Meet Me at Waterloo Records: Playing, Shopping, and Encountering Life-Changing Moments at the Heart of Austin Music: Influential Austin characters reminisce on 40 years at the record store – Music
Owner John Kunz inside Waterloo Records, 2015 (Photo by John Anderson)
Doyle Bramhall II glanced over his shoulder and gave me a piercing look. Queued up at the vinyl room register in Waterloo Records, I flashed back to my fourth day in Texas: Fourth of July, 1992. Crossing over through El Paso 72 hours earlier, this native San Franciscan rolled into San Antonio in an un-air-conditioned Datsun 280ZX only to discover abuelita hospitalized and a musical christening scheduled for historic Hemisfair Park via an Alamo City/Austin dual commemoration, Freedom Fest: Arc Angels, Stray Cats, Cheap Trick, Leon Russell, Bruce Hornsby & the Range. Kicking about in front of the towering wooden stage, I peered between the slats to find Bramhall staring me straight in the eye. He winked. This time, decades later, a dark countenance across his face read easily enough: “Do I know you?”
John Kunz, by contrast, rarely wears anything but curiosity and a grin on his beardy mug, and last Friday, April 1, Waterloo’s 40th anniversary, the store’s first and foremost greeter lit up his black ensemble like Independence Day. Watching bard eternal Ray Wylie Hubbard enthrall an in-store assembly for the first time in two years, he stared intently as hardcore live music capitalists buzzed around him as giddy as guests at a wedding. Debuting at 221 S. Lamar in 1982, Austin’s Smithsonian library of sound relocated seven years later. Kunz pointed down at the floor, silently, “Right here.” Thirty-three years right there, smack-dab at Sixth & Lamar. Their vinyl annex where Lululemon now sits ran 1990-93, followed by Waterloo’s video rental venture in the same space, 1993-2008. “Let’s talk after Ray Wylie,” turned back the store’s owner.
“‘Ello, this is Robert.” After back-to-back ACL Live blowouts, I’d met the legendary ex-local twice, once backstage and again the following night upstairs in a roomful of very wealthy fans. Exiting the meet and greet, the lion and his pride moved quickly down a hall wherein my conduit turned around, gave me the nod, and I moved in for the pitch – favor for a son of Skip Spence. When my cell vibrated an unknown number the next morning at an Austin institution that grew up alongside Kunz and crew, I answered on maybe the last ring while I edited the Chronicle‘s South by Southwest Music wrap-up. For 10 minutes, the frontman for the second-biggest English quartet of all time sing-songed an unprompted monologue of the mundane, signing off finally with words repeated here in one fashion or another by a singular chorus of native musicians, statesmen, and poets as embodied by one Robert Anthony Plant: “I’m off to Waterloo Records, ta-ta.”– Raoul Hernandez
Photo by Zeke Barbaro
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett
“Waterloo Records has served as a cornerstone – as a venue, a hub, and so much more – of the Austin music scene since the days when Austin City Limits was a fairly new show and the Austin Opry House was taking up the mantle of the Armadillo World Headquarters. Personally, my favorite memories came a little later in its story: from combing through the shelves and shelves of CDs with my daughters and Libby, shopping for Christmas gifts for family and finding some gems for ourselves in the process, before heading over to Waterloo Ice House with our finds. For me, the records there made by our very own Marcia Ball, Asleep at the Wheel, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Jerry Jeff [Walker], Willie Nelson, and more – many of them who played and launched at Waterloo – couldn’t be topped by others in their extensive, world-class collection. Long live this Austin institution, and long live the independent, defiant spirit of our music scene.”
Well first of all, I was the greatest employee Waterloo ever had. You might want to start the article like that.
Our association began when Waterloo Records was south of the river, in that original location behind the Jack in the Box. When the True Believers started to get together, Don Davis, Louis Karp, and John Kunz became really big fans. We were having a difficult time finding a label, and they actually funded the recording of our first record. Then when the True Believers were breaking up and Javier had gone off with Will & the Kill, I found myself back in Austin with Maya and Bobbie. Maya was just a little girl, and I had to find some sort of income. I first worked at Sound Warehouse, because John wouldn’t hire me at first. After I’d worked there a year, maybe a year and a half, I finally told him, “Hey, man. I have some experience.”
