At home with a Viking

Philip Glass recalls a tumultuous year sharing his house in New York with the maverick composer Moon

The Village Voice had a piece about Moondog needing somewhere to live, so I trekked out to his usual spot, in front of the Warwick Hotel at 54th and Sixth, and invited him to stay at the house I was living in with my wife, JoAnne Akalaitis. A few weeks later I get a call from Moondog from a pay phone; he sounds cautious but says he'd like to come check out the room.

I looked out the window and the sight of Moondog crossing the street startled me. He was such an imposing figure, about six foot eight counting his Viking headpiece; and he was so confident in his walk, you wouldn't think he was blind. I wondered how, as a blind man, he managed to cross the street without an instant of hesitation until he showed me how he listened to the traffic lights; I had never heard them before in this way.

So here's Moondog at the front door, all stately and remarkable with horns on his head. I offer him our big room on our top floor. Moondog turns down the big room. He says he wants our small room, where he could stretch out his arms and feel the walls and ceiling. That's what he was comfortable with, like what he would eventually do in his tiny house upstate. The way he later described his upstate home, it sounded like a spider or an octopus, with small arms or corridors reaching out from the centre.

He ended up living with us for nearly a year. I thought he was terrific, fascinating and musically very interesting. We formed a music group, Moondog, Steve Reich, Jon Gibson and myself. For a time, we had weekly sessions playing Moondog's compositions. We took his work very seriously and understood and appreciated it much more than what we were exposed to at Juilliard. Steve recorded many of our sessions.

Moondog came from a true American tradition; he personified the maverick, solitary hero composer, like Nancarrow, Partch, Ives and Ruggles. He really impressed me with his work, and that he could play all of his music. Once he gave me a gift of a big composition with 37 parts. I still have the music.

I was particularly interested in the way Moondog could work lyrically with odd rhythms; in a way it wasn't dissimilar from what I was doing at the time with Ravi Shankar. Moondog was quite interested in our work, too, and seemed to appreciate that we were also finding our own voices compositionally.

When he lived with us, Moondog was very connected to jazz. He'd stand in the stairway to the jazz club Birdland and play along with anything they were playing inside the club. I was amazed at his facility for doing this, and the way he could make music of found sounds. I remember him standing on the roof overlooking the Hudson River, and when the Queen Elizabeth pulled into port, blowing its horn, Moondog would toot along with it on his bamboo flute.

As amazing as he was, he was a difficult guy, and a bit of a racist, too. He spoke of not liking black or Jewish people. He asked me whether I was Jewish, and I said I was. He then wondered why this happened to him, why all his best friends happened to be Jewish and black. He seemed genuinely sad and confused by this unfortunate circumstance.

Though he spent a year with us, I gave him lots of privacy. Before he moved to Germany, it did become uncomfortable at times. It seemed that he felt entitled to grab hold of any woman he could. He told me: "I can't be prosecuted for rape because they can't do that to blind people."

Another uncomfortable thing about living with Moondog was that he didn't pick up after himself, or know how or bother to throw out the trash, so I spent some time cleaning up the fast food he brought to his room, like empty boxes from Dunkin' Donuts and half-eaten bones from Kentucky Fried Chicken.

I only saw him once after he moved to Germany. He came back to visit New York and we had a great dinner together at my home in the East Village. Moondog lived a life of tremendous courage and discipline; he was an admirable, unique person and a personal inspiration.

This is the preface to the official biography, "Moondog, the Viking of Sixth Avenue" by Robert Scotto, which includes a 28-track CD (Process). Info:

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism