Saturday, February 10, 2007

A Guest Column: "Tower Of Song"

Today I turn my site over to an old friend of mine from my days at Tower Records in Greenwich Village, Danny Vogel. (That's Danny on the left at Tower in 1986.)

Danny and I worked at Tower together almost three years. It was a great time to be working at the store, as it was a great Greenwich Village hangout, and it was when CDs had just exploded into the American mainstream (and I was the store's pop CD buyer.)

We had not heard from each other in nearly eighteen years when Danny came back into my life through, what else, the Internet. Danny saw my articles about Tower, and he asked me if he could write something about our beloved late store. So today, I turn my web site over to my old friend, who currently lives in the Midwest and is married with two children. It's an extended article, but it's very well-written and I thank Danny for sharing his memories of a special place and time that will live in the memory of all of us who worked there.

Tower of Song by Danny Vogel (2007) (“Danny London” to those who knew me then)

I first joined the New York Tower Records crew in early 1985, two years after its appearance as the world’s largest record store (we were never sure if that meant largest in space, inventory or ego), but aware of its presence as the new kid on the Broadway block. I had never worked in retail before, but knowledgeable about popular music the interview process with Steve Harman, the manager, was a breeze. Steve gave me a brief speech about customer friendliness, hard work and honesty, and the job was mine a few minutes later. I walked my short trek home to Second Avenue and Fourteenth Street elated that I had landed a job at a record shop, which seemed like a dream come true, perhaps a tad pathological given the minimum wage I had just accepted. Oops, would I pay the rent? Of course, JUST, but would I have enough to eat? If necessary, I would eat pizza every day for this deluded rock’n’roll lifestyle, just like the other masochists I worked with. What I had not counted on during that walk home was the friendships I would be paid in full during my next three years.

For several weeks, it seemed the job consisted mostly of ensuring every record was appropriately placed behind its marked card in the Rock floor bins, and of assisting in stocking new arrivals dumped oddly near the elevator door. There was a certain comfort and pride each day maintaining an eighth of a mile of vinyl from Abba to ZZ Top. As time progressed, one became acquainted not only with every record’s artist, title and cover design, but its precise location in the Rock floor universe, stars in a vast musical cosmology. One would be insulted back then if accused of memorizing trivia - this was rock lore preserving our place in a future Fahrenheit 451.

When the new rock releases were deposited near the elevator in a hundred large cardboard boxes, we would flock like seagulls to a feast of crabs around them – the stars had entered the stadium. We removed our house keys and demonstrated the finely developed art of loudly popping the packing tape with their tips, then proudly swiping open the box tops with their serrated edges. Customers wishing to enter the elevator would have to step tactfully over records barely leaning against walls without crunching them and between islands of brown cartons. Rock’n’roll obstacle course.

There were several benefits to be had at the job. After the store’s manager had sifted through the promotional records provided for staff by labels to sample the merchandise, and had kept the best of the pickings himself, the rest were distributed to a dozen poorly paid minions in a decisively undemocratic manner – whomever was working the cash registers at the time would get to fight over the stash, often with paying customers waiting for the end of the ritual to complete their purchase. These promotional disks were highly prized. They could range from the biggest releases of the year by U2 or Talking Heads to more obscure independent, and often more interesting, items.

I hope I did my share to promote independent music in America by actually listening closely to these freebies at home, then recommending that the rock buyer order at least half a dozen of the more original ones. Because we were flat broke most days of the week (except on the evening of pay day, when large sums were spent in restaurants, bars and inexplicably, on records purchased from one’s site of employment), it was certainly understandable if not even forgivable that we at times sold our promotional gifts for three dollars a piece at the large second-hand record store on St. Marks Place. Dinner, pure and simple. A small crime when you consider that the buyers often had armfuls of platters that they sold for over a hundred dollars at a time. Being a buyer elevated your social status in the shop, as well as your chances of economic survival, considerably.

So when the position of import buyer opened, I grabbed it forthwith, not difficult given my English accent. I was often chastised for exceeding our budget in import orders, however most of the records always sold. I scrutinized the pages of the New Musical Express and took home promotional copies of independent music journals to make lengthy lists of interesting records from abroad to order (abroad meant mostly Europe, New Zealand, Canada and Australia as the other continents were covered by the International section upstairs on the Classical and Jazz floor). Naturally, I ordered everything I liked for sure, so the section was often flooded by releases from such labels as 4AD, Factory, Creation, Fiction, Mute and so on. But I also took pains to include more obscure releases that I read about in the music press.

I shall never forget the day I overordered the imported Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow album as it did not appear to ever be slated for domestic release. Such a practice was naturally frowned upon by the label domestically releasing other records of the band. However, in only a few brief days, several hundred of them vanished like hotcakes as I had placed them without prior approval among the new releases that were piled high to the right as one walked into the store. I was immensely proud to have gotten away with this guerrilla act, and some days after this I discovered that the sales of records from our store were deemed to represent something like seventeen percent of sales nationwide in numerous sales charts. I had thus inadvertently hyped the Smiths into the American charts. I have yet to receive a call inviting me for a drink with Morrissey. Indeed, my Hatful of Hollow bin was my own import version of the rock buyer’s bin of Madonna albums, not selling anywhere near that buyer’s domestic smash hits, but in my miniscule domain, as big as it got compared to sales of Ivor Cutler.

The manager of this gigantic store possessed the power with labels to engage in a little nepotism by putting a few of us, his children, on the guest list for rock shows now and then. I fondly recall seeing a host of the independent bands that rose to prominence in the 1980s, such as Nick Cave, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Fall or Sonic Youth.

The import buyer was actually supposed to order additionally the so-called New Music (strangely placed separately from the U.S. Independent records that shared space with the major labels), Electronic and Gospel records. I pretty much let the customers inform me about what to place in the Gospel section that I noticed upon my arrival had been gathering spider webs. One day an irate writer for a gospel magazine, barely able to suppress his anger while spraying me with spittle, informed me that there were no classic gospel artists in my section at all. I was not greatly surprised, as there were hardly any records in that section full stop. He promised to subscribe me gratis to his magazine forthwith. Upon receiving his journal each month, I would slowly turn its pages while standing near my gospel section, and make lists of all artists either advertised, reviewed or simply mentioned. Half a year later the section grew from a dozen artists to over a hundred. I never did write back to the irate gospel journalist to inform him a year later that my now nicely stacked section was moving at a snail’s pace, barely five records a week, and to enquire if he would mind coming over to spend a few hundred dollars on it?

An anarchic party atmosphere ruled almost constantly on the rock and mezzanine floors (the latter housed the twelve-inch singles - the big-sellers on that floor – as well as “my” small-sellers of reggae, new music, gospel and electronic albums). We would all pressure the twelve-inch buyer, who was posted closest to the shop’s record player, to air music guaranteed to punish the innocent soul who entered the building and who had to pass through Rock to get to Classical or Jazz. The Sex Pistols album and the soundtrack to the film Repo Man were among the more brutal yet glorious favorites, guaranteed to send many of us into fits of loud sing-alongs and punches into the air that managed miraculously not to box customers’ ears. Managers strongly disapproved of such musical choices, which disapprovals produced ripples of cheekish and certainly childish joy amongst us. Luddites who would never dream of putting hammers to precious vinyl.

The managers had to count the tills after each shift. I was once asked to perform such a rite of passage to the inner sanctorum. It kept me from sure promotion as I had no intention of spending my days sitting in a room the size of a small closet completely filled with cigarette smoke adding up bills, checks and change, although for many managers such accounting even in lung-inhospitable conditions provided sacred time away from the floors, insulated from the stress imposed upon them by bigger fish.

There existed a strong camaraderie among the coworkers that I will always cherish. I made many close pals at Tower. Many of us who were not even friends hung out with each other on a frequent basis – chatting outside the shop on cigarette breaks or upstairs in the employee lounge, attending gigs together that had us listed as guests, taking lunch locally in nearby squares and open spaces, just hanging out on “stoops” staring at crazy New Yorkers like crazy New Yorkers. Penniless, we somehow managed to share our change and eek out food and drink, including alcoholic beverages carried in brown paper bags, sipped through straws. Few of us were actually seeking a career at Tower. We were passing through between high school or college to later professions, just kids in our twenties glued by friendship and a youthful attraction to poverty and music.

Famous musicians often passed through Tower. One of my rituals was to accost them with what I deemed their “classic” release and have them autograph them with reference to my name (“For Danny”). To this day, I still have them framed on my wall – “For Danny” signed upon Lou Reed’s “Berlin,” Iggy Pop’s “The Idiot,” and Siouxsie’s “The Scream,” among my favorites. Once I spied Yoko Ono with a security entourage walking down the stairs. Lickety-split I managed to get hold of the 7” single of “Power to the People.” I am looking up at the signed item before me on the wall as I type these words (“To Dan, Love, Yoko Ono, NYC, ‘85”).

