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

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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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Upcoming Book Signing, Reading and Slideshow, Saturday, October 14 at Pipe & Thimble Bookstore, Lomita, CA 11AM-2PM

 

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Book Signing at Pipe & Thimble Bookstore in Lomita, California

I will be reading from and signing copies of Red, White & Blues:  Book One” as well as playing a slideshow that will showcase events, fashion, culture and music from the years that the novel takes place:  1964-1977.

If you are in the area, please stop by!  I will have copies for sale, but if you have your own, please do not hesitate to bring it!

Thank you for your support of indie authors and bookstores!  Please be sure and review and recommend “Red, White & Blues:  Book One”!

Teaser Excerpt from the Upcoming Sequel to Red, White & Blues. San Francisco, 1986

  • every seven minutes

In mid-September, President Reagan actually mentions AIDS in a public speech where he vows to make the epidemic a priority.  There is great hope in the gay community, as the issue has finally gone all the way to the “top”.  Anticipation of change and financial aid is higher than ever.

Asher and James decide to put together a celebration of hope, something to direct people’s attention toward positivity and away from the death and fear that have been constant shadows in the city for far too long now.  After all, there are things to celebrate despite all of the hopelessness and sorrow.  The community has grown stronger than ever and due to safe sex education; transmission of the disease has decreased.

With a generous donation from Louise and Avery, the boys rent a large hotel lobby for the event and begin getting the word out via the community’s many channels. Some of their activist friends suggest making it a fundraiser, but Asher is adamant-he wants this to be simply a celebration, a fun evening of music, dancing, food, drink and camaraderie.

Plenty of people step up to donate their talents and time to help get the event off the ground.  Despite all of the excitement, James’ priority is still making sure that the patients are getting what they need, including meals, help shopping, cooking, dog walking and transportation to doctor appointments.  Toby is a great help with these things as he always has been and this leaves Asher free to promote the event as widely as he can.

The day before, a huge group of volunteers arrives at the hotel to decorate, blow up balloons and prepare any food that can be made ahead of time.  Asher stops in to check on the progress and is overwhelmed with the number of people helping out.  He immediately finds James to hear the details.

“Hi, honey,” James says, kissing him.  “Isn’t this amazing?”

“Yes.  Who are all of these people and where did you find them?”

James spreads his arms out.  “Everywhere.  More and more of them just kept showing up asking what they could do.”

Asher looks over the group.  Most of them are friends, but there are some that he definitely doesn’t recognize.  His face grows worried.

“What?” James asks.

“How many people are going to show up tomorrow?  What if there isn’t enough food…”

“Don’t worry about it!  Everything will be fine!”

Philly, who has grown light-headed from blowing up so many balloons, takes a seat nearby.

“What’s he worried about now?” he asks James.

“Too many people showing up.”

“That’s not a problem, honey!  That’s a good thing!”

“See?” James says. “Now go on home.  I’ll be there soon!”

Asher does as he is told.  He has slowly been getting back to his studying and has plenty of reading to catch up on.

The following evening, everything runs like clockwork.  The lobby is filled to capacity with mostly gay men, but their “sisters in arms”-the lesbians-have been showing support for them in growing numbers and many are here tonight.

A DJ is spinning records and music fills the air as volunteer waiters pass around trays of hors d’oeuvres.  Maura, Dan and Toby, along with Louise and Avery are sitting down at a table together.  Not being involved in the community and seeing so many men visibly suffering from the disease is sobering for Avery.  There are many men here tonight who are rail thin and pale, the sores of Kaposi’s sarcoma mark their faces and bodies.  He is still not comfortable being around them, not only because they are gay, but because he is afraid of AIDS.  Dan, too, is unaccustomed to being around so many gay men, but he instantly admires their fun and happy enthusiasm while feeling incredibly sad for the sick ones.

“Hey, girl,” Philly says to Louise, dancing over to their table.  He kisses her cheek.  “You look beautiful!  All of you do-even you Avery!”

Avery laughs and Louise takes his hand.

“Maybe you’ll dance with me later,” Philly teases him.  “You might even like it!”

They watch as he dances away and joins the others who are moving to the sounds of the Bronski Beat’s seminal hit “Smalltown Boy”.

James is circulating the room, making sure everyone has food and a drink while Asher sits biting his thumbnail and worrying.

“Would you stop it?” James scolds him.  “This is supposed to be fun, remember?”

“I know.”

“Dance with me.  Come on!”

In the hotel kitchen, vats of spaghetti and meatballs are bubbling, garlic bread is toasting in the oven, salads are being dressed and cupcakes frosted.  The all-volunteer cooks are having a blast dancing to their own boom box as they begin dishing up the food.  Plates begin making their way out to the tables and Asher watches nervously.  He doesn’t know why he is so concerned except that he wants this night to be perfect without any hitches or disappointments.  He goes up to the DJ and asks him to stop the music, much to everyone’s dismay.

