On a chilly Friday afternoon in February 1989, my friend Carl — whom I knew from WVKR, Vassar College's radio station — invited me to take a ride with him over the Mid-Hudson Bridge to New Paltz and do some record shopping. Carl said he knew of a little place near SUNY New Paltz that stocked a lot of cool Sixties records; and since "Peace, Love and Fuzztone," my WVKR show on Friday nights, was all about cool Sixties records, he was definitely speaking my language.
Twenty-seven years on, the name of that store has perhaps understandably slipped my mind, but I vividly remember what I bought there that day: An original pressing of Love's incredible Four Sail LP (which I'd never even seen before, and which in time would become my favorite Love LP), a really cool Big Beat compilation of US pop-psych called Baubles Vol 1 — Down to Middle Earth, and issue #6 of Kicks Magazine.
Truth be told, the third item was something of an afterthought. I'd seen earlier issues of Kicks around, but never picked one up — probably because I perceived the mag as being heavily Fifties-centric. Not that I had any problem with Fifties music, per se (I'd loved doo-wop, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Elvis since I was 12); it's just that, having spent much of my college years on a heavy garage and psychedelia kick, the very idea of pre-LSD music seemed kinda quaint to me. Of course, being a Bo Diddley fan, I should have known better than to judge a book (or a 'zine) by its cover...
Actually, it was the cover of Kicks #6 that convinced me to give the mag a shot. I had no idea who Ronnie Dawson, Arch Hall Jr., Sonny Burgess, the Rockin' R's, the Rumblers or Sparkle Moore were; but I definitely knew who Bobby Fuller was — I'd already spent many hours teaching myself "I Fought The Law" on guitar — and I'd heard that he'd died under some pretty weird circumstances. "The Bobby Fuller Story"? Sign me up!
Carl and I made it back to Poughkeepsie just in time for my radio show, so I didn't get a chance to dig into my new magazine until the next day, which I spent serving as a volunteer "extra" on a friend's student film. Having lots of downtime between shots, I devoured Miriam Linna's amazingly deep dig into Fuller's life and music, laughed my ass off at "Mr. Corned Beef Rising," Billy Miller's phony interview with Jim Morrison (who, according to the mag, was still alive and running Jim Morrisberg's Deli), marveled at the fact that they had a column ("Fish Fry") wherein Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators shared his favorite recipes, and generally tried to absorb all the incredible info packed into the issue's pages. Miriam and Billy were clearly tapped into something cooler than I'd ever imagined existed; this was no American Graffiti/Happy Days nostalgia-fest, but a window into an alternate universe where Esquerita was bigger than Little Richard, Arch Hall Jr. was an Academy Award-winning actor, and Andre Williams' greasy discography was far more compelling and life-affirming than anything Eighties MTV had to offer. I had to know more...
And I wasn't the only one, not by a long shot. When Billy died this past Sunday, leaving us behind after a brutal battle with multiple myeloma, kidney failure and diabetes, my Facebook feed was immediately filled with heartfelt tributes to the man, with many of my friends crediting him and his wife Miriam with changing their lives through the music that they tirelessly championed, sold and released via Kicks and their Norton Records mini-empire. Some of my friends knew him well on personal level, and I wish I could say the same thing — since, by all accounts, he was a truly dynamite cat. But even though I didn't really know him, even though our only real connection was via the U.S. postal service, I still feel compelled to testify to his awesomeness by remembering the mighty mark he made on my own musical tastes and listening habits.
I'd read an interview with Miriam and Billy in RE:Search's Incredibly Strange Music, Volume 1, where Billy mentioned the "Satisfaction Guaranteed Grab Bag" service that they offered through their Norton mail-order catalog — basically, you could tell them, "Here's fifty bucks — send me your craziest doo-wop 45s," or sleaziest instrumental 45s, or whatever, and they'd hook you up. So, in 1994, about a year after the interview was published, I included a letter with my latest Norton order (some Link Wray and surf music comps, if I recall correctly), asking if they still did the "grab bag" deal. "You bet," Billy wrote back to me. "Just let us know what you're in the mood for — we won't send you no crap!"
Off went a $100 check to Box 646 Cooper Station, NY, NY 10003, with instructions to send me a hundred bucks' worth of doo-wop and R&B 45s about drinking, eating and carrying on. A week or two later, I received a sweet stack o' wax that not only fit the bill to the proverbial T, but also blew my ever-lovin' mind and sent me down a Fifties R&B rabbit hole that I'm still enthusiastically exploring some two decades later. And I'm gonna "spin" some of 'em right now for you, in Billy's honor.
Amazing stuff, right? And Billy knew this kinda shit backwards and forwards, and made it one of his many life's missions to turn the rest of the world onto it. "Some people accuse us of being into nostalgia and being narrow-minded because we don't listen to the 'latest' music," he said in the Incredibly Strange Music interview, "but it's not nostalgia — I wish I'd heard all these obscure records when I was a little kid."
Indeed, the well from which he and Miriam drew this incredible music still seems almost bottomless... and amid the darkness and despair of this last week, this is the kind of stuff that's repeatedly lifted me out of my doldrums and made me feel alive and even happy again. I suspect it's because these records weren't made by superstars, but by real people — people who were struggling to make ends meet, who found their joy, release and meaning in the music they made. When Billy would rail against the likes of Sting and Duran Duran in the pages of Kicks, it wasn't just because he hated their music; it was because popular music as a whole had entirely lost touch with the magic that happens four or five kids from down the street walk into a cheap-ass recording studio and sing their hearts out into a single microphone.
My heart goes out to Miriam and all of Billy's family and close friends; I hope they can find some comfort in the fact that he brought so much joy and fun not just to their lives, but to people like me who barely knew him. Rest well, Billy; thanks again for all the kicks.