Diary of a Former OC Tower Records Employee

Tower Badges from back in the day (Credit: Lorraine Chambers)

On Sunday March 4, while watching the Academy Awards with a glass of whiskey, Russ Solomon–the founding father of Tower Records–had a massive heart attack and died at home at age 92. It was another historic day when the music died again for many of us Tower Records employees and fans of Solomon. I never met Solomon, but I worked for him at the Costa Mesa location of Tower Records in a former skating rink at the narrow strange plot of land by a Del Taco by 17th Street and Newport Blvd. en route to the Balboa Peninsula. I am sure he visited as I heard he loved each store‘s grand openings. Our longtime West Coast PR extraordinare Curt Wada would have had lots of Russ stories for me but he passed on in 2008 at Christmas time. Before Curt passed away of pancreatic cancer he was the stage manager at the House of Blues Anaheim once his time was up with Tower. 

Working at a Tower Records store was where one could be themselves, tattoos and all. Of course, back in 2003 it wasn’t commonplace to see employees with tattoos and a customer once said to me while looking questionably at my co workers inked arms, ‘This store hires tattoo freaks. You look normal or do you have tattoos too?’ I replied, ‘Not where you can see it’ To which he exclaimed, ‘Everyday is Halloween at Tower’. Actually everyday was Record Store day at Tower where we were open 365 days a year. One was never alone on holidays as Tower Records was open.
I found out on Facebook about Solomon’s passing by my former boss Lauren Watt of Super D music distribution company in Irvine who announced her sadness in a post about his death as she worked for him in Sacramento. In 2008 I wrote  album summaries for the retail Superfile as a music information database writer at Super D, I was working with a reunion ensemble of various music store veterans from Tower Records, Wherehouse Records, Virgin Records, Music Plus and other record related companies. While there I saw Universal Music salespeople get almost no warning when they were let go. The recession was looming. 

 We were all the survivors of a changing record store industry. Ironically our company was selling CDs to both the big chains and the still standing independent stores. In a twisted way, we were part of the bigger issue of giving ammo to the big box stores that were diminishing the neighborhood record stores. A strange alliance which I was only part of for eleven months and then I was laid off with ten other employees due to the recession right before Christmas though the day before my onsite female supervisor told me I was safe. In three months, thirty employees were laid off to keep alive a lean financial fit distribution machine. The night before I was laid off I was working the excel layout of content for the weekly Discussions magazine. On that unbeknowst last night there  I put out a microwave fire by a tired Hispanic night shift employee who accidentally left his metal twistee around the plastic bag of his dinner to microwave. He was afraid he would lose his job over it but I said ‘don’t worry, the fire is out’. I caught the fire in time before it exploded in the product full warehouse of boxes and CDs. 

Credit: Lorraine Chambers

Years later when I saw one of the two owners at the NARM/Music Biz annual music convention in San Diego I told him about the fire and how I possibly saved the building. He said if he had known that I would not have been laid off.

Working at Super D was my last full time job. As a female writer over 40 with a wealth of work experience including working for Richard Branson’s Virgin Merchandising, Hollywood ad agencies and the film rating board, I am overqualified with a rich work history that I wouldn’t trade anything for. Thankfully I was lucky to get school part time jobs while continuing to write for various publications and sites with great perks for press passes for little pay as a divorced Mom with teenagers living in a rental in eastside Costa Mesa. Now I live westside as Costa Mesa is overdue for rent control and Republican sublease roommates don’t like even quiet liberal Democrats. Life behind the Orange Curtain. (The life of a writer who should be working on her book which I finally am. Look for RockNRollResilence in Rocktober 2018.) 

 So within two Christmases over three years, my holiday memories were very sad with the closing of Tower in Dec. 2006 and the 2008 recession taking away my full time job writing for a music distribution company .  Van Morrison was right about his quote about ‘loving music yet hating the business of music’. Every year as the Christmas chipmunk song comes on, it is like a wound that reopens. Yet I have #RockNRollResilience as the music matters and life keeps spinning as I change my attitude by listening to music to improve my spirits. 

