Frank Gutch Jr: All Things Must Pass— Thoughts On the Record Business; No Small Children and the Radio; plus Notes To Plant In Your Head (Yes, It is Spring, Sports Fans)…

I just finished watching the documentary titled All Things Must Pass about Tower Records and their rise and fall and am going to try to tell you a bit about the record business in which I worked.  First, though, a few people to whom I have talked about the film have made comments about Russ Solomon, the man behind the chain, which were none too complimentary.  When I heard them, I didn’t say much because I had yet to see it and thought maybe the comments were more toward the film than Russ himself.  So let me now respond to those few, none named because the conversations were private and thus not fodder for public consumption.

I met Solomon two times during my time working retail— once at Licorice Pizza in Los Angeles and once at Peaches in Seattle.  Both times, he was among a throng because when he traveled he evidently traveled with friends and when he came into a store that throng created a certain chaos of its own.  Both times, he walked the floor and looked at displays and, most important, searched out every store employee to introduce himself.  I remember him walking up to me in Seattle wearing some gawdawful Hawaiian shirt and with beaming face smiling ear to ear and thrusting his hand toward me in a karate move of sorts, saying something like Hi, I’m Russ Solomon from Tower Records.  How ya doing?  Oh, I make it sound like he was forceful but he wasn’t, not at all, though I would not have been surprised if he had thrown his arms around me in a bear hug, his exuberance an aura as much as anything.  I have seen only one other person in the record biz do that— look up the floor people before asking for a manager.  No, make that three.  Bill Graham was one, not the guy from The Fillmore but the guy who worked at RCA Records.  In my mind, Graham is famous for it, because he knew that the people who worked the floor were the people who really knew what happened on the floor and he was after information as to how RCA product was doing.  Well, that and the fact that he was a genuinely nice guy.  The other was Eddie Money, who knew that floor people were the store’s contact with the buying public and it never hurt to have a friend of the buying public on your side.

Tower was already legend by the time I got to Seattle, but when I met him at Licorice Pizza in the mid-seventies, Tower was a small chain of large record stores and not the legend it became.  Still, they were a solid presence on Sunset and that made it a destination for car-centric Los Angelesians (not unlike Artesians, but from L.A.).  I worked at the Pizza on Wilshire Boulevard and one day, just as it happened in Seattle, a throng entered the store and there was Russ, as big as life, sticking out the ham of a hand.  You couldn’t help but like him.  When we shook hands, it felt as if it was as equals.  That was his magic.

I have had good and bad dealings with Tower.  I went into the Sunset Boulevard store twice to search for imports.  I had come from Oregon and had dealt with Music Millennium and expected a somewhat similar experience   What I got was blown off.  Both times.  Now, I am, not complaining.  The guy who handled imports was not there either time and the person I talked with on the floor told me he wasn’t there, but apparently there was no one else there who could even attempt to answer my questions.  Indeed, the few people up front seemed way more interested in talking among themselves than helping customers.  Watch the movie.  It might help you understand.

The other experience was a matter of applying for a job.  Kenny Sockolov, later in upper management, was managing the Seattle store when I arrived in that fair city.  Peaches and Tower were on my list of places to look for work.  I had already talked with the hiring manager at Peaches and she wasn’t all that interested.  Turns out Kenny wasn’t, either.  He was pulling a return when I handed him my application form, and obviously busy.  He glanced at the form and said, simply, you’re overqualified.  I said it didn’t matter, that I was new in Seattle and would do whatever it took.  He handed me the application and said to leave it at the front desk.  So much for working at Tower.  I didn’t hold it against him.  He was busy.  But when Peaches finally took me in, whenever people came in who had once worked at Tower to ask for a job (and there were a few), I asked why they were let go.  If Sockolov’s name was anywhere in the explanation, I recommended hiring them.  (I’m kidding!  Wait, no I’m not)

On the other hand, I liked most people who worked at Tower, but  jeez, with as many people as they had working there, you were bound to find a clunker or two.  I met a few at record company gatherings and we traded record stories and got along pretty well, but I stopped going to record company gatherings.  I felt uncomfortable.  Otherwise, I might have made some really good friends among the Tower clan.

