News of Tower Records’ demise will likely be met with a shrug of indifference by the web-savvy or pangs of fear and despair by the luddites and elderly. Surely it says something about the state of the music industry that this chain—which, by the way, only had 89 stores nationwide!—couldn’t stay afloat, piracy and iTunes and yadda yadda yadda. But I’ll let some newspaper rehash that in their business section.
The fact is, I haven’t really been in a Tower Records in about twelve years. Sure, there’s always been one nearby—three blocks from my house when I was in college in Arizona, but then again there was a Zia and an Eastside Records right next door; three blocks from my office when I lived in New York, but then again their was Other Music right across the street; and practically across the street from me here in Los Angeles, but then again I’ll happily drive a mile or two to Amoeba down Hollywood way. For more than a decade, for me, there’s always been somewhere better to go for music, and I’m not even accounting for the internet. So yes, I’ve popped in every once in a while, but I haven’t enjoyed being in a Tower since I was a teenager. Even this week, I went to my local Tower to see if I could score a going-out-of-business deal, and their “huge sale” provided perfect fodder for why this chain has gone up in flames. “Going Out of Business!! Everything Must Go!! Everything in the store is 10% Off!!”
10%? Really? You’re liquidating your assets and you still can’t compete with Amazon’s standard discount, or Amoeba’s non-sale prices? You mean I get that $18.99 CD for $17.09? Score!
So of course I’m tempted to say good riddance to Tower. Yet I’m sad to see it go. Arguably, there is no store that will ever be closer to my heart—or my inner teenager's heart, at least. Because before Phoenix, before New York, before Los Angeles, I lived in a smaller town. The kind of town that bands rarely stopped in while touring, that had almost no underground music scene of its own worth speaking of, and that briefly had but couldn’t support an indie record store. The best we had was Tower Records. Not only that, but as teenagers looking for something, anything to do, there wasn’t a whole lot. There was no nearby coffeeshops (that trend was only just beginning to catch on), the movies were too expensive, cruising was silly, and we were too old for the arcades. Again, the best we had was Tower Records. Many a Friday night my friends and I would pull up to Tower and spend a few hours reading the magazines, browsing the racks, or finding a video to rent.
Today it feels like the last place a teenager would go for musical awakenings—hell, even Virgin has all those listening stations—but in the early/mid-90s, that’s just where I went. It really wasn’t so long ago, but it was still the dawn of the popular internet; if you wanted to connect with other people, you had to telnet to newsgroups that started with “alt-dot.” Curious, no? Prehistoric, even.
For the better part of my high school years, I was a metalhead. Somewhere around my junior year my friends and I felt ourselves growing out of it but unsure of where to go. Most of my friends didn’t have older brothers to point the way, and my older brother was no use—he was listening to Zeppelin and Floyd, for godssakes! We had little to go on, but all those nights spent rifling through the racks at Tower gave us our first nudge. Tower had a policy where if you didn’t like something, you could return it. We were liberated! We would go through the racks and buy anything that had a remotely intriguing cover. That led to a lot of disappointments but also the occasional jewel. I found Low that way, for instance. Don’t know why, but I responded to the cover of I Could Live in Hope. It turned out to be about as unmetal as you could get.
Another friend of mine—who I’m sure will comment on this post—had one leg up on the rest of us: he knew about Fugazi. I remember one night the whole gang of us went into that Tower on a mission: we knew Fugazi was awesome; they were on Dischord records; ergo, we spent hours ransacking that store in search of anything on Dischord. At the end of the night we didn’t know what to expect, but we walked out of Tower with discs by Gray Matter and Nation of Ulysses. The former was crap, but NoU? Revolutionary. The back cover of 13-Point Program to Destroy America showed a guy grafting off his own fingerprints, and the brilliant sax-driven punk, with its candy-as-metaphor-for-revolution lyrics, was astounding. We employed similar methods of discovery from then on. I would read the thank-you lists on all my records and go find albums by the bands mentioned. That same Fugazi-friend sought out Flipper, just because he saw Kurt Cobain wearing the t-shirt. If it weren’t Tower’s policy, we never could have taken so many shots in the dark.
Another night I stood alone at the newsstand, reading the latest issue of Alternative Press—their record reviews had become my guiding light, believe it or not. This issue reviewed an album called The White Birch by a band called Codeine. Never heard of ‘em, but they were on the same label as Nirvana’s first album so they had points in their favor. I could barely understand the review, since it referenced obscure curiosities like Slint, Seam, and the Red House Painters as touchstones for Codeine’s sounds. It might as well have been written in Finnish. All I could glean was that they were quiet, and then they’d get really loud. Simple enough formula, I thought, might work. So I put the mag down and looked for Codeine in the bins. They didn’t have it, alas, so I looked for those other bands. I came home that night with a strange little record called Spiderland. I don’t think I could name one other album that diverted my musical path so resolutely. Meanwhile my friends were flipping out over Rocket from the Crypt (and Nirvana and the Beastie Boys, but that's slightly beside the point)—I mean, to an almost unhealthy degree. They’d sit me down and say “dude, you have to check this out! Circa Now! is mindblowing!” “Cool, yeah, whatever,” I’d say. “Have you heard this song 'Don, a Man?' It’s all downstrokes!”
Thanks to Tower Records, we were well on the way to indie rock snobbery— something that, as far as we knew, was unheard of in our town. The metal purge had begun. Another friend devised the ultimate transformation. He went to Tower one night and bought Slayer’s Seasons in the Abyss. We were perplexed, since he already owned it and we had determined by quorem that the album was now shit. The next night he returned to Tower with his old, beat-up and scratched-to-hell copy of Seasons. “I didn’t like it,” he told the clerk, yesterday's receipt in hand. The clerk threw the disc in the returns basket behind the counter without a thought and told him to go ahead and find something else. He came out of the store with Drive Like Jehu’s Yank Crime (“Dude, I heard John Reis from Rocket is in this band!”). Three days later he was back with the unopened, brand-new Slayer disc, but no receipt. “I got this for my birthday but I already have it; can I exchange it?” “Sure thing,” said the clerk behind the counter. And he was out the door with Goat, by the Jesus Lizard ("The guy that produced In Utero did this album too!").
He did this steadily over the course of a year with his entire CD collection, and he never got caught. We all marveled at his devious tenacity. Meanwhile we sold our shit to the Wherehouse down the street for $4 each, then would come up to Tower for something new if we scrounged enough cash. We were jealous of his two-to-one exchanges but we didn't have the balls to try it ourselves. To cap it off, he applied for a job at Tower and was hired.
As Tower is no more, a part of me can’t help but feel it’s the end of an era. But the fact is that within a year of those first musical epiphanies I was off to another city for college, one with multiple indie record stores with knowledgeable staff and much more in-depth stock (found that Codeine album, finally). The end of the Tower era, for me, was somewhere around mid-1995.
I do wonder if kids today (yes, I’m 93—living "pre-internet" automatically qualifies me as elderly) could ever really experience music for the first time in the same way. The answer, probably, is no—even in a city like Los Angeles where digging around in Amoeba would surely yield even better results. But who’s to say discovering the Arcade Fire on an mp3 blog is no less life-changing for the kid growing up in Lexington, Nebraska, as my stumbling across Slint in Fresno, California? Not me. Tower is dead, but the kids are all right.