EXCLUSIVE VERITAS VAMPIRUS DVD REVIEW
COLIN HANKS - All Things Must Pass (DVD) (2016 / MVD)
The title is George Harrison’s, the film is Colin Hanks’, but the story is Russ Solomon’s. The legendary Tower Records is the subject. I make no secret of my love for rock docs, especially in an age where what was, rightly or wrongly (mostly the latter), once the bastion of rock and roll journalism, Rolling Stone, is now a combination of Esquire, GQ, Maxim, and People magazine…with a speck or two of non-mega-flog sell-through regarding a CD or a concert when space occasionally needs to be filled here and there…and don’t even get me started on Spin, Sonny Boy Guccione’s crass and fumbling whatever it was. Film is now the medium most reliable and most vital when it comes to getting the inside and outside dope on the history and evolution of the banging, clanging, and noisily haranguing world of rock and roll.
Am I helping put the last nails in the coffin of rock criticism, working myself out of a job? I hope so.
Tower Records was not the alpha and omega of record shops in America, but it was far and away the most the most spectacular single feat in the rise and fall of such brick and mortars, and it’s pretty much assured we’ll never see its like again. Though Hanks never quite makes that evident, he makes it more than clear that the chain’s insane success was due to owner Russ Solomon’s innate sense of socialism – well, insofar as such a wont could ever properly exist in America anyway. No profit-sharing occurred, but the apprenticeship process and meritocratics were there and Solomon’s hands-off mentality when it came to letting the creatives among his workers prevail was the foundation for the yellow and red bannered stores’ wild popularity.
No one has yet, however, stumbled to the fact that the dramatically prolonged history of album sales in America was predicated on the aftermarket, the practice of the once-taboo merch-flogging of used records. New LPs were the rooster in the hen house throughout the 30s, 40s, 50s, and most of the 60s, but when certain mom ‘n pops started popping up, a gaggle of almost-clandestine stores heretically vending pre-owned discs along with the shrink-wrapped variety, that was when rock-shop viability went through the roof. In my area of SoCal, Crane’s Records was hole-in-the-wall Mecca in Inglewood. I lived in Hawthorne, and, before them (Hawthorne eventually got one, but it quickly perished), LPs could be purchased only at Thrifty Drug Store, Hogan’s House of Music (mainly instrument sales), and other businesses where licorice pizzas were stocked no differently from lipstick, frozen chickens, stationery, and galoshes.
Once, however, people could afford to buy more slabs for the same amount of money, the desire to collect became a consuming passion to a degree never before witnessed. I should know: I have 50,000 LPs, CDs, cassettes, reel-to-reels, and, yes, 8-tracks (no longer playable but I’m an irreconcilable fetishist), and every record store owner from Hollywood to Long Beach would smile when I walked through their doors in the late 60s through the 90s. I worked in aerospace, I could afford to buy a lot of records. And I did. So did a whole lot of other drooling slavering fanatics like me. And who, you might ask, could’ve been the seed of all that? It was Solomon’s dad who owned Sacramento's Tower Cut-Rate Drug Store flanking the Tower Theatre whence the record giant cribbed its name.
One day, Solomon senior, an enterprising soul in his own small-town way, hit upon the notion to sell the used 45s from the jukebox to kids nuts about popular music. He couldn’t have been more visionary. Mr. Solomon approached the juke jobber to buy the plastic circles for 3-cents each and sell ‘em for 10. They flew out the door. When the theater went out of biz, Solomon knocked a hole through the wall and started up a record shop. Son Russ, however, had visions of his own and, ‘ere long, went from shop clerk to buying the business from pop. That was how Tower Records began. Not from the multi-millionaires and billionaires who funs such enterprises as 99-cent Store, Dollar Tree, and such, but a father and son who looked beyond the sales of gum and shoes to emerging possibilities. From the moment Russ Solomon took over that adjunct of the family store, he did nothing but well, very well indeed, never making a wrong move…almost.
I guess you could say Russ was a hippie, a skewed and head-scratching example, sure, but the guy was definitely not a Brooks Bros. suit-wearing robo-clone, and he extended his personna, a rather free-wheeling carefree one, to his employees. Tower never for a day had a dress code and always hired knowledgeable people, individuals who loved music and knew much about it. In the capitalism's typical exploitationalist wont, they were underpaid but loved their jobs, and All Things Must Pass is told exclusively orally, first from the people who manned and ran it, and then from Elton John, Bruce Springsteeen, and celebs who loved the joint. Voiceovers are absent.
One day, Bud Martin waltzed in and never left, the partner Solomon hadn’t even known he’d been looking for, a true businessman, a hidebound conservative (well, Republican anyway; the U.S. has almost never had true conservatives aside from David Cay Johnston and a handful of others) and the guy who likely could’ve saved the colossal chain but didn’t (he, heh!, was forced out for being too sensible [and kind of an asshole]). Martin was schooled, Solomon wasn’t, but the combination of book savvy and street smarts worked to greatly benefit both. ‘Ere long, Tower, which had been a West Coast phenomenon, went East, to New York and elsewhere, and then further, to Japan. Wherever the migrant bird landed, it never failed to do well. It was pretty damned incredible.
