Faces in the Crowd: Moondog

"I don't mean to be arrogant by saying this, but the only music that relaxes me and satisfies me 

is my own, because I know that I'm not going to insult my own ears, you know…"

 

''He led an extraordinary life for a blind man who came to New York with no contacts and a month's rent, and who lived on the streets of New York for 30 years, without question, he was the most famous street person of his time, a hero to a generation of hippies and flower children.'' (NY Times obituary 1999)

 

From the Counter-Currents Publishing site: “Louis Thomas Hardin, Jr. (1916–1999), known as Moondog, was an American composer, musician, poet, pamphleteer…Hardin stepped onto history’s stage in 1943 as a blind street musician and beggar in Manhattan. In 1947, the year he began to seriously compose music, he took the name Moondog after Lindy, the dog on his family’s farm in Hurley, Missouri who always howled at the moon.  

At the age of 16, Louis Hardin, Jr. was blinded by a blasting cap carelessly discarded by a railroad crew… After young Louis Hardin was blinded, he abandoned his Christian faith. It was the classic problem of evil. How could a God who is good, all-knowing, and all-powerful allow him to be blinded and left in agony? Once he put Christianity behind him, young Louis embraced a new outlook on the world based on the so-called laws of nature and one’s relation to them…He began earnestly to study music, which was then as now one of the few careers open to the blind. He studied piano, violin, viola, and organ and began listening to classical recordings and radio broadcasts. He enjoyed the patronage of a number of dedicated teachers who recognized his talents. When he moved to New York, he was taken under the wing of Artur Rodzinski, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, who gave him liberal access to the orchestra and its rehearsals. 

Moondog had a striking appearance: tall and handsome, with long hair and a beard, he wore unusual clothing of his own manufacture and design. Many found him a “Christ-like” figure, which he found intensely annoying, as he had rejected Christianity in his late teens.

 

Eventually, he quashed the Jesus comparisons by creating a Viking costume complete with horned helmet and spear. 

Moondog had an intensely charismatic personality. But he first became known because of his unusual appearance and constant presence on the streets of Manhattan, where he played his music, recited his poems (which resemble Nietzsche’s aphorisms, Zen koans, and nursery rhymes), and just talked with passers-by. Columnists looking for an item or reporters looking for a story began to mention him in the papers, which caused more people to seek him out. Soon he was the darling of various avant-garde musical and artistic circles, probably for mostly the wrong reasons. 

Over the years, Moondog came to know writers like Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Alan Ginsberg; jazz musicians and composers like Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, and Benny Goodman; classical composers like Igor Stravinsky, John Cage, Edgard Varèse, Steve Reich, Philip Glass; conductors Arturo Toscanini, Artur Rodzinski, and Leonard Bernstein; popular musicians like Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, and Elvis Costello; and celebrities like Marlin Brando, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Muhammed Ali, and José Ferrer. One night in the ’60s he shared a Greenwich Village stage with Tiny Tim and Lenny Bruce.

 

As a matter of fact, Moondog may be the only street musician and beggar who had recording contracts with major labels. By 1949, he was making his first 78 rpm recordings. In the 1950s, he released a number of lps, including Moondog and His Friends (Epic, 1953), Moondog (Prestige, 1953), More Moondog (Prestige, 1956), The Story of Moondog (Prestige, 1957), and Tell It Again (Angel/Capital, 1957), a delightful children’s album and the recording debut of Julie Andrews. In 1969, Columbia Masterworks released Moondog (Columbia, 1969) followed by Moondog 2 (Columbia, 1971). 

In 1974, Moondog moved to Germany, where he lived the last 25 years of his life. He arrived as a beggar and a street musician. In 1976, he met Ilona Goebel, with whose family he lived the rest of his life. She became his manager and amanuensis, who mastered the difficult and time-consuming art of translating Moondog’s scores, which were encoded in Braille, into conventional musical notation. Ilona gave Moondog the environment and assistance necessary to allow him to compose steadily. 

