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.

Say it Ain’t So

FROM JAPAN WITH LOVE: Famous underground artist and Norton recording star, Rockin’ Jelly Bean makes a pilgrimage to the Norton Record Store, October 2016.

RJB shows off his art work to an amazed employee.

If it’s one thing you can be sure of in NYC, it’s change. News came recently from Ms. Miriam Linna that the Norton Record Store in Prospect Heights will be moving to another location. You can read her announcement here. In the meantime, if you have never been to the store, what are you waiting for?? Pick up some wax and run into some colorful characters. This certainly is not your average record store!