 My story is just one of thousands of ex Tower Records employees worldwide who still chat in Tower Records online groups via Facebook and Instagram. Members do interesting polls of who hired them, what store did they work at, their funniest memories and sharing pictures. Many employees went on to book stores, music venues or getting ‘real jobs’. I got my Tower job after years of trying to get hired. Even Virgin Records Costa Mesa said ‘no’ as back then it was male dominant at that location. I did work a year for Wherehouse Records on 17th Street before it closed.  It took several check ins and resume drop offs to Tower as it was “misplaced’. Diana Quintero the manager believed in me and hired me which I am eternally grateful. I was misunderstood by some employees who thought I was too polite. Yet once they knew I had been to the early days of LA punk shows like the Screamers, Dead Boys, Dead Kennedys, Rubber City Rebels, The Gears, The Clash,  The Germs, X plus being an extra in the Ramones Rock N Roll High School movie, then I was accepted, hidden tattoo  plus crazy Marc Bolan moptop curls and all. 

Russ Solomon was our Captain of the Carribean of this motley music crew of record pirates and swashbuckling sales crew. This man’s love of music gave so many music lovers a place to work and a place for music fans to get music. Yet it was so much more. Surgeons at Hoag Hospital came in for music to operate to. Classical music fans came to see Fred the kind older British jazz historian who had worked with jazz greats like Miles Davis. Bereaved family members searched for their loved ones favourite music for their funerals. Patrons bought music for weddings, raves, birthday parties, retirements, birthday gifts, etc. Also Tower was a matchmaking service where Cupid drew his bow to several  employees who found the love of their lives. Somehow Cupid’s arrow missed me. 

During Christmas at Tower Records we were slammed with no parking and employees parking blocks away. We opened up extra cashier stations and there would be long lines yet customers were happy. Employees were busy bees searching through backstock for customer special requests.  Tower Records was a community center of sorts. One could get tickets for music and sport events through Ticketmaster at the Tower locations. We did Saturday morning on sales at 9am for just released concerts. It was a rite of passage to be in a cue with a coveted wristband to get the best spot in line for your favorite band’s upcoming show that could sell out in minutes. The Tower Records staff was all about customer service and we knew how to expedite the lines to quickly get as many people tickets as possible.
Monday nights at Tower meant preparing for the Tuesday record releases with using the labelmaker for new artists index white plastic dividers and putting away new product as soon as the store closed at 10. The sales crew walked with red metal four shelf racks on wheels loaded with CDs to sort to put away. The rap section had product in clear plastic keepers to prevent theft which had to be demagnetized upon purchase. Tuesday at Tower were very busy with music fans pouring in for their favorite new releases by BonJovi, Ice Cube, Selena, The Clash, Andrea BocelliCherMadonna and more. Plus Tower had porn. Yes, you milleniums in shock reading this story on your smart phone. Porn was on dvds to purchase and rent. The staff got to know the regulars of all ages and types who came in for their weekly and daily fix of porn. The internet wasn’t as evolved back in the early 2000s when I worked at Tower.
Costa Mesa Tower in a previous life.

Friday and Saturday night at Tower we were open till midnight. For over three years I would work Thursday nights till 9pm then catch the weekly comedy show by Doug James at Gallagher’s Pub in HB.  Up on Friday for my job, then Friday nights working Tower with a meal run for the crew to Carls Jr and Oh So Donuts then lock up the record store for a late night pint of Guinness at the Harp Inn, get some sleep for an 8am wakeup for the 9am employee time for the possible sale at Tower Records by 10 am. All this for $10 an hour. Worth every penny. 

 It was not unusual to see well known shoppers at Tower Costa Mesa. Mike Ness of Social Distortion shopped there and a young loss prevention agent tried to see if he was really Mike Ness which he denied. Yet when Mike came to the counter to make his purchase with his credit card, I told him that I didn’t need to see his ID as I know who he is but I would appreciate an autograph on a small Tower yellow with red letters bag for my teenagers which he did smiling. 

Dennis Rodman often shopped there and one night he arrived ten minutes after we closed and he even tried to bribe us with $20 to get his needed CD. Sorry, Dennis the registers were closed. One of the Baldwin brothers was spotted there plus bluesman Walter Trout was seen on a Sunday afternoon with his child in a stroller as he checked out his own CDs and dvds. I was told that Reggae legend Yellowman opened the store with a music performance. 