During his European years, Moondog enjoyed growing recognition as a serious composer. He received commissions from orchestras and festivals and conducted concerts of his music in Paris, London, Salzburg, Stockholm, New York City, and elsewhere. There was particular interest in his music in Sweden, where from 1981–1987 he led a number of concerts, made recordings, and even met the king and queen. Later, he enjoyed similar attention in England from 1992–1995, conducting concerts and making recordings with saxophonist John Harle and songwriter Elvis Costello. 

Although Moondog was championed by avant-garde elements, his music is deeply conservative. He said, ‘I’m a dyed-in-the-wool classicist, and I’m tonal…I would rather listen to rock & roll than Schoenberg because rock music is tonal and simple harmonically, as is mine’.  Moondog’s regular, spritely rhythms, simple harmonies, and counterpoint most closely resemble Renaissance and Baroque music.  Thus the jazz label is highly misleading. Moondog’s compositions have proved quite amenable to big band adaptations. He also wrote concert band and march music. But Moondog was far removed from avant-garde and improvisational jazz. Even his apparent improvisations were based on completely worked out scores. 

In the 1950s…disc-jockey Alan Freed, who specialized in packaging black music for white teenagers, took the name Moondog. In 1956, Moondog sued him for copyright infringement. It was a long, bitter battle, particularly for a blind homeless man, but in the end, Goliath beat David, and Freed had to pay $6,000 in damages. (At one point, Arturo Toscanini took the stand as a character witness for Moondog.) 

It is hard not to find Moondog’s life inspirational. He was a creative genius who triumphed over enormous obstacles. Some of those obstacles were surely self-imposed, as his critics and second-guessers point out. Moondog was not forced to live on the streets. Many people were willing to take care of him. He chose to live on the streets because he had a strong need for independence, and he was willing to pay the price. Yet even so, he demonstrated just how much one can do with how little—just how far the power of personality and genius can take you—how one can live a spiritually rich and creative life while blind and in poverty on the streets of New York."

As I sit here typing, my mind clock

is slowly turning back to the summer of 1972.

I was living in a tiny apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan with a college friend of mine named Michael.  That summer in Ann Arbor, We were pretty much being bums and liking it.  Just next door to the apartment we were renting was a bagel factory that sold their bagels for 9 cents apiece.  These cheap bagels were the mainstay of our daily food intake; our biggest culinary issue being that we couldn't afford anything to put on the bagels so we were pretty much eating them as they were...au natural. That summer, since we had no air conditioning in the sauna that was masquerading as our apartment, we used to go driving around town in Michael's car searching for things to do.  Sometimes we would head up towards this old football field where they'd have free live concerts.  As I recall, they usually put on shows by a lot of local players such as The Stooges, MC5, Bob Seger, and Commander Cody.  Most of the time we'd hop into Michael's old Toyota and go driving around to different record stores just to look at the records in the rack.  Seeing as how we couldn’t afford to buy any albums; we would pretend to be searching through the stacks of records in search of a particular one.  If the store clerk said, "Can I help you find something?" I would always name a fictitious band.  "I'm trying to find the new album by The Hoot Men; they're a band from Scotland that plays Velvet Underground songs on banjos."

 

One particularly hot day we were on our way to a little record store in town called The Cave or something exotic like that.  On the way to the store we caught sight of an old man dressed up as a Viking standing by the side of the road with his thumb out. The sight of this guy wearing a Viking helmet with two long horns and holding a tall homemade spear sort of froze us up for a second; but then we pulled the car over, backed up a bit and opened the door to give this roadside apparition a ride. It was only as we got closer that we both realized, "Hey, this guy is blind...and he is hitch hiking..." The old guy fumbled around quite a bit as he got in the back seat of the old Toyota. We heard a ripping sound and Michael yelled, "Hey, watch where you point that spear of yours, it's ripping up the upholstery fella!"  The old Viking guy leaned forward and stuck his horned helmet head between us in the front seat. In a quiet voice he announced, "My name is Moondog and I'm hitch hiking around the country to promote a new album of mine that was just released by Columbia records. I'm supposed to do an in-store appearance at a local record store called The Cave somewhere in Ann Arbor.  Would you happen to know where this store is located?"

