Where Veteran Rockers Go to Reinvent Themselves
Melissa Auf der Maur spent 15 years as a rocker on the road, playing bass in alternative bands like Hole and the Smashing Pumpkins, dating Dave Grohl, and at times taking up residence in Janis Joplin’s old room at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. But in 2006, when she met and fell in love with the filmmaker Tony Stone, she knew it was time to settle down away from the city, become a mother and raise a child in a “cozy little town with a cool kindergarten and plenty of nature.”
She was 34 and in the middle of making her second solo album, she said, when Mr. Stone took her to Hudson, N.Y., to visit friends and family who had moved to the area.
“I had a tingling feeling,” she said. “I said to Tony: ‘If we’re going to live anywhere in the U.S., it’s going to be here.’”
The couple moved to Hudson in 2008 and started a family soon thereafter. But Ms. Auf der Maur still felt driven by the urge to create. She also wanted to do something community-focused, like starting an arts center similar to the ones she had relied on when she was a struggling young musician growing up in Montreal.
Together with Mr. Stone, she started Basilica Hudson in 2010. The arts and performance space, housed in a former railroad wheel foundry, hosts both international music festivals and local events. A reclaimed elementary school, built around 1901 and close to Basilica’s net-zero campus, now serves as a showpiece, design innovation hub and media center for the couple’s interest in green design. Basilica has also become one of the Hudson Valley’s most popular wedding venues, which, as Ms. Auf der Maur puts it, “wasn’t in our original plan, but totally pays for our wild, purist dreams of arts and culture.”
A former grunge icon for Courtney Love’s band in the dangerous days of the ’90s, Ms. Auf der Maur is just one of the many musicians who have moved to the Hudson Valley and the Catskills to start over, in one way or another. Some have put their musical careers on hold. Others have continued recording and touring, while devoting themselves to completely new pursuits. But the artists in the area make up a dream festival bill for the Lollapalooza generation, one that remembers vinyl, cassettes, CDs and when MTV still played music videos for most of the day.
There’s longtime area resident Natalie Merchant, the former lead singer for 10,000 Maniacs, who has volunteered for educational nonprofits including Head Start in Troy; the bassist Tony Levin, who played with King Crimson and Peter Gabriel, and who now lives in Kingston and pursues photography; the songwriter Amy Rigby, now an author and podcaster in Catskill; Daryl Hall, of Hall & Oates fame, who became a nightclub proprietor with the opening of Daryl’s House in Pawling; and Kate Pierson, the inimitable singer of the B-52’s, who pioneered the funky retro chic motel concept in the Catskills with the opening of Kate’s Lazy Meadow in Mt. Tremper in 2004.
And where else but in Woodstock could the dentist who is filling your cavity have had a former life as a “one-hit wonder” in that golden year of pop, 1967?
As a couple, Ms. Auf der Maur and Mr. Stone seemed like the perfect combination for making a thriving arts center in Hudson a reality; she had the vision, and he had the know-how. “I wanted to see if I could bring the world to us, to bring all the things I had experienced around the world to this tiny town,” she said.
Mr. Stone is the son of two artists who were active in the SoHo and TriBeCa loft scene of the 1970s. “Tony’s dad, Bill, was a contractor in Lower Manhattan, who at one time almost went in on a plumbing pipe threader with Philip Glass,” Ms. Auf der Maur said. “A lot of artists worked renovating many lofts in SoHo, a skill my husband inherited,” she continued. “We’re not afraid of taking on big buildings without plumbing or electricity. Our destiny seems to be taking these buildings and creating a second life for them and ourselves.”
Mr. Stone described himself as “an urban-rural hybrid,” who grew up in a loft on Duane Street in Downtown Manhattan but spent every summer “off the grid in a hippie cabin” in Vermont. “By age 12, I was wiring solar panels and digging wells,” he said. “It set the stage for what Melissa and I do today at Basilica.”
He came to know the Hudson Valley as a student at Bard College and again when his aunt bought a house in Hudson, followed by his parents, who moved to the area in 1998. Soon after he started dating Ms. Auf der Maur, Mr. Stone introduced her to family haunts in Vermont and upstate New York, where Ms. Auf der Maur “began to understand the power of nature in the raw and the need to preserve it,” she said. “It makes you look at everything differently. And that, too, changed the whole direction of my life.”
Now, the couple are players in the local arts and climate scene. Ms. Auf der Maur is a member of the Regional Economic Development Council for the Capital region, where she reviews grant applications. (Basilica Hudson and The River House Project, their green design initiative, have received grants from the council.) She and Mr. Stone were part of the team that helped secure a $10 million grant from the council to revitalize the Hudson waterfront.
Ms. Auf der Maur also joined the writer, musician and producer Jesse Paris Smith (who is the daughter of Patti Smith) and the musician and activist Rebecca Foon to help Hudson become a part of the 1,000 Cities Initiative for Carbon Freedom, a project to get cities of all sizes involved in the renewable energy and zero emissions goals set forth by the Paris Agreement.