“Sorry,” Asher says into the microphone.  “I won’t take long.”

James rushes to his side.

“First of all, let me say welcome!  We have all been fighting so hard-first for our rights and now our very survival.  So many of us are not here tonight, dead from a disease that no one wants to hear about.  Why should they care about a disease that kills gay men?”

James puts his arm around Asher’s shoulders.

“But we pushed and will keep on pushing until there is a cure!  We will fight to end discrimination against those with ARC, fight for new definitions and diagnoses so that treatment can be available to everyone that needs it.  We will fight for funding for aggressive studies and new treatments.  For answers!  We will fight LaRouche and Jerry Falwell and everyone else that wants to tell us that we do not have a right to live.”

The crowd is cheering; James is getting misty-eyed.

“But tonight we stop fighting, just for one night.  Tonight we enjoy ourselves, forget about sickness and death, panic, uncertainty and hate. I remember when Harvey was assassinated.  I remember the pain, the anger, the candlelight march down to City Hall.  Many of you were there, just as I was.  Harvey fought for us and I know that he would have been very proud of you all.  I look around this room and I see a group of people that refuse to give up, refuse to step back into the closet, just as he asked us not to. James and I have been so lucky to be a part of this community.  So lucky to be with all of you here tonight.  We love you all and thank you for your support!”

Asher waits for the applause and yelling to die down before ending his speech.

“One last thing:  I want to acknowledge and thank Louise and Avery Booth for putting up the money to rent this place for the evening; Maura and Louise for the selfless support and kindness that they have shown our community from the very beginning and Toby, Maura’s son, who has sacrificed so much of his teenage years to help us get food to you, visit patients and help in any way he can.  He’s going to make one hell of nurse!”

Asher begins clapping heartily and James, along with everyone else, joins him.  As Asher steps away from the mike, James takes it.

“Everyone, please enjoy yourselves!  Food is coming out of the kitchen thanks to our awesome volunteers.  Please take a few minutes to eat and relax.  And don’t forget to pick up the pamphlets and other info that we have by the door.  There’s also free condoms, so please be safe!  I know that safe sex seems like a step backwards, but it’s how we’re gonna save each other now.  Thanks for coming out everyone and enjoy!”  He then turns to Asher.  “Come on, sweetie!  Let’s eat!”

Finally, Asher begins to relax and enjoy himself.  The sight of everyone dancing and laughing, hugging and kissing one another, especially the sick ones, is everything that he wanted this evening to be.

“This is really good,” James says, twirling spaghetti onto his fork.

Asher smiles.  It is strange.  James has been the one so distressed with genuine concern and worry over the community, but as soon as Asher expresses worry, James always changes his demeanor and becomes carefree.  He probably doesn’t even know that he does it, but Asher is grateful.  He takes James’ free hand and brings it to his mouth, kissing it.

“Thanks,” he says.

“For what?”

“For being you.  For loving me.”

“Aww!  How could I not?” James leans over and kisses Asher on the lips.  “I do love you!”

“I love you, too.”

At close to midnight, Louise, Avery, Maura and Dan leave.  Toby wants to stay behind to help clean up, so once again, Maura leaves him in the care of Asher and James.

“Everything turned out perfectly,” Toby tells them.

“It did, didn’t it?” Asher marvels.

Toby watches the thinning crowd on the dance floor.  He doesn’t know why he likes being around these men so much.  He knows that his mother wonders if he is gay and the truth is that he doesn’t know.  He does think some of them are attractive.  They’re certainly nice and fun and most have a great sense of humor and style.  He cannot deny that he has fantasized about being with one or two of them, but he has also done the same about some of the girls that he knows at school.

At the end of the evening, many people stay to clean up and secure the leftover food which they will take out tomorrow to the patients that couldn’t make it to the party.  Asher pulls his car up front and the food is loaded in.  James and Toby say goodbye to everyone and jump in as well, waving to a group of men standing outside.

“That was so fun!” James says.  “It was great to see everyone, especially the sick ones like Joey, Luke, Brian, Bobby…”  His voice trails off and he sighs, knowing that none of them have long to live.  “We gave them a good night.”

“Yes, we did.”

They drop Toby off at home.  Their apartment is quiet; even Freud gives them a silent meow as they enter.  The answering machine is flashing.  James walks past it and gets a drink of water and then he and Asher go straight to bed.  They lie in each other’s arms knowing that in the morning, everything will start all over again, but for the next few hours there is peace.

.99 DOWNLOAD OF “RED, WHITE & BLUES”!

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