Now I'm looking at Michael and he's looking at me. The look in my eyes is saying something along the lines of: "Let's see if I got this straight…this guy just had a record released on Columbia records, he's blind, he's dressed as a Viking, his name is Moondog and he's hitch hiking across the country...what's wrong with this picture?" But seeing as we were two college students out on a summer lark, we didn't really think the matter required much debate. "Sure Moondog, we can take you there!" ...and off we went through the streets of Ann Arbor.  Moondog's long white beard wistfully danced in the breeze as he leaned his helmet head out the backseat window staring around intently as if he really was seeing something out there. Maybe he was hearing a new piece of music in his head, I didn't know for sure.

 

When we pulled up outside of The Cave there was a small crowd waiting to meet Moondog. A few hippie types who were wearing Sonny Bono fur vests, a couple of suburban housewives who had their hair up in curlers, one fella in a Marine dress uniform, a little kid in a gold lame jump suit and two guys who looked like champions from their chess club at the local university. Moondog thanked us for the ride and then as the crowd led him into the record store started whistling a happy little tune of some sort. We went in and skimmed through the record racks while Moondog held court in the front of the store. The music from his latest album, Moondog 2, wafted across the length of the store. I was taken aback by the sound of this music.  Many of the songs were simple compositions that were in the style of rounds (you know, like "Row Your Boat") and sung with the type of circular logic that only a true musician of Moondog's caliber would create. I dedicated myself to buying a copy of Moondog 2 as soon as my meager funds allowed such a luxury... which I finally did about six months later. I found the record still held the same magical sway over me as it did that day I first heard it in The Cave record store, watching Moondog holding court and from time to time shaking his head and doing a little jig of a dance. "Hee hee hee!" The music was so free of attitude and so full of simple joy.

 

Moondog 2 is an album that evoke visions of childhood.  Among the wonderful little songs that populate Moondog 2 are two of my favorite Moondog pieces; one is called This Student of Life. "This student of life has enrolled as that student of life, his alma mater is of the world, it's such a timeless mentor."  The other song on this album is an early morning favorite of mine called "Coffee Beans" The song is almost...stupid...that's how artfully simple it is as it perks along, dispensing its caffeine-addled joy: "Coffee beans make the finest coffee in the world, it's time to take a coffee break"

Here's more info on the Moondog 2 album from Wikipedia: "Unlike his previous instrumental album, which was largely performed by an orchestra, Moondog 2 contains vocal compositions in canons, rounds, and madrigals. In the liner notes to the album, Hardin states he first began writing rounds in the late winter or early spring of 1951 but soon moved on to instrumental music. But after he'd heard in 1968 that Big Brother and the Holding Company had recorded All Is Loneliness, he took to writing them again."

Many years later, as I get lost in the memories of that day in Ann Arbor, I find myself grateful to have had a chance encounter with such a renowned musician.  Moondog was indeed a magical character.  His music on Moondog 2 always reminds me that all that we ever really need is a simple song.

 

Listen To the Moondog 2 Album

 

From the Counter-Currents Publishing site: "If you’d like to explore Moondog’s music, the best place to begin is the two-CD compilation Moondog: Rare Material (Roof Music, 2006), the first disc of which is the Big Band CD of 1995, which contains some of Moondog’s most appealing compositions. The second disc is a representative compilation of Moondog recordings from 1949 to 1989, beginning with his first 78s. The final track, Moondog Monologue from 1956’s More Moondog, is a good sampler of Moondog’s aphorisms and couplets. If you enjoy Big Band, the next recording to get is Sax Pax for a Sax (1987), which is in the same mould and has excellent sound quality.  Another must-have recording is the 1969 Columbia Masterworks Moondog, which contains some of his most appealing instrumental compositions from the 1950s and 1960s. (It is paired on a single CD with Moondog 2, which contains 26 rounds and canons, 25 of them for voice; taken in isolation, these are enormously appealing compositions…"

 

FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Moondog: The Viking of 6th Avenue (Biography)

 

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2 comments

  • joe

    joe Ohio

    Thanks for an awesome share.

    Thanks for an awesome share.

  • Mind Smoke Records

    Mind Smoke Records

    Thanks Joe!

    Thanks Joe!

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