Sifting Through the Rubble of A Crumbled Tower

“You kids today, with your newfangled “interweb” and your “EMPY3″ downloads. Why, in my day, we’d walk for hours through the snow to buy 12-inch ‘Vinyl’ discs from Tower Records, and we were happy to be able to do so.” Well, perhaps the walking through snow is an exaggeration, but the rest if pretty much dead on. I, like most of my piers, grew up in a world where a record was, literally, a ‘record’. My music collection was vinyl, and the only concept of ‘bits’ were limited to the routines on my George Carlin albums.

My earliest recollection of buying a record is vivid. We were living in Pennsylvania, my father took me to the Bucknell University college bookstore, and using my allowance, I bought two albums: the Bill Cosby album “Wonderfulness” and although I’m embarrassed as hell to admit it now, I also bought “Sound Magazine”, a record from a TV-show “band” that shared the name of a bird frequently found in a pear tree during the holidays. (Yes, I was just an ignorant, innocent little kid, and no, I’m not gay, and yes, it’s still a bit of nostalgic fun when I hear the opening chords to “Come On, Get Happy”). Later, once we moved to Cupertino, I frequented ‘The Satisfied Ear’, a reasonably sized independent record store within walking distance of our home. But Tower Records… that was the Mecca for recorded music.

Trips to Tower on Bascom Avenue were a ritual of my late teens and early twenties. So much so that it became a frequent destination of choice on a lazy evening with friends, and particularly with my friend Matt. Some teens lingered outside 7-11’s. Some bowled. Some when to ‘Mothers’. We hung out at Tower.

As early as I can remember having a driver’s license and access to my parents ’69 Chrysler Newport, I remember driving to Tower with Matt. I recall going their the first or second time I was allowed to borrow the car, only to end up scrapping up against another car parked on the street and close to the exit, while trying to jet out into traffic. The exit had a bad blind spot, and given that the front of that car was 40% of it’s complete length, by the time you could inch out to see if it was clear, you were already in traffic. Once I felt the rubbing against the car as we grazed it, I pulled over immediately, envisioning the fury of my parents and the immediate shredding of my recently acquired license as I gazed at a long black streak along the starboard side of that behemoth land yacht. I nervously asked a man standing and looking at this if the car I hit was his. “Yes”, he replied, allowing me to spew forth a voice-crackling recitation of apologies while dampening and warming the left side of my jeans, only to have him tell me, afterwards, that he was kidding and was not really the owner of the car.

I’d have been more pissed off if I was not so petrified at the forthcoming retribution. “My dad is gonna kill me…” I said to Matt, reaching out to touch the long dark marking, “…when he sees this”, and as I rubbed the mark, it started to come off. Puzzled, as was my friend watching this play out, I started to get a fingernail grip on the black marking and begin to literally peal it off, much like you would any other thin line of rubber that had come off of a rear bumper during a moderate abrasion. Suddenly, my heart lifted, my cheeks unclenched, I wiped away the blood from the lip I had been biting through, and after a few modest pulls and rubs, the marking was completely gone, leaving only the slightest of impressions that would easily go undetected.

That was at Tower and remains a memory that has never faded, as were so many other events. I took a drive there with a just-met set of friends Holly and Linda, and I had an instant attraction to Holly. She had a boyfriend at the time, but we would become close, and she was eventually my first truly significant love relationship, lasting some 7+ years and taking me through some of the most intense growing experiences of my life. I remember standing in queues stretching out their doors just to buy a gift certificate at Christmas time. I remember sitting in lawn chairs, holding a place early in the morning, waiting for concert tickets. I remember a time when they sold only Vinyl and Cassettes, and watching the changes over the decades as CDs, Videotapes and DVDs become the standards in physical media. I remember walking out of their doors with the very first CD I ever purchased, being the carefully selected choice of Pink Floyd’s “Animals“. I remember shopping shortly after getting an in-dash CD player in my car, and the thrill of being able to walk from the store to the car and immediately start listening to my purchases in the parking lot, before even backing out. I remember feeling an unspoken obligation to visit and buy something when I’d encounter a Tower in San Francisco, Los Angeles and even London, in their multilevel store right at the heart of Picadilly Circus. There was a stretch spanning several years when a month would not go by without my having lingered in there for hours… literally hours, just exploring the bins. I’d examining the covers, trying to keep track of the artists I’d start to think about also finding while looking at one presently in my hand, and handing over my hard earned cash as I expanded my library and my tastes. I did so over and over and over.

