HP: Reflecting On (and Reflecting) His Legacy

by Roy Gregory | November 6, 2014

hey say that you can recall those key moments in your life, the points where something happened, something clicked and your course was confirmed -- or changed irrevocably. I can still clearly remember the gentle warmth of the late spring evening as I left the corner door of KJ’s Wigmore Street store for the short walk to Bond Street station. I remember starting to riffle through the pages of the digest-sized magazine before I’d even crossed the road -- and by the time I reached the subway I was already fully engrossed. It was my first ever copy of The Abso!ute Sound and I was hooked -- so hooked I missed my stop and ended up halfway to Hainalt!

What grabbed my attention (and held it) wasn’t the roster of unfamiliar, mainly American products, but the writing: the length of the reviews, their willingness to look beyond the cold confines of the product and consider wider ramifications and conclusions, the forensic use of language and the quality of the prose. Harry Pearson was the first writer I’d found who spent time and ink discussing not just products but process: what we do and how we do it, as reviewers and listeners alike. Harry didn’t invent high-end audio; that was invented by those manufacturers who designed and built the equipment. But what he did invent was the context in which we viewed it, the language we used to discuss it and the approach we developed to understand it. What leapt off of those pages were the vocabulary and the methodology -- the premise that your results are only as good as the techniques you use to derive them. Everybody else simply assumed that they knew how to review, but here was somebody challenging that assumption. Oh, yes, I was definitely hooked.

Photo courtesy of The High Fidelity Report

"HP," as he was universally known, was a charismatic, larger-than-life character. He was smart, combative and confrontational, used to fighting for what he believed in and used to winning. He was engaging, charming, funny and seductive as hell. But like Oscar Wilde, he wasn’t shy when it came to announcing his own genius. He was pompous, arrogant, unreliable, unreasonable, ungrateful, insufferably self-important and could sulk for Long Island -- and on a good day, the whole of New York State. He was quite capable of riding roughshod over trust, loyalty and friendship and being utterly unapologetic while doing so. Altogether it made him a challenging, rewarding but also incredibly frustrating person to deal with. If a man’s fame and notoriety are counted in the number of his names, HP was definitely up there amongst the stars -- even if many of those names were none too complimentary.

One New York-based manufacturer who had a ringside seat for the whole crazy soap opera that was The Abso!ute Sound in the HP years used to refer to him, not unkindly, as "Harry 'Four Calls' Pearson." "When you’ve been summoned by the Royal 'I' (Harry wouldn’t share the limelight, even with himself!) you call to confirm the appointment. You call the day before, you call before you leave home, you call halfway there, and you call from the end of his street. Expect to be cancelled at any point in the process." It’s an anecdote that captures perfectly the strange mixture of regard, affection and frustration he engendered -- and just how hard he was prepared to push people’s buttons. Believe me, geographical proximity had nothing to do with this, and I know plenty of manufacturers who have flown across the Atlantic only to be left standing forlornly outside Sea Cliff.

The stories are as outrageous as they are legion -- and everybody has one. But they are not the point. Every person involved or interested in high-end audio has been touched in some way by HP, whether they know it or not. But Harry’s legacy lies not through the kaleidoscope lens of collective memory but in the very real realms of what we do and what we say. Like any revolution, his coup d’etat that established the primacy of observational reviewing was not without its downsides. He was quick to succumb to the cult of personality, aware of and willing to exploit his own importance. The curse of the omniscient guru and king-maker reviewer is one we’re still living with, audio writers basking in the reflected glory of their works. Is it any wonder that that the influence of and trust in magazines is at an all-time low, while the integrity of their editors, reviewers and even their advertisers is called into question daily?

What we should remember is not who Harry was but why he mattered. His real importance was as a reviewer who defined what a reviewer was, and his legacy lies in the hands of the reviewing community. We can remember him for his outrageous behavior and follow that lead or, if we are serious about showing him some respect, we can look at and learn from the principles he established. We can be precise in our use of language (so critical in defining the intangible) and we can approach the process of reviewing itself with intellectual rigor. We can start from music and how it works, viewing equipment through that prism. Above all, we can question, question, question what we do and how we do it. HP wasn’t always the best at following his own rules, but that doesn’t make those rules any less significant. The phrase Do as I say, not as I do could have been coined for Harry.

As we reflect on his passing, it’s advice we’d do well to consider. If we want to capture the imagination of this generation of audiophiles, let alone the next, then how we do what we do will be crucial. HP’s legacy isn’t the intellectual construct that is high-end audio. It’s the tools he left to evolve and maintain it.

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