Robert M. Scotto:
Moondog: An Authorized Biography
(The Viking of Sixth Avenue)
Chapter Three: Snaketime (1943-1953)
New York is a frightening, intimidating place for a stranger, literally just off the bus, with little spending money and no immediate employment opportunities. For a blind musician who had never really been on his own, only a few months away from his father's house and days from his first wife, the experience might seem over-powering. But Louis adapted quickly and well to the realities of big-city life and within days was on his way to becoming self-supporting; more important for the composer to be, he began to make music. The next decade of his life was filled with significant events: a romance, an exciting association with the New York Philharmonic; a cross-country trip; his first parcel of country land; his earliest recordings and his first street performances; and his second marriage. He would become soon what he was to remain far a long time: to some, a genuine and original artist; to others, a character and an eccentric; to still others, an enigma and even something of a threat. In 1947 he would christen himself Moondog, the only name he has ever used professionally, emerging, as he saw it, a new man at thirty-one making a fresh start out of a great deal of loneliness and pain. One thing was clear from the moment he stepped off the bus, however: he was now indisputably in charge of his own life.
It was chilly that Saturday morning in November of 1943 when he "hit the sidewalks of New York." After staying at a /91/ hotel for a few nights - at two dollars a shot - he realized that his pocket money (sixty dollars, some from Ruth, now in Texas, some from I. L. Meyers) would soon run out, so he set out to find a room and a job. Fortunately, he met an art model who introduced him into several academies - the Phoenix school was one - where he made some money posing; the same young man also located an inexpensive place to live right in the mid-town area. Luxurious it was not - as all of his apartments in New York were not - but it became his home for the next four years, a tiny skylight room at five dollars a week in a building between Eight and Ninth Avenues, at 332 West 56th Street, long since demolished. It was to a visitor who followed him up four flights of stairs "two at a time," (Natalie Davis in PM Magazine, Jan. 13, 1945) cold and small, decidedly uninviting: cold because Louis kept the skylight open all of the time and as small as a "large closet," with a padded sleeping bag on the floor and, next to it, an organ. Some crates, braille books and a tiny electric stove filled whatever sparse floor space was left. In such spartan digs eating in was rather tricky - usually confined to porridge in the morning. Partially out of preference and partially out of necessity, his diet was composed mainly of raw vegetables, fruit and "black bread."
In a second floor studio was Anna Naila, a woman much older than he, who became, first, his greatest friend and then the next great love of his life. Their relationship, their affair, lasted for most of the four years in which /92/ they lived in the same building and until Louis pressed his desire to marry her in 1947; it ended when he decided, for the first of many times, to leave New York. She was not only the latest in a series of lovers who were in some way mother figures, but she also had a considerable impact on the music he was beginning to compose. She was the first of several committed copyists in his lifetime, intelligent, devoted musicians who, often for nothing, worked painstakingly for the artist they believed in. Thus she would transcribe the music he wrote at a desk or a table, without an instrument, one note at a time: "He has to read each note to me," she said. "He has to say 'half note third line, full note first,' and so forth. It takes a long time." To an eyewitness this "small, sallow-faced woman in slacks," with her "long black hair neatly rolled into a bun," was visibly tired by this effort. To Louis she was a revelation: a classical dancer, a ballet teacher, "quite oriental looking," laboriously transcribing his work at a card table. To her he dedicated his earliest "classical" pieces, "Callisto" in 1946, a 12 part canon on a 8 bar theme, and "Portrait of a Monarch" around 1945 - conceived then and worked out several decades later. Two rhythm pieces, recorded in her studio during a lesson, appeared on albums in the late fifties. The logistics of composition, which he faced his entire creative life in New York, first presented themselves: from the beginning he wrote as much music as he could in as little space as possible, rounds and madrigals which yielded the /93/ most sound for the least amount of ink. One work, "Lullaby," music by Louis, words by Naila, and dedicated to "Wendy's doll, Margaret," survives in the possession of one mother, Magda Luft, whose daughter danced to the efforts of the collaborators.
Louis rather quickly became a social animal, even a celebrity of sorts, in a mid-town bohemian circle. One young lady was so taken with Louis when he modeled in her art class in 1944, Barbara Prentice, whose father was an editor at Time-Life, that she escorted him about to various sites. A singer at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, Elsie Marcello, not only befriended him but also enriched his quest for a musical identity. With Naila he went to Coney Island several times. Two young women from Princeton, who sang in a chorus with the New York Philharmonic one Easter, took him on a tour of the Cloisters. A poetess with a bohemian social statement to make, Mary Siegrist, arranged a party for Louis and another honored guest in 1944: Raymond Duncan, the brother of Isadora, who also dressed in clothes of his own creation. Instead of Louis's plain and utilitarian squares, though, designed for simplicity and symmetry, Mr. Duncan's were "elaborate and expensive," of woolens woven into a classic toga. Ms. Siegrist often entertained Louis in her Carnegie studio, and it is she who must get credit for composing the first public celebration of the new force in town, a poem entitled "Young Blind Composer."