Oh, and I remember visiting their website when it finally, FINALLY came online, a significant amount of time behind such leaders and innovators as CDNow and Amazon, and well before MP3s were really seen as a viable market, let alone a sales channel. Once they were online, they were arrogantly overpriced. A CD I’d buy for $12 at Amazon.com w/be $18 at Tower.com, and they didn’t even have free shipping options. It was a shock to me, as I honestly remember waiting for them to have a web presence, being excited about it when it finally went live, and then dismayed and discouraged at what I found once I typed in http://www.towerrecords.com.

I’ve had a long love/hate relationship with the recorded music industry. I love music, but hate the business behind it. Artists sign away so much to get a deal that you have to hit so big, ‘Nirvana’ big, to be able to make anything financially significant. Everything the record companies do is billed back to the artists. The recording, meetings, materials, marketing… it’s all billed against any success you have. And frequently, you’re signing away your rights to your art when you get a deal as well, so when it’s time for Ford to desecrate another rock song in order to sell more gas guzzling, environment destroying 4×4’s, it’s not your choice if they use your music, because you signed away that right. In addition, when CDs became the de-facto format, the price of a CD was about 50% more then an album, yet the truth was that the CD costs pennies to produce. Seriously, the damned ‘jewel cases’ were more expensive then the CD was, and the industry was gouging the consumer without conscience. All to make a bigger profit for, not the artist, but the manufacturer. Yes, I definitely don’t have any love for the industry, so when the announcement was made that Tower Records claimed bankruptcy, had been bought out by a liquidator, and that they’d be selling off all inventory and closing shop, my immediate reaction was a bitter ‘serves you right’. Karma. You reaped, you raped, and now you’re time has gone. Good riddance.

Over the last decade, I’ve probably stepped foot into Tower less then an average of once a year, and I’ve probably only bought something there half as often. About a year or so back, while living in the Sacramento area, my friend Matt met up with me and we stopped to visit the ‘original’ Tower Records, just to say we’d done so, but we didn’t buy anything during our visit. I’d been using Costco, Streetlight and Rasputin Records as places to buy CDs locally, or Amazon and Ebay for online purchases. And with the increased online access to MP3s I’ve reduced my ‘impulse’ purchase and have only bought the occasional release I hear and really embrace.

Sadly, and very well stated in this Washington Post article by the way, ‘music’ as a product has changed, and with it, the experience of discovery and purchase has changed as well. I felt it very recently. When my friend Matt came to visit and we went out to catch up, knowing of the bankruptcy and the forthcoming closure of the Bascom store, we stopped there for one final visit. And although there was nothing there I wanted that I did not already have, I found myself lost again, sifting through the bins, looking at the covers and track lists, and trying to remember the other artists and titles that kept entering into my mind as something to go search for as well.

The experience was a bit like opening a box of personal belongings that’s been packed away for a dozen years. It was like finding something familiar from my past, a stale but reminiscent scent of a former home or loved one, a faded hand written note from somebody I’ve long lost touch with, a tattered and curling photograph of a younger me, and a ticket stub from a concert who’s only memory I still hold is slow dancing with my girlfriend to the encore ‘Songbird’.

Looking at it all from here, distain for the industry aside, it’s the bittersweet ending of an era. I guess, as George sang and as this sign aptly echos, “All Things Must Pass”.

This was photographed and sent to me by my friend Matt, who saw it and knew I would appreciate the statement. This is of the Sacramento Tower, which was the very first Tower Records store ever opened. Thanks Matt. Next, I’ll be looking for that photo of the Pope’s visit to General Motors.


Written by gsm

01/15/2007 at 8:08 am

Posted in  Journal 

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Sad times. My first job back in Connecticut was at the local record shop – I was hanging out there so often they offered me a job… then I spent two summers during college working at Rainbow Records over at Westgate. Rainbow, Wherehouse, Tower – all things of the past…


    01/15/2007 at 7:37 pm

  2. I remember when someone got me a Laserdisc of “Navy Seals” from Tower for my birthday…


    01/17/2007 at 12:08 pm

  3. Wow… I’d forgotten that one. Yeah, it’s true that, when Kim’s birthday rolled around, instead of buying a gift certificate, I thought it’d be more fun to give her something to return and exchange. Anybody can give a piece of paper with a monitary value on it… but creative folks… we give Charlie Sheem movies. Not only is the expression on their face PRICELESS when they open it, but they must suffer the humiliation of returning it as well. Bwahahahahaha.


    01/17/2007 at 11:19 pm

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: