Agony Shorthand

Tuesday, February 17, 2004
ELEGY FOR A CORPORATE BEHEMOTH…..Last week major record-store chain TOWER RECORDS filed for bankruptcy, something that had been prophesied for years given the chain’s terrible financial troubles quarter after quarter. I’m a big proponent of evolve-or-die creative destruction when it comes to business – you either figure out what the fickle public wants in a hurry, or you get out of the way. Tower were done in by a combination of nimble competitors like, Wal-Mart, eBay/, and retail locations like the Virgin Megastores and HMV, as well as oft-cited market and technological forces such as CD-Rs, MP3s and the web in general. Still, while I truly shed no real tears for Tower per se, there’s no denying that their stores have actually played a big role in my musical upbringing and sustenance. I haven’t bought a CD there in years, but I do pause to wonder about the ultimate fate of a select few Tower Records locations that at one point or another, actually meant something to me:

Tower Records, Campbell California : Ground zero for my teenage music obsession, along with the Streetlight used record store about a mile away. When I couldn’t get my parents to drive me to this valhalla, I took a complex series of bus routes on a twice-a-month basis to buy the latest “imports”, fanzines and 45s. See, before there was an Amoeba Music, Tower actually staked out the virgin territory of having by far the biggest selection of music and most discerning buyers in corporate chain-dom. Bored kids in the suburbs like me took what we could get, and this was easily the place to be in early 80s San Jose. This was my temple until I discovered the incredible record stores on & near Telegraph Avenue up in Berkeley – there, the still-massive Tower was only the fourth coolest store, after Rasputin’s, Universal and Leopold’s.

Tower Records, Berkeley California : Where I purchased Pere Ubu’s “The Modern Dance”. Other than that, I recall getting thrown a lot of needless ‘tude by store personnel, so I’d usually take refuge in the pizza place next door and marvel at all the records I just bought at Rasputin’s.

Tower Records, Hollywood California : Store itself didn’t mean much to me in my college years, but I do remember getting drunk in the car on the street behind their parking lot at least twice during some pre-show partying. One was the Lazy Cowgirls, almost definitely; and another was a multi-band lineup for a porn star named Kiva’s birthday party, starring Redd Kross, Leaving Trains, L7, Miracle Workers and about five more I can’t remember. What will happen to the 20-year-olds of today when the removal of Tower’s leafy parking lot exposes their underage shenanigans?

Tower Records, corporate offices, Sacramento California : Tower was the main distributor of the fanzine I used to publish – in fact they’d take at least half the print run and fling it all over the world. I’d get mail from England and Japan and even New Jersey thanks to their distribution prowess. They even paid me if I bugged them enough; there was this total character named Doug something-or-other who ran their ‘zine department, who was given to bizarre stream-of-consciousness non-sequiters when I’d call him about an invoice. Swear to god he once sang me a Christmas song over the phone. To save on shipping 1,000 copies to them from San Francisco, I’d just throw them in the back of my car and drive them myself to Tower employee Scott Miller’s house in Sacramento. (Aside: Miller’s been in about 75 Sacramento bands, including some real good ones like the TIKI MEN and LOS HUEVOS).

Tower Records, London England : In 1990 I was able to find at this very store all the THEE MIGHTY CAESARS records that were completely unobtainable in the United States. The exchange rate between the US & UK was so bad on my side at this time that I ended up paying almost $20 a pop for them, but it didn’t matter. This was the year I was caught up in Childish-mania, and no price was too high.

Tower Records, Tokyo Japan : Finally, there’s the “world’s largest record store” – a massive, 7-floor palace of CDs and books with an incredible selection and a ton of listening stations. Great place for the stressed-out gaijin to hang out & read some English-language packaging for an hour, and centrally located right by Shibuya Station. Nearby are another 20-25 record/CD stores worth browsing, making Tokyo about the best destination in the known universe for the music freak. The loss of even this enormo-Tower in a sea of consumer choice probably won’t affect anyone’s life that much, but if it’s still around before Tower goes completely under, I recommend checking it out.