Lone traveler on your mountain height
Enshadowed in what depthless depths of light, /94/
Leaning against what darkness,
Taking the darkness for pillow for your head -
As pillow, softly encompassing you -
What inner light irradiates all your world,
What inner gleam shines to the far-off worlds,
What unspent inner flame is burning through the night?
How came you here, staffed Wayfarer,
Part plunged in what a darkness,
But with remembered joy still singing in the heart?
Though scarcely serious as verse, it articulates an exaggerated social position which Louis would always elicit from his, frequently frenzied, admirers. His energy, creativity and inexplicable self-assurance cowed the weak and awed the strong. Since he was at that time (July, 1944) many characteristics in search of a character, self-definition often came in strange, unpredictable forms and from exotic directions.
Sometimes independence can get you into trouble, as Louis soon found out. Throughout his life in New York he would have run-ins with the law of varying degrees of seriousness: the first one came in the mid-forties when he was selling his earliest broadside, Pen and Sword, on the streets. This "eleven by seventeen, double folded sheet" contained articles by Louis on the social condition as well as same excerpts from leftist writers; it came out /95/ "irregularly," a thousand per printing, and sold for a nickel from 1945 through 1948. Although all copies now seem to be lost, it is clear from interviews taken only several years later that his ideas were as yet somewhat crude and lacked the idiosyncratic wrinkles that he began to develop in the sixties. (In 1946 he and Naila wrote a United Nations march hymn which he either sold or gave away; all thousand copies of this work are also lost.) One day he was led into a side street by a policeman. When he asked why, after waiting a couple of minutes, he was answered by a paddy wagon that pulled up and into which he was, unwillingly, pushed. By the time they reached the station house one of the cops had a torn shirt. The night court judge fined Louis two dollars after the arresting officer charged him with causing crouds. With the money Louis left a copy of Pen and Sword with the judge. His first, he notes wryly, "but not last, brush with the law."
The single most exciting and long-lasting encounter of his earliest years in New York, though, was his romance in many keys with the New York Philharmonic. There are several versions of the course of events which extended over four years: Louis's, a reporter's and the wife of conductor Artur Rodzinski, Halina's (Our Two Lives, New York, 1976, pp. 247-248). Louie, as he preferred to be called during this stretch of time ("people get Louis mixed up with Lewis"), was scarcely inconspicuous: "His face was long, pale, ascetic, his cheek bones were high. The hairs of his /96/ flowing brown beard glistened ... His long thick hair was tied in a knot at the back - and a brown kerchief knotted about his neck was decorated by a silver chain from which hung an Indian arrowhead." So it was that he was noticed his very first Sunday in New York when he sat front row center at the Philharmonic broadcast concert, Bruno Walter conducting, Joseph Schuster cello soloist in Strauss's Don Quixote. At this point the accounts differ. According to Louis, smitten with devotion, he found the stage-door entrance one day soon afterwards and managed to climb a flight of stairs before the doorman, Joe Nelson, soon to become a bosom buddy, stopped him. At this very moment fate, wyrd or Antoninus's "concatenation of circumstances" intervened in his behalf, for the orchestra rehearsal was at intermission and none other than Mr. Schuster himself, positioned perfectly, noticed his admirer. He had no trouble recollecting the singular man in front row and asked Louis if he would like to attend the rehearsal. Hardly was Louis's reply delivered when maestro Rodzinski himself was fetched to make the invitation official. Then, in a "monumental moment," the conductor led Louis down the center aisle of Carnegie Hall to a seat and said "Enjoy yourself."
According to the Philharmonic press agent in the 1945 P.M. article, Artur Rodzinski noticed Louis at the stage door entrance to Carnegie Hall and was shocked by this man "with the face of Christ." So stricken was he that he did for Louis what he would do for no one else: allowed him to attend all /97/ rehearsals and gave him some new clothing. Soon Louis made friends with many of the members of the orchestra, even becoming something of a good luck charm, a "mascot." They took up collections to supplement Louis's meager income from modeling or, according to Halina Rodzinski, "making leather belts." Under the patronage of the conductor, who was undergoing something of a religious conversion at the time, Louis had great privileges, but, even more important, he witnessed the day-to-day livelihood of making music. For a while, all was bliss. Summers, there were concerts at Lewisohn Stadium in the Bronx; for the rest of the year there were the rehearsals, which he never missed, when he met many of the stars of the musical world.
