Celebrating Two of the Great Record Stores and Radio Stations: Tower and WFMU
The best record stores and radio stations are much more than mere cogs in the machine peddling the product churned out by the music industry: They are centers of musical community, on the just-passed Record Store Day, as well as on every other. Two recent documentaries admirably celebrate this fact: All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records (directed by Colin Hanks and released late last year) and Sex and Broadcasting: A Film About WFMU (directed by Tim K. Smith, released in late 2014, but just screened at Facets Multimedia).
Unfortunately, both docs also fall prey to the outdated Great Man Theory of History, lauding the two primary visionaries behind the California-based record store chain and the legendary New Jersey free-form radio station, sometimes at the expense of the many others who made or make these institutions so memorable.
No surprise, given Hanks’ pedigree (his dad is Tom and he’s already got quite a rep as an actor himself), All Things Must Pass is the better film—deeper, more informative, and ultimately more entertaining—as well as being a little more justified in its focus on Russ Solomon, who started out selling records in his father’s Sacramento drug store in 1960; oversaw the business as it grew into a thriving chain with 200 stores in 30 countries on five continents, then tragically watched it all come crashing down in bankruptcy in 2000, as much because of his unquenchable and unrealistic optimism as the unforeseen shift in the music world from physical product to digital downloads (and now streaming).
Hanks doesn’t gloss over Solomon’s less savory characteristics: He fully indulged if not overdosed in the infamous “sex and blow” heyday of a now long-gone music biz; he didn’t push nearly hard enough to force the record companies to cut prices on CDs and preserve the CD single at a time when he was one of the few executives who could have wielded such clout, and he didn’t value nearly enough his moderately more sane business partner and responsible money man until that exec was gone and it was far too late.
But Solomon also genuinely loved music; saw and rewarded talent and dedication, elevating many workers who started as clerks into management and eventually the boardroom, and knew that Tower was as much a place to bring people together to celebrate music as it was an outlet to sell it to them and collect their greenbacks. The requisite superstar talking heads testify to this, among them Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, and Elton John; far more useful is the insightful context provided by ace music-biz journalist, former Chicagoan, and my old pal Steve Knopper. The case is best made, however, by the footage of three generations of joyful patrons seduced by those endless rows with stacks and stacks of vinyl and shiny plastic discs.
During my college years, I spent countless hours and far too many paychecks in the Broadway Tower Records just west of Greenwich Village, Washington Square Park, and NYU. Later, after moving to Chicago, I logged just as much time at the Clark Street store in Lincoln Park, where manager Joe Kvidera imbued his loving knowledge of music in every inch of the space and in every worker he hired, as well as bringing in acts like the Flaming Lips and the Smashing Pumpkins for in-store performances (one aspect of most of the stores overlooked in the film).
But even if you didn’t have personal connections like these, All Things Must Pass will make you yearn to visit Tower one more time, instead of sadly mourning its demise.
Obviously, I also have a personal connection to radio/podcasting, and many of my thoughts about the medium as well as my deep and abiding love for it were shaped by listening to WFMU, which was broadcasting from the seedy campus of Upsala College in East Orange in the ’80s when I spent countless hours fidgeting with my FM antenna to dial it in, before it moved to its current home in my native Jersey City.
At that time and through the current day (when anyone now can listen online), WFMU was the last bastion of the sort of free-form radio that proliferated in the late ’60s, before the corporatization and commercialization of the FM band. Once upon a time, zonked-out music-geek philosophers and sages might segue from the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” and from the Fugs’ “New Amphetamine Shriek” to Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain,” for the benefit of a hundred listeners who’d grok the connections and enjoy the half-hour soliloquys that preceded and followed the music.
Now, that would be one of the more tame stretches in a typical WFMU air slot. As longtime jock and musical historian Irwin Chusid says at one point in Sex and Broadcasting, tune into the station and it may send you running away in disgust; come back in half an hour and you may think it’s the greatest radio station ever, then, 20 minutes later, it will drive you away again.
Perhaps because the weirder, less listenable stuff and more personality-driven shows (from the atypically right-wing “JM in the AM” to Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster’s now-relocated “Best Show”) are of more visual interest than someone sitting and playing records, the documentary places undue emphasis on these, slighting the music lovers whose playlists are often nothing short of revelatory. But a bigger problem is the concentration on station manager Ken Freedman.
While documenting the undeniable story of how Freedman led the drive to buy WFMU’s signal from the failing and now extinct Upsala College, transforming it into a listener-funded community radio station and improving its broadcast reach in Manhattan, Sex and Broadcasting isn’t exactly worshipful: He’s portrayed as a benevolent dictator, with the most damning evidence coming from his own mouth (“You have no real power,” he tells his community advisory committee), as well as via testimony from Jim Marshall, who did more than any other radio talent I’ve ever heard to illuminate the dark and forgotten corners of early rock ’n’ roll, until he was driven off by offending Freedman as well as resenting thousands of hours of hard work for no pay. (Everyone at WFMU is a volunteer, except for the boss.)
The problem with the focus on Freedman isn’t exactly a lack of objectivity; it’s just that he’s the least interesting person at WFMU. The movie would have been much stronger with more Chusid, or any commentary from my old pals and personal favorites Frank O’Toole (who did more to shape my early musical canon than anyone save Lester Bangs, and who’s still there today, albeit online only) and Nicholas Hill (who has moved on from his “Live Music Faucet,” which gave two of my bands a platform for live on-air performances, as well as showcasing many, many far more notable acts—and I’ve got the mountain of cassettes to prove it).
Sex and Broadcasting also could have benefited from tighter editing and a better sense of chronology and context. But these are quibbles.
Both this loving look at an undeniably anachronistic but wonderful radio station and the documentary return to Tower Records are well worth your time, even if you never experienced either, as noted earlier. (To these two, we could also add the newish The Smart Studio Story, about another kind of vital and often unheralded musical institution.) The vision and spirit of these institutions are what matter and continue to inspire. And lest anyone think I’m waxing nostalgic, I’ll note that these are thankfully alive and well in Chicago today, with our defiant bounty of indie record stores (among my favorites: Laurie’s Planet of Sound, Reckless, and Logan Hardware) and daring music radio stations CHIRP and Vocalo. Long may they thrive.
All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records
Rating on the 4-star scale: 3.5 stars.
Sex and Broadcasting: A Film About WFMU
Rating on the 4-star scale: 3 stars.