Culture

Saving a music label after Sandy, record by record

Fans wash soapy vinyl and hold €œ'record stripping sessions'€ to help a rock and roll couple recover

NEW YORK — Miriam Linna and Billy Miller's apartment in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, where they live surrounded by punk records and walls covered with concert posters, was spared the worst of Superstorm Sandy.

But their warehouse, where the couple stored the inventory for their 25-year-old company, Norton Records, wasn’t so fortunate. The storage space, in the low-lying Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook, harbored more than 250,000 records, decades of personal correspondence, plus, Linna said, "paperbacks, all of our original art, master tapes, personal effects, two pinball machines, my drums."

The couple could see the water level rising as they drove down the slope toward the warehouse.

A man from their landlord’s company greeted them at the building.

"It's really bad," he warned.

The building had lost power but Linna unlocked the door to their storage area and shined a lantern in. It was a "complete disaster," she said.

Before the storm, Linna and Miller had sandbagged the space, but these precautions couldn't withstand the six-foot-high surge of water that tore through the room.

"We knew there was major-league trouble," she said.

They soon learned that their insurance policy considered Sandy an "act of God" and wouldn’t cover their damages.

Collections accumulated piece by piece over many years become storehouses of memories. In that way, the couple's loss was irreplaceable. But Linna and Miller had shared so much of themselves and the music they love that when they needed help, friends and fans came running.

Norton Records
The Norton Records Red Hook space after the storm
Courtesy Norton Records

Since its founding, Norton Records, named for Art Carney's character on The Honeymooners, has specialized in rock 'n' roll, R&B, rockabilly and artists who confound conventional notions of genre. The company’s slogan, "Where the loud sound abounds!" speaks to this eclecticism.

"There are rockabilly people who will not listen to rockabilly music if it's got an electric bass," Linna said, but that’s not what Norton is about. "The point is if the music really gets you emotionally and physically going."

In 2009, Linna started her publishing company, Kicks Books, with a similar mission of publishing paperbacks — such as "Lord of Garbage" by the rock scenester Kim Fowley — more intense than refined. Kicks Books’ mission is, "Good reading for the minions."

Like Norton, Kicks is devoted to old-school physicality, offering boxed sets complete with bookplates and title appropriate trinkets. Linna also creates perfumes for each release, perhaps the only publishing house owner anywhere who does so.

All of this made their loss from Sandy even more devastating.

Linna began building her book collection from the castaway pile at the Strand, the used bookstore where she worked in the 1970s and 1980s and now calls her "alma mater." With her employee discount, she could buy the paperbacks she loves for a nickel apiece. She now has a collection of about 4,000 of all-but vanished pulp novels that specialize in juvenile delinquency.

"They were dead‑end street kind of novels or collections of short stories," she said, and have influenced the look of Kicks' books.    

Linna spent her teenage years in Ohio before she moved to New York. In her early 20s, she had a brief stint as the drummer for The Cramps, an influential punk rock band. She met Billy Miller in 1977, more or less the peak of the New York’s legendary punk scene.

"I did this fan club fanzine on the Flamin' Groovies. When I met Billy, he was a real Paul Revere and the Raiders fan, and he wanted to do a Raiders fanzine,” Linna said. "So we combined forces, because he loved the Groovies, too. I love the Raiders, too. We called it Kicks after a Paul Revere and the Raiders' song."

They married 12 years later.

Miriam wears her dirty blonde hair straight with bangs. She talks fast and flattens her vowels. Decades after she arrived in New York, it's still possible to picture her as the best-connected woman on the punk rock scene. In person, Miller is affably cranky, but he can still affect a brooding hauteur beneath a mess of black curls when photographed.

In 1986, Miller wrote a story in their fanzine about Hasil Adkins, a self-trained, one-man band from West Virginia. The piece got so much attention that they decided to release a record of Adkins' work. Linna said they hadn’t expected Norton to grow into a company but "like all good things, it just kept on going."

Adkins "was as far out as a man can get," Linna said. "He was living in pretty much a shack dwelling in the woods with his mom … So when he first started hearing the radio, he had no idea that this was a combination of people that were making the racket. He'd hear a guy singing, and … he started to try to make that noise himself as well as he could."

Once, Adkins stayed with Linna and Miller in New York and when he got hungry he helped himself to a can of Campbell's tomato soup. It turned to be a signed can that Andy Warhol had given Linna. When she learned what had happened, she did a "swan dive" into the garbage to fish it out. The can now has a place of honor on the couple's crowded shelves.

Norton Records
Damaged Norton Records inventory
Courtesy Norton Records

After Sandy, word of Norton Records' catastrophe spread on social media. A day or two after the storm, Rob Santos, an executive with Sony Music who had known the couple since the 1980s, decided to play hooky and help them.

"They've indirectly shaped my life in a lot of ways," he said, and "turned me on to tons of great music."

When Santos arrived at Linna and Miller's apartment, he found the parking lot and the hallways full of "assembly lines" of people ripping records out of wet sleeves, then cleaning, drying and re-sleeving them. 

Everyone was washing the records with sponges and soapy water. The next day Santos introduced everyone to a record-washing device called a "Spin Clean." The manufacturer promptly donated a few to speed up the recovery process.

"I'm a record collector but I’m not as fanatical as Billy and Miriam are," Santos said. "I don't know many people who are. And I know a lot of them."

Norton hosted a marathon record-stripping session and party at the local club Brooklyn Bowl. Volunteers at long tables cut records out of their soggy shells and cleaned the remaining vinyl, as they danced to a DJ. They threw out several hundred bags of ruined album covers, Miriam estimates. Later Norton issued new Sandy editions of the album art for some of the wax they could save. (The flooded CDs could not be salvaged.)

"Every week there was some benefit show or raffle, a lot of different people doing a lot of different things," Santos said. There were benefits in Los Angeles, Nashville — where Billy and Miriam’s band The A-Bones, played — Montreal, Detroit, Austin and other capitals of cool.

In Red Hook, Linna saw delicate-looking young women "doing really ferocious heavy labor, without ever saying, 'I broke a nail,' or 'Oh, this is heavy.' It was astonishing."

Linna said she never expected the response she and Miller received.

"There were so many people that we have never met who just turned up, who said, 'I'm a fan of so and so or this record changed my life…What can I do?'" Linna said.

While the inventory of Kicks Books paperbacks was unsellable, the couple hoped to save as much as they could of their personal archives.

Their apartment became a kind of field infirmary for pop culture esoterica. Leah Loscutoff, an archivist then working for the Brooklyn Historical Society, dove into the couple's personal books and papers. She set out fans and weighed papers down so they’d dry flat and stuck paper towels between book pages to absorb the water, replacing them periodically.

"They're actually in pretty good condition for what they went through," Loscutoff said.

Other approaches didn't work, such as drying papers and photographs on outdoor clotheslines. 

In all, the couple estimates they've saved about 70,000 records; they now sell grab bags of 10 45s for $20. Norton has also attempted to recoup losses by selling Sandy-themed artwork and "Sandy baptized" T-shirts.

"That feeling of hopelessness, we had it often and every day," Linna said. "I think if we had set around twiddling our thumbs and doing nothing, and just being sad, it would have turned into a wake, with everybody saying, 'Oh, poor you.' Instead, it wasn't any of that. Everybody came here with an idea of what they could do. Crazy!"

The books are gone. So are many records and much else. But a year after the storm, the couple can once again look to the future. They have a new storage space in the higher ground of their neighborhood.

Kicks Books and Norton Records survived.

What could be more punk than that?

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