I lived in Hamburg then. That’s a city in Germany, by a large river, the water not blue but business-grey-green, inhabited by people who’ve always looked to England for how to behave, because the town was run by patricians, by merchants, who admired the British, a deal-making nation of most successful traders.
There were many stories about brave pirates and there was a famous red light district by the harbor, which then, in times altogether more manual, inspired young men (and women). I went there one day myself to search in the face of a hooker for the face of my young robber baron self. The women were used to being made fun of by nasty boys. They started to throw me ugly looks and opened their mouths for some of the best swearing that you’ll ever hear – but then they realized I wasn’t a foul-spoken boy at all but a young robber baron and they fed me sugary sweets from golden spoons.
They really did, I’m not making it up.
Around that time I also discovered that music was something unlike the weather, something you could make and shape and twist around your ears like the curl of a beautiful girl, and you could get wet doing it and be in the presence of greatness with your eyes closed.
Music made me lose my taste for the robber baron self and for some other identities that I’d tried on, too: to be an archeologist like the great Schliemann who’d dug out Troy with his bare hands, cheered on by his Greek wife; to be a microbiologist like Paul Ehrlich, who’d cured syphilis that had killed or deformed so many weak-willed great minds. But for the robber baron, for the pirate, who was both strong and delicate, I cried the most tears while I was writing my first piece, cursing the semiquavers. It was short, I was young and I wasn’t a musical genius, but I was infected and feverish from sounds. Music, and piano music above all, altered me like a disease from within. I felt like a brigand now but I had no hero yet, no guidance on the path of sonic sunshine.
One autumn afternoon, weather like this, wet, cold and unpredictable so that you needed a good long coat, I walked down a street near the University where my mom worked then and suddenly stood in front of a giant man who wore a viking helmet and was humming something that sounded strangely attractive and was unlike anything I had heard before. I was a fearless kid always interested in eccentrics and street performers and we chatted for a long time.
A group of people with long hair came and wanted to take him away but he insisted “we have to finish talking” and he meant us! He was very easy to chat with and he invited me to a concert some time that week. I didn’t go though I’d have liked to, like the boy in Last Action Hero, who leaves home at night to immerse himself in fantastic adventures. I had never met a musician like him before. When we parted I asked his name and he said it was Moondog and laughed a beautiful belly laugh that I can still hear when I listen to his tunes. He seemed to see more than others.
For the rest of the year, I fought with my father who felt that a piano was an otiose flamboyance of the upper classes. Though my mother always took credit for bringing him round, I believe Moondog cast a spell over me that day which helped me find my true voice on a keyboard.
I dreamt of Moondog for many, many years until I made my own music again.
I battled with my memories of the stews and the sugar down by the harbor for a long time until I understood that love was free.
I grew out of the boy and the hair and the robber baron days but I still keep a rainbow belt covered with moss by my bed and I touch it at night before I go to sleep.
Published in Blue Fifth Review Notebook.