Tower was a major cultural center in Greenwich Village. Lonely people would drop in to chat with us employees and to succumb to the lure of musical vinyl, while couples meeting for a date would similarly wait in the warmth of our store while flicking through record titles and listening to music rather than wait somewhere outside in the city. Hardly a soul came in on Christmas Day, but a few really had nowhere else to go (including us employees, who volunteered to work at double pay in alarming numbers). The Greenwich Village Tower had a reputation for stocking independent and foreign bands that were hard to find elsewhere. It was a sort of Ellis Island for the immigrant explosion of new wave bands emerging from both American towns as well as from across the Atlantic. The television screens would often broadcast MTV around the clock, and had done so from its very first airing of “Video Killed The Radio Star,” thus to a large extent introducing that exemplary though vacuous cultural TV icon to its first audience on the East Coast. Rarely did MTV get interrupted, although there were many times the volume was turned down so we could play records. The only scandalous time I remember MTV taking second –place to another TV station was when the Challenger liftoff was broadcast in early 1986, leading both us employees and a mass of customers to observe some minutes later, necks craned upward as though to the skies, the horrific and tragic explosion that took place in them.

The mid- to late-80s Greenwich Village Tower was run by an unusual grouping of eccentric, talented and special people who left behind memories most of us still spend some of our lives lost in. A paragraph that was written in this space describing my memories and feelings about the people themselves was deemed too personal and was promptly deleted, akin to the traumatized who try hard in vain to erase the painful past by frantically looking away. Perhaps those recollections will be shared another day with Tower veterans, or by me in a future article on this site when I have accepted the appropriateness of revealing them. Having moved to Chicago, I still found myself occasionally haunting the local Tower, disappointedly, as though in search of characters and memories frozen in another place and time. Many of us worked there not only in the formative years of that store, but also in our own developmental formative early adulthood. We were just babies then. Many of us find it hard to recall those days without mixed emotions of both warming joy and aching sadness or longing. The news of the New York store closing in late 2006 pulled those feelings back up again, and provided a far more real closure to that chapter in our lives than we may have been prepared to face, even for those of us who did not step foot there in 20 years.

“Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey/I ache in the places where I used to play/And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on/I’m just paying my rent every day/Oh in the tower of song.”

(Tower of Song by Leonard Cohen, 1988)


Ken K. said...

As a 25 year man at Tower, thanks for bringing that legendary store to life once again for me. Thanks Danny, and thanks John for handing over the keyboard for a minute. Excellent. Just excellent.

Peter N said...

I have to agree...fabulous stuff Danny!!!! I wish I coud do it all over again......although being in Connecticut, there were no Tower records. Hey Danny, imagine being in charge of imports during the Beatle's reign. Thanks to my Dad, for I was young, I was able to order the British versions of the first seven Beatles albums, soon after Capitol (in the case of A hard Day's Night's, United Artist Records) released their "butchered, song switching" releases. From Harods. And I was the first 15 year old with those "NEW BEATLES SONGS no included on the Capital releases. Of course, that all changed with '67's Sgt. Pepper. From then on, all LPs were the same, this side of the pond or not.
Thank you for writing such a great post. And thanks Q! Enjy this cold and clear Sunday! Peter, still smiling.

Peter N said...

And I apologise for my's early!!!!!

The Omnipotent Q said...

Actually Peter, there was a Tower store in Connecticut. They opened a store in Stamford in the late 90s, and I was the rep for the store for Bayside, the company I worked for then (as did my buddy Ken in Sacramento). It was a good store but a pain for me to get to from Brooklyn.

Thanks guys for the nice comments about Danny's column. I'll make sure he knows about them.

Ken K. said...

Heads up John, your pic link is broke for this story.

The Omnipotent Q said...

Thanks for the heads up Ken, but the picture is working fine for me. Danny said he had a similar problem seeing the pic too. What could be causing the problem?

Peter N said...

Works for me...the pic link...and Stamford is far away for me....but I loved the post....take care as we prepare for our first (maybe) snowstorm.......

Suldog said...

Jeez, this is good stuff. Brings back floods of memories about shopping at New England Music City, Kenmore Square, during the 70's. I've read about half of it and am printing out the rest for leisurely after-work reading.