It was good to hear that singer Joni Mitchell is improving after suffering a brain aneurysm on March 31. The singer’s website states that “she is resting comfortably in her own home and she’s getting better each day. A full recovery is expected.”
Mitchell, born in Alberta, Canada, is one of many rock stars whose careers blossomed in New York City. Some were born here, others traveled here from across the U.S. and the world, but all knew this was the place where musicians could thrive. Some could only afford a tiny apartment in a tenement building. Others were established but wanted to stay close to the pulse of the city.
The stars have moved on but the buildings still stand. Here’s a look at some of the places the stars called home back in the day.
(All photos by Frank Mastropolo for Rock Cellar Magazine)
In 1967, Joni Mitchell lived in a ground-floor apartment in the back of 41 West 16th Street in New York’s Chelsea – a neighborhood that inspired the title of one of her best-loved songs, Chelsea Morning.
“I wrote that in Philadelphia after some girls who worked in this club where I was playing… found all this colored slag glass in an alley,” Mitchell told the L.A. Times. “We collected a lot of it and built these glass mobiles with copper wire and coat hangers.
“I took mine back to New York and put them in my window on West 16th Street in the Chelsea District. The sun would hit the mobile and send these moving colors all around the room. As a young girl, I found that to be a thing of beauty. There’s even a reference to the mobile in the song. It was a very young and lovely time… before I had a record deal.”
After crashing with friends around town, Bob Dylan moved into his first New York apartment in December 1961. Dylan shared the two-room Greenwich Village apartment at 161 West Fourth Street with girlfriend Suze Rotolo. The pair would be photographed nearby for the cover of 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
Robert Shelton described the apartment in No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan. “The building rose four flights over Bruno’s Spaghetti Parlor, and Dylan rented the first floor rear for around $60 a month. There was a tiny bedroom and a kitchenette/dining/living area.
“He built a table with space for meals, the TV in the middle, and a niche for his typewriter. The portable nearly always stood ready with a piece of yellow copy paper in it, a few lines of a song-in-progress peeking out. The apartment was decorated with dust, a hard wooden chair, instruments of all sorts, a few Mexican belts, guitar straps, and a ceramic bull. There was barely room for one person. When Suze moved in, there was scarcely room for anyone.”
Dylan mocked the Village folk music crowd that deserted him when he switched to electric rock with the title of 1965’s Positively 4th Street.
The Velvet Underground was formed in 1965 in the apartment of musician John Cale. The fifth-floor walk-up at 56 Ludlow Street was in the heart of New York’s gritty Lower East Side.
Lou Reed commuted to the apartment from his parents’ home on Long Island on weekends to work with Cale and guitarist Sterling Morrison. “We rehearsed, we experimented, and the six songs we taped in the apartment in July ’65 on our Wollensak recorder wound up being the basis for our first album in ’67 – The Velvet Underground & Nico,” Cale recalled in the Wall Street Journal.
“Our apartment was a railroad flat – a long room running from the windows in the front to a small bedroom and a bathroom in the back. I slept on a mattress, under the windowsill in the front overlooking Ludlow. We burned crates and furniture in the fireplace to keep warm. There was no heat in the winter other than the gas stove.”
Madonna was 19 when she arrived in New York City from Detroit in 1978. After crashing for two weeks with a stranger she’d met in Times Square, Madonna’s first apartment was a fourth-floor walk-up at 232 East Fourth Street. After a renovation, the building’s address was changed to 230 East Fourth Street.
In Life With My Sister Madonna, the star’s brother Christopher Ciccone described the East Village tenement flat as ‘”two small rooms, no furniture except a big white futon and a perpetually hissing radiator.”
“Madonna claims she existed during this hard time on popcorn, donuts, and yogurt, with forays into dumpsters for whatever she could scrounge,” writes Mary Cross in Madonna: A Biography. “Her father came to visit but was so upset by her living conditions – ‘a roach motel’ he called it – that he pleaded with her to come home.”
