In All Things Must Pass, It’s Evident That Sacramento’s Greatest Legacy is Tower Records, Not Joan Didion

Sacramento is not known for much. Somehow, it has consistently evaded the hipster boon of other similarly sized towns like Austin and Portland. Sure, in the past, certain elements of its distinctive population managed–miraculously–to bleed into pop culture (e.g. Joan Didion, Molly Ringwald, The Deftones and Cake), but, by and large, Sacramento’s imprint is, at best, inconsequential to the collective consciousness. That is, until Russ Solomon started Tower Records. And, at long last, Colin Hanks of all people has decided to tell the Tower story in All Things Must Pass, a documentary that finally gives the music empire its due.

The film opens melancholically on the empty shelves that once housed endless stacks of CDs and records. It then cuts to Solomon leaving for the airport, a scene that will later come full-circle. Stemming from his father’s, Clayton, own business, Tower Drugs–which was in a prime location on Broadway and sold everything from liquor to cosmetics–Russ began selling used jukebox records out of the back of the store, which led to his realization that he might as well sell new records after buying them in bulk wholesale. Thus, the seed of Tower Records was born, which as the documentary rightly asserts, “put Sacramento on the map.” After a little financial backing and some marketing help with the logo, Solomon expanded to two locations in the Sacramento area. Seven years after it was founded in an official capacity, Solomon–in a fortuitous drunk bender that led him to San Francisco–saw a space for lease there in 1968 that would launch the business into the eventual global enterprise that it became.

When Tower hit the Sunset Strip, it opened the doorway to even greater renown and trust in its reputation as an approachable music store (not featuring employees like Deb in Empire Records) with a staff that knew just about everything about the records they were selling. It also helped that Elton John was a regular client there. Los Angeles, of course, served as a leaping off point for other cities in the nation, and in 1979, Solomon made the bold and unprecedented gamble of opening a Tower in Japan, which had never before accepted an independently owned American business into its fold. The level of expansion only grew to monumental proportions from there. In the documentary, former employee Steve Nikkel drives home the point of just how unlikely it is for a Sacramentan to do “great things”–a.k.a. ever leave the confines of the suburban city–by stating, “Wow, it’s like, I’m sitting in an ex-pat bar at 2:00 in the morning in Taipei, you know, and I’m from Sacramento. How cool is this?” This reference to just how insignificant a resident of the town often feels when he leaves it is important to take note of because, in many ways, Russ Solomon made it semi-okay to tell people you hailed from the capital of California, birthplace of Tower Records.

Unfortunately, as the title of the movie declares, all (good) things must pass. The ultimate reason for the decline of Tower was, as Russ Solomon noted, “We weren’t successful in any of the other countries we went into,” further claiming personal responsibility by adding, “I’m stupid for saying yes to partnerships [in other cities] even though I didn’t totally believe in them.”

And yet, what Solomon did always seem to believe in was the people he hired, starting with down-to-earth Sacramentans who were relieved that their town finally had a place where its youth could hang out, even if that did mean essentially spending a lot of time in a parking lot. Heidi Cotler, who, like many, started out as a clerk and would rise to the rank of VP of Operations, commented, “You know, in Saramento, there weren’t very many places for kids to hang out. There was, like downtown, there was places. But in the north area, there was hardly any north area, so it was, you know, Tower Books and Records were in like this parking lot surrounded by nothing. And for kids in high school, that’s what you did.” Tower’s distinctly Sacramentan origins are also iterated by the company’s financial manager, Bud Martin (who stepped down from the comapny in the 90s, which Solomon also felt contributed to Tower’s downfall), made notorious by drinking too much and “swinging from the chandeliers” at Red Lion, a hotel/bar/restaurant that once epitomized the decidedly lowbrow nature of Sacramento hangouts.

By the end of All Things Must Pass, Tower’s world is shrunk from the global to the mere span of Japan, which kept the business open as a result of its independent management. And so, with the final store closing at the original location in Sacramento, it was written, “All things must pass. Thanks Sacramento.” And what Tower was really thanking its city of origin for was being enough of an entertainment void to embrace something as special and unprecedented as what Solomon created out of thin air for them. More than anything else that has or may come out of Sacramento, Tower possesses a uniqueness that isn’t likely to be usurped–not even by Joan Didion, or the upcoming documentary about her.

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