First, there were the internationally famous soloists like Schnabel and Elman. Then, there were the conductors, a dazzling display of supernovae: Metroupolis and Szell, for instance. The latter asked the orchestra's trombones to "sound like granite" during Brahms's Fourth Symphony and Louis wrote a letter noting that the effect could be achieved if they would forego vibrato (Louis would always prefer pure, straight tones); Szell agreed. Leonard Berntein, at the start of his career, once conducted Louis to the men's room; on another occasion he called one of Louis's compositions "Shubertian," but never chose to play any of the scores Louis would send him during his long tenure. In 1945, at a grand affair in Madison Square Garden, Arturo Toscanini conducted the combined Philharmonic and NBC orchestras in an evening of /98/ Wagner. There the great one spied the anomaly, and when Artur pressed Louis upon Arturo the young devotee was moved to press the maestro's hand to his lips. Toscanini pulled it away, however, observing that he was "not a beautiful woman."
Louis made many friends in the orchestra, talented musicians who were by and large "princely" to him: Bill Lindser played first viola on the two suites recorded on Epic in 1954; Julius Baker, the renowned flutist, recorded the Tell It Again album in 1957; the Weiner-Sabinski duo recorded several compositions on the first Prestige album in 1957. Harold Gomberg was so friendly that Louis would later write a madriga1 about him and his instrument: "Mister O, Mister Boe, Mr. Oboe player, the orchestra would like to have an 'a' before it starts to play."
The smooth and the sweet relationship, however, soon soured, in part due to professional jealousies and in part due to Louis's growing independence. According to Mrs. Rodzinski, Louis sold a suit, an overcoat and a walking stick that Artur had given him. Louis counters that a thief broke through the lock to his room and exited through the trapdoor with the goods. The real difference at the time, though, was not in how the conductor's clothing disappeared but why:
Louis, on "the crest of an independence kick," would stand firm about his right to dress as he wished. Yes, he would take the handsome shoes Halina purchased for him and treasure the gifts from her husband, but more and more Louis relied less and less upon garments other than those of his own making. /99/
As soon as he cobbled together his own first pair of shoes (in April of 1944) he "hobbled" over in them to the Lotus Club to join the orchestra at its annual affair. On the drive home as the Rodzinski's took Louis to his door, Artur asked him if he wanted to come live with them at their Massachusetts farm and their East 84th townhouse, against the wishes of his wife, obviously, who objected that there wasn't room enough. If she had not presented an obstacle Louis just might have accepted, and things surely would have been very different. But as time unravelled, a distance grew between the two men, exacerbated, doubtless, by grumblings from the orchestra, some of whose members resented Louis's privileges as well as a collection taken up in his name. When Artur insisted that they have a long talk about clothes Louis replied that it need not be longer than this: he would dress in his own style. Although permitted this license, attitudes cooled. Against the "bitchiness of frustrated players," and against what appeared to be a wife's desire to prevent her prominent husband from going to extremes, Louis had little recourse. But while he was there he learned much: "orchestration and administration of same," and, up close, the quality and the variety of the music that would be his life-blood through the difficult years ahead. His favorite composition at this time, he revealed, was Mozart's G Minor Symphony, because of its "perfect blend of the classic and romantic ideal." These Philharmonic years were a time of synthesis, of acquisition, of growth. Afterwards he would write more and more of his own /100/ music, "write my fool head off," and develop his own interests, models and idiom. His years of attending rehearsal, of listening not only to what was being played but learning also what went into the playing, fueled rather than deflected his ambitions. He would always "cherish" these moments and these people; he would always be "grateful" to the Rodzinski's. Moving on, he would always glance fondly back.
One necessary footnote to this period: although Halina Rodzinski and Louis differ on the course of events in these years, it seems to be not out of vindictiveness or rancor. She genuinely gave much of herself to Louis: she tried to get him into Julliard (which was not equipped to handle handicapped students, he was told); she took him to a noted eye specialist in a vain attempt to appropriate the latest technology. But later on down the years she either snubbed or misunderstood him. In her book her tone in describing Moondog and his music is somewhat condescending. When she erroneously attributes the "jukebox hit" song "Nature Boy" to him (it was another New York street character altogether) it borders on the unintentionally humorous. Once, in the late fifties, after Artur had died, Louis was passing through Lake Placid, where he knew she had a vacation home. When he phoned, she told him only that she had no car and he moved quietly on. In 1969 they met on a Manhattan street, but she avoided his, admittedly lukewarm, attempt at rapprochment. It was, after all, Artur's visitation that opened the door for /101/ Louis and Louis himself, more than any other, who closed it. But not everyone saw him in the same light.
1947 was a momentous year for Louis. Now thirty-one years old, in New York four years, about to drift away from the Rodzinski's and soon to take off on a cross-country journey, he made a singular decision. Clearly, he was at another crossroads. Much taken with Omar Khayyam, as he was frequently impressed by exotic and original authors throughout his life, he set several dozen of the quatrains from The Rubaiyat to music; he wrote his first cycle of canons for two violins and violas which was performed for friends in Naila's studio. All of this music is lost. Although he was stepping out, independent as he was, he was still too closely allied to the past: unknown, except as an eccentric with musical talent, his future lacked shape and definition. What he would do, then, would be to give himself a new identity, thereby breaking the tyranny of names and at the same time becoming what he would always be known as: Moondog. One day, as he tells it, he mulled over the possibility of a pen-name for himself in his skylight room and finally hit on one suggested by an old friend: Lindy, the dog that came with the Hurley, Missouri farm, always howled at the moon. Quite a sight, hobbling about on three feet (one probably hurt in an early accident), running circles around Louis, Lindy was a meek, mild animal without pedigree. Calmly, with great self-assurance, he walked downstairs and told Naila, "I am Moondog." Although he would be Louis to his /102/ friends, it was as such that the world would come to know him. Only later did the full resonance of his "nom de guerre" emerge: to the Eskimos the moondog it is rnoonlight rainbow; in the Edda it is a fierce group of wolves with flaming tails of comets circling the earth; in the sagas it is a giant of tremendous power. There is even a whiskey in Kentucky called Moondog. In choosing such an identity, primitive, suggestive, melodic, combative, he began to shape the music he would make and the man he would become.
With the change of name came many changes in his life. It is as if once he assumed the appropriate posture he became more aggressive in asserting his place in the world. 1948 brought Moondog movement and 1949 brought him land. After the liesurely pace of the Rodzinski-Naila years (always so in retrospect), life changed more rapidly and Moondog was constantly innovating to keep up with the it. When it was clear that he and Naila would not marry and that his long association with the Philharmonic had come to an end, though not necessarily because of them, he decided to leave New York for another life, an alternate route to his musical future. He cannot be accused of a half-hearted effort, yet his break with Gotham was rather short-lived and for a number of very good reasons. Much happened in a couple of years, each event a crucial ingredient in the recipe for his identity as a New York fixture and a serious musician.
In the spring of 1948 he left for the southwest, planning to live among the Indians. With a little hindsight /103/ he came to call this venture, which he didn't really complete until 1951, with interruptions, his Portland (Oregon) to Portland (Maine) trip. The main reason for the change was what he learned when he got to New Mexico and actually tried to make contact with a people he had always considered, in same way, blood or mystic km. His childhood encounter had left an aura that the adult believed would illuminate his calling. When he left, he assumed he would leave behind the "cocacola culture" for one more primal, radical and essential. Upset, perhaps, disillusioned just slightly, motivated by an inner vision, Moondog would return to his past and discover the key to his future. It didn't turn out that way.
He was Moondog that day, in June of 1948, when he boarded the Greyhound bus for points west. As in all of his public acts from this time forward, the trip is well-documented: Moondog would always be a favorite with the press, not only because he looked different, but because whenever he opened his mouth something exciting came out; he was articulate as well as eccentric, intelligent as well as imposing. He would leave in his wake many friends and good memories, pleasant feelings and earned pleasures; he would impress public officials and important musicians; but he would not succeed in accomplishing what he went out there to do. There had been hints: his friends in New York had cautioned him that he really wasn't cut out to be a missionary (even those who were unaware of who his father /104 was) and that he would be, inevitably, back; a woman in Texas, riding beside him on a bus across the panhandle, wished him well after he told her his destination, but also hoped that he wouldn't be disillusioned. In New Mexico, he camped outside the Navajo reservation by the highway, wrote some songs and made contact. If not hostile, his reception was certainly no better than lukewarm:
I couldn't reach the old ones who were suspicious of me as a white, to say nothing of the language barrier. The young could speak English but they were looking over my shoulder at the culture I was leaving and I was looking over their shoulders at the primitive life they wanted to leave and forget, so neither of us saw each other in the process.
He had been so "arrested" by their "out of doors concept of living" (which he would always practice as well as preach) and by the "dim and distant past" that had shaped them and their customs and their traditions and their language that he didn't understand, until it was quite late, that he was not welcome. Yes, he could play his flute at public performances, but he could get no nearer. To his dismay - how could he have been so naive? - he saw such marked internal discrimination, enforced by a rather cruel community pecking order (as he was to observe in the black ghettoes of Las Angeles), that he felt more than rejected: he felt "thrown back an his own ethnic past." The first murmurs from the old Norse in the man /105/ with the face of Christ, the "square" man with homemade clothes, sandals and beard, might have been perceived the day he was led out to an island in the highway by some peculiarly vindictive Indian youths and left there helplessly stranded between two busy streams of traffic. After his rescue, he left for Sante Fe.
