By Tanya Silverman
Norton Records artist and rockabilly legend, Link Wray, performing in 2003. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
This week marks the one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy.
In a midst of ubiquitous candlelight vigils, newspaper articles, commemorative speeches, and before-and-after photographs during this reflective time for many New Yorkers, one important Sandy story for music fans is that of the local label Norton Records.
Norton Records was started in 1986 by Miriam Linna and Billy Miller, who had been publishing their music magazine, Kicks, since the late ‘70s. Their first release on Norton was Out to Hunch by Hasil Adkins, taking it upon themselves to preserve and promote the wacky and raw backwoods rockabilly singer who croons about punchy chicken walks, cannibals, and other off-beat endeavors.
Based in Brooklyn, Norton focuses on conserving everything from old R&B to charged surf rock to El Paso Rock, while simultaneously signing new blues or psychobilly acts and releasing niche LPs like poetry readings by Detroit garage rock stars. Some notable Norton musicians include the Henchmen, the Wailers, the Del-Aires, Bloodshot Bill, Andre Williams, and the A-Bones (which is Linna and Miller’s band).
Last year, the Norton Records stock was stationed in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, on Van Brunt Street, within a converted Civil War-era brick warehouse that was originally built to store materials like spices, sugar, coffee, and tea. Because these Van Brunt Street buildings had functioned as a dry dock for over 150 years, it seemed like a safe place to house a record label – all until Hurricane Sandy hit the NY coast on October 28, 2012.
“There was a 30-foot tidal surge,” Miriam Linna tells BTR. “We got there two days after the hurricane hit and the water subsided. The high water line was almost at seven feet, so everything was completely soaking wet, in standing water, thrown all around. It was a total catastrophe.”
They knew they needed help – Linna says they “lost 250,000 records, and at a low estimate, about 20,000 books,” as well as “tens of thousands of CDs,” all of their artist files, master tapes, drums, magazines, paperwork and amplifiers.
Upon realizing the shocking extent of the damage, Billy Miller immediately began calling friends and posting messages on Facebook to see if anyone could come out and help. They knew it would be difficult with the subway shut down and gas stations not functioning, but were hoping at least a couple of close friends would show.
While the mess the storm surge left was a tremendously upsetting surprise, a pleasant one followed the destruction — a tremendous amount of volunteers came out to help.
For weeks, hundreds of volunteers assisted Norton in cleaning out its warehouse in Red Hook and moving records to their residence in Prospect Heights to see what could be recovered. Though the vast majority of their inventory had to be thrown away – there was no chance of salvaging the tens of thousands of CDs that were destroyed by salt water – they realized that some of the vinyl, LPs, and 45s could be saved by cleaning them off and repackaging them.
“We had the hallways in our apartment, the basement, and the building’s yard full of boxes of records, basically in standing water, trying to get them out of jackets and see if anything could be retrieved,” reflects Linna, while she and Miller managed these emergency maneuvers.
Though the process was physically and psychologically challenging, Norton Records and their fans could not allow the legacy of artists like Link Wray, Hasil Adkins, and Jack Starr go under – their music is their memory and their eternity; keeping it alive is a moral responsibility.
During this post-Sandy salvaging process, Linna says the folks at the Brooklyn Bowl venue called up Norton and asked if they wanted to use their space to host some record wash-a-thon events. Norton agreed, and their DJ friends volunteered their time to play music while volunteers showed up to cut open the vinyl LPs’ labels, pull out the wet records, wash them, dry them, and set them up for repackaging.
“They were a lot of fun: digging in, cutting out all those labels, pulling out all the vinyl, getting your hands dirty,” Brian Hurd, the centerpiece musician of Norton blues band Daddy Long Legs, reflects regarding the wash-a-thon sessions.
“I met a lot of people that I didn’t even know lived in New York and were fans of the label,” he says. “There was a real sense of community.”
Hurd’s band, Daddy Long Legs, has been signed to Norton for over a year, and he has personally “known Billy and Miriam for many years” since his move to New York from his native Saint Louis. However, his experience with Norton Records goes back way longer than that.
“The first time I’d ever heard of Norton Records I was about 15-years-old, and I was just getting into punk rock, listening to bands like the Ramones, Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys,” recalls Hurd.
He distinctly recounts a time when he was hanging out with his college-aged sister listening to music with her erstwhile boyfriend.
“She was dating this rockabilly cat, and when I went over to his place to meet him, one of the first things he played was Hasil Adkins,” says Hurd. “As a 15-year-old kid getting into punk, I was not prepared for this. I didn’t even know what I could classify this music as. It was just insane. This guy was nuts.”
Hurd describes his mixed reaction to Hasil Adkins in thinking it was “hillbilly music to the max,” reminding him of stuff his dad would listen to. While living in Missouri, it was the kind of culture he wanted to escape from in order establish his own musical identity. Nevertheless, Hasil Adkins enticed Hurd to start exploring the many other titles in Norton Records’ catalogue and see what else was on offer. He became even more lured to the label by their literature.
“The way Billy and Miriam would describe the records was just hilarious – they used the coolest language and it was really refreshing,” says Hurd, browsing through the different titles and checking out eccentric, non-mainstream artists. “So I became a fan that way, and from then on, started finding out about more of their wild stuff. They are really the best at what they do.”
Over the past year, Brian Hurd performed as Daddy Long Legs for Norton Records benefit shows in Brooklyn and even down in Nashville. Additional Norton benefit concerts took place in Los Angeles, Dallas, and Chicago. Supportive shows spread across the seas: King Khan hosted a concert and raffle at the venue, Wowsville, in Berlin to raise money for Norton.
“All of these bands played benefits without us ever asking, all over the world, saying they couldn’t let a record company go down, and how they believed in us,” says Miriam Linna. “It’s really been an astonishing, wild trip.”
A year passed, and things surely improved over time. To Norton Records, Red Hook is a location (and incident) of the past, and the label has since moved its stock to a higher, more inland part of the borough. Since the first few months of cleaning, moving, and salvaging the damage of Hurricane Sandy, Norton has been reprinting their mainstay vinyl titles. Their manufacturers have been gracious enough to offer them discounts for this ongoing recovery period.
For all of the unlucky struggles against the effects of the elements, in the end, the folks at Norton Records feel lucky that they’ve been graced with the opportunity to put out these albums.
“There’s nobody else who’s ever going to put them out,” says Linna. “It’s our responsibility, which we have to take very seriously and very cheerfully because we feel very fortunate to be in this position and to be able to put them back out.”
Lately, Norton has kept at it by releasing new titles, with a few out in October, and more to come this month. Also this month, they will be throwing a weekend-long Hurricane Sandy 1st Anniversary Blast on the 15th and 16th, featuring the A-Bones, Daddy Long Legs, not to mention the West Coast legends, the Sonics and Flamin’ Groovies, in Brooklyn.
“We could be completely and morally destroyed, but for some reason, we’re not,” says Miriam Linna. “Billy and I are not, all of the artists are not, and that’s because of our knowledge — which sounds hokey, but — that rock and roll can’t be killed!”