They were always so supportive. When Heinz Geissler and John Kunz started Watermelon Records, they put out my first solo album, Gravity. It was pretty interesting to be working at the desk and selling other people’s records, then someone would walk in with this four-star review in Rolling Stone for my record. People were bringing in all these amazing reviews. And I hadn’t played out in awhile. I was working, I was playing locally, I had the Orchestra, and we had just started up Buick MacKane at the same time. We were just gigging locally.
I just kept working, even though they allowed me to go out on tour. But I came back and worked. I wasn’t a traveling/working musician at the time. But I loved working there. Part of me wanted to stay there and just work. I remember there was an opportunity to get a promotion one time, and Don Lamb and John Kunz told me, “You’re better off being a musician than being a record store clerk.” They encouraged me to keep up the music, which I am really grateful that they did. But they’ve always been supportive in that way.
Don Davis and I opened up the vinyl store around the corner. We did crazy shit there. We’d open up the store on Sundays and have a theme day. We’d play nothing but workers’ songs on May Day. On Cinco de Mayo, we’d play nothing but conjunto and rancheras and stuff. We’d get a buncha tacos and Mexican food and trade Mike Belyea a Kiss picture disc for a pitcher of beer. We had a blast!
But the most beautiful part for me, as a lover of records and music, was the access. I’ve always loved books and records, and working at Waterloo was like working in a musical library. Don would let you take so many records home per week to check out/listen to/educate yourself, then you’d bring them back. We had an open return policy at Waterloo, which was really rare for a record store at the time.
And there were always these guys working there who you could go to for information. If it was world music, you’d go to Hayes McCauley. He knew everything! He was encyclopedic about this shit. Martin Coulter was into roots, blues, and R&B. Don Davis was into garage rock and different types of rock & roll, New Orleans music. There wasn’t a question that couldn’t be answered by these guys. So, I’m just sitting there, soaking it up.
Then there were the in-stores that happened every Friday. Being a music snob, sometimes I’d sit there and hang out and listen to these bands, and go, “Oh, man! They suck!” And of course, they’d sell a million cassettes that week or whatever! So, I’d be fuming inside, serving beer to all the street people. One time, we didn’t finish the keg at some in-store, so Buick MacKane took it with us to a party we played at! It was hilarious!
– as told to Tim Stegall
Waterloo Records in 2000 (Photo by John Anderson)
When I was younger, Waterloo Records was the mecca and my dream was to work there. In the early Nineties, I applied for a job there. I interviewed with John Kunz. I thought the interview went well, but it didn’t work out. I was crushed.
In 1996, through a childhood friend, I got another opportunity to interview for an open position. This time around, I got the job! I WAS STOKED.
After a year or two of manning the registers, I became a buyer. I was the hip-hop and vinyl buyer. Through that, I got to meet many record label, music industry, and distribution folks that would later be key in my trajectory as a DJ.
Waterloo was my home for 13 years. I grew up there – the staff was my family. We all went through a lot during my time there. To this day, I look at all my former co-workers with reverence. I am so grateful to have worked at a place that is central to our music scene in Austin. Long before the internet and file sharing took over.
Whether it was new release day on 9/11 (Jay-Z’s The Blueprint dropped on that date), the infamous Alex Jones in-store, Elliott Smith performing there, talking to Mike Judge about gangster rap regularly (and slipping my latest mixtape into his bag), getting to know Mark [Pratz] & J’Net [Ward] from Liberty Lunch (they would later book me to open for some big hip-hop shows there), Andrew W.K. working the floor for a few hours, SXSW, and the insane amount of other in-stores I had the privilege to watch are things I will cherish.
Not to mention the day-to-day antics with my co-workers.
While working there, I had the typical employer-employee relationship with John Kunz. You know, the “time to lean, time to clean” dynamic. Many years later after leaving Waterloo, I have gotten to know him and his wife, Kathy, better, and it is always a pleasure to see him and catch up every time.
