Tower Records’ Fallen Empire

Published October 16, 2015

 

“No music, no life” was the motto of Tower Records, the now defunct, beloved chain of music retail stores. Since the opening of the first store in Sacramento, California in 1960 through the closing of the last U.S. location in 2006, the aisles of Tower stores served as a home for music fanatics and musicians alike. They were filled with hand drawn band signs, an extensive music inventory, and knowledgeable, passionate employees at hand to recommend a record you’d love (or give you a snobbish, albeit frank opinion of one you shouldn’t). As “The Boss,” and former Tower customer Bruce Springsteen tells it, “It’s that place where your dreams meet the listener.”

That story, and spirit, is the subject of actor Colin Hanks‘ directorial feature debut All Things Must Pass. Hanks, who recently played Gus Grimly in the Coen brothers-inspired FX miniseries series Fargo, shares his birthplace of Sacramento, California with Tower. Since beginning research for the film in 2007, he’s had two children, simultaneously starting a family of his own and joining another: the motley crew of Tower Records. Starting with the knowledge that in 1999 Tower earned one billion dollars in sales and a mere five years later, it filed for bankruptcy, Hanks tracks the experiences of Russ Solomon, Tower Records patriarch and founder, and his band of loyal employees. From Tower’s thriving domestic expansion in the ’60s and ’70s—set to the seminal sounds of The Beatles, Marvin Gaye, David Bowie, and The Velvet Underground—to successful and failed international ventures in later years, Tower witnessed its own influence on musical history and, ultimately, its own downfall. The stores offered social space where one could discover their favorite album, all the while trying to evolve alongside the constant change of the music industry, shifting from vinyl to cassettes and CDs, and then, MP3s.

As someone who shopped at Tower himself and a music aficionado in his own right, Hanks is just the director to communicate this story. Earlier this week he called us from Los Angeles to talk about directing, music, and the family behind Tower Records.

HALEY WEISS: When did you first become interested in the story behind Tower Records?

COLIN HANKS: I was having a conversation with an old family friend of mine when the stores were closing in ’06 and we were talking about what a bummer it was that Tower was closing. We’re both from Sacramento, and there’s an incredible amount of civic pride in the fact that Tower was from Sacramento and based there throughout its entire run. And at the end of the conversation she said in passing, “You know, I can’t believe it all started in that little drugstore.” I had no idea what she was talking about; I didn’t know anything about the history of Tower. I just knew it was a place that I loved, a place where I spent a lot of money, and my godmother had worked there before I was born. That was as close to a light bulb moment as I’ve ever had, where I just went, “Well, that’s a documentary.” If that guy started in that classic soda fountain Americana drugstore, “let’s go get a phosphate,” if it starts there and ends in bankruptcy in 2006, having to close 192 stores around the world, there’s got to be something there. I spent the better part of the next year going over stuff and getting the history and the A-team, the rudimentary team, together, and that was when we then started in earnest, in 2008.

WEISS: Did it surprise you to learn that it was such a family and friends operation?

HANKS: Absolutely. I had remembered hearing a story about my godmother who had worked there, in which she had been working at Tower in San Francisco for a long time and she had gotten into a horrible accident, which required her to be in the hospital for a long time. Tower was one of the few places that actually had health insurance for their employees, but she needed to be employed in order for the insurance to keep going. So, I heard that someone had said, “Bring Marni the dividers, and give her a pen, and she’ll write down all the band names and we’ll reorganize the racks.” And she did that, from her hospital bed. That kind of dedication to not only your fellow co-worker but just to an employee, I thought was really pretty incredible. And the more that I learned about the company, and after talking with Russ [Solomon] and him being adamant that we speak to these other people that really helped make Tower what it was—he was very adamant it was not himself, he’s a very humble guy in that regard—the more we realized just how much a true family that place ended up becoming. That’s when I knew that there was a documentary in there and the story had to be told.

WEISS: Other than the connection through your godmother Marni, do you have strong memories of going and shopping at Tower Records?

HANKS: Oh, yeah, I remember I bought what is arguably the most important record in my young music fanatic life, which was Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik. I specifically remember buying that record. It was a longbox CD, and at that time, most people would rip the longboxes up and throw them away and just take the jewel case, but I would take the longbox home, take the shrink wrap off, and then use an X-Acto knife to cut off all of the edges, and then I’d use the cover of the longbox as a poster. And so I had the Pearl Jam one, and I had the Primus one—actually, I brought the Primus record and the Chili Pepper record on the same day—and the Chili Pepper record, the photograph that Gus Van Sant took and made some artwork with it, that’s actually a square image, and so on the longbox they just duplicated two images, because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to get all four of their faces to fit. And so I said, “Oh, great, this is a twofer.” So then I bisected the longbox and had two posters instead of one, and by posters I mean CD sized pictures.

