After the party
There’s no way I can write a detached, impersonal review of director Colin Hanks’ All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, and I’m not even going to try. Watching it put me unavoidably in mind of two things: rooting through the record racks in the cramped back-end of Tower Drugs at 16th and Broadway in the early ’60s; and 20 some years later, watching Colin Hanks, then age 3 or so, throw a tantrum in Disneyland, to the consternation of the rest of our party, including his parents and me. Both the drugstore and the fussy toddler are gone now. All things must indeed pass.
To grow up in Sacramento almost anytime in the last decades of the 20th century was to have Tower Records as a home away from home. From that perspective, the tale Hanks recounts in All Things Must Pass—how Russ Solomon’s used record business in a corner of his dad’s drugstore grew into a billion-dollar business, then collapsed in bankruptcy—looks almost like a sidebar, something happening somewhere else. But Tower on Broadway or Watt—or Sunrise Boulevard or (for a while) Florin Road—that happened to us.
It’s the greatest strength of Hanks’ documentary that he and writer Steven Leckart tap into that nostalgia for the free-and-easy social center Tower Records became. It happened in Sacramento first, but it was much the same when it happened in San Francisco, then Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo and so on. So when Hanks shows Elton John, David Geffen, Bruce Springsteen and Dave Grohl reminiscing about their days shopping or (in Grohl’s case) working at Tower, it both universalizes the experience and humanizes the superstar.
The octogenarian Solomon is the centerpiece of the gaggle of talking heads who share their memories of Tower’s salad days, and of rising (as virtually all of them did) from store clerk to vice president or director of this or that in the corporate hierarchy. It’s remarkable, though hardly surprising, what an ad hoc seat-of-the-pants operation the whole thing was from the start, how closely the corporate personality Solomon fostered mirrored the hang-loose, no-dress-code attitude customers saw and reveled in. One of the most amusing and telling anecdotes Solomon shares recounts how he impetuously decided to expand Tower into San Francisco when he glimpsed a for-lease storefront one morning while badly hung over from a one-night stand with a manicurist whose name he doesn’t even remember.
Other Tower personalities—many of them familiar faces to longtime Sacramento customers, like the sassy Heidi Cotler and the sage Mark Viducich (who looks like Dave Crosby)—attest to the booze-and-drug-festooned party atmosphere at Tower, both on the retail floor and in the back-offices; Cotler hilariously informs us that “hand truck fuel” (read “cocaine”) frequently showed up on store budget sheets—“Hand truck Fuel: $285.”
All Things Must Pass is an intensely bittersweet documentary that plumbs deep wells of nostalgia in those who remember Tower Records in its long yet fleeting heyday, while at the same time it offers compelling testimony to those who don’t, letting them know that they missed one hell of a party. I’ve been thinking for some time that Colin Hanks may in time prove to be an even better actor than his father. Now I suspect that that fractious kid from Disneyland might be the better director too.