Louis T. Hardin, better known as Moondog, has died. He was a curiosity even in the modern classical-cum-jazz world he lived on the fringes of. He was even strange as compared to most New York street denizens. His legacy is this: he represented a moment when music appreciation was so inclusive, that it could even veer a bit to the extreme avant-garde and still maintain a veneer of rock's mysticism and rebellion. That doesn't exist today, no matter how much of a mindfucker you tell me a specific electronica DJ is. The height of Moondog's popularity, so my sketchy research tells me, was in the heady days of the late sixties, when ten-year-old records by a blind man who dressed like a Viking Wizard were brought out at gatherings. This occurred, I'm guessing, because there truly was no music packaged before or since so wonderfully shrouded in the perfect blend of mystery, myth, oddity, and potential-genius.
I've been obsessed with Moondog for years, but it wasn't until around 18 months ago that I ever heard any of his music. What I loved so much about Moondog was that picture. Yeah, that one, the one right up top. I used to stare at that picture an awful lot in those old record sleeves from albums I "borrowed" from my parents. There came a time in my childhood when I recognized that not all of my parents' record collection was horribly lame.
There was some stuff by the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Dave Brubeck, and Chicago Transit Authority. With all of these records would be a sleeve advertising other albums on the same label, presumably so you could send away for them. Many were by bands I knew; at least half seemed to be by comedian Flip Wilson or exotic crooners like Charles Aznavour or Jose Feliciano. But some would be for strange acts I'd never even heard of. What's this, a band called "War" from the peace and love 60s? Who's this guy Al Kooper? Is he like Alice Cooper? And what on Earth is this Moondog guy??? I would ask older friends and "hip" teachers who seemed to remember music that preceded Michael Jackson's "Thriller" or The Boss.
Most people had kinda heard of Moondog, but no one had actually heard his music. No store had Moondog albums. I felt like I was on the verge of discovering a Leonard Zelig. All I had was that one crazy picture. I was therefore convinced that Moondog was the greatest, most important and transcendent music ever. Of course, at this point, I was fast becoming convinced that anything to do remotely with the 60's or psychedelia was very important, and, worst of all, being "kept" from me because I didn't live in New York or San Francisco.
This is the only possible explanation of why I sat through 2001: A Space Odyssey as many times as I did.
Finally I was old enough to travel into New York on my own. I still remember going to the Tower Records on 4th Street with a list of artists I'd only heard about, and had fought in vain to find recordings of in lame Jersey "Sam Goodys." Among them: Roky Erickson, Syd Barrett, Yo La Tengo (then still very much a new band), Adrian Belew, The Residents, Phil Ochs, and, yes, Moondog. Eventually I found Moondog albums. Each with weird album covers of an old blind man. But for some reason I never bought them. You know this drill, you go in with $50 to spend on CD's, quickly collect about ten things, make a swift calculation, and then go through that horrible music-lovers equivalent of Sophie's Choice. For years, Moondog always got put on the heap.
Eventually I spoke with someone who had actually heard a Moondog album. He said it wasn't rock at all. (Up until now I had just assumed Moondog was psychedelic acid-rock.) He said Moondog was kinda like background music, with an orchestra, but kinda messy and choppy; not really worth spending money on.
Then, a little less than two years ago, New York DJ Vin Scelsa played a real hopping, thunderous brass tune. It was like hearing the Mingus Big Band playing Phillip Glass. He eventually back announced it as a new (new?) composition by Louis Hardin, and then dared his old-fart listeners to come up with another name for this guy. It was Moondog!
Remember Moondog? Didn't we all get stoned back in the 60's and kinda nod our heads in a not-quite-comprehending fashion at this guy? Well, apparently he's been living in Germany and has just released an album with the London Saxophonic called "Sax Pax for a Sax." You remember Moondog, right?