You gotta put that respect on John and his store’s name. Waterloo is turning 40 – that says a lot about him and his staff’s tenacity. In the current climate where anything mom & pop in Austin is so rare, each day that open neon sign is lit is truly a blessing for our town.
God bless and salute to Waterloo Records!
John Kunz (l) and “god of hellfire” Arthur Brown, who first played Waterloo in 1982 (Courtesy of John Kunz)
I always get such a kick out of seeing John at my concerts. He shows up out of nowhere with that warm smile of his and waves at me like he’s just a fan in the crowd, and he is – and so much more. Playing an in-store at Waterloo Records is always the highlight of releasing an album. It’s a rite of passage and the musical portal for all great music! Happy birthday, John. I’m a huge fan!
(Speedy Ortiz and Sad13)
I got hired off Craigslist to work at Waterloo Video just a few months before it closed in 2008 – I was also working at Waterloo Ice House and freelance writing because Texas minimum wage was $6.55 an hour and, oops, I don’t think it’s gone up too much since then?!? But despite the paycheck and the short duration, I still think of Waterloo more fondly than almost every other job I’ve worked, and have even held on to my employee name tag for the past 14 years!
My co-workers were aspirationally cool to me, and I’ll forever treasure when one of them taught me to play a singing saw maybe a week after we started working together. I got to see some incredibly weird movies on the clock – I still show my friends the animated Christian short “Doggy Poo,” which is exactly what it sounds like. There was some mutual back-scratch deal with Alamo Drafthouse and Waterloo employees could see movies there for free, so I went to ALL OF THE MOVIES. And we could also buy used items at cost, causing my collection of vaguely obscure Nineties CDs to rapidly balloon. I think a lot of my taste today was shaped by those experiences, since I was 20 and happy to sponge anything and everything up. It was also surreal for me to get to ring up favorite musicians like Britt Daniel – a story I got to tell him when Speedy Ortiz later opened for Spoon. I also once really weirded out Dax Riggs by pulling up his account before he showed me his rental card. Granted, he was a regular, but I’m sorry for rockognizing you, Dax. I know better now!
After Waterloo, I had a few office-y jobs that were comparatively miserable. I worried I had been day-job-spoiled for life by my time video clerking. Luckily, touring in a band for work is pretty cool. Getting to do in-stores and SXSW shows at Waterloo always feels like a huge honor to me, and a return to an important part of my own history. Happy birthday, Waterloo, thanks for letting me play a tiny part in your incredible 40 years!
Elliot Smith performs inside Waterloo Records, 1998 (Photo by Todd V. Wolfson)
(Black Pumas, Brownout)
Too hard to find one favorite moment at Waterloo because every time I go in there, I leave with something: a great record, a great conversation, or a reminder that this town is still cool. John will always find time to come and say hello and have a truly meaningful conversation, and him and the staff have Jedi mind-tricked me into spending way more money on things I’ve never heard many times, and I’ve never regretted it. Happy 40th to one of the great Austin institutions!
(Jazz trumpeter and composer, Chief Musician in the Tribe of Jonah)
John’s is a legendary presence in the world of music and in the human dimension of creativity. His actions are always geared towards making music accessible to society. Lamar Boulevard should be changed to Kunz Boulevard or the parking lot in front of Waterloo Records should be renamed Kunz Plaza. That is the least the city of Austin could do to honor so vital a part of its creative soul. Many Blessings.
When Waterloo Records opened in 1982 in the little strip of shops on South Lamar next to where the Split Rail had been, I thought, “Oh, poor thing. They’ll never make it.” The big chains were all over town. How could they compete?
40 years later, Waterloo thrives. John and his crew have maneuvered through every change in technology and, thankfully, never left LPs behind. The alphabetical layout is genius. The in-store performances are essential to any record release for us locals and for national artists as well. Waterloo’s support of Austin artists, that rack just inside the front door, is part of what makes them beloved. I have many friends who visit from out of town and Waterloo is one of their necessary stops to stock up on music.