One thing that caught me by surprise in the film was the almost constant references to the drug culture.  Every time I was in a Tower store, I never once saw someone blitzed  and I never once had a bad experience.  Of course, like a couple of them noted, maybe they were kept in the back room for a reason.  You have to realize that with disco came cocaine and then a whole stream of other drugs.  It was part of the culture.  Hell, the cool thing in the late-seventies was coke spoon necklaces.  Cool for them, that is.  I have never done coke and thought wide-lapelled disco shirts a bit gaudy.  Especially when standing next to me, wearing patched jeans and a funky t-shirt.

There were parties, yes, but you have to understand what it was like for not just Tower but the whole music business.  We started out as laughingstocks.  We were the great unwashed and the laziest of the lazy.  We chose music over commerce, for Chrissake, and those who firmly believed in career and The American Way hated us.  Until the music touched just about everyone.  It wasn’t Tower that did it, it was everything.  San Francisco and the labels and radio and politics and The War.  Civil unrest.  The lies we were told and no longer accepted.  I guess if you had to say it was one thing, it was the power of youth’s dollar.  As soon as the establishment saw the buying power, they accepted with pockets wide open.  Some resisted, though, and never understood.  Music was pure business to them.  They will never be able to understand, especially the emotional attachment Solomon and all of the Tower people (and indeed, all of the record store people everywhere) felt toward that chain and toward that period of music.

Tower, to me, will never be the legend it became, but I never worked there nor did I buy my records there.  I was working elsewhere and had no need.  But I know what it meant to people who did work there.  I had the same experiences with the people I worked with at The House of Records in Eugene, with those at Licorice Pizza, and definitely with the people at Peaches in Seattle.  You build a camaraderie— a nation, in fact— as strong as that of those who fight in battle.

I have a friend— well, had a friend.  His name is Chito David and when I moved into his neighborhood not long after my move to Seattle, he forced his way into my life.  He had heard I worked at Peaches and he, I found out later, had worked at Brass Ear over in Bellevue somewhere.  We began our friendship talking music and record stores and it never stopped.  He was Filipino, though I always told him he should have been born black, judging by his extreme love of soul music.  I thought of him as I watched this documentary.  I would have loved to have heard his perspective.  He unfortunately left this world not too long ago, but I heard his laugh as I watched it.  He would have understood.

 

Toward the end (of Tower and the film both), Solomon makes reference to the way in which The End transpired.  Tower was forced by “the bank” to fall in line by turning the chain’s operations over to a trustee hired by the bank to run the chain until she could figure out whether to restructure and reorganize or allow the grave to be dug.  Solomon’s contention was that it was a ruse, that the big money people had made up their minds to bury Tower from the beginning, and from his perspective I believe he was correct.  This new “head” knew nothing about the record business, about the uniqueness of the relationships between stores and labels nor the importance of A as opposed to B.  Trying to place a finance-oriented head on a soulful and vibrant body would have been a miracle at the very least and it was soon obvious that the “head” had no interest in prolonging the life of an institution which could not immediately be turned into cash.  There was pain, not just that of Russ Solomon, but of everyone who ever believed in music as love, and that is what it was to so many of us.

All Things Must Pass is not just about Tower, it is about a period of time many of us shared and which we shall never experience again.

I Wanna Hear It On the Radio

Kiddies, kiddies, kiddies!  Let’s talk radio, and I am not talking about the dude who carried a radio around in his shopping cart or the guy from M*A*S*H (that was Radar, fruitcakes).  I am talking full-on boy-you-missed-it-and-I-feel-sorry-for-you broadcast kind of stuff.  What took music out of the hands of the mob (that’s right— who do you think owned most of them jukeboxes you see in B-movie hot rod and beach flicks?), put it in the hands of teens (transistor radios were kind of like iPhones without the ability to steal your soul) and made artists stars and the superstars.  Radios were basically, in fact, television without the video and I know you’re bored enough by now that you have picked up that damn hand-held blackhole to hell because, jeez, not knowing what your BFF or business partner had for lunch will not do and, hey, kittens!