WEISS: That’s very creative. Has music always played an important role in your life?

HANKS: Yes, very much so. Once I got to my teenage years, where you lock yourself into your room and you’re listening to music because, [in a spaced out, hippie voice] “They really understand what it’s like, man.” I was very much into that. Music was always a way for me to identify with other people, and to find my own identity. My teenage years were the early ’90s where there was this whole music revolution where the hair bands were kicked out and other artists came in, but my own music tastes started to evolve even before that. I remember I had the first Beastie Boys tape, Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell, and getting into Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, and also a couple of hand-me-downs from my parents, between Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, David Bowie, and The Police, music was always very prominent growing up.

WEISS: In the film you speak to a lot of musicians who loved Tower Records, like Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, and Dave Grohl. How did you discover that they all had that connection?

HANKS: Well, I had been told very, very early on by Stan Goman, [an early Tower Records employee who later became the company’s COO], about the story with Elton John coming in and them opening up the shop early, and in my research I found a quote in which Elton had said, “You must understand that if I had to do it all over again, the job that I would plug for the most would be at Tower Records.” So I knew that he was a big fan, and I knew that if I was going to make the definitive Tower Records documentary that Elton was going to have to be involved.

Dave Grohl, I still can’t believe I can say this, but we actually had mutual friends and I had met him on numerous occasions. Dave and I had basically communicated through a friend about the fact that I was making this documentary, and he was excited because he used to work at Tower, and so I said, “Oh, that would be great,” because then not only am I talking to Dave Grohl—and this was before he had made any of his documentaries—so not only can I have Dave Grohl in the documentary, who is one of my favorite musicians, and a really good talker, but he can also talk about what it’s like to be an employee. And Bruce, look, he’s Bruce! [laughs] He is our music historian, you just want to sit down and listen to every tale he has, everything he has to say.

WEISS: When did the story behind the film’s title, All Things Must Pass, come to light? The phrase seems emblematic of the story as a whole. 

HANKS: It is, and that is in some ways by design, and in some ways a happy accident. When I was coming up with the concept in my mind and talking about it with people, someone asked me, “What’s the theme of the movie?” And I said, “I don’t know, I don’t know if I have a theme yet.” And they said, “Well, you’re probably going to need a theme.” I had gone up to Sacramento on that initial visit to talk with Russ Solomon and ask him if he’d let us make this movie, and on a lark I went and drove by the old Watt and El Camino store, where I had spent a lot of time growing up. I was really shocked to find out that the sign was still up and all of the old racks and everything you see in the movie were all still there. And that former employee had left that sign up [from the day the store closed] that said, “All things must pass.” Now, it’s important to remember that in Los Angeles, an employee had put up, “It’s the end of the world as we know it,” but left off the part where they say, “and I feel fine.” But, “All thing must pass,” the fact that it was an employee—all I know is his name was Dale, I don’t know his last name—but the fact that that came from an employee, it seemed to sum up perfectly the sort of era in music and Tower, and the fact that all things must pass, all things must come around. It was just too perfect, and so at that point I went, “That’s the title. That’s got to be it.”

WEISS: Have you always been interested in directing or is it more that this project came along and it felt right?

HANKS: It’s more that this project came along. If I really was interested in directing, I probably would’ve tried to direct a narrative short first, I wouldn’t have just gone straight to, “Oh, let’s do a feature documentary!” [laughs] So many actors that I came up with were also writers, and would spend their down time writing sketch, TV shows, movie ideas, whatever, but I never really had that discipline, and so I very much needed some sort of creative outlet. And when Tower and this idea came along, I said, “I’m going to try that.”

WEISS: Do you think your work as an actor has informed your style of directing?

HANKS: No, but now that I’ve directed, it definitely informs my acting. I’m much more aware of all of the pieces needing to work together at the same time, I’m much more aware of the amount of work and effort that goes into it before you’re even rolling, the amount of conversations that need to happen, the best way to convey thoughts and ideas, and to collaborate. I’m much more aware of all the little baby miracles that need to happen in order for you to be able to be there on the day and be able to say, “Hey, that was a pretty good take, let’s try it again.”

WEISS: Are you interested in directing a narrative at some point?

HANKS: Absolutely, I would love to be able to get behind the camera and direct actors. I think that would be a lot of fun, but I’ve also really enjoyed making documentaries. In the time since we started this process, me and my producing partner Sean Stuart, I directed a 30 for 30 short for ESPN, I produced a few as well, along with some other things. I’m still not done on the documentary stuff, I think that’s something I’ll always have an idea for in the back of my head, and I look forward to the next time because I know a whole lot more about how to do it now.

ALL THINGS MUST PASS: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOWER RECORDS IS OUT TODAY, OCTOBER 16.