By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 23, 2016)
The first time I visited L.A. was in 1975, while still living in Alaska. I went with a friend, a fellow music geek who had grown up there. He introduced me to his “holy trinity” of record stores: Rhino on Westwood Boulevard, Aron’s on Melrose, and Mecca…a/k/a/ Tower Records on the Strip. I went absolutely ape shit (I remember flying back with about 150 LPs in tow). We didn’t have record stores like that in Fairbanks. Especially Tower, whose legend had loomed large in my mind (the import section alone-good god!).
In 1979, I moved to San Francisco for a couple years, where I developed my own “holy trinity”, including Rasputin (which required an excursion to Berkeley via BART), Aquarius in the Castro, and the Tower in North Beach. By the time I moved to Seattle in 1992, vinyl was pretty much on its way out, and the birth of Napster in 1999 assured that the CD would soon join the LP on its long slow death march. One by one, I watched my favorite independent record stores bite the dust, which was sad, but it was only once Seattle’s two Tower stores went belly up in 2006 that it truly felt like the “end of an era”.
Granted, by the time of its demise Tower had become somewhat “corporatized” (for wont of a better term), with worldwide franchising and over 90 stores across the U.S., but there was something about the vibe of the stores (at least the ones I visited) that made music geeks feel warm and fuzzy (notwithstanding the occasional judgmental clerk…but then that was part of the fun, and par for the course at any record store that was worth its salt).
That legacy (as well as that “vibe”) is the subject of All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, a genial (if unremarkably executed) 2015 documentary by Colin Hanks, just out on DVD and Blu-ray. Hanks begins in the early 1960s, when founder Russell Solomon opened his first modest store in Sacramento, then eventually added the now iconic San Francisco and L.A. locations (in 1968 and 1970, respectively), ushering in the chain’s golden era in the 70s and 80s. However, as the title implies, nothing lasts forever; so Hanks also documents Tower’s slow, sad slide into the cut-out bins of history.
Solomon (pushing 90 and still pretty spry) is on hand to reminisce, as well as some of his former business partners. You do get a fairly good picture of the company’s unique management culture, which took a sort of anti-management approach (let’s just say that it was the 70s, these folks loved to party…and leave it at that).
Several music luminaries also share their anecdotes, most notably Sir Elton John, who went through a period where he would obsessively hit the Sunset Strip store every morning at 9am to check out the latest releases (this isn’t mentioned in the film, but he had a legendarily huge private music collection of 70,000 LPs, 45s, cassettes, 8-tracks, CDs and unique studio tapes, which he sold at Sotheby’s a few years ago to help raise money for his AIDS foundation).
Those of a certain persuasion (borderline OCD music collectors) and/or of a certain age (ahem, twice) may tend to get more misty-eyed toward the end of the doc than the average viewer. Again, it is not the most dynamically produced film, but its heart is in the right place. And if you miss the ritual of pawing through those bins, ogling the cover art and skimming the liner notes and track listing on the back, all the while breathing in that singularly intoxicating bouquet of shrink wrap and petroleum product-feel free to browse.
The obsessive collector’s mindset is perfectly encapsulated in this slyly multi-layered scene from Barry Levinson’s 1982 film, Diner: