All Things Must Pass: The Legacy of Russ Solomon and Tower Records

Tower El Toro front 1.11.26 PM

Tower Records, El Toro, CA #138. My home sweet home for nearly fifteen years.

Russ Solomon, the founder of the late, great record empire, Tower Records, couldn’t have gone out in a more fitting way.  Watching the Oscars with his wife, commenting on how ugly he found someone’s clothing, he requested a bit more whiskey.  When his wife returned with it, she found him dead from an apparent heart attack.  Russ had gone out with a bang with all of his feisty spirit intact.

Tower Records was an important part of my life from an early age.  Living in Southern California during the seventies, the closest Tower to us was the West Covina location (we lived in San Dimas).  Although I rarely visited, I remember requesting records for my mother to pick up while she was out shopping.

Our house was always filled with music.  Both my parents loved and listened to rock ‘n’ roll.  My father loved the Rolling Stones, Beatles, Creeedence Clearwater Revival, Chicago and others.  My mom was a big Janis Joplin fan.  After they got divorced, my mother’s taste grew to include artists like Neil Diamond, Helen Reddy and, of course, the disco-era music of the Bee Gees.  When Saturday Night Fever came out, we went to see it as a family (with my step-father) and every Saturday or Sunday morning, the soundtrack would click into the 8-track player.  Us three kids spent weekends at Dad’s house in Newport Beach.   As a handsome, single lawyer, he was open to having a varied record collection, often influenced by the music of the girls that he was dating.  Added to the familiar Stones and Beatles albums were music by Heart, Jefferson Airplane, Donna Summer and Bob Dylan.

As I came into my teenage years, I began to develop my own taste.  Having my own stereo system in my room allowed me to explore and experience music in a way that perhaps other kids didn’t.  I never realized how lucky I was to have that luxury; I thought all kids had their own stereos!  My younger brothers loved KISS while I gravitated toward Aerosmith.  My Donny Osmond crush had matured; I was now in love with Steven Tyler.  I also listened to a lot of radio and because I had access to a stereo, I made mixed tapes, mostly of dance and disco music, that made the rounds at my junior high school, especially among the many black kids that attended there.  And although I was genuinely friendly with many of them, I was also very naive as I found out that many of them thought that I was a “wannabe”, a term that I learned about the hard way when one of them taunted me in the hallway, sing-songing, “Be whatcha wannabe!”, implying that because I listened to black music I wanted to be black.

When we moved to Mission Viejo in Orange County, I was a lonely, awkward fourteen-year-old, getting ready to start high school in a brand-new town with no friends.  Music, my ever-present friend, was there to ease my pain.  After a rather enlightening introduction to FM radio stations like KLOS and KMET and the ground-breaking KROQ, I spent most of my free time in my room, surrounded by my Rolling Stones posters (I had forsaken Steven Tyler for Keith Richards by this time), listening to classic rock and new music and on Sunday nights, the Dr. Demento Show.  DJs became important and loyal friends.

A job stuffing newspapers for my stepfather’s early morning paper route allowed me my own money and where did I go to spend it?  Tower Records in El Toro.  Whether my mom took me or I rode my bike there, I spent hours on each visit, flipping through the record racks while wondering what was behind that beaded partition in the poster section.  (At the time, this Tower location still had a head shop; too bad I was a tad too young to benefit from it before it was removed).

My record collection grew and grew and included all the Stones albums and records from my youth, but now with new music like the Pretenders, Pat Benatar and the soundtrack to The Decline of Western Civilization.  My mother had always been a small theater actress and loved to give cast parties.  I remember at a  particular one there was an English fellow, who was a member of the cast, who knew that I was a Rolling Stones fan.  He handed me the Marianne Faithfull album, Broken English, and told me I’d love it, but no to listen to it if my mom was around (a reference to the explicit lyrics in the song, “Why’d Ya Do It?”).

When I graduated in 1983, I went to live with my dad in Newport Beach while the rest of my family moved to rural Fallbrook.  I spent a year lazing about before my dad demanded that I get a job.  A trip to El Toro to get my hair cut led to a tip from my hairdresser, to whom I’d mentioned I was looking for a job.  “Go over to Tower,” he had said.  “Ask for Robert.”

Sporting a short skirt and a trim figure, I followed Robert, the store manager, into the back room where I was briefly interviewed and given a job working the Ticketmaster counter Tuesday through Saturday.  I had no idea what a punishment that was until later (that is another set of stories unto itself), but my nearly fifteen-year career at Tower Records began that April day in 1984.  I was nineteen.

Besides the dreaded Ticketmaster counter, I also worked in the new video section where my knowledge of foreign and independent films was fostered.  On the record side, my musical tastes branched out to include Bauhaus, the Cocteau Twins, the Cure and other so-called Gothic musicians.  Later, I became a Deadhead and followed the band around Southern and Northern California.  Still later, I learned about rap, international, jazz, vocals, grunge, metal and cocktail/lounge music.

And the friends.  Where do I begin?  A vast age group ensured that we all learned from one another as did the expertise of those that ran each music section.  Charlie, our fearless classic music buyer, was renowned throughout not just the county, but the state, it seemed.  Customers came from far and wide to listen to his advice and suggestions on not only specific composers, but symphonies, conductors, soloists and more.  An extremely smart and eccentric fellow, he could spend hours ruminating on not only classical music, but Egyptian history, science, lemurs and other exotic animals, the Grateful Dead and Frank Zappa.

Bob was our jazz buyer and he, too, knew his subject inside and out.  An accomplished musician, he played washboard in the South Frisco Jazz Band, who at one time was Disneyland’s New Orleans Square house band.  Bob knew everything about jazz, but also had a keen interest in World War II memorabilia, notably German uniforms, medals, runs, etc. and was also an avid train enthusiast.

Oh, the crazy times we had back in the day!  Kids these days couldn’t conceive of what went on at Tower back in the eighties and nineties. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll is a good start, but I don’t use those terms rhetorically.  Literally, I mean there was sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll going on at the store.  Hours-long lunches with record label reps where the alcohol flowed like water; Christmases with schnapps bottles stashed under the counters; breaks out to VW vans where copious amounts of pot were inhaled; cocaine snorted off records and sex in cramped bathrooms and makeshift offices.  Ah, yes, these were good times, my friends, never to be seen again, at least in that type of abundance and acceptance.  It was a good time to be alive and young!

After a few years in the video department, I moved over to records where I was the assistant tape buyer for a while before becoming the record buyer (probably the last one as CDs were already on their way to taking over).  Bob and I were appalled and wore our “Save the LP” buttons proudly every day to no avail.  When the receiving clerk announced he was leaving, I jumped at the chance to work in the back room and to have a Monday-Friday, 8-5 schedule.  I approached Robert and asked for the position and I stayed on as the shipping and receiving clerk for my remaining eight years.

Soon after, Robert left to go and manage the Boston store and in came out new manger, Dennis.  I was apprehensive at first; we all loved Robert, despite his sometimes explosive temper.  But Dennis and I soon became close friends.

My decision to leave Tower was a difficult one, but I sensed that big (and not good) changes were around the corner.  Our store was moving to a new location and was to be combined with an audio retailer, The Good Guys; my raises were too small and infrequent.  My heart was beating out of my chest as I approached Dennis to tell him that I was leaving.

It wasn’t long before my intuition panned out and the new location closed.  It was heartbreaking; some of the old employees were still there, including Charlie, who really had no other prospects.

Over my years at Tower and beyond, I kept in touch with everyone and hosted a big Halloween party yearly, which served as a reunion of sorts.  I became the Mother Hen and archivist for our store location, good, old Tower El Toro, #138.  Many ex-employees had moved away, but with the introduction of the Internet and Facebook specifically, we all found one another again and picked up right where we had left off.  Our Tower family was intact once again and more than one of us joked that Facebook had been invented for Tower El Toro employees to find one another again.

In 2015, I heard about the Tower Records documentary that Colin Hanks had made, All Things Must Pass.  An exclusive screening and reunion was to be help in Sacramento, the home of Russ Solomon and the original Tower Records location.  I had to go and there I met Russ for the second time.  I had met him in 1990 when a Tower friend and I took a road trip to Sacramento to visit her family.  While there, we stopped by the Tower corporate office where we were greeted warmly and given a tour, then asked if we wanted to meet Russ.  Of course we did!  We were shown into his office and there he was behind his desk, music memorabilia surrounding him on the walls, shelves, etc.  We talked for a few minutes and he asked if he could take us to lunch-what a surprise and honor!  Russ took us to a restaurant on the riverfront.  He was gracious, kind, engaging and funny.

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Me and Russ at the screening of “All Things Must Pass” and Tower reunion, Sacramento, October 2015.

After viewing the documentary with hundreds of other Tower employees, Colin Hanks and Russ himself; going to parties and events around town and meeting a lot of new Tower friends, I came back home and decided to have my own reunion for our store, Tower El Toro.  I got to work planning it and in October of 2016, I hosted fifty friends from as far away as Colorado for a day and evening of music, food and reminiscing.  Reconnecting with old friends was good for our souls and once again, our Tower family was together.  No other job (I hesitate to call my time at Tower a “job”; it was more like hanging out with friends everyday, listening to music) created the bonds and camaraderie that Tower did.  We are a worldwide family and when we meet another member, we embrace one another as an unquestioned member of our special tribe.

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Tower Records, El Toro, CA #138 Reunion, October 2016.

I consider myself among the lucky ones who can claim membership in the Tower family. The friends I made are lifelong, the music I was exposed to will be forever in my soul and the memories will keep me smiling until I die.  Thank you, Russ, for creating the most magical, wondrous infusion of freedom, music, individuality and common freakiness the world may ever know.  The misfits found a place to call home, a forever family to belong to.  Rest in peace and we’ll all see you on the other side.

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