Sex, Drugs, and (Selling) Rock and Roll: Tower Records Founder Russ Solomon Has No Regrets

'All Things Must Pass,' Colin Hanks's documentary about the rise and fall of Tower Records, hits theaters this weekend.

Tower Records founder Russ Solomon hangs out at Tower's Broadway location in New York in 1987. All photos courtesy of Gravitas Ventures/All Things Must Pass.

"It was a lost boys club. If you didn't know where to go in town, the first thing you did was go to Tower Records," Bruce Springsteen recalls in All Things Must Pass, the new Colin Hanks-directed documentary about the rise and fall of the music, video and book retail giant.

The sentiment will resonate with just about anyone who has stepped foot in one of Tower's stores in the pre-digital music era. For much of the half-century it operated, Tower offered music lovers more than stuff—its locations doubled as havens for misfits and musicians in search of the latest imports, lax dress codes, and, when you got down to it, someone else who got (often better than you did) what you were talking about.

“I can say, without exaggeration, that I spent more money at Tower than any other human being,” Elton John says in the film. The documentary includes several high-profile interviews, but its true stars are Tower's family of longtime former employees. Its patriarch, founder Russ Solomon, opened Tower Records in Sacramento in 1960 after taking over his father's Tower Cut Rate Drug Store, where he'd been selling used jukebox records since he was 16.

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Together, they tell Tower’s story with remarkable candor, from its initial expansion to San Francisco to the salacious Sunset Strip party days (one ex-employee recalls listing “hand truck fuel,” a.k.a. cocaine, on expense reports) to a decline far more complex than the advent of Napster. In 1999, Tower was valued at $1 billion. In 2006, it filed for bankruptcy.

Beneath the nostalgia and rock and roll lore, All Things Must Pass is, at its core, a cautionary tale about the industry's collapse, striking a judicious balance of celebration and dispassion that honors its title well.

We spoke by phone with Solomon, 89, from his home in Sacramento to discuss making the film, his reflections on the industry, and that one time they had to hide Michael Jackson in the back room.

NOISEY: How did the project come to be? Were you approached about it or had you been interested in making a film?
Russ Solomon: Colin, who had grown up here in Sacramento with the store, had gotten the idea originally that he wanted to make a movie [about Tower]. So they asked me to go to a meeting, and I told them they were nuts. What a ridiculous idea, who would care about such things? Why waste the money? After talking to them for about four hours, well, they convinced me to go along with it. It only took ’em seven years to do it, but they did it.

What was the biggest challenge of doing the film? Was it tough to look back on what is a pretty complicated legacy?
It was a lot of fun, actually. You sit around, have a cocktail and tell old stories. I enjoyed my part of it and they managed to get a lot of other people too, who added a lot of color. I’m just telling the story of my life, in a way. I’m not a very serious guy...[the real challenge] was that they had to figure out how to do a documentary and cram 68 years, believe it or not, into 90 minutes. Which is a neat trick. But they managed to do it. They made a story out of it. And it think it picks up the spirit of what we were all about, and that’s the important thing anyhow.

Tower's original Sacramento location in 1964

One thing that stands out from the film, that many people might not realize, is that back in 1960 when Tower launched, there wasn’t really a precedent for comprehensive, dedicated record stores like Tower. What was the landscape for record stores and access to music like then?
Well, let’s go back earlier. Let’s go back to 1941, when I really started selling records as a kid. The landscape at that point in time, just before the war, records were bought in music stores and occasionally department stores, and that was it. It was kind of, you might even say, an uppity business. It was supposed to be a little on the precious side...Music stores were pretty dull places, to be honest with you. Some focused on classical music during the 40s, 50s, and 60s, and didn’t pay much attention to pop. There were some music stores that were more general, but they didn’t really represent the entire oeuvre of the different kinds of music.

And then the war came along and the big bands kept going, and then after the war, the kids stopped dancing. Nobody danced for about a year. Then all of a sudden the music changed, from the old swing big band era to a whole new kind of music, which then grew up through the years and came to 1960. It still was kind of the same until the middle of the 60s, when all of a sudden everything changed [again] and the whole thing just got marvelous, to say the least. The Summer of Love in 1967 was so important to us. The energy that was coming out of places like San Francisco and Los Angeles.

You don’t seem like a guy who asks “what if” very often, but if things hadn’t gone the way they did and Tower was still around today, what did you envision for the company? How would it have adapted to today’s musical environment if it was still around?
[Laughs] That’s a very good question. I wonder if there’s an answer. In Japan, Tower is still rolling strong in the sale of physical records. It’s the only country in the world that has about 80 percent physical sales versus 20 percent streaming or downloading. I think we would’ve evolved into something different, but not giving up the music part of the business. Early on in that period, we started to sell downloads—rather badly, I might add—and we were online, believe or not, selling records before Amazon.

So I think had we had the time to let it evolve, maybe getting into different products, concentrating [on the] different music specialities of different cities. We would’ve probably drifted into the used record business too. We never did that. And when loss-leader places like Best Buy came in and priced them so low just to get people in the store, the only guys who could compete were the used record business. It’s hard to say when you didn’t do it, but you can imagine. Who knows? It’s not important, it’s just speculation.

