Stereophile: A Personal Odyssey

John Atkinson (left) and Richard Lehnert (right) in RL's house in May 2011, the day before RL moved from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Ashland, Oregon. (Photo: Susannah Tyrrell)

In this memoir, Stereophile's copyeditor of 34 years breaks most of the rules he ever learned or imposed on writers. It is too long. It rambles. It's repetitive. It lacks organization. It's repetitive and many sentences are longer if not shorter than they should be, there are run-ons. Other sentences incomplete. The syntax often odd is. Dangling before your very eyes, I misplace modifiers. Worst of all, this piece is not about audio, or even music. Rather, it is a story told from one decidedly subjective viewpoint, mine: a view from the shadows, backstage and askance, of what it was like to work for John Atkinson and Larry Archibald at an international audio magazine based in the unlikeliest of small cities—Santa Fe, New Mexico—from the mid-1980s through the 1990s and beyond, from someone who was not only there at the beginning of that era, but who stayed and stayed and stayed . . .

I first became aware of the existence of Stereophile sometime in spring 1985, while working as a typesetter in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Remember typesetting?) From far down the hall behind me I heard a big, high-pitched laugh. I turned to see my present boss guiding toward my dark typesetting cell my future boss: a very tall, balding, round-faced man with a huge grin who shambled along in loose chinos and a Hawaiian shirt in full sail. Thus my first glimpse of Larry Archibald, who three years before had bought Stereophile from J. Gordon Holt, who'd founded the magazine in 1962 and moved to Santa Fe from Pennsylvania in 1978.

Larry and I were introduced. I learned that the thick folder under his arm contained copy for a future issue of Stereophile that needed typesetting. I don't think our little shop, fittingly named Casa Sin Nombre (House Without Name) and now long gone, ever landed that gig, but I'd always been interested in music and sound, and had just begun setting myself up as a freelance copyeditor. Stereophile sounded intriguing. I called Larry, met with him, and gave him a copy of my editing résumé—it could then have fit on one side of a 3x5 card. I offered to copyedit an article for him on spec: If he didn't like what I did, he didn't have to pay me. He liked what I did, and gave me the rest of that folder to work on. I had no idea how important a role in my life he would eventually play. But then, as any good editor would point out as she excised the preceding sentence and marked it self-evident, we never do.

I began copyediting Stereophile—every issue from that first one of 34 years ago (Vol.8 No.3, month unspecified) through my last, the current issue of June 2019 (Vol.42 No.6): 34 years' worth of the magazine, some 400 issues, and tens of millions of words.

Stereophile's office 1982–1987 on Santa Fe's Early Street. (Photo: John Atkinson)

Stereophile was then publisher Larry Archibald, business manager Gail Anderson, and editor J. Gordon Holt, who seldom made it to his office there. That was it. The magazine occupied—perhaps a better verb phrase is lurked in—what I think was a former garage or small warehouse (above) on Early Street, in a pocket semi-industrial wasteland a block from the former site of the New Mexico State Penitentiary, and next to an ancient, abandoned graveyard full of the names of the Spanish families who had settled Santa Fe in the late 16th century: Vigil, Sena, Ortega, Jaramillo, Larragoite, Trujillo, Cabeza de Vaca/Baca. This camposanto, once far out of town, was now centrally located, separated from the surrounding dusty bustle by an always-locked chain-link fence. I wish I could promise you a tale in which that graveyard figures significantly in Stereophile's history, full of Chupacabras and the eerie wailing of La Llorona for her lost children, but if there is such a story, it has not been sent me for copyediting.

Larry would hand me endless accordion-pleated foldings of copy, printed in some knockoff of Palatino by a clacking daisy-wheel printer on a single endless roll of paper. I would take them home, mark them up in red pencil, and then, if delivering them after or before office hours, drive in my '66 VW bug from my abuelita hovel on Alicia Street, in the Barrio, to Early Street, and leave them in the Stereophile mailbox—until one day four long articles bleeding red with my crabbed edits vanished from that mailbox, no doubt seized by an irate postperson, and I had to do them over from scratch. These were the years of Stereophile writers Tony Cordesman, Dick Olsher, Sam Tellig, Bill Sommerwerck, Larry Greenhill, and JGH himself. Many were the red pencils I reduced to well-gnawed stubs in the service of clearer prose.

A year later, summer 1986, I was delivering some of this copy when Larry beckoned me into an inner office. There he introduced me to a pale, stunned-looking Englishman. This was John Atkinson, who only days before had quit his job as editor of Hi-Fi News & Record Review, and moved from London to New Mexico to become Stereophile's new editor-in-chief, a job he held from that day until March 31 of this year. Atop what I was soon to learn was a congenital boyish shyness, John seemed to be suffering profound culture shock.

What must he have thought? The United States would be shock enough to a working-class Brit born in 1948—but this was northern New Mexico, which still looks and feels like the occupied territory it is, and like nowhere else in the US: primitive, and full of harsh beauty. Even many Americans visiting the area for the first time wonder if they've somehow entered a foreign country. Its mixed culture of astonishing richness and complexity—Native, Spanish, Anglo—is set in what for many, including me, is the most breathtakingly gorgeous terrain on the planet. For us, regardless of where else we might have been born or raised, the place feels instantly to be the home we suddenly realize we never had. New Mexico is magical, untidy, beautiful, ignorant, miraculous, dangerous, charming, violent, full of duende.

