A Long, Strange Trip

With All Things Must Pass, his documentary chronicling the epic rise and fall of Tower Records, actor-director Colin Hanks brings the story of his hometown’s most famous, freewheeling brand to life on the big screen.

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Russ Solomon sold his first record out of his father’s drugstore on the ground floor of the Tower Theatre complex, pictured here in 1965. (Photo courtesy of Sean Stuart)

Solomon’s modesty about Tower Records goes back to the business’ origins as little more than a corner of his father Clayton Solomon’s drugstore on the ground floor of Sacramento’s Tower Theatre complex. The documentary unpacks some of the popular mythology around this period: As a teenager who would cut class at McClatchy High School to work at the drugstore (“I wasn’t hanging around the streets like a truant,” Solomon says. “The truant department was upset about the whole thing, but they couldn’t get too mad at me”), young Russ managed but didn’t quite launch the store’s record operation. As he witnessed his peers’ demand for buying and trading new 45 RPM singles, the existence of a larger music market in Sacramento took greater shape in his imagination. Clayton essentially spun the record section off to his son as a standalone enterprise inside the store, and overnight, with no entrepreneurial background or plan, Russ Solomon became the owner of a record-selling business he called Tower Record Mart. The enterprise closed briefly in 1960, when Solomon’s side business as a record wholesaler capsized. After borrowing $5,000 from his father to reopen a few days later, Russ Solomon and Tower were practically bulletproof. He opened an annex in Country Club Lanes in the fall of 1960, whose success gave way to Tower Records’ first official store just a few doors down Watt Avenue in 1961.

Hanks had been a fan of Tower since the days when he would buy cassette singles, his first round of CDs, and concert tickets at the empire’s outpost on 16th Street and Broadway as a kid. (“Tom Petty, Full Moon Fever tour,” Hanks says. “March 5, 1990. Lenny Kravitz opened up. That much I remember.”) Later, while attending college in Southern California, he applied for jobs at Tower stores in Santa Monica and Marina Del Rey. “I filled out my application and they said, ‘OK, thanks,’ ” he recalls. “And I saw them put it on a stack of applications.” He never heard back.

But Hanks hadn’t known about Russ Solomon’s mid-century Sacramento gambit until 2006. At the time, Hanks was living in New York City. On a walk one evening through Manhattan’s Upper West Side neighborhood, a friend visiting him from Sacramento mentioned having seen the giant “Going Out of Business” signs festooning Tower Records’ location near Lincoln Center.

“And to think it all started in the drugstore next to the Tower Theatre,” she told Hanks.

“What?” he replied.

The friend, older than Hanks, recalled to him her visits to buy records at the drugstore before Solomon transplanted the operation to its own store across the street.

Hanks was flabbergasted. “Wait a second,” he said. “You’re telling me this giant record chain started in a small drugstore?” His friend affirmed this. “Well,” Hanks said, “that’s the beginning of a documentary, and this is the end of a documentary. There’s something here.”

No other documentary in 2015 will unearth budgets with expenses like “handtruck fuel,” the Tower staff euphemism for cocaine. The Tower crew’s debauchery was tolerated as long as they showed up for work.

The idea germinated for several months until Stuart headed to New York as well to pay Hanks a visit. The two men first met while skateboarding around their East Sacramento environs as adolescents; they had remained friends through their college days and into their entertainment industry careers in Los Angeles. Stuart was working as a co-creative director and programming executive at DirecTV when, over dinner, Hanks told him about the crazy idea he had for a documentary about Tower Records. It would be neither sepia-toned nostalgia binge nor hometown navel-gaze, but rather a project that would showcase the dramatic rise and fall of a famous store where generations of Americans learned about music. And, while they were at it, tap their pride in Sacramento’s most iconic export.

Hanks knew it was a tough balance to strike. But as Sacramentans, he and Stuart also had an advantage: They could see and appreciate Tower’s unique narrative arc from their perspective at its origin. “Look,” says Hanks, referring to Solomon’s modest beginnings selling records out of his dad’s drugstore in the 1940s, “that is about as Americana as you can get.”

“It was lightning in a bottle,” Stuart says.

“And then he goes to San Francisco, and it goes from there,” Hanks continues. “Bigger cities and bigger cities, and then it’s worldwide.”

