Brow Beat

Farewell to the Record-Store Magnate Who Made Sacramento Cool Before Lady Bird

A black-and-white photo of Russ Solomon.
Tower Records founder Russ Solomon arrives at the premiere of the documentary All Things Must Pass on Oct. 15, 2015, in Los Angeles. Amanda Edwards/WireImage

For the six months since Lady Bird first enraptured critics, then audiences, then members of the academy and other awards bodies, Sacramento has found itself riding an unprecedented surge of self-esteem. New walking tours of the city promise glimpses of landmarks and locations featured in Greta Gerwig’s love letter to her hometown. A new mural has emblazoned actress Saoirse Ronan’s face on a wall near the State Capitol. An East Sac bar featured in the film unveiled a Lady Bird cocktail. “I ♥ Lady Bird” pins are ubiquitous signifiers of local pride, and Gerwig’s Sunday night red-carpet shoutout to Sacramento dulled the sting of the film’s Oscar oh for.

It’s probably all downhill from here for my native city, as evidenced by the death that same night of 92-year-old Tower Records founder Russ Solomon—while watching the Oscars, no less, at his Sacramento home. The end came 77 years after Solomon first started selling vinyl albums in the back of his father’s drugstore on Broadway, and 14 years after his resultant music-store empire went bankrupt, crippled by the internet and ultimately doomed by corporate malignancy and ineptitude. The intervening decades at Tower Records were a wellspring of global growth, creativity, noise, glamour, and bohemian chaos. Solomon used to collect neckties that he would routinely scissor from the collars of music industry executives visiting Tower headquarters in West Sacramento. Across the river, the original Tower Records on Watt Avenue was notorious for a cocaine budget hid under a line item for “handtruck fuel.” Metallica once played a concert in that store’s parking lot, rocking out for thousands on a flatbed trailer.

Even Solomon’s demise befits his legend: According to his son’s comments to the Sacramento Bee, Solomon was drinking whiskey and snarking on Oscar fashions. His wife briefly left the room to refill his glass. Solomon was dead when she returned.

Growing up in Sacramento 25 years ago, I couldn’t conjure anything cooler about the city than Russ Solomon and Tower Records. Today, I still can’t. He and Tower were vastly cooler than anything in Lady Bird. And I loved Lady Bird! But let’s be honest: Lady Bird herself would have worked at Tower if she’d stayed in Sacramento in 2003 (at least until its last area store closed in 2006). It’s not difficult to imagine her hiding her Dave Matthews Band albums in a dorm drawer and applying to work at the Broadway store in New York City, or at least hanging out at the CD listening stations like all the other aughts-era NYU brats yet to be assimilated into downtown’s cultural fringes.

To the extent that Lady Bird triggered a moment for Sacramento, Solomon’s death over the weekend triggered a mourning for a whole era—the Tower era, the most enduring symbol of the outsize, wounded Sacramento ambition to be more, to be better. No place nurtures this ambition—a unique blend of flintiness and insecurity that I’ve come to call the Sacramento Condition—quite like this city. It is this ambition that propelled the nascent town out of its flooded roots at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers, where city fathers elevated the city grade in 1859 and built a thriving urban hub from which an enterprise like Tower Records could launch worldwide. It’s the same ambition that alienated Joan Didion, a Sacramento product whose sour perception of her hometown’s artificial post–World War II sophistication probably might have made her a perfect record-store clerk had she not fled the city for UC–Berkeley (and then New York, naturally).

No one capitalized on this local ambition as successfully as Russ Solomon. By 1999, the record store he started in 1960 with a $5,000 loan blossomed into a $1 billion juggernaut ensconced in 20 countries. (Tower Records, incidentally, is still big in Japan, where the chain’s bankruptcy execs sold off its most profitable stores.) Solomon’s model for Tower was to have practically no model at all beyond common sense—stuff as much music as possible into a room and hire a gaggle of hip, knowledgeable kids to sell it—and pure impulse. His success owed largely to the latter quality. This was a man who found Tower’s first San Francisco location the morning after an all-night bender by the bay, when he spotted a vacant storefront across from the diner where he was having breakfast with a woman he’d met the day before. (He leased it on the spot from a pay phone.) In Colin Hanks’ fantastic 2015 documentary All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, Solomon recounts his one sentence of advice to the founders of Tower’s seminal music magazine, Pulse!: “Don’t lose too much money on that.”

Ultimately, through overexpansion and debt, Solomon lost it all. But his quixotic vision of a Sacramento icon for the whole world remains robust. Lady Bird, snubbed at the Oscars, is only the most recent example of how that spirit endures to pervade our culture. Never to be outdone in their futility, the Sacramento Kings have evinced a lovable-losers magnetism ever since they arrived from Kansas City, Missouri, 33 years ago. (Lady Bird’s omission of the Kings’ infamous 2002 Western Conference Finals loss to the Los Angeles Lakers has ascended to meme status.) At Golden 1 Center, the downtown Sacramento arena that the Kings branded as the world’s most technologically advanced upon its unveiling in 2016, fans commonly stop to admire the original, primary-colored, half-century-old neon Tower Records sign that once overhung the old store on Watt Avenue.

This captivation speaks to the original Sacramento cool—a wobbly grandeur epitomized by Tower Records and carried on through Lady Bird. In her gracious, earnest nod to home, Greta Gerwig reminds us in Sacramento that it’s an honor just to be nominated. But in his unblinking embrace of risk that is so, so Sacramento—from the city perennially inviting cataclysm at the confluence of those rivers, to dying in front of your TV drinking whiskey at age 92—Russ Solomon’s more rueful lesson persists: It always feels better to win.