True West: Billy Miller and The A-Bones hit the PNW

While January 1st is a time for renewal, for a bunch of us old-timers it also brings back memories of what was a traditional event in these parts. Without fail, no matter what show happened the evening before, there was always a gathering the following day at Norton Records HQ in Brooklyn to celebrate Billy Millers’ birthday. And, while those parties themselves can easily fill another post, I thought it would be nice to this year revisit someone else’s memories of our esteemed host.

GirlTrouble is a Pacific Northwest legend. Approaching 40 years of existence, the band has soldiered on. Drummer Bon Von Wheelie, guitarist Kahuna, singer K.P. Kendall, and bassist Dale Phillips still dutifully continue to play both small clubs and larger venues to an ever-faithful group of fans. When I saw the band they not only made me a fan, but I oddly felt that I had somehow stumbled into an A-Bones show. While the female drummer was one component, what really sold me was their choice of material, humor, and willingness to play music they love and have fun. No matter what. So, it was not too surprising to find out later that the bands did know each other. Not only that, GT had often met the Millers on their later PNW excursions. When I learned of this I had to ask Bon Von Wheelie for details. What follows is a wonderful recollection from Bon about her time with Billy that I am sure will charm you as much as we were charmed by them. Take it away Bon! —SSA

Girl Trouble fanzine, Wig Out!
Girl Trouble fanzine, Wig Out! Design, Bon Von Wheelie.

Probably like most everybody I first knew Billy Miller through the pages of Kicks. Since I was making a little magazine of my own for my band Girl Trouble somebody sent me one of the first issues and said “Check this out if you want to see how it’s done!” I was a fan of Billy and Miriam before I actually met them.  

Just like I expected they were both the coolest people ever and nobody could match Billy’s one-liners. They were both so “East Coast” that to us it was like meeting beings from another planet, way hipper than we were. When Billy and Miriam came to the Hoboken stop on our first US tour at Maxwell’s, we felt like some kind of royalty showed up. That was the start of our friendship with Billy. 

1992 Garage Shock poster
1992 Garage Shock poster. Design Dave Crider.

The first time Billy and Miriam showed up in the Pacific Northwest was when the A-Bones made their way West to play the Garage Shock festival in Bellingham. We’d already done a split single with them on the Cruddy label (Take Up the Slack, Daddy-o / Sister Mary Motorcycle) so it was natural that we play extra shows with them. These were gigs to support the official Garage Shock weekend, one in Tacoma and one in Seattle at the Crocodile Cafe. The A-Bones were a lot of fun.  

In between those two nights, Girl Trouble got invited to a competition barbeque/party with the Seattle band, The Crows (which included John Bigley and Charlie Ryan who had been members of the legendary U-Men). We knew absolutely nothing about barbequing but that didn’t stop us from trying. Those damn Crows were experts with their pre-marinated meats and specialty beers! All of the A-Bones showed up and luckily when one of the judges had to bail, the organizers quickly picked Miriam as an alternate. We knew she wouldn’t scoff like the other judges did at our third choice of barbequed meat…Spam. And she didn’t. We didn’t win but that was fine with us. At one point some non-invited wise guys squirted water into the party. In amazement, we watched as Miriam jumped over a big wooden fence and disappeared hoping to find the culprits. We could hear the rustling of the bushes and when we asked Billy where she’d gone he just replied, “Oh she’ll be back” like this was normal, and it probably was. 

Barbeque of the Bands flyer
Barbeque of the Bands flyer. Courtesy Bon Von Wheelie.

After the A-Bones tours, Billy and Miriam came here on their own to find material that might be good for Norton compilations. It impressed us that more than anything else they were huge fans first. Excited about everything, they even visited with Kearny Barton who’d recorded many of the old 60s bands at his house/studio. Our friend, PNW historian, and owner of Golden Oldies Records in Tacoma, Jeff Miller (and no relation to Billy) was there to help them connect with all those old band guys who were still floating around the area. Jeff was famous for his jam-session parties and he hosted a big one for Billy and Miriam. We arrived at Jeff’s house to see Jim Valley (Don & the Goodtimes, Paul Revere and the Raiders) come out the door and his brother Steve (Tom Thumb and the Casuals) fall into the hedge off the porch! Oh, this was going to be good!  