 We had our Christmas karoake parties where we would dress up in props (before the current photobooth trend) to sing duets of ‘Tainted Love’ and ‘I Love RockNRoll’ with karaoke jockey  Kevin Cable who is a lookalike for Weird Al on 19th Street in a bar. Years later at the OC Fair, I was just walking out of the Weird Al’s Brain Exhibit and I saw ‘Kevin’. I told him how we loved his Karaoke Christmas parties for the Tower Records staff. It was actually Weird Al in a sunhat giving me a raised eyebrow just like George Carlin did as he sat beside me in 1984 at the Everly Bros. concert at the Greek Theatre and I thought he was another older actor Buck Henry from Saturday Night Live. Yes, that was me with the ID mixup. Being at Tower we would swap music stories with each other and customers. We didn’t have high tech phones. Our phones were flip phones that just made calls and took pictures.
From the site of the Tower store in Sacramento, Russ grew an empire from simple origins of selling some records in a display at a his father’s pharmacy. Ironically when the record store bankruptcy happened in 2006 right before Christmas, the Great American Group (G.A.G) was buying up the stores not to preserve them but to obtain properties for future Walgreens Pharmacy locations. It must have been hard for Russ to see his dream diminish but oh what a wonderful journey it had spun. A Walgreen now operates at the former Costa Mesa site of Tower Records. A historic plaque needs to be put there on the sidewalk which is just a short walk to Second Spin Records which is a thriving testament to David over Goliath. The meek shall inherit the earth. The Records keep spinning in smaller shops like Factory Records by the Wild Goose bar, Vinyl Solution and TKO Records in HB, Creme Tangerine at The Lab in Costa Mesa, Fingerprints in the LBC, and Sound Spectrum in Laguna Beach.
Tower Costa Mesa, R.I.P.

In 2008 I had a radio show at KUCI 88.9 FM called Record Store Memories. It was an hour weekly interview format with guests sharing their memories of their childhood and teenage years record store experiences and how music matters in their lives all these years. I had guests from all walks of life and countries like musicians J.D. Southerner, Jerry McLean, Peter Moore, Dave Rayburn, Jezzebelle, and more.   Sadly internal politics shut down my show due to my supporting a well meaning musician guest, Darrell Jones, who wanted to play his first 45 rpm that he bought which was a cover song called ‘Anna’ played by four Liverpool musicians. Even being UCI alumni was no help to save my show as the station student manager for the year wanted to make an example out of me and the longtime only station employee needed his paycheck as he had a wife and child so I was left defenseless.  Yes, I am a lawbreaker playing a Beatle song on a public affair time slot radio show on at 8am on a Monday morning. UC Regents doesn’t allow Billboard Top 200 artists to play on their airwaves yet I have heard B.B. King and Talking Heads played on the station. 


Life as a music fan is a slew of twists and turns, but the music plays on in one way or another. We rock onwards and upwards. ‘I am a rocker.  Watch me roll baby’ as Phil Lynott from Thin Lizzy sings whom I met at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in 1978. In Dublin’s Fair City where my parents were born and raised is one of the last remaining Tower Records loving run by longtime Tower Records manager Gerry Browne who keeps the music flame lit for Tower and who introduced in 2012 to Texas Dublin music transplant Stevo Berube who worked at Tower too. These record rogues are the best company to shop talk about Tower Records over pints upstairs in the private aftershow lounge in Whelans in Dublin on the 4th of July.  Music fans are akin to the same energy as musicians at the annual NAMM convention in Anaheim. Talking about music fan chat, I spent an afternoon with legendary Good Vibrations record store and record label owner Terri Hooley in Belfast in 2017. A story for another day. Buy me a pint after my future Geeks Who Drink quizmaster training or open mic at the Harp, Anchor Bar or Gallaghers and I can tell more tales. Hopefully my upcoming full time corporate job works out but my love of music and entertainment are my lifeblood which is why I write freelance and help run TheHollywoodTimes.net plus being a member of Central Casting. Yes this is what happens to an ex wife of a rock star. 

Well, Hollywood appreciates a great story and Colin Hanks made a high fidelity spin of the early Tower Records origins with his rockumentary movie All Things Must Pass where the famous Sunset Strip Tower Records was resurrected in its glory for an after party for the film screening. I remember that location so well when I lived in North Hollywood while married to a rock bassist and he played the clubs on the strip. If there was a parking space available in the Tower tiny lot, one had to stop and go in the record store. It is like seeing a short line at the Donut Man in Glendora, or at In N Out Burger, you gotta stop. The Sunset Store was a very crowded shop of rows and rows of boxes of the latest releases. One couldn’t leave empty handed. All these memories become of one dreamer who dared. Thank you Russ. Please create good vibrations in Rock N Roll Heaven by opening up a music shop of sorts. The music tribe is waiting for you with open arms. A music angel is home to rest.

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