Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Last Trip to Tower

Like a lot of people, I had mixed reactions to the demise of Tower Records. It's always bad to lose another B&M especially when they carried such an array of commercially marginal material but I didn't buy much from them mainly due to the prices. It was the only place in town to get Songlines (may have to subscribe now) so I'd made a trip every two or three months and apart from magazines would only occasionally pick up a Proper/JSP box or a Naxos disc. Even the prices would have been easier to accept if it wasn't a chain and one that had infamously poor service at that. (The old location consistently bombarded the most aggressive industrial/metal they could find.)

So I went right after the sale was announced expecting that with those prices the discount wouldn't make much difference and that was true. Picked up two Proper sets, Ham Hocks and Cornbread and the Bechet, but that was it. A bit over a week ago went back when the DVD discount had dropped to 40% and even that wasn't as tempting as I thought it might be. There were still a few Criterions but coupled with their high prices as well those slipped away. Got a John Wayne set just because it had a letterboxed version of Sternberg's Jet Pilot (not even remotely his best but hey it's still Sternberg), Switchblade Sisters and a bunch of CDs: new Klezmatics, Rough Guides to Rebetika (amazing) and Gypsy Swing (have several other similar comps), Art Brut, Blackalicious and that Andy Fairweather Low retrospective even though I have all the original LPs. And now this last time pretty much all the obvious stuff was gone so I ended up with a small stack of NoShame DVDs including Bertolucci’s Partner which I’ve wanted to see for years. Plus a disc that’s supposed to be a sequel to Django but I haven’t yet tried to ID what it really is. Stuff that normally I would have rented but 50% off created the psychological OK.

The thing about Tower, though, is that I really miss Pulse both because in its prime it was about the best music magazine around but also because it was the first place I really got freelance (paid!) exposure. I can’t remember now the first piece I wrote for them, probably either a Peter Stampfel profile or a piece about Henry Kaiser’s Crazy Backwards Alphabet. Also can’t even remember what else I did for them though a beginner’s guide to hardcore punk does stick out as well as an interview with Marshall Crenshaw about rock ‘n’ roll movies and an extended piece during the late 80s about labels pushing more peculiar music (Nonesuch, Cuneiform, Pangaea and a couple of short-lived major-label boutiques). Was Pulse where I interviewed Thurston Moore? Perhaps. Those issues are all packed away and I haven’t seen them for years. Writing for Pulse was how I always imagined freelancing would be like: tossing out ideas (some quite esoteric) and then running with a “yes.” The editor even called once to pitch an idea at me which had that you’ve-arrived feeling. Unfortunately it was about a flat-picking guitarist and while I could easily fake the piece (a talent quickly learned by any freelancer) I decided to pass.

Knowing that you didn’t have to ID every reference was one of the fun things about writing for Pulse (as with Option and a few others). Didn’t have to explain what Cagean or Eno-esque meant, that calypso was a very political music, differences between say Ellington and Basie, the purpose of free improv or whatever. Not that this is a burden with more general publications but sometimes you just have more to say to presumed peers than to students. At its peak Pulse seemed to cover everything and was one of the few magazines I read cover to cover, even about subjects I wouldn’t expect to like. The classical coverage kept getting bounced around until eventually put into a separate (and thin) magazine before finally being deleted altogether. But by then Tower was already starting to have financial difficulties and y’know Golden Ages never last.

Tower’s final plunge now has inspired more eulogies, including a quite typical one in the Washington Post. He hits all the usual points and doesn’t stick to anything: that technology today is good but we’re still losing something, that Tower was good but not so good, that nostalgia itself is not good unless of course it is. And maybe that’s the point after all (though I have no idea what that might be).