The disappointment and frustration, however, did not carry over to the rest of the trip, and until September of 1949, when he finally wended his way back to New York, most of his adventures were benign and enriching. One sad moment occured in Sante Fe, though he couldn't know it at the time, when he talked to sister Ruth on the phone: it was the last time he would ever hear her voice or, indeed, hear of her or about her. She simply disappeared. He did see Leonard Bernstein, who remarked wittily that he had a date in Israel and Sante Fe was on the way, and he did meet a young lady with whom he briefly fell in love. Jeannie was "the girl with the velvet voice," as he celebrated her in song, who "may be a hermit" but who made his heart "sing / like a hermit thrush in spring." Memories were evoked when he touched the desk Irving Wallace had written Ben Hur upon: the first movie he had ever seen was based on this novel, almost thirty years earlier, in Wyoming.
On he went: in Salt Lake City a policeman helped him make his last pair of square drums out of pine scraps and leather oddments from a company that made artificial legs. In Los Angeles he wrote words for the tune he had composed in /106/ 1947 called "Moondog," about that dog howling at the moon, and a dance step, called "L'Americana," to accompany the piece in five-tour time. Even before he recorded it several years later, therefore, "Snaketime" went public: when a "ballerina" first heard the slippery, pulsing 5 or 7 beats to a measure, she had called it "snakey." It stuck. The dance, he advised those who interviewed him, would end the tyranny of "backward dancing by women" and "replace the waltz in popularity." Thus, in one newspaper, he is quoted:
"No cheek to cheek will do," he declared. "It will be brush forward with the feet and dip - It can't fall. It will be to this century what the waltz has been in the past. It has boogie beaten".
Although he created animated responses to his new wares, no new dance sensation erupted unto the scene due to his efforts.
He did meet and impress Duke Ellington while in Los Angeles, however, a significant achievement indeed. The Million Dollar Theatre held an amateur contest which Moondog tried out for and won, playing "a little waltz-like piece in the Chopin style." The Ellington Band was playing the theatre at the same time and the great jazz figure asked to meet the winner backstage. Not only did Moondog meet the Duke, but also Al Hibler, the blind singer, soon to record several big hits. All of his new friends never failed to look him up whenever they came east. /107/
Wherever he went he attracted crowds, so it was always with a little trepidation that he entered a strange, new place
In traveling around the country like I did, sort of barnstorming, not knowing anyone, you could never tell until you got to a new town what the reaction would be. I am not talking about the reaction of people, as such, but rather the business community, by and large hostile to any outsider corning to town - cutting down on sales. After all, they are paying rent.
Despite some resistance, he encountered very little difficulty and no harrassment. One community in California, Willow Springs, did send out a cap to ask him to leave, and Moondog was very fond of the argument: "You're too rich for our blood." More often than not he met marvellous people who treated him to unexpected bounties: Dolores House in Taft, for instance, invited him to her desert home for a few days, and there he went for walks "into the desert evenings, barefoot on the sand." There were others, nearly all female, who entertained him in a string of towns and cities in the west.
Up north to Portland, Oregon he went, via Eugene, "selling his sheet music as he goes from city to city," and impressing the residents as "that man in square clothes." "My clothes, shoes and even my tent are made out of squares. I make all these things myself." Moreover, he announces, "I do /108/ not dress differently to get noticed. I get noticed because I dress differently." Casuistry aside, Moondog picked up his pace. Though he rarely hitchhiked, he did arrive at Idaho Falls, as he puts it in one of his madrigals, by "rule of thumb" rather than by bus. There he picked up a tanned elk-skin which he had sent to a taxidermist: it would be his new cape. On to Cheyenne and points east. In Rochester, New York, he purchased maracas and clavas to replace the wooden sticks with knobs at the end which he had used for over a year. By September, 1949, he was back in New York City.
If his jaunt cross-country had proved anything to him, it was that he was "determined to make a noise" upon his return: he would "waylay them in doorways"; he would "make things happen" on the streets. Since the traditional routes to success, through offices and auditions, hadn't seemed to work, a new offensive, bolder and fresher, was needed. Thus "snaketime" came alive on the streets of New York, Moondog's "exotic rhythms" translated by the performer's commensurate skills. "Mr. Rhythm" would be one of his sobriquets, the "off-beat" percussionist who not only created "odd" ditties in 5's and 7's (and who knows what else), but who also fashioned new instruments to lend them greater distinction, thereby, not by accident, attracting even further attention. First came triangular drums (later called "trimbas") because they held their shape better and longer, then wilder percussive mutants with names like "oo" and "uni" and "utsu." Also, for the first time in his life, Moondog began to live /109/ on the streets and make his living through the lawful occupation of begging. It was a full-time commitment to a statement of purpose, an artistic life-style, for which he would become, for over two decades, an avatar.
Life was hard, but stimulating. With no place to stay, and little money to splurge on living quarters, he arranged to rent the use of an old panel truck parked alongside some other wrecks near the Polo Grounds in the Bronx from a garageman for fifty cents a night. He would go regularly to the 51st Street Greyhound bus terminal, check his baggage in a locker, and spend twenty-five cents an a shower. At night, he would play snaketime in the doorways. The first time he dared perform was an 32nd Street west of 8th Avenue, in front of a bank, but an official soon came out and dispersed the early evening crowd. Then he moved uptown, into the fifties, and worked at night, before larger and more appreciative audiences. One evening he "trommelt" in a doorway on the west side of Sixth Avenue, between 51st and 52nd Streets, when the owner came out to discuss the intrusion but wound up, instead, asking Moondog if he would like the make a record at his facility. The man was Gabriel Oller, proprietor of the Spanish Music Center, who became in short order patron, partner and friend, with the help of his wife, Inez. Since money was a severe problem - Moondog only earned about five dollars a day an the streets and he now had to pay to get his music copied - he accepted the opportunity of sleeping on the basement floor during the day because he was now free to /110/ record and perform at night. Within months, over the winter of 1949-50, four 78's were produced, all of them later re-mastered and re-recorded on the albums Moondog made in the mid to late fifties: "Snaketime Rhythms" (SMC 2523) side A 5 beat, side B 7 beat; "Moondog Symphony" (SMC 2526), side A "Timberwolf," side B "Sagebrush"; "Organ Rounds," 1 and 2 (SMC 2527); and "Oboe Rounds," "Chant," "All Is Loneliness," and "Wildwood" (SMC 2528). Through complex over-dubbing, Moondog played, on separate tracks, all of the featured instruments plus drums, hollow logs, cymbals, trimbas, moroccas and, of course, he performed the vocals. In one newspaper interview he stated that he was "studying every instrument in the orchestra" in order to "record a whole symphony by himself" - something he came close to doing, though modestly, with "Theme" a few years later. By 1950 he was composing rounds and madrigals with such regularity that it took an the fervor of commitment, and in truth he would write them for the remainder of his career. In the program notes of his 50's and 60' albums, and especially the lavish "Around the World of Sound" in 1971, he would expound his theory of composition which he recognized the pressures of reality had dictated: a great deal of music in a minimum of space. "All is Loneliness" is his first and most famous, written an 51st Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue, a melancholy, dirge-like tune in 5/4, like many of his earliest lyrics, as he told one reporter, "quite bitter." Here are two others: "You the vandal, plunder the village as you will. The /111/ earthworm will pillage you, the vandal, when you are under." The second could only have been written by someone who had come, literally, to live in shadows: "You remind me of someone that I know." "How could you?" "Just look a little closer and you will see that I am the one I remind you of." The young poet Allen Ginsberg, in his journal entry for April 17, 1952, writes: "Tacked on wall - Song by Moondog - 'I won't go to your dark bed, if I do there be many eternities of night I'll regret it' - a round."
There is no further comment. But sometimes silence speaks loudly: years later, the same poet, now a significant voice in American letters and far more famous, appeared on stage as Moondog, joining causes with a fellow-traveller. He even held the mike. The point is: Moondog has become by the early fifties an underground symbol.
Notoriety came, but it didn't (it never would) bring him riches. Living on roof-tops (his favorite was the YMCA building on Broadway) or in a van, "writing" in a special pouch during the cold weather to prevent the finger-tips from freezing, eating chocolate bars and whole wheat bread stashed in the folds of his poncho - all took their toll. By March of 1950 he was ill from exposure. A friend was able to get him an inexpensive room at 101 West 44th Street - the Aristo Hotel - at which Moondog would stay, on and off, for almost twenty years. When he played his music, however, not only musicians - old friends from the philharmonic, new /112/ acquaintances from the world of jazz - but also the press listened, the media recorded. Art Ford and Jazzbo Collins first played his music on the radio. Dorothy Kilgallen sent her husband Dick to fetch him for an appearance on the Breakfast Show along with Henry Morgan and Henny Youngman. Walter Winchell and Jack O'Brian regularly reported on his activities in their newspaper columns, thus elevating him to the rank of "kerrikter." He even got his own radio show for a brief time on WNEW (called "Music and Moondog") Sunday nights. He refused to take money because he didn't want his artistic integrity compromised (see Newsweek, 24 December 1951, pp. 64-65). Hard though it might be to believe, there was even a thoroughbred racehorse which ran at Aqueduct under the name of "Moondog" in a two year-old claiming race in 1952.