I have, more than once, browsed through the store and discovered records that sent me in a new creative direction when I needed that. Waterloo is the best of old Austin and I hope they’ll be around for another 40 years. Happy anniversary, John and Waterloo and all you folks there who have kept our music playing.
The crowd inside Waterloo Records for Record Store Day in 2013 (Photo by John Anderson)
(Jazz saxophonist, Church on Monday)
Before there were CDs, Waterloo Records lived on South Lamar next to Wendy’s (currently some bullshit condos live there). I would take my 12 hard-earned dollars made as a sandwich slinger at ThunderCloud on Lake Austin Boulevard and go peruse the vinyl selection (in alphabetical order, by artist) to look up every jazz record I could find. I usually stopped by Coltrane first and then made my way to Davis. After meticulously poring over the liner notes, I would narrow the choice down to three or four LPs and ultimately would choose just one based on personnel and tune selection. After wearing the grooves out, the entire process would repeat a few months later. Thanks to John Kunz (and Paul Ray), I think I read the liner notes to every jazz LP ever stocked at Waterloo. My collection still has those LPs.
Happy 40th, John Kunz and Waterloo Records! Here’s to another 40.
My first clear Waterloo memory is from a cold January Saturday in 1989, involving a great Reivers parking lot show at the old location on South Lamar. I didn’t know that that visit would initiate a decades-long connection with the store, and can only guess the number of interesting, at times life-affirming records I’ve found there since then. My wife worked there for many years, and our kids have grown up running around the store, so it’s no exaggeration that Waterloo feels like family. Having ready and fortunate access to such a world-class record store has soundly informed my lifelong relationship with music. It remains to be a true cultural beacon, and our city is lucky to have it.
(The Go-Go’s, the Bluebonnets)
Waterloo is where I watched my adolescent kid browse through records for the first time in her life. Pulling out Frank Ocean’s record and perusing it, like, “Hey, I might be 11 years old but I know what’s cool” – just in case anyone is watching. I remember that exact feeling when I was a kid, acting all nonchalant about what I was interested in, trying to be casual about the thrill of being surrounded by so much music. We had so many trips to the store, a destination or launching point of hanging out together, stringing along, and filling up empty days – every parent has those with their kids. Waterloo is on the short list of places I take first-time visitors to Austin. Waterloo supported me when I did my one and only solo record. And John Kunz is one of my favorite people to run into on nights out. Long live Waterloo Records!
I first walked into Waterloo Records in 1991, during my baptismal SXSW. I can’t remember what I bought, except there was a lot of it. But I will never forget my visit to the cash register where the gentleman behind the counter introduced himself and thanked me for reviewing his band’s record in Rolling Stone. The album: 1986’s True Believers. My new friend: singer/guitarist/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo.
That chance encounter was the beginning of so much for me in Austin, Texas. As a writer, I made it part of my mission to give Escovedo’s life and work the light it has always deserved. And soon enough, as a SXSW pilgrim, this became my mantra: The weekend was not over until I saw Escovedo play the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” somewhere in town – at the Hole in the Wall with Buick MacKane; with the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra, armed with friends and strings; or on those legendary Sunday nights at the Continental Club.
And SXSW was never complete for me without a trip – usually more than one – to Waterloo Records, where the welcome was always and still is as big as the selection. The actual shopping over the years is a blur. I can’t pick a particular album or hallelujah moment from the last 30 years because I have so much music – most of it local and independently released – throughout my collection, bought at Waterloo as I tried to catch up with everything I saw, heard, and wanted more of at each SXSW. I do have a few, permanent mind movies from the many in-store shows I was lucky to see during Waterloo’s annual cavalcade of stars: among them, that legendary 2007 rave-up by the reunited Stooges; a 2003 shot of Danish fuzzbox and glam from the Raveonettes; a Robyn Hitchcock set of late-Nineties vintage that included Peter Buck and Mike Mills of R.E.M. as sidemen; and a notorious 1997 appearance by the Japanese psycho-garage trio Guitar Wolf, which I reviewed in Rolling Stone with well-meant hyperbole but a few too many references to heat and flame. My sincere apologies, once again, for the subsequent visit by the fire marshals.
