In the late 1950s and early 1960s apartments were not expensive, and they were plentiful all over the city, not as it is now. Rents were low and the subways dirt-cheap. When I first arrived a token was fifteen cents, the same price as a slice of pizza. A truism known probably only to New Yorkers is that the price of a subway ride and a slice of pizza would always be the same. Or they play tag with each other so closely that you would have to suspect that somewhere behind the scenes the prices of these two New York City staples are inextricably bound together — fixed, as it were. Odd facts like this abound in New York City and can keep the place endlessly interesting.
Today a young musician or dancer will have a much harder time finding an affordable place to live and work. Even part-time and occasional work was easy to find in those days. I could manage quite well working as few as twenty to twenty-five hours a week — in other words, three full days or five half days. Even after I returned from Paris and India in the late 1960s, and well into the 1970s, I could take care of my family by working no more than three or four days a week.
It wasn’t only that living was cheaper and work easier to find. Back then the city was considerably less violent. On an early summer evening it was common for my friends and me to walk down Central Park West from 110th Street to Times Square, have a $1.50 dinner at Tad’s Steakhouse on Forty-Second Street, go to a movie for $1.25, then stroll back up the length of Central Park West. If it was a warm night, in the time before air-conditioning, there would be people sleeping in the park.
My last two apartments on the Upper West Side were both on Ninety-Sixth Street. By then my rent had climbed to $69 a month and, finally, a high of $125 a month, and I was ready for a change — and it was a big one. In 1959, I moved all the way down to to Front Street, just a block away from the Fulton Fish Market. It was the beginning of the years when artists and some musicians were making over industrial lofts into living-work places. My loft was on the second floor of a building that backed onto the building on South Street that housed Sloppy Louie’s, a seafood restaurant. Between the fish market and the restaurant, there was a pervasive aroma of fish in the air —fresh, salted or cooked. The fish market itself seemed to be 24/7. I don’t remember ever seeing it completely closed, though it could slow down in the afternoons.
My first loft was an unheated square room and very large compared with what had been my standard apartment until then. It had a toilet and a cold-water basin. My neighbors and friends, there being only artists in the building, initiated me into loft living. First, I learned how to use a potbelly stove, installing it on a metal plate and connecting it with stovepipes through the top of a nearby window, then loading it with wood. The wood itself was easy to find and plentiful in that part of the city. It was almost entirely from the wooden pallets that were used to haul around materials, manufactured goods, and sometimes fish. After being used they were abandoned in the streets. You could go out with a hammer and saw and bring back armfuls of broken planks in way less than an hour. However, that was only when we didn’t have coal. In our building there was an empty elevator shaft and a few of us got together and had a half ton of coal dumped right in to the shaft from the ground floor. From there we would bring soft coal up to our lofts a pail at a time…
The rent for my loft on Front Street was $30 a month, and I soon learned that the other artists in the building were furious with me, because they were paying only $25. They were sure the landlord had taken advantage of my naiveté and, by charging me more, would use this as an excuse to jack up everyone else’s rent to$30. In fact, I don’t think that actually happened. I paid my rent every month to a company in Long Island City named Sterling Real Estate. I sent them a $30 money order and I don’t remember ever signing a lease.
The other tenants were all artists. John Rouson, a painter from London just a few years older than me, became a great friend. It was mainly John who tutored me in the details of loft living as we knew it in the late 1950s. He showed me how to stack the coal in the stove; he rolled his own cigarettes, which I also learned to do; and he showed me how to read the I Ching. He was short and slim and wore thick glasses. He spoke rarely and with a Cockney accent, to great effect. His judgments about painting, politics, poetry, and women were clear and crisp, if sometimes a bit harsh. By then Michel Zeltzman and I had taken up with a yoga teacher, Yogi Vithaldas, and John didn’t think much of that at all. I think his whole I Ching connection had more to do with the fact that John Cage used it as a compositional method than it had to do with Chinese philosophy — though he did know a bit of that, too. John was a beautiful, beautiful painter. His work was quasi-realistic — still lifes and landscapes.