It's a little ironic, because now you have this resurgence of vinyl and even cassette tapes that are becoming popular with a new generation.
Well, that’s an interesting thing. It’s something I’d thought about all along, because a great deal of our record sales in the Tower days was [to] the collectors. Everybody, I think, collects something. When you’re a kid, you collect matchbook covers, or whatever. Some people collect books, some people collect artifacts. When the CD began to fall away, the music collectors didn’t have anything to collect. So they then sort of invented the idea that vinyl records sounded better, give a warmer feel, all that stuff. Which was kind of imaginary, in a way. But it did give them a big cover, big liner notes, and something beautiful to collect. And that’s what’s happening now. Unfortunately, the record industry does not get out there and really support it.

Tower's staff at the opening of the Stockton store in 1974

Part of the film focuses on Tower's relationships with musicians, like Elton John's shopping trips and John Lennon's bizarre promo spot for the Sunset store. Is there a memory or interaction with one of them that captures that for you?
There's one that I always liked: Bette Midler came in one day and moved her stack of records from the "Vocal" section to the "Rock and Roll" section. I always kind of loved that, that everybody had a sense of ownership of what should be. And we certainly didn't mind.

Can you talk a little more about that "lost boys club" spirit Bruce mentions? Was that something you guys intentionally cultivated?
No, it was just natural. It was just the way the kids behind the counters were. All our employees were involved in music in one way or another. When Bruce said that, it just sort of simply gave truth to the path of probably every musician. Where else are they gonna go, really? To be in a music environment that isn't there own, and to be able to talk to people in an honest way with people who love different kinds of music and find out from those people what's going on and what's new. I think a lot of people enjoyed that.

And then people like Michael Jackson, as an interesting case in point, because he was so famous, we'd open up early in the morning for him so he could shop—he liked to shop—and he really wanted to see what was happening in a record store. They used to hide him in back room so he could peek out and see what normal people are doing. A number of those kinds of marvelous little bits probably took place.

Tower Records' Sunset Strip location in 1992

Everything about Tower seems a little counterintuitive to the way someone was expected to run a business in the early 60s. You didn't have a dress code, you were inviting people to come work literally off the streets and then allowing them to rise in the ranks. Why did you choose to operate that way to begin with?
Nobody thought about it as "let's do it this way." We didn't force style. We lived the styles as they ocurred. Dress styles, language styles, words and music. I didn't want anybody else to tell me how to live, why should I tell someone else how to live, or act, or dress? Come on...It was the most natural thing in the world that the people behind the counter should look like the people who are on the other side buying. We did have one rule though: You had to wear shoes. They didn't pay any attention to that, anyway, so that was the end of that rule.

If a new manager was starting from another store—all of them came from our other stores—we'd say, ok this is your store. Here's a general idea of where to put things, but if you think something ought to be different, do it. And then you try to pipe that down. We told the kids behind the counters to take ownership of their departments. At the end, when that evolved—because of the financial purses and banks coming in and micromanging—into people other than the rest of gang managing it, it changed. The morale sort of went out of it. People, when you leave 'em alone and put them in charge of something, however small, gives them a sense of pride in what they're doing.

Solomon at the opening of Tower's New York location in 1981

For a long time, local record stores like Tower served as these kind of microcommunities. There was a club-like feel, and they were very much tastemakers and influencers, too. Do you think there's an equivalent of that today? What do you think serves the same role?
That's a good question. I don't know. There's a handful of indepedent record stores and little independent chains—Amoeba, Waterloo Records in Austin and Criminal Records in Atlanta come to mind—[where] I think that idea prevails. That can happen easily in an indepenent shop because you don't have some management office in another city telling you exactly what to do. The people who run those stores still really care about music. So it still exists, it's just not quite as evident as when we were around.

One of the critiques of Tower is that, towards the end of its run, as it expanded and became more corporate, it became part of the machine that overshadowed and pushed out some of the smaller independent stores.
Well, I don't know—it depends on what you call a "smaller" record store. If they were a good, solid used record store, we couldn't touch 'em. The bigger and better operators are always gonna push out smaller stores who don't do things as well. It isn't that somebody is putting somebody out of business. If you operate a company with something that appeals to the public, and another guy is operating a company that doesn't have the same appeal, or selection, or all the other elements that it make it, they're going to fail.

Now what happened to us is, when the banks came in and took over the management completely, they took all that heart out of the business. In other words, they not only fired a bunch of people who were seminal to the operation, but they also began to standardize and rigidize and computerize and all those kinds of things. It lost that... thing, whatever it was, that we had. If anybody hurt us, in terms of our having someone compete against us, it was somebody like Best Buy or some of these guys who used records and music as a strictly loss-leader to draw people in to buy the electronics they were selling. So, you know, it's just part of the world. Somebody's gonna come along with a better or different idea and affect the rest of the people who are doing it.

Is there anything you would've done differently? Do you have any words of advice based on your experience?
I have no regrets. Hang in there. One thing is true: Music isn't going to go away. And it's still one of the greatest passtimes anybody can have. There's no doubt it's a very important part of our culture, our lives. While the way we get it is changing, the music is still there. You have to search a little more for it, because Taylor Swift is not the whole world. I don't mean that in any kind of snarky way, but there's so much other musical culture that goes around and small bands that nobody ever heard of and coming up with new sounds that nobody gets a chance to see very much because it's difficult to distribute them. But it's out there. So that gives me faith.

All Things Must Pass hits theaters October 16. For more information and screening locations, visit the film's website.

Andrea Domanick spent her teens loitering at Tower Records. Follow her on Twitter.