Monday, October 09, 2006

When the Music Stops

I'm not saying Mom bought too many CDs and DVDs and books and calendars, and I'm not saying she was the only thing keeping them going.

But the month after my mother died, Tower Records closed their doors forever. You can take from that whatever lesson you want.

When I was in high school, Dan Grant and I used to ride our bicycles over to our local Tower Records all the time. We pored over their singles collections--that would be 45 rpm vinyl records, the 7-inch ones with the big holes in the middle--and we studied 12-inch vinyl albums, debating their strengths and weaknesses. We didn't have lots of money, so we had to scrimp and save and compare notes and choose carefully how we filled in our collections.

Remember 10-inch EPs? I remember one called "Short Player," by a guy named Michael Short, with a photo of him on the cover where the part of the photo with his legs had been folded under, so he was--get it?--a short player. As was the EP. It had about four songs, one of which was something about "How does it feel to be/ Back in the German Air Force?" We used to listen to stuff like that, give it a try after school. You might not like everything, but you'd hear some interesting music, music that might get you thinking.

For my birthday in ninth grade, Dan gave me a Tower Records gift certificate; I told him to choose what I should get with it, and that was the beginning of a musical fascination with Billy Joel that lasted for years. I remember buying the Yes album "Close to the Edge" and going over to Dan's house to play it, listening intently to the slow instrumental build--it was the first time either of us had heard it--wondering if there would ever be any lyrics. Finally when the music had built enough velocity to carry it, a bright vocal chord jumped in from nowhere, wordless.

I could go on.

Mom used to tease me about how much time I spent at Tower, but she caught the bug too. By the time I was in college, she was going there as often as I ever had. She opened an account at a bank with a branch in the same shopping center--just so she could get a safety deposit box there, but it was sure convenient. She knew when the annual book sale was. She started recognizing people who worked in various departments, and she made remarks about whether anyone with a normal hairstyle could ever get hired at Tower. Every Christmas I knew I could count on getting the new Tower wall calendar, a freebie but always with a particular art style. I still have a collection of them somewhere.

When I lived in New York, I shopped at the Lincoln Center Tower and the Greenwich Village Tower, plus the discount outlet behind the one in the Village. When I visited London, I made a point of buying some music with Tower price tags printed in pounds instead of dollars. And even with free and cheap music downloads available on the Net, I still get a thrill out of going through the art and liner notes of a brand-new album I've just unwrapped, as I listen to it for the first time. Other stores will still sell CDs and books and DVDs, but none will really have the culture of Tower.

I suspect Tower's been done in by Wal-Mart as much as it has by iTunes or Napster. Tower always had the depth to sell, say, an oddball Tom Waits import, or an N.W.A. album with lyrics Wal-Mart wouldn't support. But if the new Mariah Carey was cheaper at Wal-Mart, Tower lost a whole set of shoppers who otherwise might have been exposed to new music, or at least new places where soft flesh can be pierced. Water finds its level, but the free market may not be the best mechanism for a culture that wants to generate interesting art.

Tower will be missed--an old friend, almost a family member, if it weren't for that bizarre T-shirt.

1 comment:

Donald Brown said...

Really nice elegy! I like to hear tales of the places that mattered in someone's development, whatever that might be. It's odd though hearing Tower Records praised with such fond associations. I never warmed to it at all. But maybe there are factors in that.

My early collecting in the early '70s was from any place I could get to, which meant department stores in DE where my mom shopped. Then, finally, driving age meant going to Wonderland in Newark (a headshop where the college is) where they had everthing I cared about on vinyl -- the complete corpus by everyone I could think of! Then, in Philly in early '80s, the preferred shops were those like Wonderland, crammed, cramped and funky, where people flipped through LPs practically on top of each other. When Tower opened on South St., I rarely went there -- it was just too damned big. It looked like a mall-store without the mall!

I'm sure all the things you say about its listening stations and odd selections are true (and I know people who hung out there like it was the library) -- maybe I was just overwhelmed by all the things I would never hear and had no money to buy. Could be. But I didn't feel myself to be in the marketplace of art, but of commodities. The place felt soul-less.

Still, the point of your comments registers -- another avenue of discovery gone.