I have had lots of favorite record stores over my lifetime of listening and collecting, all over the world. Most of them are gone, too; such is life and commerce. But Waterloo has made it to 40 years – and counting – because Austin is still weird enough to support a business with ideals. John Kunz and his team sell records for the same reason I still buy them: They are true believers. CDs, 45s, LPs, cassettes: They are all physical product. But the music in there can be food, oxygen and love. It can save your life. You just need to find the right ones. That’s why God made great record stores – like Waterloo.
Patti Griffin performs inside Waterloo Records, 2019 (Photo by Todd V. Wolfson)
I was set to play an in-store acoustic set at Waterloo. I went down to soundcheck early, so no friends or fans had showed up yet and there were only a few people in the store browsing. As I checked the volume on my Martin acoustic guitar through the PA, I looked over and saw Billy Joe Shaver and son Eddy Shaver milling through a record bin. This is before I had met them. I would later go on to play shows with them, be on the same record label as them, and later become friends with Billy Joe and a very guarded Eddy who was a Guitar God to me at this point. (I ripped off lots of licks from Eddy, but could never quite make them sound as good as he did.) After one listen, which turned into a million listens, of their latest desert island must-have Tramp on Your Street record, I was a 1,000% fan boy. So I put down my guitar, walked over and they both had a copy of one of Billy Joe’s old records in their hand and Billy was telling Eddy, “See, I told you I recorded that song on this record before!” Looking back, this was not so much about self-grandiosity on their part as it was because it was the age of pre-internet and if you wanted to know what was on a record and you didn’t own it, you had no choice but to go to a record store to find out. I nervously butted in and said, “Uh, hey, I’m Jesse and just wanted to say how much I love Tramp on Your Street.” They both turned around to look at me at the same time and Billy Joe said, “You ’bout to do some pickin’?” I said, “Yea, I got my first record out this week.” By this time some friends and few fans came in so I said, “I’m about to start in a few minutes.”
Billy Joe & Eddy stood in the very back of the store with their arms crossed and watched my entire set and it was completely nerve-racking. To coin an old East Texas phrase, “I was sweatin’ like a pregnant hooker in a Pentecostal church.” After my five songs I saw them both walk out the door. I thought, “Well, didn’t get to see what they thought, but at least they stayed for the whole thing?” Later I’m loading out and Billy Joe and Eddy are sitting in the Waterloo parking lot in a pickup truck with the doors open. I walked over and said, “Hey, thanks for watching.” Eddy said nothing (that would change later when we became friends and would talk about Texas blues guitar players for hours), but Billy Joe smiled and winked at me and said, “You gotta ways to go sidewinder, but I think you might do OK.” I was very young and green so that was the most encouraging thing he could have ever said to me at that point. Then Eddy finally chimed in and invited me to the Saxon Pub to see them that night. Of course I went and the band blew my young head off my shoulders!
Anyway, that’s how I met my ultimate songwriting hero Billy Joe Shaver and his guitar-slinging genius son Eddy. Thanks John Kunz, and thanks Waterloo for being there to make that happen.
April 2005, about one year before I would get to take part in my first in-store performance at Waterloo Records with the Small Stars, I witnessed something at the landmark indie record store that left my jaw somewhere between the N’s and the O’s of the then-new CDs section. I was working as an assistant for my longtime booking agent and close friend Roggie Baer. (Note to aspiring musicians: You snag way more gigs when you’re answering the phone for your agent!) At the time the RajiWorld office was just a five- or six-block walk away from the current location of the recorded music mecca presided over by John Kunz. One day, we noticed the band Riverboat Gamblers were set to play an in-store that afternoon and decided to make that our first stop during our lunch break walk. The Gamblers were getting hot quick due to their incredible live shows and when we arrived at the store the place was already packed. Roggie and I made our way toward the back of the aforementioned CD section and watched as they plugged in, tuned up, and readied themselves for John’s introduction. Everyone was enjoying their free Dixie cup of beer, chatting and checking out the latest discs from Roky Erickson, the Mars Volta, and Kelly Willis when the band exploded into their first song. In what seemed like only a few seconds, lead singer Mike Wiebe grabbed the mic and leapt from behind the small stage railing into the crowd and then promptly crawled on top of the Waterloo counters. Now hovering above the unprepared audience, Wiebe stomped backward and forward as he spewed the lyrics of their new songs with all the fire and zeal of a crazed punk rock preacher, unwilling to settle for anything less than complete attention and fear of being pummeled in the head by a Shure SM58 being swung at 50 mph. As he kicked used discs and banged his head into light fixtures on his way back to the stage, I was completely transfixed on him.