“Melissa and Tony’s efforts have been a blessing for our community, one that really demonstrates the connection between climate action and social justice,” said Kamal Johnson, the mayor of Hudson. “Basilica has been a great asset,” he continued. “It has brought world-class artists and audiences to our door and served as the stage for many events that bind together our community.”
The singer Amanda Palmer, who is half of the punk-cabaret duo the Dresden Dolls and has a place in Woodstock, concurs with the mayor’s take on Ms. Auf der Maur, now 50, who has also found the time to work on a memoir that will include some of the 30,000 photos she snapped during her time as a musician. “She’s an important nexus, a vital connective tissue in the arts, the environment and in swaying a certain kind of creative, like myself, to take up residence in the Hudson Valley,” Ms. Palmer said.
About five miles south of Hudson is the town of Catskill. In 2011, the singer-songwriter Amy Rigby (best known for her 1996 album, “Diary of a Mod Housewife”) moved there from France with her rocker husband, Eric Goulden, also known as Wreckless Eric (best remembered for his 1977 record “Whole Wide World”). Her friend Deb Parker, a former owner of the Beauty Bar in the East Village and who had become a real estate broker in the area in the late 2000s, showed the couple around.
Once they were settled, Ms. Rigby started working part time at the Spotty Dog Books & Ale in Hudson and pursuing writing. In 2019, her memoir, “Girl to City,” about being a musician in the East Village from the 1970s through the mid-90s, was published.
During the Covid-19 shutdown, Ms. Rigby created a podcast based on “Girl to City” and began work on a follow-up memoir, “Girl to Country.” The Hudson Valley is all about second acts, she said. “Everybody reinvents themselves up here.”
Take Tracy Bonham, who had a No. 1 alternative single in 1996 with “Mother, Mother,” but who has since used much of her time to teach music to children. In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, she and another musician founded Melodeon Music House, an educational program in Woodstock that was inspired by the popular 1970s Saturday morning TV series “Schoolhouse Rock!”
But unlike her peers, Ms. Bonham ultimately decided full-time country life was not for her. This fall, she returned to Brooklyn, where she currently teaches the Melodeon curriculum to preschoolers.
“It was really for the energy and vitality of the city, and the diversity of the people,” Ms. Bonham said of her return to the city. “Now that I look back on it, it could be a bit isolating,” she said, referring to Woodstock. “The sun goes down early and the winters are long and hard, so you can feel a bit trapped. Now that I am back in Brooklyn, I feel re-energized and inspired. There’s both more opportunity for work and to socialize.”
Ms. Rigby, too, feels the pull of the city. “When I was driving down to Manhattan to play a gig at the City Winery recently, I kept telling myself, ‘I don’t care about the city anymore,’” she said. “But it’s a defense mechanism. I still care about the city that made me, and nothing feels as good as playing to a New York crowd.”
However, when she hits the New York State Thruway and sees the mountains, Ms. Rigby said, she can breathe again. So for now, she’s staying put. “I probably became a more well-rounded person living up here. New York will always be the paragon of where one goes to pursue a creative life, but that kind of low-rent existence for aspiring artists isn’t possible there anymore.”
Tony Levin, who has lived in Kingston since the mid-70s, is also not going anywhere. Best known for his inventive bass playing with King Crimson, Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon, Mr. Levin still tours and records. But he is also a writer and a photographer, and he recently took advantage of his downtime during the pandemic to organize many of his photographs into a new coffee table book, “Images From a Life on the Road.”
Across the river in Beacon, Richard Butler, the charismatic frontman of the Psychedelic Furs, who studied at the Epsom School of Art and Design in London before pursuing music, lived and painted there for decades before relocating to Connecticut last year.
Another rocker with long ties to the area is Bruce Jay Milner, whose band, Every Mother’s Son, had a hit with “Come on Down to My Boat” in 1967. The tune also earned him and his bandmates a place in the “One-Hit Wonders” exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
“I had just started dental school at N.Y.U., but this was way, way more exciting,” Dr. Milner said of the instant success as a young musician. “I really thought I would pursue this, stay in the music game forever, if we kept getting hits.”
Unfortunately, that was not to be. Dr. Milner ended up finishing dental school and now lives and practices dentistry in West Hurley, about three miles south of Woodstock. Naturally, he claims to have attended the famous festival of peace and music in nearby Bethel, in 1969. The name of his practice? Transcend Dental.
“I still play a lot locally, have a digital keyboard in my office and have had my hands in the mouths of some of the biggest names in music,” said Dr. Milner, ticking off famous patients like Brian Eno and Sonny Rollins.
The musician Amy Helm, whose father was Levon Helm, the drummer for The Band, is a patient. She said Dr. Milner was “the kind of guy who will play a song and sing harmony with you before he gives you a root canal.”
Dr. Milner said: “Being a dentist up in Woodstock, with all these great musicians, is a pretty great second act. And what other dentist can say he is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?”
Sal Cataldi is a writer, musician and former publicist living in Saugerties, N.Y.