CoS Exclusive Features

You Can’t Drown the Sound: Norton Records Rebuilds After Hurricane Sandy

on December 04, 2013, 4:52pm

Norton Logo Lead

Component is a section of  Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Ryan Bort revisits Red Hook’s Norton Records, the iconic label lost to the savagery of Hurricane Sandy, and how it may have another life. 

Miriam Linna and Billy Miller loved Red Hook. After getting priced out of their warehouse space on N. 6th St. in Williamsburg in 2006, they relocated across Brooklyn to the mostly industrial neighborhood that bows out into the Hudson River, away from convenient subway stops and the rest of the rapidly gentrifying mainland borough. To house the stock of Norton Records, the label they founded together over 25 years ago, the husband-and-wife duo rented a 2,200 square foot space at the end of Van Brunt street, a hearty stone’s throw from the water. They could drive a truck right off the street into their new warehouse to unload merch after late night shows. Noise or odd hours were not an issue, a huge advantage for a business on a rock and roll schedule.

Miller fondly remembers hot summer nights when he’d pick up some chicken from the Fairway market across the street, turn up some old doo-wop record as loud as he could, and leave the warehouse’s large, cast-iron door open. He’d sit on the street, content, the music washing the stillness of the old, blue-collar New York that persists in Red Hook. There were no friends around to distract him like there were on N. 6th in Williamsburg, which he says went from “being a ghost town to being the main drag in Las Vegas.” It was just him and the music and the city.

“[Red Hook] was idyllic,” Linna says now, sitting in the couple’s Prospect Heights home and office a year after having left the neighborhood behind. “We miss it, but there’s no way we could go back there. Last time we went in that building there was nothing but bad vibes. It was almost like it was a human looking at you, saying get out.”

There’s no combination of words, no measure of eloquence that could do justice to what Hurricane Sandy did to Norton’s Red Hook warehouse on the night of Oct. 29, 2012. I could tell you that the surge took out the facility’s 150-year-old cast-iron door like it was a piece of cheap aluminum; I could reel off statistics—the 13 1/2 tons of debris trucked out after Norton spent a month removing their damaged stock, the thousands upon thousand of record sleeves, album covers, and CDs destroyed, the boxes of priceless personal correspondence ruined, including family photos Linna’s mother had saved; I could show you pictures, or the heart-wrenching video taken of a distraught Linna as she traipsed through the wreckage shortly after the catastrophe. The magnitude of the physical damage was something few have ever experienced or even thought possible.

“You just can’t even imagine,” says Bloodshot Bill, one of Norton’s most popular artists who came down to New York to volunteer in the recovery effort. “All the pictures you see, it couldn’t even prepare you for what it was like live. It was the most overwhelming thing to even think about cleaning up.”

The psychological and economic toll it took on Linna and Miller was just as great. Norton had recently celebrated their 25th anniversary, and spent six months leading up to the storm completing their first total inventory. The warehouse contained about 250,000 records. They were gearing up for their busy season in the fall, they were about to launch a new website, new releases were on the way, and the WFMU record fair would take place in a few weeks. But then, in a night, the near physical entirety of Norton Records, into which they had poured their hearts and souls for most of their lives, was ruthlessly congealed into a pulpy, sewage-ridden mass by forces Linna describes on multiple occasions as “satanic.” Sometimes an act of nature’s indifference can take place on such a profound scale that it becomes evil.

WebBloodshot Bill remembers how depressed Linna was after the storm hit, talking about how she kept saying “It’s over, it’s over” in near hysterics. But the end of Norton Records was never really an option, or at least resigning to what the storm had laid in front of them wasn’t. Despite how overwhelming—and at that point, inconceivable—the prospect of recovery was, Linna and Miller needed to start somewhere. They needed to do whatever they could. They needed help. On their blog they wrote about how it’s always been against their policy to ask anybody for anything, but in the aftermath of Sandy there was no other option. They put out a call for volunteers, for anybody who could help in any way at all. They’d figure the rest out as they went. There was no time to plan. Near the end of their post asking for help, Linna wrote: “WE WILL NOT GIVE UP ON YOU IF YOU DO NOT GIVE UP ON NORTON. THAT’S A PROMISE.”

Linna and Miller formed Norton Records in 1986 over a shared love of old school rock and roll, R&B, garage punk, doo-wop, and rockabilly…really anything that involves greased-back hair, rolled up shirt sleeves, and soul. They had been publishing a magazine called Kicks since 1978 that covered the same types of under-appreciated music, and after running a piece on Hasil Adkins they decided it’d be a good idea to re-issue a collection of singles he recorded in the ‘50s that had never been properly compiled. Since then, Norton has released countless re-issues of titles from artists that otherwise would have long been forgotten, as well as new material by artists whose music falls somewhere along the same spectrum of pure, unadulterated rock and roll. Everyone from The Sonics, Link Wray, and The Iguanas to King Khan, Black Lips, and Reigning Sound (who signed to Merge late last year) have been affiliated with the label. Norton also releases music by The A-Bones, Linna and Miller’s own band for which they play drums and sing lead vocals, respectively. (When they first met in 1976, Linna was drumming for The Cramps.) Then there’s Esquerita, the tall-haired rock pioneer and Little Richard-influencer whose jolly visage Norton copped for the label’s logo.