As he placed the mic back on the stand I caught a glimpse of John Kunz looking up and smiling and rocking out side by side with his loyal customers, letting me know John was and always will be a fan – just like me and you.
One of my best memories at Waterloo Records: changing clothes in my car in the Waterloo parking lot before getting up to perform an in-store with Mike Flanigin and Jimmie Vaughan for The Drifter album.
V. Marc Fort
(Schatzi, Fuckemos, Bo Bud Greene bassist; KOOP Radio DJ; Texas Music Office marketing & communications specialist)
Waterloo Records changed the trajectory of my life from the first moment I walked into the original South Lamar location, circa 1988. I’d been in record stores before, of course, but there was a big difference between stores like Hastings and Sound Warehouse … and Waterloo. If memory serves, Joe Ely had just played in the parking lot, and then he and the band posted up in the front of the store to sign albums. There was a magic in the air: part from the charisma of the Joe Ely Band in its prime. But as I frequented the store more and more, and followed Waterloo to their next location north of the river, I’d learn that the magnetic appeal of Waterloo wasn’t confined to a particular building or space. That enchanting allure even followed the Waterloo name around the corner from Sixth & Lamar when they had a separate video and vinyl store. Likewise, that same Waterloo magic grew in its enchantment as the store expanded into their current largest configuration, taking up the majority of their block at Sixth & Lamar. Overhearing conversations among music fans tossing back free beer at all the glorious artist in-store appearances began to seep into my ears, to my soul, like incantations, further seducing me into professional opportunities surrounded by music. (Note to my 20-year-old self: When the artist Wammo says with a heavy sigh, “That Seattle band – Nirvana – that’s coming to Liberty Lunch is pretty amazing. That’s gonna be a great show,” listen to Wammo, and go to the show!) And as the years passed, I’d hear other band’s names for the first time while shopping at Waterloo, names which became secret handshakes among those who knew what’s good: Public Enemy, Pavement, Swervedriver, PJ Harvey. Artists who’d all come through Austin … and often I’d go to Waterloo to purchase my tickets to see them! And as the Austin music industry bug infected me further, I’d eventually be raised by the surrogate family whom I first met while hanging at all those in-store performances, then later as an artist performing at the in-stores at Waterloo (a rite of passage for every rising musician around the world). Those in-stores included some of my most communal moments with my favorite artists, all curated by Waterloo: getting records signed by Ride, Sonic Youth, XTC, and countless others. Engaging in sacred conversations with the employees about what you’re purchasing and what they’re listening to these days. And at every single in-store appearance, I’d notice the gentleman quickly moving back and forth, making sure the artists are taken care of, the free beer is flowing, the employees have everything they need, the autograph line is moving … and then I’d notice that gentleman take a step back to breathe it all in like a proud papa bear. I’d eventually learn that soft-spoken, kindhearted gentleman was John Kunz, Waterloo owner. Waterloo Records’ secret formula has been updated and refined for 40 years by one man and a host of musicians and creatives side-hustling as store employees. Anyone can open a record store, but John and his cast of characters – “Did I see that employee casually walking naked at a party last weekend?!” – are the secret ingredient that make Waterloo more than just a good hang and a place to buy your favorite music. It’s no coincidence that Waterloo is synonymous with “Old Austin,” and with the city’s original name. Waterloo, the store, reps the values and community that people refer to when they think of old, pre-condo-dotted-skyline Austin: community over commerce, good times over status symbols, a lifestyle that emphasizes familial friendships and sacred spaces, secret watering holes … and a singular magical record store that, Lord willing and the oceans don’t rise, will be turning Austinites on to great music 40 more years from now.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler
I came to Texas in 1978 to attend an inexpensive law school I could afford and without any intention of staying. But then I experienced music in Austin (and breakfast tacos) and I knew I’d never leave. Waterloo Records was where you could always find the musicians I was hearing at the Armadillo, at the festivals, and on the local radio stations. I still have the Shake Russell/Dana Cooper LPs I purchased there and can still sing all the songs. Waterloo is part of the Austin magic!