But in that summer of 1986 poor John Atkinson had yet to eat his first green chile or sopaipilla or carne adovada, or participate in his first Pet Parade with yet-to-be-born Harry and Emily, or witness his first ritual burning of Zozobra or troupe of Matachines dancers, or light his first Christmas-Eve farolito, or see his first Everest of cumulonimbus cloud tower over the Galisteo Basin, stabbing out dry lightning and thunder and trailing virgas of rain that evaporate before they reach the ground, or hear his first Good Friday rumor (at the time, he'd have spelled it rumour) of members of the banned Penitente Brotherhood wailing as they flagellated and crucified themselves in their windowless moradas somewhere in the badlands outside Chimayó. He had yet to realize that he had moved to a Heaven often indistinguishable from Hell, and that what difference there was didn't matter.

(I leave unexplained these references to New Mexico arcana. The state defies explanation. Fifteen or so years later, not long before Stereophile moved to Manhattan, I walked out the door of the last building the magazine occupied in Santa Fe to see, in the parking lot, an immense elk with a huge rack being butchered on a tarp spread out on the asphalt between two pickups the size of garbage trucks. Here was the head, and there was the rest of him. Two hunters, just down from the Sangre de Cristos and gripping big, bloodied knives, grinned up at me. They looked very happy. This was in the center of town.)

Another year later, early spring 1987. John called me at the type shop to tell me they planned to start publishing the magazine monthly, up from 10 issues per year—before that, publication had been more or less whenever JGH could scrape together enough to pay his printers' bills, which wasn't often. They also wanted to include a regular and much-expanded music section (actually, there hadn't been one), and wondered if I wanted the new tripartite position of assistant editor, music editor, and copyeditor. Evidently they had read my many, often ill-tempered fact-check remarks in the margins of articles I'd edited, especially when music was the subject, and had concluded that I had some idea what I was fulminating about. "Um," I said. What they outlined sounded like a lot of work, a lot of responsibility, and a lot more complicated than typesetting. "Probably not," I said. I thought I sounded discriminating and hard to get.

Actually, I was terrified. This was precisely the sort of job everyone I knew was convinced could not be found in our round brown town of Santa Fe. Back then, transplants like me moved to New Mexico not because we could make a living there but because it was where we wanted to be, it had the thin sharp clear piñon- and cedar-scented air we wanted to breathe, and the clear light and endless vistas we wanted to drown our eyes in. In that land of waiters with master's degrees, we plunked ourselves down and hoped something better might eventually turn up. For most, it didn't; they left, or stayed and made the best of diminished figurative horizons between expanded literal horizons. But here such a job was, offered to me out of seeming nowhere.


Glotz's picture

I found this article to be the one of the most insightful pieces of writing Stereophile has put to print. You are a great writer and copy editor, and truly understand the beauty of your writing, as illustrated above.

I remember these transitions of the magazine's history and I am just amazed how well this piece fills in the cracks. I finally realize you, Richard, were the cement. I know I can feel every writers' soul as a part of this magazine, but finally realizing how perfectly you worked to create that image of all the initials that contribute here. (I've seen CG's preprint of the Nobis Cantabile 25 years ago... they were a capital murder offense in writing! And yet he was still a great writer!)

Page three also delivers a gut-check, and JA has always been forgiving and generous online. I also feel I have learned about critical audio reviewing purely from JA's approach to 'the Reader is the Boss' over the years; the neophyte and the veteran both derive knowledge from every writer in these pages (if they have an open mind).

I wish I could convey more of my appreciation for your work and that of every single person that has spent their time writing or working for this magazine. You deserve it all.

Mike Rubin's picture

My wife's family is from Galisteo and we became Santa Fe part-year residents in 2005. I have read few pieces that conjure up images of the Santa Fe that we found at the time of our arrival and never knew exactly where in Santa Fe Stereophile "lived" when it was located there. You've both brought forth the essence of a Santa Fe that's disappearing a bit these days and filled in some blanks in local history for me.

tonykaz's picture

This is probably the finest piece of writing in Stereophile's History.

It doesn't start with a hook but dam, this is King, Kaminsky level work. ( using duende?, nobody can use duende in writing, it's never been done, I've been waiting my whole life to find a place where I could, I'm impressed )

This person own's audiophile gear, has a better mastery of Audiophile lexicon than any person on earth ever has had and still no beautiful reporting. ( especially considering all those little Bottlehead outfits up there in his neck of the woods, Oregon is Woods )

What the Hell

Richard Lehnert the Golden Voice of Stereophile


Tony in transit

ps. I had three ladies, back at the Building, that would rework,rewrite, respell, punctuate, tune, pretty-up, etc.. all my reporting from the field. They were artists transforming my miserable scribbles into Prose. I don't have them any longer, I have to re-write 3,4,5,6 times and still not get it right. ( but it's worth it ) - ( Stereophile is worth it ! ) - ( all these people commenting are well worth it )