“All good things got to come to an end
The thrills have to fade
Before they come ‘round again
The bills will be paid
And the pleasure will mend
All good things got to come to an end”
Jackson Browne’s bitter-sweet big picture realization in the song “All Good Things” may not have been part of the soundtrack of the movie All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records. But it was one song that kept playing in my mind right after watching this critically-acclaimed documentary helmed by first-time director Colin Hanks based on a script written by Steven Leckart.
Tower Records was founded by Russ Solomon in 1960 after he earned his father’s blessing to put up a stand-alone record store in Sacramento, California. The inspiration came to Solomon as he observed how his father’s customers at the latter’s small town drug store called Tower Mart positively responded to their inventory of 45rpm singles. Like the typical naysayers who are wont to put down budding entrepreneurs, most people who came across Solomon’s novel idea dismissed his vision. They warned that he would be out of business in a few months. To everyone’s surprise, fortune smiled at Solomon. Director Colin Hanks deftly explains through a kaleidoscope of archival material how the rise of Tower Records coincided with two parallel pivotal points in the history of rock and roll. One was the evolution of the singles-oriented 45rpm to the album-oriented 33 1/3 rpm albums. The other which complemented the preceding was the phenomenal success of bands like the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. It was in such a setting that the youth of the 60s and those that came in the next three decades repeatedly gravitated to the nearest Tower Records to hang out and compare notes about their rock heroes. It became the perfect “tambayan” where everyone was friends with strangers for 20 minutes because of the music they shared, the proverbial safe haven where kids discovered who they were precisely through music, the irresistable payday destination for yuppies who can finally afford to splurge on their ever-growing record wish list. If you’ve been to Bebop Records in Makati Square or at Grey Market in White Plains you would know what the feeling was like. For that matter, if you’ve grown with the now defunct CD Warehouse in the Greenbelt Mall of the 90s, you would appreciate how every visit at Tower Records was like discovering new frontiers and uncharted territories. And so it was that from its first branch in Sacramento, Tower eventually put up 200 stores in 30 countries and 5 continents. One of those stores happened to be in the old Glorietta which occupied three floors if you count their basement, that is. I can still vividly remember the countless times I visited its branch in Makati. It was pure bliss to say the least. The albums that eluded me for decades were all there, to my surprise. The debut album of Jackson Browne. Check. The live EP by U2. Check. 90125 by Yes. Dad Loves His Work by James Taylor. Check. Suzanne Vega’s sophomore album. Check. Heck, I practically completed the discography of my favorite musicians through Tower Records Manila.
Not surprisingly, even some of our most iconic classic rock figures did not escape the impact of Tower Records on popular culture. In fact, three of them are featured in this docu film. Interestingly, each of them share a unique and distinct experience of how Tower Records became an integral part of their growth as persons and as musicians. The Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl actually worked at Tower in his younger days because, according to him, aside from providing him with unrestricted access to thousands of records, Tower was the only company that allowed him to grow his hair long. Bruce Springsteen made it a point to visit a Tower Records outlet everywhere he performed from the time he was still starting out precisely because it was where musicians literally found raw and unqualified validation and feedback. Elton John was on first name basis with numerous Tower Records personnel because he remembers spending more money on records than on any other human being.
My sister who has made America her home for over two decades now would often get amused by my fascination about New York City. To me, it is the only city in the U.S. worth going to because of my love of live music, records and books. This, notwithstanding my sister’s insistence about how dirty and chaotic NYC really is. You only see the glamorous parts of New York that Hollywood has been bombarding our senses for decades, she would lecture me. You don’t see its alleyways and side streets, its garbage and litter, its bums and muggers. She might as well be talking of the other side of Tower Records. Behind the stacks of thousands of records of your favorite artists and those you’ve never heard before is the lifestyle of excess of the people behind the bins and counters. Cocaine was reflected in their books as “Hand Truck Fuel.” You were allowed to consume as much alcohol as you can on a regular working day but you were expected to show up for your shift on the dot and most of them did to their credit. None of them would fit the bill of the disillusioned yuppie that Jackson Browne sang about in “The Pretender” to be sure. That’s because most of the people who worked at Tower were not your usual corporate types. They were not there for the money. They were there for the love of music and the lifestyle that came with it. Long before Google and Apple made it cool to come to work in casual clothing, Tower Records was already doing it. In fact, the movie successfully captures how anti-corporate its founder was by way of his “traditional” practice of literally cutting in half the ties of those who make the mistake of visiting Solomon’s office in formal wear. The informal and casual wear was, of course, just one aspect to it. To be fair, Tower’s environment of informality bred a lot of creativity from their now legendary window displays to their official store publication. In addition, there was a lot of mentoring that took place between and among peers and seniors. Equally noteworthy is the fact that everybody at Tower Records started out as clerk and worked their way up to management. In the end, however, while there is merit in flying by the seat of your pants when starting a business, there is equal merit in taking a critical stance every now and then so as not to lose sight of the big picture. Alas, the rock and roll lifestyle does not exactly inspire critical thinking all the time. And that, rather than the internet, is what director Colin Hanks underlines as the root cause behind the fall of Tower Records. As its founder Russ Solomon notes with regret, they made the mistake of borrowing extensively to fund their expansion overseas expecting each new store to rival the impressive returns they racked from their most profitable stores like the ones in Japan. They were dead wrong. When the returns they were getting could not keep up with the interest and amortizations they were paying to their creditors, Tower Records eventually went belly up.
Having said that, 46 years is 46 years. In 2006 real tears are shed by the front-liners and the senior management team members who were there since day 1 as they said their goodbyes to the store that literally became their life-long passion project. Their individual and collective experience might as well be akin to losing a loved one. But ever consistent with his rebellious nature, Russ Solomon stuns even the interviewer towards the end of the docu film when he asks: “What’s the matter? Did you run out of questions?” As the movie pans images of Going Out of Business signages, deserted counters and empty record bins, the viewer finds himself drawn to that sinking feeling that all is lost. But just as you start to realize that this must be where the movie finally albeit sadly justifies its title, Hanks trains his cameras on the Far East. It turns out that to this day, Tower Records is very much alive and kicking. In fact, it continues to do well as a business via its 85 store locations in Japan. Its biggest outlet which is found in Shibuya occupies 9 floors. This chain, however, is distinct and separate from the California-based company that filed for bankruptcy in 2006. It is owned and operated by an independent Japanese corporation called TRJ which bought the rights from Solomon in October 2002. Other than that, however, its facade and its interiors are 100% similar to the Tower Records stores that closed their doors in 2006.
And so just as Jackson Browne’s “All Good Things” comes full circle in his post-breakup album entitled I’m Alive by way of the album’s title track, Hanks’ All Things Must Pass ends on a hopeful and optimistic note. Indeed, life goes on. Maybe not in the same way that you envisioned it to be, but life does go on. You can continue to roll on that canyon drive with that laughter in your head. The dreams may be gone, but its tag line and what it represented live on in the minds and hearts of those who set foot in one of the 200 stores that used to be Tower Records: “No music, no life.”
“Yeah now I’m rolling down this canyon drive
With your laughter in my head
I’m gonna have to block it out somehow to survive
Cause those dreams are dead
And I’m alive”