For years he was the pilgrim. Now he was the center of a pilgrimage - of sorts. The list of his visitors and supporters read like a selective Who's Who: musicians like Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman ("I find Moondog's music arresting"), Dean Martin, Tony Martin (who perspired through "ball hot summer" one day as he slipped Moondog a ten), Sammy Davis, Jose Ferrer (who asked Moondog to play drums at his wedding to Catherine Hepburn, but the deal fell through), and Charlie Parker (whom Moondog later celebrated in music, as he did Benny Goodman); politicians (Percy Sutton); actors (Max Baer); fighters (the then Cassius Clay who always called him either "Moon" or "The Dog," never both). Joan Baez named her /113/ dog Moondog; the Pentagles, a singing group, had a song named "Moondog" on an album they made, calling him "son of rhythm"; the Beatles were called "Johnny and the Moondogs" before they chose their more famous name. One evening a passer-by in 1950 struck up a conversation and accompanied Moondog back to room 11 at the Aristo, where the two men sat on the bed and played music for hours. The young actor was "pretty good" with the bongos, on which he played some nifty rapid runs. He was quiet, introspective and warmly personal. Only later did Moondog realize just who Marion Brando had become.
Moondog met the truly avant-garde composer, John Cage, in 1950, a man whose work he admired for their "sound" and their "atmosphere" especially one piece for percussive piano, but little else came of it. (Later, when he met Edgar Varese, few sparks were ignited. In the sixties, when he lived with Phil Glass, it was clearly Moondog, by then, who was the influence on the younger, soon to be very famous, composer.) On April 13, 1953, nearly ten years after he first came to New York, he was recorded live at the Pythian Temple as part of a program entitled "Jazztime U.S.A." (Brunswick 54001). It was not his first theatre concert (in 1950 he had appeared at Town Hall in a benefit for the New York University summer camp in the "Folklore of New York City" series), but it was the first time he was recorded with others: he was now clearly a member in good standing with the New York jazz community. His "improvizations" were very much "in" then: Marshall Stearns, /114/ later to compile a dictionary of jazz (with an article on Moondog) called his polyrhythms "the new trend in jazz," drawing on "Afro-Cuban" roots, for example, in order to forge a synthesis that was filled with exciting potential and vibrancy.
At the same time that he was generating excitement in New York, Moondog had the foresight to secure a retreat in case things got too hectic. Not long after he had returned from out west in 1949, with the first 600 dollars he had earned on the streets, he purchased a three acre lot over the phone in Mount Pleasant, New Jersey a hamlet near Clinton, in the Deleware Water Gap area. For a while he would take the two hour bus trip and walk the three miles to "Sandalwood of the Barrens," as he called it, every other weekend. At first he pitched a tent on his land.
It's covered with maple, oak and dogwood trees and they say you can see the Deleware River from it. I wanted a spring, but you can't have everything. It's nice. I can get completely detached and lose myself in art. (He was frequently cited in Ben Kizer's local "Community Crossroads" column.)
The tent soon gave way to a long pine box: built quickly in one day, Moondog had originally intended it to house his "personal effects," since he had no place to store them in New York. One end was closed off with chopped firewood, the other was hung with a tarpaulin which served as a door. For months, before the onset of winter, he slept in this unfinished /115/ rectangle no more than two feet high. But in the meantime the "Hunterdon Hermit," as his neighbors got to know him, was digging steadily his more striking quarters. His "cave" was ready by the winter of 1950: he called it that and his friends in the area - everyone loved to talk to him and follow his strange progress - got to know it as such. A decade later, in upstate New York, he was to produce a startling variation on this approach to wilderness living, but an iteration nonetheless: like his "square" clothing, certain ideas remained constant in Moondog's physical microcosm, and one of the least flexible was his insistence on living close to the ground. He learned how to rough it in Wyoming as a child and had come to believe that the Indians were better off for being children of nature. He would maintain throughout his life, moreover, especially after he became the rugged Viking, that hardiness was one of the best correctives for hardship. Even though he wasn't there often, he still managed to keep a Cornish game hen in a basket made out of twigs, "log-cabin style," and build a fire-pit, studded with stones, where he cooked. He had big plans: he would build earthdrums. "You dig a hole twelve feet deep, build a frame, stretch a bull hide across it, and you can dance on it." His home would become "a mecca for musicians."
Eventually, he hopes Sandalwood could be a place for experimental concerts, as Tanglewood is a place for conventional concerts. Along /116/ with earthdrums, he wants a pit 40 feet square, with a lower pit in the center for drummers, for primitive dancing.
