Watching “All Things Must Pass” a great documentary about the rise and fall of Tower Records got me thinking of how much Tower Records was part of my life. I certainly I spent more time browsing the aisles of Amoeba and Rasputin in my 20s and 30s, stores that had a wider selection of The Metal and also sold used CDs for us budget-minded buyers. But Tower was where I first discovered the joy of purchasing music.
My earliest Tower memories were visits to the San Francisco flagship store at Columbus and Jones. It was not far from my grandparent’s house and was familiar territory once I was old enough to free range with friends. Though I bought so many albums (vinyl, cassettes, and finally CDs) there over the years, there are a few stand-out memories. My family was very musically inclined and this soon translated into me making my own musical explorations inspired by the Top 40 station I always plays on my transistor radio. The catchy hooks and chorus of Men at Work’s “Down Under” inspired my first LP purchase. As soon enough the teen hormones started kicking in and I was drawn more to pop bands with cute boys like the “fab 5” of the 80s—Duran Duran (swoon!) I also loved the KTEL compilation records.
Another time when I was a bit older, I went there looking for some AC/DC after hearing about the Night Stalker’s reverence for the band. I already had an obsession with true crime books and now California had a fresh new one doing dirty deeds. I had already shifted my tastes from the heavily made-up British boys to the heavily made-up bad boys of hair metal, Motley Crue. but hadn’t transitioned to non-glam heavy bands. So I wasn’t fully committed to buying the album with “Night Prowler” with their ugly mugs on it. But I did get a 45” with Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap) and the B side, which is now lost in memory).
Musically I was transitioning to the (relatively) harder stuff, but within the familiar well-lit rows of Tower, Crue and Ratt were found under the vast umbrella of ROCK. But i was aware that were other record shops along Polk Street that allowed for more specific definitions and tribal allegiances. My friend L. and I would go to Bay Area Records and Tapes further down Polk Street on the borders where the “Polk Street People” got a little more noticeable and edgy (link to https://crosswalkconfidential.wordpress.com/2016/05/12/polk-and-california/ ) We’d go to the Metal section and flip through the LPs with intriguing and imposing album art work, paying special attention to the bands that I knew were favorites of the new guy in our class (deduced by observing his doodling the logos of Mercyful Fate, Exodus, Possessed, and Venom on his notebooks). The apex of local record store cool was The Record Vault. The store was on the tamer end of the Polk corridor but I felt that my poser status would be outed instantaneously if I ventured in. Eventually I would feel comfortable enough with my associations with local thrash metal and the guys who got me into them to venture into The Vault and make purchases. But it closed before I could forge very many heavy metal memories there.
Tower Records wasn’t just for retail purchases. Back before the online tyranny of Ticketmaster, your only way to secure tickets to a coveted live concert was to wait in line with other human beings at a BASS ticket outlet. I never experienced camping out with eager fans but I know I bought my ticket for my very first show there—Motley Crue at the Cow Palace! Even into the early 2000s this was still the place to get your tickets early (and often!) None of us imagined that one day we’d have the option of carrying around phones not much larger than the tickets we were purchasing and pulling up a virtual copy of a ticket purchased through the Internet for the venue to scan for entry. (Nor could we imagine how much ticket prices would skyrocket over the years!)
Tower was also famous for in-store appearances by a diverse range of artists. I don’t recall ever going to an in-store even though I know Slayer did a book signing there that I probably considered going to (autographs and hurried handshakes just don’t mean that much to me). But I did have a memorable celebrity sighting at the Columbus store when I was in my teens. I was there browsing the ROCK section when I looked up and did a double-take seeing Metallica’s James Hetfield across the aisle. My jaw must have dropped open and I think (hope!) I managed a wave of recognition. He smiled back and gave the “Whassup?” head-nod. Utterly distracted and starstruck, I watched him covertly for a while (noticing he had some female person with him vs. other band members) and then hurried home to share the word about my sighting via my rotary-dial telephone.
In the next Crosswalk Confidential, I’ll return to explore another now-archaic memory of brick-and-mortar meets media…the video store