No-Holts-Barred: 25 Years of Stereophile Page 2
His visual sense is evident in more than his lifelong curiosity about photography and video. Although the credits for the slow evolution in the unique cover-art style at Audiocraft go to Philip Geraci, the humor and airbrush work on them was Gordon's. The Robert Naujoks cartoons, and the splendid technical illustrations in Stereophile, are all his work. The really hilarious covers on the magazine's early issues are in a class by themselves. The one with the unusual distortion analyzer manufactured by the Beastkit Company of Henton Barber, Michigan, which featured a switch for selecting tests for "timbre" and "acuity," and a meter ranging from "lousy" to "whoopee!", is typical. The meter's secondary test levels are "Muffled, Balanced, Shrill, and Ecch!" The cover humor was unequalled until Rodrigues cartoons began appearing in Stereo Review. For some while, Gordon's favorite reading was the National Lampoon.
The humor seems not to be an effort for Gordon. His laughter is always ready to erupt. It is almost as if he has an endless supply bottled up inside, awaiting any fresh episode of the human comedy to set it off. His humor, though, is mordant. It is not that he is entirely cynical about the human race, but that he believes devoutly in the power and pervasiveness of Murphy. He doggedly hangs onto his belief that people could do better, but is never surprised when they do not. In Gordon's world, Pollyanna is the most pathetic of freaks.
His love affair with the tape recorder is the perfect complement for his love of music. He has spent a remarkable quantity of time doing live recordings, which has been the foundation for his certainty that the recording companies were producing products that were not nearly as good as they could be. Some of my happiest hours have been spent in three of Gordon's rather jumbled lodgings listening to his tapes. The immediacy of them puts almost everything I have heard on vinyl, with rare exceptions, to shame. I have not kept track of his activities as recordist since he moved to the wilds of New Mexico, but I know that in his Pennsylvania days, few weeks passed when he did not spend one session with a group, recording their often modest efforts.
As I write this, Stereo Review has just published a survey of "Audio's Near Misses," by Ian G. Masters (December 1986). One of the "near misses" is the infamous RCA Dynagroove system. Gordon took on RCA and Dynagroove in two of Stereophile's 1963 issues, eventually refusing to review them at all. At the same time reviewers in all the consumer audio magazines, excepting Audio, were enthusiastic about RCA's new recording system. Apparently Stereo Review's vision on technical matters clears only after 20 years or so.
Equipment is not, in itself, an end for J. Gordon Holt. In no sense can he be regarded as an equipment freak. He is profoundly curious about how things work, because I suspect that, for him, that is the way to more satisfying sonic results. He has a certain quality of technical genius about him. And although he could not keep a magazine on schedule, he never allows a piece of defective equipment to remain so. He is doggedly curious about technical mysteries, and stays with them until he can find some satisfactory answer. His knowledge of equipment is encyclopedic, and retrievable in detail.
Gordon has few peers in his ability to explain how a device or process works. He pursues his homework on matters physical until he is clear about them. Which brings me to the central fact about the man: He is as near to being absolutely honest as anyone I know. He is not overly impressed by the fact that he has been a publisher for a quarter century, and written lucidly about audio for a third of one. His motives are transparent for any to see. The agendas are not hidden. He is remarkably single-minded about the puzzle of sound and how to reproduce it accurately. He appears to care little about what people think of him; I have seen him hurt and disappointed about some fracas, but only insofar as it ultimately affected which battle about sound would be won or lost. He is a member of a very tiny minority of audio writers who admit in print that they have been wrong in a previous judgment. His eye is out for the truth, and even his own pride is less important than that goal.
Gordon has a firm grasp of logic's disciplines; it is not a good idea to take him on unless you have done your homework thoroughly. He is tenacious, fair in a fight, keeps his humor most of the time and his respect for those who differ philosophically. I have never seen him resort to a personal attack on an adversary, an action too common in this field.
In an age when English vocabulary usage is not only shrinking but is so decimated by widespread misuse that we are communicating more sloppily and inexactly than at any other time in the century, the level of writing and the quality of the prose in Stereophile has been some of the best anywhere. Holt as editor has few peers in any publication. Although the magazine has grown in size and frequency since its purchase by Larry Archibald, Gordon's commitment to the best in English prose is still evident, despite the typos and occasional gaucheries one sees there these days. This is not a pedantic matter with him; good prose is simply a required minimum, a basic necessity he seems to achieve without thinking much about it.
He has made a profoundly valuable contribution to audio in descriptive language. His attempts to forge a vocabulary for comparative evaluation of sound quality is unmatched by anyone. He was one of the first to realize how small that vocabulary is, far smaller than those for the other senses. It remains, even now, quite rudimentary. His efforts have been the target of a lot of ridicule at times, but I have not seen anyone make a significantly better contribution.
As a publishing professional, Gordon has been generous and remarkably influential. In looking over back issues of Stereophile, I find it curious that two letters, on facing pages 26 and 27 of the Autumn/Winter 1967 number (God only knows the actual publication date), were written by two who soon became his competitors. Their names were Dell and Harry Pearson. No reply to Dell is printed, but JGH is very open and gracious in replying to Pearson. After my subsequent announcement of Audio Amateur's first issue, Gordon offered the use of his mailing list without a second's hesitation.
Many imitators and would-be publishers have come and gone. His ideas and goals have, more and more, become realized. His single-minded commitment to quality sound reproduction is a rare phenomenon in a world increasingly given to instant gratification. His influence, ideas, and the publication he started are, in very large measure, the foundation for what we know as "the high-end" phenomenon. And even there, he has been as critical of what he considers false and unnecessary in high-end equipment as he has been about marketing hype and technical disasters. His sense of humor about the human scene has probably been his salvation, but he has not wavered—at least not for very long—about what are the basic issues, and most of all about what is true.
If Diogenes were about today, I could tell him where to find his man.