Some of our favorite old band members like Larry Parypa from the Sonics and Dave Day from the Monks were in and out of the party through the evening. A bunch of old band guys were already in full swing when Billy and Miriam met us. They frantically asked us for ideas of old songs these guys could play from back in the day. The problem was that these musicians were starting to jam to newer songs and we all knew that wasn’t going to be good. We thought of a few they might know but eventually marathon jamming took hold. At one point they were on a long drawn-out version of “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones. While we were in the record room talking Billy poked his head in and said in that New York accent “Yeah, I bet the Puerto Rican girls are just DYING to meet these guys!” We just about peed our pants. Billy’s timing was always perfect.  

Portrait of Bon Von Wheelie and Billy Miller.
Portrait of Bon Von Wheelie and Billy Miller. Courtesy Bon Von Wheelie.

Another time that they came out for some PNW mojo at the same time there was a big 60s bands reunion at the Swiss Bar in Tacoma. This show had everybody. The Wailers were there, the Ventures played a few songs with Nokie Edwards (who wasn’t fully in the band at that time), Gail Harris sang “I Idolize You” with the Wailers, Merrilee Rush sang a few songs. It was the first time I’d met Gerry Roslie since he was just about at hermit status before he decided to help re-form the original Sonics for shows and tours.  

Billy and I had probably one of our best in-depth conversations that night concerning what it took to work with some of the guest legends we’d hooked up with. My band was working with Granny Go-Go, the 82-year-old local go-go dancer, and Billy was working with Hasil Adkins. We discovered that the challenges of wrangling these stars were very similar; hilarious, difficult, and frustrating at the same time. It was absolutely amazing to see how many situations were the same with both of them.

Legendary KJR deejay Pat O'Day
Legendary KJR deejay Pat O’Day

As we talked we both noticed legendary KJR deejay Pat O’Day, who had been the MC for the night, standing right in front of us. Pat O’Day was instrumental in everything that happened during the 60s including promoting hundreds of teen dances and events. Billy noted what a perfect head of hair Pat had, all white and beautifully styled from top to bottom. It was truly impressive! Billy quietly said, “Bon, we need to think up a name for that hairdo!” Since I couldn’t come up with anything he said thoughtfully “I think we’ll call it The Tacoma”.  I couldn’t have agreed more. 

Over the years we talked on the phone occasionally and probably wrote letters, because that’s what we did back in those days, but our fondest memories of Billy will always be the times he and Miriam came to hang out in the Pacific Northwest.   — Bon Von Wheelie

Thank you Bon! And I encourage all readers of this blog to check out GirlTrouble’s website and give them some love on their social channels. They deserve it. And of course thank you Billy and Miriam for the love and fun you spread. Now back to our regular programming…

Bleecker Bob Plotnik 1942-2018

The record club gains another member. Word came today that venerable NYC icon and record store owner Bob Plotnik had sadly passed on. Bob’s store, Bleecker Bobs, was known worldwide for many decades for not just having an amazing selection but also for its legendary cantankerous owner. And while the tales spun by seasoned record buyers have centered on their treatment by Bob, surprisingly there are a small handful who did befriend him and dodged the majority of the wrath he inflicted on others.

My own experiences in his store were actually very limited as 1) his stuff was usually overpriced and 2) I was very aware of his rep. Still, it was kind of a kick to quickly pop in, scan his garage punk bins, realize I didn’t want to pay that much and scoot out before you got tagged.

In all honesty, my own interesting Bob moment came many, many years later and had nothing to do with his temperament. On April 15, 2001, Joey Ramone succumbed to lymphoma after a long widely-publicized 7-year battle. Having grown up listening to the Ramones, it was a sad moment for me. One that seriously marked the all-too-real passage of time.

The following evening while wandering downtown, I made a spur of the moment decision to walk by CBGBs. Purely as a gesture of respect. To my surprise, I was not the only one with that idea. Turns out a small group of punks had set up a small altar right in front of the club. I watched people singing, giving offerings and took a few photos for my own files.