No Small Children released this song today (which will be yesterday by the time this is posted) and kicked my column about 45s to the curb and I am a teen once again, turning up the volume on the old transistor and dancing my way to school.  Even NSC won’t really understands what I will say because by the time they came around, the early days were over and with them, the feel of fresh.  By the time they came around, the Foreigners and Journeys were sucking the life blood out of music and setting themselves up for classic radio, whatever that is.  But they get it.  They (and mega-producer Bob Marlette) understand hook and melody and groove and everything else that made AM radio a teen wonderland.  Way back when an outstanding new song made a day way better than good.  When half the people you ran into in the halls between classes talked rock ‘n’ roll.  Back when boys and radio went hand-in-hand as did girls and radio.

You might have caught the band through Ghostbusters II (they played the theme) or you may have caught them elsewhere, but NSC is what AM was all about back in the day (and the days after).  Hell, they are what music is all about today, too.  Imagine a picture of your food with this in the background.

Ah, but they had no pictures back then.  It was all music.  And personality.  Disc jockeys became as important as the music and sometimes moreso, depending upon what they played.  Conversations among music freaks many times revolved around the DJ.  In Sweet Home, we heard of Alan Freed (especially when the Payola scandal hit the newspapers), Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsberg, Russ “Weird Beard” Knight, B. Mitchell Reed, Johnny Holliday, and Seattle’s own Pat O’Day as well as (for a short time) KISN‘s The Real Don Steele, who left Portland for more lucrative pastures while keeping Pac NW favorites Paul Revere & The Raiders and Don & The Goodtimes close to his heart.

Heard “of.”  Radio signals were unreliable when rock began making waves and Sweet Home sat in a small valley which did not allow decent reception from the North (Portland and Salem) nor the South (Eugene).  The good thing was that it did allow the signals from Lebanon, Albany and Corvallis so the early sixties was a cage fight.  Radio stations KGAL (Lebanon), KRKT (Albany), and KFLY (Corvallis) battled one another for the small number of teens in the Willamette Valley and it was glorious.  While Portland and Seattle stations limited their playlists, Willamette Valley stations welcomed all comers.  SH has access to music the big cities ignored.  If you want to know why people think I’m a music nut, blame AM radio.  You see, it wasn’t all about the national acts, it was about the music.  The Willamette Valley DJs loved the music.  And if it was local or regional, all the better.  For instance, they went whole hog for these early rock and pop acts.

I am sure there were pockets of musical insanity all over the US and Canada back then, but none better than what we had.  I have searched the Billboard charts for songs solidly in the Top Ten at certain of the stations we listened to and found the charts lacking.  For instance, did you know that The Grass RootsBallad of a Thin Man (Mr. Jones) did not chart nationally?  Solid Top ten at KASH in Eugene.  I almost tripped over my jaw when it hit the floor after I learned of that one.  Watch the dancers.  Not an easy one to dance to.  Also, this is a rare film clip of the original band and not the Sloan-Barri-Howe or Rob Grill-led bands.

Another complete shocker.  As big as the Merry-Go-Round was on radio in the Willamette Valley, they did not chart on Billboard.  Not once.  This makes me believe in alternate universes.  A world with Live or Time Will Show the Wiser would be a hell on earth.  Please tell me why this is not as good as any early Bee Gees track.  I mean, for decades I assumed that this hit everywhere.

Of course, this was the hit (and the flip side).

The dances at the University of Oregon when I was a freshman opened me up to what radio was supposed to be.  No wonder I was jaded after I left Eugene.  There was no better station in the world than KASH during that year.  As a result, I was dancing to records like this when there were no live bands to see.  Again, no Billboard.

The Mojo Men would undergo a personnel change to finally hit the charts with Sit Down, I Think I Love You, adding Jan Errico from The Vejtables.  Here is one that got a lot of airplay in the valley, too.  At this point, I wondered why I even read Billboard anymore (though they did have an interesting leaning toward imports which started about that time).

