Every time I walked through the old wooden door on Valencia Street, I knew I was in for a surprise. I'd browse around, find something strange, convince myself I needed it, and leave with something truly unique. There was no record store like it.
Aquarius Records closed its doors on Monday for the final time. It had been in San Francisco so long that even the owners weren't sure how many years it'd been open. But for the 20 years that I'd shopped there, it served as a valuable haven for the unheard music -- free-jazz records, abstract noise cassettes, underground CD-Rs, local bands' 7"s and legendary in-stores by everyone from Alec Empire to Neutral Milk Hotel.
Aquarius is set to reopen near the end of the month as Stranded, which has another store in Oakland, and is operated by the excellent reissue label Superior Viaduct. The new owners are worthy successors as far as amazing, obscure music goes -- they reissued the Inflatable Boy Clams, after all -- but let's face it: it won't be the same.
To mark the end of an era, and a farewell for yet another lost cultural institution, I combed my memory for the weirdest records I ever bought at Aquarius over the past two decades. If this list were truly emblematic of the store, there'd be much more black metal, and more CDs. But among all the Grouper 7"s, Merzbow LPs and live Sun Ra cassettes I scored there, certain records practically screamed "Aquarius" -- those oddities quintessential to the store's embrace of the left field.
1. Various Artists, 'Music From Saharan Cellphones'
In 2009 and 2010, a guy named Christopher Kirkley wandered the villages of Mali, where indigenous music had begun to be swapped via cell phones, and gathered mp3s from locals via Bluetooth and microSD card. Not only is this just a strange curio in and of itself, it's a fantastic collection of great songs gathered by a modern-day Alan Lomax. I never saw it for sale anywhere besides Aquarius.
2. Disc, 'Transfer'
From what I can remember, the guy at Aquarius described this to me as "someone who smashed up a bunch of CDs with a hammer and then glued them back together and put them in a CD player and recorded the results." I was instantly sold. Loosely affiliated with Berkeley duo Matmos, the clear-vinyl record also contains 105 locked grooves -- meaning, the needle skips and repeats glitchy noise, over and over, until you pick up the needle and drop it somewhere else. (Later, at Aquarius, I would buy a copy of RRR-1000, a record with one thousand annoying locked grooves.) This record is very stupid, but I love that it exists.
3. Various Artists, 'Hilarity and Despair: American Answering Machine Tapes Vol. 1'
In the early aughts I made a habit of going to thrift stores, removing the cassette tapes from the many analog answering machines on the shelves, and buying the tapes for 25 cents. Because answering machines and regular tape decks use the same cassettes, I'd then listen to complete strangers' answering-machine messages while driving home. It was very entertaining, and I always threw the tapes away afterward, and now I wish I hadn't. This record was compiled in much the same way, collecting strangers' incoming answering-machine messages into a compelling, bizarre and sometimes scary cross-section of banal American life. It was featured on the wall at Aquarius as a staff pick, and I bought it instantly. I never saw it again.
4. Lil B, 'Rain in England'
In 2010 I walked into Aquarius and they were playing... Kitaro? No, wait -- it's some low-budget synthesizer music, and who's this guy improvising poetry about nature and dreams and death and... OH MY GOD IT'S LIL B AND HE MADE A NEW AGE ALBUM. I remember browsing the cassette rack at Aquarius and hearing "All Women" for the first time and hoping more than anything that they had another copy in stock. Luckily, they did, and now I have an album of a Berkeley rapper expounding on environmentalism, feminism, existentialism and more in his inimitable style: "Based: please let off shocks," he recites during "God Kissed Me." "This is amazing what just happened. I cannot believe it. As I sit and lay I watch myself from the top, it's like third person, I see."
5. Various Artists, 'Sounds of Silence'
This record is exactly what it says it is: 30 tracks of pure silence. Yes, folks, it is a record with nothing on it at all. The producers say that they recorded tracks like "Silence" by Ciccone Youth (1:04), "9-11-01" by Soulfly (1:00), "The Sound of Free Speech" by Crass (1:00) and "The Best of Marcel Marceau" (1:00) from their original sources; I can hear some surface noise and the occasional pop, so they're probably not lying. But what we have here is a record with nothing on it. And I hella bought it. (It is a testament to the importance of real-life clerks at brick-and-mortar stores like Aquarius that the Amazon reviews for this record consist almost solely of very angry people who thought they were buying the original Simon & Garfunkel album.)
Honorable Mention: 'Metallica Drummer'
In the late 1990s, I read in some now-forgotten zine about this VHS tape that you could get by sending $10 to an address in San Francisco. Its promise was great: a video of a man in his boxers air-drumming to selections from Metallica's Black Album with razor-sharp precision, complete with angry-metal-dude faces. A week later, the VHS tape showed up in the mail and it was amazing. I'm pretty sure I brought it to every party I went to that summer, and I wasn't the only one -- in many ways, it was the first viral video. Only later did I learn that it was distributed by a member of I Am Spoonbender who, as it turned out, worked at Aquarius Records! Of course.