Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Requiem For A Hangout

We all lose touch with friends. It's a natural part of our lives. It's impossible to remain as close to friends as we'd like to think. Circumstances come into play that have us drift apart. I'm comfortable with that reality, but in this case, I think I may have in some small way actually contributed to a friend's death.

Tower Records is slipping away and it's too late for me to reconcile. I'm losing a friend and I never said goodbye. We just.....stopped being friends. It just wasn't the same after a while and I strayed.

As the malt shop was to '50s teenagers, Tower Records served me as a hangout during and after high school. While others were cruising the main drag, I cursed them as I was trapped in the crawling hormone stream as I tried to make my way into the shopping center's parking lot where Tower was located. It's yellow sign with red letters beckoned me and my friends to come on in and stroll about, soak in the sounds of the "now playing" selections, flip through the latest issue of Kerrang!, and agonize over which single album or tape I'd buy with my McDonald's earnings.

In those days, Tower was my primary resource for music related information. Long before the Internet made me savvy to such things as record release dates, tour information months in advance, band and artists bios, and even sampling music before you buy, this store was an information outpost that I would trek to so as to satiate my hunger for music. Then, I didn't even really know roughly when an album came out unless it was heavily pushed by the label on radio or in print. Some of the marginal acts I followed would thrill me as I flipped through their section and a new album would appear one day. I'd go over to a friend on another aisle and say, "Dude, check it out. A new Fastway album!". Conversely, endlessly browsing through the same old records could be depressing. Sometimes a band would have broken up and we wouldn't hear about it for months until it saw print in Creem or Hit Parader. I'd been flipping through the Rainbow section for months in vain, much like hoping the cute girl in Algebra II might notice me. When I found out that Rainbow had broken up, I felt as silly as I did when I asked her out and she said that her boyfriend sat two seats behind me in class.

In addition to serving my interest in music, Tower Records became a hangout for me and my tight-nit group of pals. We all were heavily into rock, metal, and progressive music and we'd have lengthy and sometimes loud discussions about the importance of Yngwie Malmsteen or why Zebra's second album was better than their first. We "got" Spinal Tap, and loved it as much the first time as people do today now that 80's metal has become a fond campy memory. We thought of ourselves as a heavy metal think tank or at least the rock and roll This Week With David Brinkley, but in reality we were probably primordial Beavises and Buttheads.

This store may not have actively encouraged loitering, but they never discouraged it either. We were never pressured to buy anything or rushed out the door after a while unless it was closing time. I once spent about 3 and a half hours in Tower without buying so much as a 45. Most retailers at the time might get a bit anxious to have 4 or 5 teenagers walking around their store in a pack, talking and laughing for hours on end, but not Tower. They were permissive, almost understanding what we found in that oasis. Today, chains like Borders and Barnes and Noble have actually capitalized on that business plan, serving food and drink to customers that might have been simply viewed as potential customers before they bought coffee and continued browsing.

After the local Tower Records moved from it's original location to it's current site, it never quite seemed the same to me. Gone was the long room with low ceilings. Gone was the familiar layout of albums and cassettes. And gone was sharing the parking lot with K-Mart and the old Pic-N-Save discount store. The new store was a stand alone building with vaulted ceilings and shiny new display racks. It was a nice place and still served my needs, but I missed the old store. When my parents moved us in 1980, I loved the bigger, better house with the huge pool, but I still have the most fond childhood memories of the small house before it and the tiny apartment before that.

But my friend Tower Records started acting differently soon after the move. They started carrying a dizzying array of magazines and newspapers that drew a crowd that I'd not seen before in the shop. These people weren't music fans. They were hipster slackers, sitting on the floor and smelling like clove cigarettes. The selection of music became narrower in my view as well. Many more mainstream top sellers monopolized floor space, as well as toys, posters, backpacks, personal electronics, and other non-music related products. Even candy and gum were prominently displayed not far from the latest release from Pantera.

But those changes weren't enough to keep me away from my friend. Tower still carried my music. The biggest problem I had with Tower Records was their prices. While lower than the ridiculous mall store prices in places such as Sam Goody, Tower seemed unwilling to lower everyday prices on back catalog albums and would only feature discounts on the Tower Top 25 or the latest releases from the major labels. In my halcyon days of music buying, in which I stockpiled the majority of my collection and replaced cassette and LPs with CDs, I'd drop serious amounts of money at Tower. In those days, the chain would have great sales where a customer could really score a good number of releases. For example, in a certain month, all titles from a label (Chrysalis, Columbia, Capitol, etc.) would be on sale. This was an exciting time where I could buy up a band's back catalog fairly quickly. But in the last few years, even if I really wanted an album, I couldn't bring myself to pay $16.99 for something like Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here.

And this contributed to my cheating on my friend. The primary paramour for me was the used record stores I found on the central coast of California. In towns like Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo, I took sloppy seconds with someone else's love. A beat up jewel case? I've got extras. A torn booklet? No big, I hardly read them more than once. My heart would race as I'd exit Boo Boo Records in San Luis Obispo with 15 (!) CDs and having paid the retail equivalent of about 5 or 6 releases at Tower. The only difference in the actual product was the lack of shrinkwrap and that infernal "dogbone" silver sticker anti-theft device.