Shortly after midnight, a private ceremony inside the club let out and guests began leaving the club. Spotting photographer Roberta Bailey, I quickly ran over and asked her if she minded me taking a photo of her in front of the club. Once that was accomplished I looked around to see if there was anyone else I could cajole into a shot. That was when I ran into friends Billy Miller and Miriam Linna. Having just left the service, they stopped and chatted with me for a short while.

All of a sudden Billy goes “Hey Bob!” and goes over to chat to a leather-jacketed Bob Plotnik quickly making his way through the throng of people in front of the club. Now, as anyone can tell you, Billy could charm the pants off of anyone. This moment was no different. Expecting a curt brush off, I was surprised to see Bob turn around, smile, and extend his hand. Billy being Billy, just grabbed Bob by the shoulder in a playful embrace.

Just at that moment someone to the left of me, also with a camera, pointed it at the two of them. Instantly recognizing a golden photo op, Billy swings Bob toward the camera all the while still embracing him. Within a half a second I also had my camera up and pointed it at this most unusual scene. Clicked the shutter, and wound up with this shot. A testament to the amazing Billy Miller, a man who could tame a cranky record store owner using just his smile. RIP Bob. RIP Billy. It’s getting to be a crazy party up there.

Billy Miller, Bob Plotnik
Norton Records’ Billy Miller and Bleecker Bob Plotnik in front of CBGBs April 16, 2001.

Give Him a Hand: A Chat with Mike Mariconda

Airborne Mike: The Raunch Hands at Maxwells.

Gritty New York. You hear that term so often that its already become a worn out cliché. Nevertheless, out of the hundreds of bands that can rightfully claim the title of being one of those “gritty” NYC bands, The Raunch Hands were one of the few that encapsulated the whole dirty, sloppy, happy, sadness and madness of this little burg. Sure The Ramones did the same, but by the mid-80s, the “punk” musical climate was changing. Songs were speeding up and becoming more aggressive. Worst of all macho jocks had started to notice and transform the quaint pogo-ing at gigs into full fledged testosterone fueled slam pits. Into this world the Raunch Hands were born. Carrying a youthful swagger they mined the soulful R&B underbelly and spit it back out in a maelstrom of booze and good times. If the city was going to hell, might as well have fun doing it. Not only did they bring the party, the Hands also did what few other NYC groups were able to do. Get recognized throughout the world and yet, remain purely an underground band. Mssrs Chandler, Mariconda, Tchang, Sulley and Brnicevic (not to mention later members Edison, Crowley, & Linzell) kicked up an unholy mess that has yet to be equalled.

Mike Mariconda mixing it up in Italy. Courtesy Fabio Rizzo

I had a chance to chat with Michael Mariconda, guitarist of the RH, about those early years gigging in NYC.

SSA: Thanks Mike for taking a few moments to contribute your perspective on the garage scene in NYC. Naturally, my standard question for everyone is, how did you first hear about the scene?

MM: Basically, by getting the job at Venus Records in 1983. I was in contact with a lot of  musicians that were coming in looking for records of Garage Punk. The post-punk  new band scene was stale so all these great reissues started coming out. What do you do when the next crop of new bands suck? Go and listen to old records…and that’s exactly what happened. It wasn’t rare to have Jeff Conolly and The Lyres, members of The Vipers, Fuzztones, Chesterfield Kings, Lux and Ivy, Greg Shaw and even Billy Gibbons dropping by to see what was good and for sale. Also people like Tim Warren, Billy Miller, Bruce Planty and our drummer Vince Brnicevic were working on their first volumes of 60s punk comps (all influenced by Nuggets but with much wilder and obscure bands) – Back From The Grave, Hipsville, Open up Your Door and What a Way to Die– all at the same time.

Ad for Venus Records

And Venus was where my pal who was well known in collector circles brought me. How did you get that gig? I recall you already knew quite a bit about music. In fact the reason I bought a Stones 45 from you was because after playing it, you mentioned (correctly, I might add) that it had a hotter mix than the LP version.