In 1966, singer-songwriter Al Kooper and then-wife Joan moved from East 35th Street to a new apartment at 140 Waverly Place, where they lived until 1968. Despite his success with the Blues Project and Blood Sweat & Tears during those years, Kooper was hardly living like a rock star.
“We were living in this un-air-conditioned rat-trap on Waverly Place in Greenwich Village,” Kooper wrote in Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards. “We had a pretty crummy place in a better location. We were on the ground floor, which made it a lot easier for the rats to come and go as they pleased.”
In 1967, punk rock’s Patti Smith shared her first apartment with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood. “We had the entire second floor, with windows facing east and west, but its aggressively seedy condition was out of my range of experience,” Smith wrote in Just Kids. “The walls were smeared with blood and psychotic scribbling, the oven crammed with discarded syringes, and the refrigerator overrun with mold.
“Robert cut a deal with the landlord, agreeing to clean and paint it himself provided we pay only one month’s deposit, instead of the required two. The rent was eighty dollars a month.
“My work area was a jumble of manuscript pages, musty classics, broken toys, and talismans. I tacked pictures of Rimbaud, Bob Dylan, Lotte Lenya, Piaf, Genet, and John Lennon over a makeshift desk where I arranged my quills, my inkwell, and my notebooks – my monastic mess.”
“I should have been born in New York, man,” John Lennon said in Rolling Stone. “I should have been born in the Village! That’s where I belong!” Ex-Beatle John Lennon was already a superstar in 1971 when he and wife Yoko Ono moved to 105 Bank Street in Greenwich Village, famous for its bohemians and artists. Fans generally allowed Lennon to walk around the neighborhood without much attention.
The two-room apartment on the top floor of the 19th century building was rented to the couple by Joe Butler, drummer of folk-rock’s Lovin’ Spoonful. But in 1972, a former tenant and his accomplices broke into the apartment while Lennon and Ono were home and stole a TV, artwork and Lennon’s wallet and address book. Concerned about their safety, the couple in February 1973 moved to The Dakota on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Marky Ramone joined the Ramones in 1978. “For the first time in my life, I was making really good money consistently,” Ramone wrote in Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life as a Ramone. The drummer moved to 29 John Street in New York’s financial district.
Ramone’s 500-watt stereo system made him an unpopular tenant. “The building was originally commercial but was now ‘mixed use,’ in this case about half commercial and half residential. I managed to disturb both halves,” Ramone wrote. “Apparently, the pipes carried the sound up and down through the building to a degree where my neighbors could tell whether I was playing the studio version or live version of Tommy.
“But they did have a point. It was getting a little too loud. One afternoon, side two of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland cracked the glass in one of our cabinets.”
Musician and artist Alan Vega’s apartment, around the corner from punk rock mecca CBGB, was known as the “Ramones Loft” because it was a favorite crash pad of the band. Joey Ramone, lead singer of the Ramones, lived with his mother and brother in Forest Hills, Queens before he moved in with Vega in the mid-1970s.
“Joey’s ‘bedroom’ was a small area behind a freestanding bookcase toward the rear of the loft,” wrote Marky Ramone. “Behind the bookcase, on the floor, was a mattress covered with mounds of records and tapes that spilled out onto the surrounding floorboards. There were T-shirts, jeans, sneakers, books, and magazines that looked as if they had just been shipped from Birchwood Towers in Forest Hills and dumped from a suitcase. But Joey had lived here at least three years.”
In 2005, pop star Lady Gaga quit college and left her parents’ comfortable home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to move to a one-bedroom apartment at 176 Stanton Street. “I left my entire family, got the cheapest apartment I could find, and ate shit until somebody would listen,” Gaga told New York magazine.
Gaga’s father helped pay the $1,100 per month rent in the Lower East Side tenement building. Gaga, still Stefani Germanotta in those days, made demos at home when she wasn’t playing gigs at local clubs. “She had a bare-ass apartment,” says her friend and former DJ Brendan Sullivan in Poker Face: The Rise and Rise of Lady Gaga. “It just had turntables, a synth, and a couch. It was like a monk’s cell – just for work and study.”
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