The real world, however, soon intervened and none of this was to be. Soon he was "pestered by the curious" when he was there and "robbed by the kids" when he was gone. After his marriage he seldom appeared. But in the first flush of activity he wrote same of his earliest madrigals, one of his favorites picking up an image from his desert love of 1948: "Let me identify myself now: Songsters both, and both clad in brown, the hermit thrush and I dwell out of town." There, "one cold night in December," over a campfire, he wrote his "Organ Rounds," which he quickly recorded at the Spanish Music Center.
One unfortunate footnote to his Jersey adventure occured in 1950 after he visited some friends in nearby Easton, Pennsylvania. The family thought it would be a good idea for Moondog to take Peter, twelve years of age, back with him to New York City since he had evinced such great interest in performing music. Moondog, however, was not fully aware of the possible repercussions such an apparently benevolent act might contain. A concerned woman spotted this mini-Moondog on the street one day, for the boy, as might be expected, dressed like his mentor, and turned the adult in. Before he had time to respond, he was arrested, charged with kidnapping (crossing state lines with a minor) and remanded to Bellevue for a week's worth of observation. In the meantime the /117/ parents came and explained the escapade to the authorities, but not before Moondog was given a sentence of thirty days, suspended, by the court. None of the psychiatrists at Bellevue could explain to him why he was there, but no one certainly found anything amiss in his head, other than, perhaps, a naive corner in his personality that he, along with many otherwise very worldly men, seemed never to lose.
Moondog also engaged in another activity while he was getting media coverage in New York: he took time out in 1951 to complete his Portland to Portland jaunt. This time he concentrated on upstate New York and New England, getting as far as Louiston, Maine, even beyond Portland, before being told by a cop that he need not bother to try for Bangor. In Portland he visited Longfellow House and was permitted to hold an old flintlock whose heft (the gunbut was deliberately thick in order to serve as a club when powder and shot ran out or there was not enough time to reload) truly impressed him. Wherever he went columns of print followed him with sentiments like "He will not soon be forgotten here" or "We've never seen anything like Moondog." On the trip he had his first SMC 78's to sell "Snaketime Rhythms" and "Moondog Symphony" - but it doesn't appear he made much of a killing with them. In Newburgh, New York, it was reported that he had been stranded with 47 cents; the local police not only fed him and put him up for the night, but they also took up a collection to help send him on his way.
One last grand event was needed to round out his first /118/ decade in New York, and it was significant indeed. Moondog's first marriage had been as brief as it was unsuccessful. He had had several serious near misses both before and after Virginia Sledge, but he had also acquired some hermit-like (bachelor-prone?) habits which had kept intimacy with the women who were always interested in him at bay for a while. This all ended in 1952, when he "settled down" to get married for the second time, a union that was to last eight years.
He met Mary on the streets, and the sparks flew, the courtship was quick. Mary Whiteing's father had lived in Japan before World War II, met and married a Japanese girl, fathered a daughter, Suzuko (Mary) spent the war in a concentration camp, and gradually, inexplicably, disappeared from the family portrait. By 1952, Sakura Whiteing and her daughter were quarantined on Ellis Island for quite a while before being set free in New York. Mary had by this time a little girl of her own, Betty, born out of wedlock. Apparently she went to grandma after the marriage. In a picture taken in June of 1952 Mary is clearly a delicately pretty, slight young woman with oriental features - an exotic match for the tall, dark Moondog. The June 4, 1952 issue of the New York Journal-American features a photograph of Moondog playing a horn on a roof top while Mary looks on endearingly: the caption indicates it is a "skyline serenade" to a "June bride." The event itself was carried off in a style worthy of the principles: on the top half of a large piece of card stock there is a picture of the composer /119/ locking quite spiffy in a light cape over a dark tunic, holding a walking stick; beside him his wife wears a sparkling wedding dress and a tiara of flowers in her dark hair. The bottom half is a Moondog round, in snaketime, called "You Who": "You're just as big as a minute, no? Time has stopped, and it is you who stopped it for me since I have been holding your minute hand." Soon they were living in the Aristo Hotel with Mary assuming the role of a full-time partner to her husband: making music on the streets on a variety of instruments, suggesting, adding, copying with a touch observers called artistic - in short, the younger version of the older women Moondog had courted for so many years. Finally he had found the lovely helpmate with new energies, new ideas and worldly beauty. In a daring life move Moondog broke free of old restraints and compulsions, marrying a lover rather than a mother surrogate, and choosing a woman outside his ethnic and artistic heritage. She was pregnant within months. When Moondog's daughter, June Hardin, the only child he would ever father legitimately, was born on June 1, 1953, he had just become thirty-seven years old.