Linna and Miller attend to every aspect of Norton’s releases—the sleeves, the packaging, the artwork, everything that contributes to the aesthetic beauty of a vinyl record—with scrupulous detail. They recognize that there is something sacred in the experience of picking out a record, handling it, removing it from its jacket, dropping the needle, and that the details of this tradition are just as important to preserve as the music itself. Their level of commitment is not lost on their fans. For many, Norton is the only thing keeping the music they love alive, and because they do so with such care, craftsmanship, and reverence, many who love the label almost consider themselves subscribers to a kind of religion, or at least a way of life. Bigger labels, even bigger independent labels, might have far larger fan bases, but they certainly don’t have fans that love them as intensely as Norton’s fans love Norton. “It’s more than just a record label,” says Bloodshot Bill. “I’ll speak for myself. Those records, everything they put out…I don’t know if lifestyle is the right word, but it really kind of shapes our world, you know? It’s more than just a couple of records.”

After they put out the call for help, Miller says they thought “five or six people” might show up. It was a desperate plea, and considering much of New York was without power, transportation, or working phone service, there was no way to know how many people would be able to volunteer.

But people came out. Norton devotees showed up from across New York, off work because of the storm and looking to help. Norton artists came, employees of other labels came, even a group of schoolchildren came. “It was people like you wouldn’t believe,” remembers Linna, and though she and Miller were determined to get Norton back on its feet, it was the incredible outpouring of support that made them realize not only that it just might be possible, but that they had no other choice but to make it work. There was too much love.

“With all the people pitching in, I think it really raised their spirits and made them see that they would get through it at that point,” says Bloodshot Bill, who was also volunteering. Miller later laughs as he remembers a specific instance when he saw the Montreal guitarist emerge carrying two bags of garbage, the cover of one of his albums visible in one, the cover or another visible in the other.

They started by transporting all that was remotely salvageable, primarily vinyl records, from the warehouse to Norton’s office in Prospect Heights. All of the sleeves and album jackets were destroyed, as were most of Linna and Miller’s correspondence and business papers. They didn’t know where anything was, as the surge had violently tossed and turned the warehouse’s contents inside and out. Water was still everywhere. In what turned out to be one of many miracles of good fortune, Norton shared their space on Van Brunt with a moving and storage company that was able to lend them plastic tubs to transport vinyl. “They had two sizes,” says Linna. “One was perfect for albums, one was perfect for seven inchers.” Without them there would have been no way to transport the albums, as using cardboard boxes was out of the question. Over the course of the next month they moved more than 700 crates of vinyl across Brooklyn into their office and their pressing plant, Brooklyn Phono, which had offered up storage space—another saving grace.

NortonPosterCollage

Throughout it all volunteers were cooking food for everyone on a daily basis, volunteers were bringing down gasoline from upstate, volunteers were hauling in fans to dry off vinyl and vital correspondence they had to attempt to save. (They initially tried to dry materials on clotheslines, but this strategy was quickly abandoned when everything froze on the line.) After plenty of trial and error, Linna and Miller eventually perfected a factory-like system, one of them stationed at the Red Hook warehouse, the other at the Prospect Heights office directing traffic. They worked 12-hour days. “It was hard to tell when one day started and the next ended because it just kept going and going,” says Miller.

They also got help from Sony Records—the polar opposite of the staunchly independent and ideal-driven Norton—who had people come down and “roll up their sleeves and put on gloves.” They wanted to be reminded what being a record label is all about, and in addition to the physical labor they promised to donate all the white inner sleeves Norton needed. They also introduced Linna and Miller to a company that made spinning machines that quickly washed dirty vinyl, who then donated some to the cause. A “Wash-A-Thon” was organized, in which volunteers congregated at Brooklyn Bowl to wash and dry records as an all-star cast of DJs spun Norton-approved tunes. They washed 10,000 LPs in eight hours and organized another one the next week. Like the first, it was billed as B.Y.O.R.G: Bring Your Own Rubber Gloves.

