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August 19th, 2017

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The Absolute Harry

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Nov. 20, 2014

     The Absolute Harry

Those were the days, my friend --

We thought they'd never end,

We'd sing and dance

forever and a day,

We'd live the life we choose --

We'd fight and never lose

For we were young

and sure to have our way.

The obituary in the New York Times brought back a lot of memories: "Harry Pearson, a journalist and audiophile who founded The Absolute Sound, a magazine for connoisseurs of high-fidelity audio in the 1970s and the locus of a backlash against CDs in the 1980s, died on Nov. 4 in Sea Cliff, N.Y. He was 77...."

Every young reporter who's lucky enough to get his first job, first byline, first scoop, first irate letter -- the whole baptism in printer's ink -- at a small, family-owned newspaper in a slowly fading old Southern river city will forever after think of it as a golden age. And maybe, just maybe, at the old Pine Bluff Commercial back in the 1950s and '60s, it was.

Even then Pine Bluff was full of stories just waiting to be unearthed, ghosts lingering in the shadows of the stately elms and oaks, crumbling mansions slowly drifting into the past, a host of windmills to tilt at, and more eccentrics than even a little Southern town had any right to produce in the middle of the last century. Plus an abundance of raw young newspaper talent recruited from all over the country.

All those rookies were there at the express invitation of the Commercial's still young publisher-in-the-making -- Ed Freeman, more formally known back then as E.W. Freeman III, family scion, coach, boss and big brother to the whole, ever shifting menagerie. He was the adult in attendance.

How describe that staff? It was a mix of naivete and pretend sophistication, a combination training ground and iconoclasts' club. Yes, those were the days, my friend.

Half a century later, the now silver-haired veterans of those golden years, complete with their canes and walkers and overflowing memories, assembled again. They'd come to Little Rock from all over the country and across an ocean or two to be there. They wouldn't have missed it. There must have been more sentiment, sweet and sour, packed into the Whole Hog Cafe that night than any archive could comfortably contain. It would be wrong to describe that crowd as having grown old and crusty, for they'd begun young and crusty. And just stayed that way.

Yet something, or rather someone, was missing from that reunion. And not just a legend like Patrick J. Owens, the managing editor who'd had passed on by then. For the dressing room with a star on it remained vacant that night. Harry Pearson didn't show. Not that anyone was surprised. This gala performance had a cast numbering in the scores, and if our Harry couldn't be the sole center of attention, he wasn't coming. To say he was a prima donna would be like describing Maria Callas as just a tad moody.

Harry Pearson was as temperamental as a great actor, which he was in addition to being a great reporter, for he turned any story that struck his fancy into an obsession. He didn't just write it. He thought it, felt it, lived it. For weeks, maybe months or years at a time.

Oh, the classic pieces of reportage that Harry Pearson turned in! One of them, which might as well have been a Christmas carol, was an hour-by-hour account of the last day in the life of a bum who was found desperately sick and failing fast out by the freight yards and who would die -- in the county jail -- as alone and ignored as he had lived. He was the very embodiment of The Forgotten Man -- and some in town would as soon he'd stayed forgotten. His body was shipped out sans ceremony, even sans autopsy, but then a reporter named Harry Pearson got wind of it. And the bum turned out to have a name -- Joe Telles, as in Tell Us. And he won't be forgotten again, not if some of us can help it.

Harry would soon become the paper's environmental expert, gadfly and educator, the linchpin of its efforts to Save the Buffalo! And it was indeed saved, thanks to the efforts of a legion of conservationists far and wide, as the Buffalo National River now attests.

At that point Harry was given leave to take all the time he needed -- no pressure, no deadlines, no nothin' -- to do the definitive story on the ecology of the imperiled woods, streams and general treasure that is the state's northwestern quadrant. Whereupon he promptly disappeared. For weeks, then months. The only thing the front office knew about him at that point was that his checks were being cashed.

A curious managing editor decided to give Harry a call -- just to check on him, you understand. Whereupon a furious Harry came on the line: "You told me I could have all the time I needed, no pressure, no inquiries, no contact. But now you've broken your word! I QUIT!" And he did. That was Harry. Did I mention he was the prima donna of prima donnas?

Then, like every Southerner since Thomas Wolfe and Willie Morris, he went off to conquer New York -- and did. His audiophilia came out in full, orchid-like bloom. His eccentricities became a cult as he went after the holy grail of recorded music, the Absolute Sound, which he defined as "the sound of actual acoustic instruments playing in a real space." And he refused to accept any substitute, especially those new-fangled CDs that had begun to replace the vinyl Harry so adored.

To quote the music critic of the New York Times at the time, he became the spokesman for "an impassioned rear guard, a group of music lovers of extreme views, an organization of Luddite fanatics." And the critic added, "I am one of them."

It took years before Harry deigned to notice that CDs had improved enough for him to accept them. And they had -- largely because of his criticism, which inspired so many refinements in the recording art that CDs finally won the Absolute Sound's seal of approval, that is, Harry Pearson's.

Of Harry stories there is no end. There were the weekly soirees/salons he conducted in his tiny apartment above a feed and seed company in Beautiful Downtown Pine Bluff. The atmosphere, though surely Harry would have preferred a word like ambience, still sticks in the mind, and nostrils. For the steep staircase leading up to his bedraggled rooms was lined with bags of fresh fertilizer.

The walk up to Harry's was worth it to attend those Sunday evening gatherings, part dining and debating society, part music-appreciation class. Harry would play his newest stereo discs for the edification of all us philistines, pointing out every subtle change in tone, some deliberate, others not. At the volume he played them, the best place to appreciate their sound quality was from the parking lot across the street. Those were the days, my friend.

As the news of his death spread through the surviving ranks of those who knew Harry when, one said of him: "There won't soon be another." If ever.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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