John Rouson was a deep fellow, no question. He knew what it was to be an artist and live without money. He would periodically take a job at a tobacco shop near WallStreet, because he liked getting free, loose tobacco and, after a few weeks or a month, he would have a bit of cash put aside, quit work, and go back to painting. I don’t remember him ever selling a single painting. He, like Michel, had a childhood disrupted by the war. In his case, John had been sent out of London to avoid the Blitz bombing that was visited on the city. I think he missed London but didn’t miss the bombs.
Eventually, Michel and John came to know each other quite well and the three of us shared a huge appetite for new painting, dance, and performance. We would travel around the East Village and lower Manhattan seeking out the latest new and unusual artistic experiments. In 1961-62 I remember going with John to Claes Oldenburg’s “The Store” in a first-floor railroad apartment on East Second Street.
In each room — they were strung out one after the other, like rail road cars—was a happening or an installation, or both. In one room you might encounter a long-legged girl in fishnet stockings handing out marshmallows and hugs to the spectators who wandered casually and carelessly between the rooms. Or perhaps a room of mirrors with flashlights and candles. These were the early days of happenings. I loved everything about them, the weirder the better. And, I must say, I feel the same way today. I like all kinds of art/performance, but I love it the most when it’s fresh out of the can, not even reheated.
John was a great music lover, too, and insisted on hearing everything I wrote. By then we were no longer living on Front Street. He was in Hell’s Kitchen, and I was in Chinatown. I would go over to his place, another cold-water flat, and he would hand-grind some strong coffee in his coffee grinder, and I would put on a new tape of my latest compositions. He would peer at me, as if smiling through his thick glasses, and quietly nod his head. At times we also listened to Elliott Carter and the early recordings of Cecil Taylor…
It was during this period, in the early 1960s, when I went for the first time with John and Michel to Yoko Ono’s loft on Chambers Street. In those days, Yoko was presenting some of the earliest performance art to be seen in New York City. In the company of only a handful of other spectators, we were present for some of La Monte Young’s seminal, quite early performances. One involved a pendulum, a pointer, and a piece of chalk. Hard to describe, but in the course of several hours La Monte drew an ever – thickening white chalk line on the floor, measured by the pointer attached to the swinging pendulum. Of course the whole affair was either maddening or mesmerizing depending on your point of view. For me, it was the latter.
Another piece was called “Piano Piece for David Tudor #1” (aka “Feeding the Piano”). There would be a piano, and La Monte would come on and put a bucket of water and an armful of hay by the piano, and then he would go sit down with the audience, really only a handful of people. We would sit there with the piano and the water and the hay, and after a while, when La Monte decided that the piano had eaten enough, he would pick up the hay and the water and he would leave.
But that wasn’t all La Monte did. He also composed music that was a sustained, low-pitched, quiet tone that rum- bled at the low end of what was humanly audible. Later, he studied Indian vocal music with the Indian master Pranath and also became an accomplished singer-composer. Not long ago I visited his Dream House, on Church Street, just below Canal Street in New York City, for a Sunday afternoon concert. The small loft was packed with young people. La Monte still performs wonderfully.
I still think of New York City as a powerhouse of a place in which human energy, imagination, and spirit are nourished. The work of artists who live here is inextricably bound up with the city. I think this was true for me at least until my fifties or sixties.
“What does your music sound like?” I’m often asked. “It sounds like New York to me,” I say.
It is alchemy that takes the sounds of the city and turns them into music. If you’ve lived here, you know that.
In the 1970s and ’80s, when I went to Paris or London, or Rotterdam or Rome, people’s eyes would pop open when they heard my music, because they were hearing something that they wouldn’t have heard from Europeans. The music that I was playing and writing in those early years, that I was importing to Europe, was quintessentially New York music in a way that I always hoped it would be. I wanted my concert music to be as distinctive as Zappa at the Fillmore East, and I think I ended up doing that.
In this very same way, I was drawn to the jazz of Ornette Coleman and Lennie Tristano’s music, as well as to the sound of Bud Powell and Charlie Parker. During my last years at Juilliard, on many nights I would go to hear John Coltraneat the Village Vanguard. If he wasn’t there, I’d go over to the Five Spot and hear The lonious Monk and Ornette. I considered all of them to be fellow alchemists, taking the energy of New York and transforming it into music.
There was a huge explosion going on in New York in the 1960s when the art world, the theater world, the dance world, and the music world all came together. It was a party that never stopped, and I felt like I was in the middle of it.
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