The torrid affair I have with these used shops continues to this day. It became such a force in my buying habits that I eventually stopped going to Tower Records except when I wanted a new release right away. Sometimes, I'd reluctantly have to plunk down the full retail price and I began to resent my old friend. When the big box stores started selling music at deep discounts, it became hard for me to continue my relationship with Tower. "Why can't you discount your product like those stores?", I would plead with her. The answers drew upon reasons as an unwillingness to use CDs as loss leaders to what I perceived as a stubborn line in the sand stance taken by the chain.

Now, I have only the fond memories of the past. I suppose that in all failed relationships, there are always moments of joy to draw upon and I'll try to do that. God knows there are many. But ironically, I can't recall the last time I stepped foot in Tower Records. The most dominant memory I have of being in a Tower Records has nothing to do with music at all.


Dropping change on the floor gets everyone's attention and can be very embarrassing as you stoop to pick up your pittance. If it's a large amount of change, it's especially face-reddening as people wonder why you had so much loose change with you. They must think you're poor and feel sorry for you as you crawl about to gather your coins like a goose pecking at bread crumbs.

For a time, my sister worked at a video arcade (remember those?) and other arcade's game tokens would have to be sifted from the one's used at her arcade. She came home one night and gave me a box of tokens from an arcade that my friends loved to visit. I never took to video games, but still liked to go and hang out, playing foosball or air hockey. As my friends would now look to me as a conquering hero, I gladly accepted the box of tokens and on that Friday night, my friends and I played every game we could, giggling with glee at the free lives, endless pucks, and never caring if you tilted the pinball machine.

Not long after, that particular arcade closed and we found those tokens useless. Even my sister's arcade had all their games calibrated to only accept their own tokens. Now I had about a third of the original amount of tokens laying around and something came to mind one night as I got dressed for a night out at Tower with my buddies. I filled both front pockets of my 501s with tokens and picked up in the guys the '76 Sunbird as we headed to the shop for another night of browsing and arguing.

We did the usual kvetching and window shopping. My friend Eric was deep in thought, looking at a UFO album he didn't have. It was around 9:00 in the evening, but the store was fairly busy. I started over to him to execute my task. UFO's section was near the end of an aisle and I made note of the getaway path. I had let Randy in on my plans and tipped him off so as not to miss it. He wandered over an aisle away and tried not to snort his stifled laughter in anticipation. I sidled up to Eric. He looked at me and asked if I had that album. I told him no, but I'd heard it. I quietly took a step away from him and pretended to check out a Vandenburg album I already had. I glanced at Eric to make sure he wasn't looking at me and I reached into one of my pockets.

I dropped a huge handful of game tokens at his feet and quickly slid away in one motion. The clamor of the coins hitting the hard tiled floor made just about everyone stop and look up at Eric. The coins rattled, spun and rolled all over the place. He just stood there blushing so much I thought his face would combust. I was just a few feet away and I pretended to be as surprised as the rest of the customers. A little girl walked up and handed Eric a token that had rolled two aisles away. He took it and murmured a thank you as the girl's mother smiled and shook her head at him.

Randy and I slid off to fall all over each other with laughter. I was crying. He couldn't breathe. Such a simple thing had caused just the reaction I wanted. I looked around for Chet, our fourth this night. I saw him way across the store and he was just out of earshot, I suppose, so he immediately became my next victim. Eric wanted in on this one, so we plotted against him together.

Chet was actually going to buy something that night, so we waited until he got to the counter. There was a bit of a line, so we knew we'd be caught by a few customer's eyes, but enough people were shopping near the front of the store to still horribly embarrass Chet. As he neared the front of the line, we took our positions. I had given Randy and Eric each a good sized handful of tokens and I held the rest. "Whadya got there?", Randy asked.

Before Chet could answer, the clerk said next and Chet stepped up to the counter. We stepped with him. The clerk looked at us funny for a moment and gave Chet his total. As he reached for his wallet, we all let loose with the coins and this time the racket was such that a woman whelped in surprise. The clerk's eyes widened and his mouth opened. Chet looked at his feet in disbelief as the customers behind him, who had seen us act, guffawed. A manager came out from the office in the back of the cassette section with a twisted look of confusion on his face. Tokens rolled all the way towards the entrance and all the way towards the Classical section. We scooted towards the door doubled over from the terrible cramps from laughing so hard. Kids scrambled to pick up the tokens and Chet paid as quickly as he could, simultaneously stifling laughs and dying of embarrassment. As he reached the door, he slipped a little on the sea of change and I thought my head would explode as I howled at his predicament.

So now I mourn the loss of my dear friend Tower Records with only memories and maybe the sticky remnants of price tags on some of my albums. I'm sorry if I contributed to her death by ignoring her, but she didn't put up much of a fight either. I'll still miss the feeling of jealousy I'd get when I'd see someone walking down the street with that familiar yellow plastic bag filled with booty from a good day's hunting.