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and the fact that Norton was broke—their insurance didn’t cover the damage from Sandy; it was an “act of God”—forced Linna and Miller to come up with creative ways to earn some extra cash and get people excited to help clean up. The vinyl washing parties at Brooklyn Bowl were one example. They also took Miller’s collection of vintage music t-shirts that was soaked in flood water, washed them all, dried them all, and sold them individually. They started selling “Sandy 45s” for $2 a piece (or in “grab bags” of 10 for $20) that didn’t have sleeves and were worn from the flood, but that they stamped with a custom “Sandy” stamp. “We had a choice,” says Linna. “We could trash everything or try to salvage them in some way.”

At the end of February, Linna and Miller were able to get their website back up, take inventory of what they had left, and begin to think about selling records again. The only problem was that they didn’t have enough merchandise left to wholesale, and because the flood wiped out their busiest season of the year, they didn’t have enough capital to just reprint everything. All in all, Norton lost about 300 45 and 250 LP titles entirely, not to mention the CDs. They were thankfully offered discounts from the manufacturers on printing and pressing jobs for the jackets and vinyl, but their inventory was so far behind that they could only afford smaller pressings at first. But just as with the insurmountable sea of debris they had to tackle after Sandy hit, they had to start somewhere.

Norton Merch Stand

What buoyed Norton throughout this later stage of recovery, when the need for financial support outweighed the need for physical labor, might have been the most inspirational part of the entire recovery effort. Unprompted, independently of Linna and Miller, people starting putting on benefit shows…lots them. They took place in Texas, they took place in California, they took place in Australia, they took place in Japan. All around the world, one after another, record labels, venues, artists, and anyone else who cared organized concerts to benefit Norton’s relief efforts. Yo La Tengo, long-time friends of Linna and Miller, even sold Hanukkah show mixes in December. “I don’t know if a lot of those people had ever done anything like that,” says Linna. “But they did all of the leg work, putting the bands together and everything. It really helped. It really helped, because we were completely out of business.”

The biggest benefit of all, though, was thrown by Norton themselves this November. Over two nights at Brooklyn Bowl, they hosted the “Hurricane Sandy First Anniversary Weekend Blast.” A year after the storm, the label still has a long way to go, but they’re in business. They’re printing records, they’re selling records, they’re once again reaping the benefits of the busy season. They have a new warehouse they’re using, a cold storage space further inland. To celebrate, they brought out The Sonics, they brought out The Flamin Grooves, they brought out Daddy Long Legs. On Saturday night, Bloodshot Bill led things off with a rollicking set of old school, greased-back rock and roll. La La Brooks and Reigning Sound would play later, and after midnight Jonathan Toubin would DJ a Pulp Fiction-style dance contest until four in the morning. But first Linna and Miller’s band, The A-Bones would play. They couldn’t have been happier, Miller manning the mic, oddly graceful as he lumbered around, introducing his players and the songs they were about to launch into. Linna counted them down behind her drum kit, singing backup vocals and ripping away. Before and after they played they could be found around the merch table, in their element, going through and organizing records, making sure everything was just so. While in line I asked a random man standing next to me how long he’d been a fan of Norton Records. “16 years,” he said, before telling me how he made sure that his friends and family made donations to Norton in lieu of giving him presents on his last birthday.

Norton Anniversary Poster

Linna and Miller’s Prospect Heights home and office is more of a rock and roll museum than a place of business. It’s a huge space, with high ceiling and a literal library of vinyl, with rows to walk down and everything. Records, memorabilia, posters, books and sleeves are everywhere. When I met them there on a weekday night they were hard at work. Linna spoke freely, quickly, and at length about all aspects of their experience with Sandy and the gamut of emotions they ran through over the course of the past year. Miller dropped by and sat in here and there, understandably busy. Seeing how much they work can make one realize what real passion and dedication are. Linna and Miller’s lives are Norton; their lives are the music they care about. There is no mistaking this fact. It shows in everything they do and this is why they are so beloved. Bloodshot Bill summed it up Norton’s fan base’s feelings rather succinctly: “I think we all just want Norton Records to live forever.”

There were plenty of others who weren’t so fortunate in the recovery from Sandy. Plenty of homes and livelihoods were lost and never found again, and it wasn’t because of lack of effort. It’s hard to tell it whether it was the grace of God or the direct reaction to the action of Linna and Miller’s passion and sheer will that allowed them to bring Norton back from its darkest hour. More likely is those two ideas are one in the same.

However you want to parse the recovery, whatever cosmic force or inextinguishable fire that exists inside Linna and Miller led them from a pile of briny, indistinguishable rubble to an all-night celebration with all of their friends a year later, it might be easiest and more accurate to describe it simply, the same way Linna and Miller have been describing it since they put a rain hat on top of Esquerita’s still jubilant face to signal that Norton would not be going away: “You can’t drown the sound.”

~

Ryan Bort is a  freelance writer who has contributed previously to Aux.Out. and also writes for Paste, Grantland, The Classical, and many others. Follow him on Twitter.

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