Q: I understand that in your early days as a composer, you rented a Manhattan loft for 30 bucks.
A: It was down in the Fulton fish market. I paid $30 a month. My friends paid $25, and they thought that I had betrayed the community by allowing the rent to be pushed up that high. I was deeply apologetic for having destabilized the neighborhood.
Q: People romanticize that era, the early sixties.
A: And well they might! You could eat a hearty lunch for about 50 centsyou know, beans and a roll and a cup of coffee. To support that lifestyle, you had to work only two or three days a week. So it really was a time when coming to New York and being an artist was not that difficult.
Q: Is it true that you didn’t make a dime off music until you were 40?
A: Forty-one. I was still driving a cab when I was 41. I liked it, except for the imminent violence all around you. What I liked was that I wasn’t going to an office. I didn’t have a boss. I was basically a one-man business. Unfortunately, there were parts of New York that saw it as a bank on wheels. And they could rob the bank pretty much at will.
Q: Were you ever robbed?
A: Oh, things like that happened, and it was very scary, and I was very glad to give it up. I was almost killed a few times. During the years that I was drivingthat would be ’73 to ’78there were six or seven cabdrivers being murdered a year.
Q: Between ’73 and ’78that’s around the same time that Martin Scorsese made Taxi Driver.
A: That’s right. And years later I was working with Marty on Kundun, and at one point we were talking and he looked at me, and I guess my expression was fairly deadpan, and he said, “Did you ever see Taxi Driver?” I said, “Well, Marty, no, I didn’t.” And he said, “What?!” I said, “Marty, I was a taxi driver. On my night off, I was not going to go watch a movie called Taxi Driver.”
Q: At 71, you have two young kids. Can you write music when they’re running around the house?
A: Absolutely. When I was living on 14th Street years ago, my two older kids, who are now 39 and 35we lived in a one-bedroom apartment with a cat and a girlfriend and two parrots. They would be watching television, and in the same room I was sitting at the kitchen table writing music.
Q: That didn’t interfere with your process?
A: I didn’t have a choice. I learned to shut out sounds that I didn’t need to hear. I was trained by life.
Q: What about the romantic notion of the composer in an isolated chamber?
A: You’re dreamin’.