I was lucky I got that job as there were a lot of applicants. I tried to sell myself to the owner  as knowing something about 50s R & B which I thought could be a market to sell to the Garage scene rather than just having another guy who was into Garage working there. Scott Curran hipped me to the idea of different mixes between mono and stereo LPs and French EPs or 45s pressed in various countries all sounded a little different. Added up to buying the same record 3 or 4 times.

The Raunch Hands on the Scott and Gary show. Episode 5. Courtesy Scott and Gary.

For people who aren’t familiar, only two record stores in NYC really became the epicenter of much of the garage scene. There were others, like Freebeing and Bleecker Bobs, but the garage-genre folks tended to congregate at either J.D’s Midnight Records or/and Crackers’ Venus Records. Can you tell me a bit about the characters who worked at Venus while you were there?

I always got along with everyone who worked there, Scott, Bruce, Ron Rimsite, Bobby Cook, John Kioussis and the owner Bill Shor all characters for sure but they all had beefs between themselves and all disliked the owner. But, in general, I always enjoyed the job since the musician in me was learning so much about music. Being there was no internet, the only way to try to find out about this stuff was through magazines and people to talk to.

I remember attending The Raunch Hands first gig at 240 West and quite honestly being unsure what to make of it. Only that I wanted to hear more. If I recall correctly did you play a fiddle at that gig for a song or two? Could be just a hallucination.

Yeah I was playing fiddle and lap steel on a few songs in 84-85. Kinda gave that up as it became too much to carry around and too delicate to play after beating the shit out of the guitar for an hour. And the lap steel got stolen right before a gig and I had no money to replace it.

Those early gigs were pretty memorable in that literally everyone seemed to be trashed, the band, the audience. It just basically turned into the wildest house party you were ever at. There was a particularly memorable 2 set night at The Dive close to its demise that I’ll never forget. In fact, your manager at the time came up to me during the show and asked me why I was taping it!

Memorable? Hehe. I don’t remember too much. Part of it was the NYC 4 am bar closing time. No one had a car so no reason to stay sober. Gave everyone a lot of time to get drunk watching 4 bands. I remember when we started going on last instead of first I really had to pace myself to be in reasonably good condition to play. Chandler never did.

Back From the Grave Vol 3.

Tim Warren including you on Back From the Grave Vol. 3 was a stroke of genius. Although we didn’t know it at the time, he instinctively knew you guys fit perfectly into the whole idea of his comps.

People were pretty shocked there was a new band on there, and it was an instrumental. Crypt luckily picked us up after we got booted off Relativity after the 2nd LP…that got us to Europe and Japan and prolonged the band for a number of years.

Set list for the Raunch Hands show at CBGBs on July 15, 1986.

The Hands stood alone in being the ultimate NYC band in terms of attitude, style and sound. Pretty soon others out side of the city started picking up on it. When did you get an inkling that this was starting to become more than just a local thing.

We never really had a concept when we started because we liked all kinds of music and wanted to try to incorporate all the styles we could. That confused a lot of people. Initially when I joined, the group was doing mostly Tchang and Chandler originals because the group didn’t have enough musical knowledge to try to cover a song, they always sounded terrible so they just wrote their own originals.

Chandler really had the pedigree coming from the Outta Place. His unique vocal spin on your R&B-based tunes really set the band apart from other bands who mined similar influences.

Yeah. We kinda stole him from The Outta Place, who I did like very much. We were fans of black R & B mostly. My favorite band in the mid 80s was Barrence Whitfield and the Savages. We started moving in that direction when Tchang started playing sax, so out went the fiddle and lap steel.

Business card size handout. Courtesy Dawn Eden.

I have to ask you who came up with the “Hello, I am a Raunch Hand” card. The hand gestures on the back are what totally make it. I think I still have my band T-shirt with those graphics on it.

I cant remember who came up with it but it was a great idea..Cool you still have the shirt, I do too but it doesn’t fit-not that I gained weight…it shrank!

Finally, in closing, I have to ask you about Billy Miller. While most people know him and Miriam for the Norton label, I don’t think many know how essential he was to the NY music community.  Especially around the time KICKS was their only main product. Personally, I feel his enthusiastic writing was what drew me more and more into discovering new sounds. And, if that wasn’t enough, he was a super-nice, wickedly clever guy. Everyone seems to have a unique story when it comes to Billy. What is your story?

Not one particular story but Billy was an amazing guy. Funny, easygoing, great taste. I was lucky to have been asked to start The A Bones with him and Miriam and Mike Lewis and I was nervous as this was his follow-up to The Zantees which had 2 amazing rockabilly guitarists The Statile Brothers so I had some big shoes to fill. I learned so much from Billy, always had the time to teach and share something about great old records. His death was tragic, a long painful one. So not deserved. His contribution to music was massive as was/is Tim Warren’s. Both of them have had a huge impact on my life.

Miriam Linna, Billy Miller, Link Wray, Tim Warren, and Mike Mariconda. 1984. Courtesy Miriam Linna /Norton Records.

To this day it’s still pretty amazing that people all over the world who appreciate garage music, in all its permutations, still fondly remember and appreciate The Raunch Hands. Despite all the good and bad things that happened that must be satisfying in some respects.

Yeah, very happy to see the music is still holding up, reaching new people and sounds a lot more spontaneous than a lot of recordings today.

Raunch Hands Gig Postcard

Thanks again Mike. And please, if the RH ever do another gig in this lifetime…you have to cover Hong Kong Missisippi it’s the ultimate RH song that never was.

We might have tried that at a rehearsal but sounded so crappy we gave up on it! A future RHs gig unfortunately will never happen, I have 2 fingers paralyzed on my left hand and Chandler is having a very slow recovery from his bout with cancer. However, I still continue to produce bands and even have a new project in the works.

Long Live the King

This is my first post in a long while here. There is a reason for that. A little over six months ago we lost a huge part of what I believe made the New York music scene as special as it was to many of us. And to be quite honest, celebrating this time and period in the mid-80s garage scene is quite hard without paying some sort of homage to this man.

On November 13, 2016 we lost record collector, fan, and musician Billy Miller. Billy took his pure love of rock n’ roll and created a world in which he and many, many, others could live in and enjoy. Starting very humbly with just a fanzine and an unending passion, he forged a path produced by his own fevered vision of a world where unsung musicians were lauded and rewarded with long-overdue praise.

So while it was well known amongst his closest friends that he was battling cancer, it was nevertheless a shock that to hear of his sudden passing. Since then, many many writers much more eloquent than myself have shared their views of his passing. All touching on some part of his life that made his very presence a pleasure to thousands around the world. From the New York Times obit, to Billboard magazine all the way to Lindsay Hogg’s impassioned blog post on his Next Big Things website. Its all covered.

So what could I add? Not much really. Just preaching to the choir at this point. Nevertheless, I am sure I feel the same hollow feeling inside that others do when they think about Billy. A feeling that cannot begin to match the one felt by his loving partner Miriam Linna. Loss is never easy. In fact, while the garage scene tends to focus on some aspect of loss…it is only because we never really understand it. Its a deep, shared, experience that humanizes all of us. Billy knew this. In fact, I am sure, somewhere, Billy is looking down and hoping we start a band…cause thats just the kind of guy he was. RIP good sir.


Au Revoir Mr. Martignon

Billy Miller and JD Martignon.
Two men on a mission: Norton Records’ Billy Miller and Midnight Records’ J.D. Martignon. ©

When it came down to record labels that catered to the NY garage punk world during the mid 80s, only two could really claim to being in touch with the scene. Billy Miller and Miriam Linna’s Norton Records and J.D. Martignon’s Midnight Records. These three larger than life folks not only formed the backbone of the small music scene, but in many cases employed many of the die-hard fans and musicians who reveled in it’s world.

It was therefore bittersweet to hear of J.D.’s passing a few days ago. While the man was certainly no saint, he did have his hand (wanted or not) in many of the major events of NYC 60’s garage punk scene. For a full recap please go to DJ Shimmy’s excellent article on J.D. and his label a few years back in Bananas fanzine. Part one talks about J.D.’s life before Midnight and Part 2 goes into his label’s garage glory years. Its well researched and an interesting window into the life of the man many knew as only an irritable, hustling record store owner.