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A Towering Fall

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The shuttering of Denver's Tower Records branch at the end of this week demonstrates that when it comes to the music business, the virtual (i.e., downloading) is currently kicking the crap out of the physical (CDs and so on). But for yours truly, the death of this retail outlet, and the Tower chain as a whole, is more personal. I worked at what was arguably the most famous record store in America -- the Tower outlet on Los Angeles' Sunset Strip (pictured) -- for more than a year during the mid-1980s, when the brand was at its absolute pinnacle of power and cool.

I landed the gig in the fall of 1984, shortly after moving from Grand Junction to L.A. in order to attend UCLA -- and on day one, when B.B. King and longtime Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin were among the customers, I realized this wasn't just any platter shack. Before long, my wife stopped asking me, "How was your day?" in favor of "Who did you see?"

Indeed, a parade of stars marched through the store on a daily basis, and not just when they were scheduled for in-store appearances; among the groups that sat for signings during my tenure were the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lone Justice, General Public and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, whose members arrived in a modified tank. Others who made the pilgrimage included Morrissey, Elvis Costello, David Lee Roth and Afghan Whigs leader Greg Dulli, who, at the time, was one of my co-workers. They were joined by actors and TV personalities that represented different levels of celebrity: major (Clint Eastwood, Robert DeNiro), minor (Dennis Weaver, Miss America warbler Bert Parks) and somewhere in between (Teri Garr, Albert Brooks).

The store's managers were an incredible repository of Tower tales. For instance, one assistant told of arriving early one morning to open up only to discover Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson, then at his most bloated and least mentally functional, languidly urinating on the very doorknob the employee had to twist to gain entry. And even though I only worked there for a relatively short period, I emerged with plenty of stories, too. Among them:

Witnessing the drunken shenanigans of actor James Woods and actress Kay Lenz, who'd gotten loaded at the original Spago restaurant, which was up a hill a few hundred feet away. Security tossed them out after they started throwing LPs at each other;

Shaking hands with Billy Idol, who was reportedly holed up in a nearby hotel with a gaggle of willing skanks. His palm was covered with a slimy, viscous material that took several increasingly panicked hand-washings to remove;

Feeling a hand on my back as I was stocking albums on my hands and knees, and pivoting to find myself practically nose to nose with Anthony Perkins, looking exactly as he did when he played murderous Norman Bates in the Psycho films;

Trying and failing to get Sammy Davis Jr. to say hello to my wife on the telephone. Sammy would've done it, but my wife was changing the laundry and didn't get to the phone in time, to her eternal chagrin.

As a bonus, the Christmas presents I gave to my sister radically improved in quality. One year, I presented her with an album autographed by a tremendously gracious, down-to-earth Bruce Springsteen. On another, she received a similar scrawl from a purple-silk-pajamas-clad Prince, who entered the store in the company of an enormous, scowling bodyguard. I was the only staffer brave enough to approach the singer under these circumstances, and I realized how foolhardy I'd been after hearing that the same guard had pummeled some guy hours later at an event connected to the American Music Awards.

Oh yeah: I also gave my mother a copy of Tom Selleck's charge slip. Hope she didn't ring up a bunch of purchases on his dime.

Of course, the history of Denver's Tower was much less interesting, and a lot briefer, too; it's only been around for a few years. But this weekend, I managed to get a swell memento from the joint. The store's getting rid of all its old CD and DVD racks, and a manager offered to sell me one for $20. There are plenty more where that one came from, but don't expect any help lugging your purchase out the door. When I asked a clerk for a hand, he curtly informed me, "I'm not a laborer."

He'll be right about that as of next week. But at least he'll know that he worked for what was once the hippest record chain in America -- albeit long after such a designation mattered. -- Michael Roberts

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