“And then the next thing you know,” Stuart says, “it’s 20 guys from Sacramento running a multinational, humongous, billion-dollar operation. I don’t think it was lost on them, and many of them said it in the interviews. There’s a common thread there for these guys—that they really did understand, looking at it in the rearview mirror, ‘It was an incredible thing that we did.’ ”

Stuart loved the idea of the documentary from the start, and in 2007, he and Hanks connected with Solomon through Tim Comstock, a friend and eventual co-executive producer who happened to share a dentist with the Tower impresario.

A six-hour introductory interview with Solomon in Sacramento further compelled Hanks and Stuart. The following summer, they approached the landlord of the abandoned Watt Avenue store, which closed in 2006 but still featured shelving, wall décor and other leftover design elements preserved in its ghostly sprawl.

The landlord agreed to let them shoot but advised the pair to hurry up: The space would be gutted within a few weeks as it transitioned to its next incarnation as a Goodwill store.

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The first Tower Records store, which opened on Watt Avenue in 1961 (Photo courtesy of Sean Stuart)

Hanks and Stuart spent two days in July 2008 interviewing Solomon and gathering additional footage in the sweltering recesses of Tower’s Watt Avenue catacomb. It was a “shell of a place,” as Stuart remembers it—an eerie, distant remove from the decades of loud life that came before.

All Things Must Pass begins with portions of this footage, channeling the store’s “we never close” spirit from its introductory shots. The film takes its name from the title of George Harrison’s 1970 triple LP, a phrase also emblazoned on the Watt store’s marquee when it closed. The camera floats toward the open doors as if carrying the viewer through a memory portal, or possibly the retail equivalent of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. The inky black interior swallows the light from faint rows of white bulbs illuminated across the ceiling. Even in the shadows, it’s a sight that any of the generations of Sacramentans who shopped at this location during its run from 1961 to 2006 will recognize immediately, right before turning their memories loose in the empty aisles onscreen.

Those memories make up many of the movie’s highlights—particularly those of Tower’s executive alumni, most of whom started under Solomon as 20-somethings and gleefully climbed the corporate ladder amid riptides of partying and vice. Count on it: No other documentary in 2015 will unearth budgets with expenses like “handtruck fuel,” the staff euphemism for cocaine. On Watt Avenue, sexual trysts unfolded in the record store’s listening booths. Staffers from the adjacent Tower Books would join up with their colleagues for whatever substances helped them survive their shifts. The Tower crew’s debauchery was tolerated as long as they showed up for work, however wasted or soggy they might have been from the previous night. Drugs would get them through the mornings, and by afternoon they had initiated one happy hour after another at neighboring bars like Sam’s Hof Brau and Candlerock Lounge.

“We’d get to the store about 8 [in the morning], we’d go do a crossword puzzle and get the store ready to open at 9,” says Heidi Cotler, the former Tower Books chief who joined the store in 1965 after being rejected by Tower Records. (“If you couldn’t read, you worked at a record and video store,” she quips. “If you could read, you worked at the bookstore.”) By 3 p.m., with the drugs tapering off and the shifts changing over, it was beer time. “The 3:30’s would come on and have a drink,” Cotler explains, “and the day guys would be on their last break, and the noon-to-9 guys would have a break, and we’d all go to the bar and have three or four beers, and then we’d all go back to what we were doing.”

Russ Solomon (third from right) with the crew of Tower Records’ Stockton store on opening day in 1974 (Photo courtesy of Sean Stuart)

Such go-go hijinks became standard operating procedure for Tower, and All Things Must Pass makes the definitive case for their efficacy through extensive archival photos, footage and testimonials from the survivors. There’s rock star Dave Grohl reminiscing about the record store chain as the only place that would hire him with his long hair (at least until Kurt Cobain inducted him to play drums in Nirvana). There’s Mark Viducich, who entered Solomon’s office in Tower’s West Sacramento headquarters one Friday evening as a shipping and receiving clerk and, after chatting over some drinks, wound up running Tower’s Japanese retail operation. Near the top of the ladder was Solomon’s right-hand man Bud Martin, an unreconstructed party animal who nevertheless represented the fiscally conservative yin to Solomon’s licentious yang. Then there’s Solomon himself, who routinely confiscated the neckties of music executives during meetings and mounted them in his office like big game.

“The underlying truth is that in this period between the ’70s and ’80s, everybody in the music business was having a good time,” Solomon says. “They don’t have as good a time today. There is no music business. There’s the digital business and the people at Apple and the people [overseeing] downloads. I’m sure they’re having fun, but it’s not quite the same thing. We had a whole family of people. Record labels, distribution companies, radio, concert artists were all a great big giant family that was having a marvelous time, really. It wasn’t just the money that you made or didn’t make. It was the fun.”