.com, HERE.