Russ Solomon had the Midas Touch, and Bud Martin was his conscience - albeit, gain: a typical Republican (All Things more than hints at his hiring women he could screw, being an dipdhit drunk, and etc.) - but, along the way, Solomon encouraged employee input, listened to it, and then acted upon it. Everyone started at the bottom in his chain so that all knew intimately what was going on at all points, and it’s surprising to discover that his people succeeded to ever higher positions because Russ often forced them into better jobs in order to benefit one and all - himself most of all, of course. Marx would’ve embraced this guy as a fellow spirit. Solomon, without even knowing it, was using the apprenticeship system and profitting wildly…because that’s the most optimal business mode available to human beings, despite all the psycho bullshit capitalists blather on about. The guy was acquiring huge capital (at one point, Tower earned a billion dollars in a year) by being socialistic. Bernie Sanders, not Bud Martin, shoulda been his partner.
But Solomon fucked up when he ignored Martin’s and others' advice not to overreach. Instead, he delved into Latin America and elsewhere, and the meltdown began. He was over-leveraged in debt, and the banks came sailing in. Ragnarok was knocking at the door. Many co-factors are considered – the advent of CDs and such – and David Geffen makes a VERY cogent observation, one I’ve been yodeling about since my days at E/I, Progression, and OpEdNews.com: “They should have made records cheaper”. Absolutely! Because the cheap-ass electronic distribution of music is now killing everyone. Few foresaw that; all they cognized was cost reduction. CDs engulfed the market, Napster arose, and the game was afoot.
In ’98, Solomon had an 8-way heart bypass (!!!), and son Michael became CEO. That was a huge mistake as well. Throughout the film, Mikey comes off as a boggle-eyed naïf lacking the essential ingredient: unlike everyone else, he started at the top, not the bottom. He was a trained lawyer but not terribly impressive in the film, not coming off as all that intelligent, apparently a by-the-book kinda gent, very unlike his dad, but, really, the demise of Tower was not his but rather a concatenation of events, as is usually the case in all businesses.
A buddy of mine worked at Tower Sacto, was a book-keeper there, and he remarked more than once, a couple years before the crash, that something fishy was going on but that he couldn’t determine what it was. None of that is mentioned in All Things nor, curiously, were any customers ever filmed, people who could have enthusiastically attested to the popularity of the chain. As other crits have noted, this film is a tribute, not a journalistic inquiry, so let me end out with a personal anecdote.
In my mid-teens, I became a devoted record collector, and, one day, while sweeping the floors at my job at a used book store run by a miserably failed opera singer, I heard Barclay James Harvest’s “Dark Now my Skies” over the radio (I’d talked the bastard into allowing an hour or so of rock over the shop radio rather than non-stop Puccini, Verdi, Rossini, Wagner, etc.). Already a huge Moody Blues fan, I was transfixed by the cut, had to have it, but no one carried it or would order the LP except for Tower Sunset, which, when I called, informed me it had multiple copies…except…the store was 17 miles away! I had no car, and this was before me and my buds used to haunt the Whiskey a Go Go just down the street from TR. What to do, what to do? I had to have that LP!!!!!
Finally, I could stand it no more and one night, putting my cross country and track athletics to good use finally, hopped on my 10-speed, taking La Brea Avenue in the late evening - Tower was open until midnight - arrived at Hollywood shop, bought the LP, and biked back home. Now, I hafta look at that as crazy: I had no repair kit, no money for a taxi should a tire go flat, and the ride was a bear amidst traffic, hills (Stocker Hill is a pain in the ass both ways), and South Central, but Tower was THE place when you couldn’t find what you wanted anywhere else, and that’s where I went. I was crazed, I’d traversed territory Dante might’ve included in his trilogy, all for the sake of just one LP, but, when I got home and threw on the disc, I blissed out. To quote Goethe, collectors are happy people; a little soft in the head but happy.
At its height, the chain boasted 182 locations and money was pouring in, but we know the way of all flesh, and, like every empire known to man, the magnificent experiment rose and fell. There are presently 85 Tower stores in Japan but, in America, no replacement venue even close to that (FYE fucked up royally – though, um, I made good use of it while it was around - and I don’t count shitholes like Sam Goody’s multi-hundred site mega-octopus corporate labyrinth at all, ever; I never bought a single record from SG and never will [it’s all but dead anyway]). In California, the Amoeba chain of 3 stores - San Fran, L.A., and Berkeley - wised up and sells huge quantities of both new and used records, CDs, videos, and other merch from gigantic paradisical locations, but it will never expand like Tower. It’s impossible any more. Ah well.
Though I may seem to have herein encapsulated the DVD, I haven’t. Much of what I’ve written is commentary, and the film is a very well made fascinating chronicle of what one rebellious indomitable character could do in America in a certain era. The virtue of the film medium is that it can convey one hell of a lot more than a simple written review could ever muster. It’d take a very long essay to convey all the elements of All Things Must Pass, maybe a small book, and even that wouldn’t replace seeing the film footage, the interviews, the juxtapositions of events, and so on. This doc is a must for record collectors and for aficionados of the whole panoply of various histories in rock and roll, not to mention the value of presenting an alternate business model that succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. Would, o Gawd Almighty!, that someone would come along and follow in Russ’ footsteps.
Oh, and to show the kind of enthusiasm people have for projects like this, 1,686 contributors Kickstarted All Things into existence, trusting implicitly in Hanks’ work. That’s amazing and yet another socialistic business model that should be more widely covered in our society…but that’s another topic altogether, and my meta-anarchist keister is already in enough trouble with too many candyassed so-called "Left" organizations (the Pacifica radio chain, OpEdNews.com, etc.) to breach it today.
RELATED LINKS OF INTEREST:
Official Website for ALL Things Must Pass.
Good Bad Flicks Video Review for the Film.