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Remembering Henry Jacobs, The 'Goof-Off' Who Pioneered Surround Sound

Henry Jacobs, a sound artist whose achievements had a lasting influence on his peers, died last Friday at age 90.
Henry Jacobs, a sound artist whose achievements had a lasting influence on his peers, died last Friday at age 90.

Pioneering sound artist Henry Jacobs has died. Jacobs was a humorist, record producer, sound designer and more. None of these pursuits made him wealthy or famous, but his audio experiments influenced far better-known comedians and filmmakers. He died last Friday of a heart attack at the age of 90.

In the late 1960s, Jacobs worked on an animated TV series called The Fine Art of Goofing Off," which he described as Sesame Street for grown-ups.

"You still have a lot in you, a lot of the real drive and grit that makes America what it is," Jacobs once said on the program. "Don't waste it in idle pastimes; put in some overtime. Log a few golden extra hours at the old grindstone. Remember, there's no time like overtime."

Jacobs elevated "goofing off" into an art — and a career, of sorts. In the 1950s, he had a world-music show on public radio station KPFA in Berkeley, Calif. He produced several LPs of audio collage and comedy skits. In 2005, Jacobs said that he had offers to move into stand-up comedy, but he wasn't interested: "Much more fun to just do it in my little laboratory on tape and edit it forever, and start studying the micro-temporal considerations of how long a pause should be before you went on talking."

Many of his comedy skits involved characters from the counter-culture colliding with the straight world, like fictional jazz musician Shorty Petterstein. In addition to his skits, Jacobs also produced radio shows and records for the philosopher Alan Watts, who was his friend and neighbor in northern California, and Jacobs manipulated his own tape recordings to create music.

Jacobs' work with audio tape culminated in the Vortex Experiments, a series of live events at a planetarium in San Francisco in the late '50s. Jacobs placed loudspeakers on the walls surrounding the audience on all sides, which made a big impression on Walter Murch, the Academy Award-winning sound designer of Apocalypse Now, as Murch told me in 2005.

"He invented this idea of surround sound," Murch said. "A sound that moves all the way around in the theaters is directly linked to the kind of experiments that Henry was doing at the Morrison Planetarium. It's now the standard format for film sound."

If Jacobs never got a lot of credit for his accomplishments, it didn't seem to bother him very much, according to John Brien, head of Important Records, which reissued some of Jacobs' work on CD: "Maybe if he was more caught up in his own ego, he would've pursued recognition, and maybe worked one thing for longer? Instead of being the catalyst for many different things."

In his later years, Jacobs lived on the side of a mountain high above the Pacific Ocean. He graciously entertained a steady stream of friends and admirers. One frequent visitor was Mark Watts, Alan Watts' son, who was also the sound designer's son-in-law.

"Despite all the amazing things he did in his life, when you spoke with him, it was never about [that]," Watts says. "It was about the latest thing he was completely jazzed about."

According to Watts, Henry Jacobs' latest obsession was an Alaskan Camper van that he was meticulously restoring until the day before he died, a few weeks shy of his 91st birthday.

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