(Sailor Poon, reigning Austin Music Industry Awards Best Poster Artist)
When I was a young Buck, my dad would take us around the shop circuit. Waterloo was a weekly stop, and while record collecting wasn’t on my 10-year-old mind, I loved going in for the sights, smells, and sounds. My li’l brother, Ben, has always been a notorious shining star diva (shocking, I know) and was known to stage a scene from time to time. Ben (6 at the time) was convinced that one Waterloo employee WAS Ringo Starr. He would follow him around, bless his heart, and when it was time for said employee to clock out, Ben once laid on that little ramp by the expensive box sets and cried out, “RINGOOOOOOOOOO.”
Long live Ringo Starr, the best Waterloo Records employee to ever price $0.99 markdown records.
John Kunz inside Waterloo Records, 1999 (Photo by John Anderson)
Gosh, where do I start? Waterloo has always been a sanctuary of song. An island of sanity in a sea of uncertainty. I’ve seen and played hundreds of in-stores there. I’ve been and still am friends with many who worked there.
When I first moved to Austin one of the few people I knew in the music community was Al Escovedo. My band, Picket Line Coyotes, had opened for True Believers in Baton Rouge. He told me I should move to Austin. When I showed up at Waterloo years later, he remembered me. Or at least acted like he did. I was dirt-poor then. But I had lots of cool vinyl. So, when I was broke and needed to eat I would sell vinyl to Al. He always sorted them by Waterloo’s stack and his stack. Specifically I remember parting with a lot of Twin/Tone and SST stuff, Hüsker Dü, Minutemen, etc. The Replacements’ Stink and Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash especially hurt at the time. Of course I would usually buy a record too. Leaving just enough for a burger next door at Waterloo Ice House. Al used to do shows at the Ice House as well. I’ll never forget when he asked me to play some songs at his show there. That was a huge deal for me. I’ll never forget it.
But my best memories are of taking my kids there early on weekends just after they opened, when very few people were there. One particular morning stands out, when a “power couple” of a local musician and a movie star were standing at the point of sale. The musician was paying for records, while his movie star girlfriend could not take her eyes off of my little boy running wild around the store. I thought to myself, “Baby fever.” Homeboy better watch out or he’s gonna be a daddy. Important life lessons I taught my children there as well. Another quiet morning combing the isles of Waterloo I spied Henry Rollins. With my young son in my arms I approached Mr. Rollins, “I have someone here, Mr. Rollins, who’d like to meet you.” Ol’ Hank turned his head slowly from his fevered thumbing through vinyl, looked me dead in the eye, grimaced, and grunted. The message was clear: He was not interested, leave him the fuck alone. As I walked away I told my little one, “Remember, that is not the way to greet other people.” Another moment came outside Waterloo when we stopped to get some ice cream at Amy’s. My little boy and me sat on the curb of Sixth Street. A homeless man came and sat next to us. I was protective and on alert of course. But my boy had zero prejudice towards the guy. I could tell the dude was just wanting to be near a child. Not in a creepy way. More in a wistful, nostalgic way. He and my kid had some absurd conversation. Then he asked me if he could hug my child. I was filled with fear, but felt like this was an important moment for my son to learn something. And for the guy to feel something he may have lost. I asked my son if it was okay with him. He nodded. The man gave my son the sweetest, most gentle hug ever. The man, with tears in his eyes, said thank you then moved on. It didn’t have much to do with Waterloo on the surface. But, Waterloo is that kind of business. It’s part of the fabric of our community. So many lives and stories have swirled around the place. It is central to our identity as a music-loving community as much as any band, venue, weekly rag, or radio. It is, dare I say, irreplaceable.