Speaking of The Vejtables, I Still Love You was all over the Valley all the time, or so it seemed.  Billboard, you really sucked back then!  I was madly in love with Errico.  A female drummer and she could sing too?  My head spins!

My God, was Billboard even functioning back then?  Love’s My Little Red Book was yu-u-uge in the Valley!

One really cool thing about the disc jockeys in our area was that they loved the music as much as their listeners did.  Whenever they got a chance (mostly in the evenings), they would slip an extra tune or two in to lighten things up a little.  Thus did Signed DC enter the KASH charts,  (They called it an Extra)

The Leaves hit it big with their version of Hey Joe, but the Valley remembers them as much for songs like this.  Too Many People was not Top Ten but stayed on the charts for quite a few weeks.

All anyone seemed to know about The Gestures was that they were from Minnesota (like we cared). When the needle dropped, all we seemed to care about was in the grooves, and this was groovy

There were a few of us in the dorms who listened to KASH every night and call and talk with the DJ.  The night time slot was the best.  The dude (for a short time) was the same DJ I knew from KGAL and was always ready to switch things up.  He would call and give me the artist and title of a song he liked not on the charts and we would call to request it.  He figured that if it was a request, he could play it.  He was right, up to a point.  After about six months to a year, his night shift became a plethora of oddball bands and odd tracks.  I can’t remember his name (he changed it every time he switched stations and he went through stations like a baby goes through diapers) but he was the best DJ I ever heard.  He put together sets like no one else.  For those of you who don’t know what a set is, I will cover it in a later column.  Right now, we have some more listening to do because it’s time for…

Notes…

Power Popper Herb Eimerman uncovered this little pop gem and passes it along.  Lisa MycholsHe’s Got Me Dreaming has a bit of upbeat that might have (should have) Target looking at her for one of their TV ads.

I have to admit that I find Petunia of Petunia & The Vipers fascinating.  He is vintage without trying to be so.  He can vamp, country, rag, and when he yodels, Oh Mama!  Another outstanding Canadian who should be a super popular artist but who somehow has not yet caught on.  And again, I cannot figure out why.  His music is ancient but fresh, his attitude upbeat and he has a band to beat the bushes.  Watch and learn, sports fans.

Holy shit!  I have just been privy to a listen of five tracks from a new album from Wes Swing (And the Heart…) who has finally come out of a self-induced coma (he burned out on the music biz for awhile is all).  I’m thinking of shoving him back underneath the rock he was hiding under.  These five tracks are on another level.  Stay tuned!  In the meantime, here is a track from a previous album titled Through a Fogged Glass.

Take into account that this video is four years old.  Not saying that old means less, but the new tracks are exceptional.  Now that I listen to Fogged Glass again, I find it also exceptional.  Swing, by the way is another of the excellent musical products of Charlottesville, Virginia— pound for pound one of the best music cities in the world.  If you don’t think so, just ask me.  I will be happy to set you straight.

From the germ of The Hot Toddies comes another band mI wish I had found earlier— Takashi Miyaki.  A bit of a girl group sound wrapped in fifties and sixties pop.  Man, I loved The Toddies and am glad to see Miyaki picking up the thread.

More than once, I have been waylaid by a band’s sound.  There is a real density to this track I find mesmerizing.  I mean, every song has its own density, doesn’t it?

Pinecastle Records was the label The Dixie Bee-Liners recorded for and they are back with another fine example of vocal bluegrass, Flashback.  I am impressed.  These guys can play!  And sing!

My buddy Ben has been digging on these guys lately.  I’m not even sure what they do is legal.

Marsh Shamburger and I go way back in the sense that for some while now I have followed his musical endeavors.  I smile at the potential I saw the first time I heard him.  This track, by a duo known as Lovers & Madmen (Marsh and Rachel Shamburger), makes me feel almost proud in that I think I had it right.  I love the density of this track.

=FGJ=

Frank’s column appears every Tuesday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

dbawis-button7Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at Frank bottle capone time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”

 

One Response to “Frank Gutch Jr: All Things Must Pass— Thoughts On the Record Business; No Small Children and the Radio; plus Notes To Plant In Your Head (Yes, It is Spring, Sports Fans)…”

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