And then I heard who Moondog really was. See, I have a sense about things - I inherently knew how cool this guy was. Louis Hardin was born in Kansas in 1916, the son of a preacher. His family then moved to Montana, where he rode a horse to school in a place called Burnt Fork. He used to hang out with Indian chiefs and join in drum ceremonies. He lost his eyesight in his early teens in a dynamite accident. He learned musical composition, changed his name to Moondog, then moved to New York. That's when he started dressing up like a Viking, and hanging around the midtown "Jim and Andy's" recording studio neighborhood. He would spout off poetry and bang on hand-crafted instruments. According to all accounts, he made a decent living, was something of an attraction, and became fast friends with Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman, James William Guercio and Leonard Bernstein. He wrote music in his own language, codifying contours and expressions never before marked in written music. (I have no specifics as to what these are - material on Moondog is scarce, but if anyone should know please contact me.) He also invented his own instrument, most noticeably the Oo, a hand-held clave instrument that sounded fairly Japanese, encased in triangular wood.
Moondog recorded on the jazz label Prestige in the mid-to-late 50's. The albums were a collection of "minimalist" repetitions on piano and drum with flute. Often there is orchestral goings-on beneath this, and interspersed through it all is street noise, ambient sound, traffic, non-instruments just behaving in a would-be musical fashion. The claim is that it was all written down. Cynics would say it was certainly written down--by a blind man!
In rock terms, one could call early Moondog, at its best, much like the beginnings and ends of popular psychedelia of the 60's.
Like the end of Jimi Hendrix' "If 6 Were 9" or even The Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever." Moondog titles included "Queen Elizabeth Whistle and Bamboo Pipe (Duet)", "Ostrich Feathers Played on Drum", "Frog Bog", and "Conversation and Music at 51st St & 6th Ave".
Frankly, it all blurred together. There was one exception, "Moondog Monologue," an eight minute poem spoken over some of his music (not easily discernable from the rest) that was clever and humorous. Regarding his Viking garb he calmly stated, "I do not dress the way I do to attract attention, I attract attention because I dress the way I do."
I say "early Moondog" almost as a joke. After these albums Moondog disappeared. He hung around his corner for a while, but he stopped recording. He had a handful of releases in Germany, of which there is virtually no information, except that one is a song cycle all done on pipe organ, played in a staccato style, as a musical response to the 1938 ditty "Summer is A-Comin' In." What amazes me to no end is just how many people actually bought and gave this stuff a try. When stuff like this is put out today a few Knitting Factory-heads buy it and then it kinda goes away. But back then, many many hip people bought this, and then it was "re-discovered" ten years later. How did Big Brother and the Holding Company (Janis Joplin's first band) know to turn one of his songs into a psychedelic album-filler? Was it just because there was less material around back then? There were "modern composers" making records that were rightly dismissed. Is this stuff actually good? Is it just because he dressed as a Viking and freaked-out the squares in midtown? My guess, like Tom Wolfe admitted in his now 33 year old essay on Marshall McLuhan, is that people were worried, what if he's right? Moondog sure acted like a genius, we'd better treat him like one. This is different from "emperor's new clothes" because the market here isn't one to hail. They are one to secretly know and respect. It's all very complicated.
The kicker is that the 1996 release "Sax Pax for a Sax" is actually quite stunning. When Moondog did away with the stray noise, or wanking on one hand-made instrument, he showed a real knack for tone qualities, sad and beautiful melodies, and forceful honking. Moondog bangs along on the bass drum as the looping groups of saxes beat away at his charts. There are two gaslight-era sounding choruses, both extolling cities. The first is Paris, pronounced Par-eee, the other New Amsterdam. Your guess is as good as mine. When I heard the album in full for the first time I was quite taken with it, and figured ol' Moondog might return to the states and maybe play at Carnegie Hall or the Beacon like those other newly-recording octogenarians, the Buena Vista Social Club. But, no. Moondog instead died.
Moondog is one of popular music's footnotes. But his span (remember: even those who hadn't heard him at least heard of him) is staggering, given just how uncommercial his music is. It is a phenomenon that will never be repeated, given the specialization of music marketing today. The way trends and subcultures are pigeonholed means there is no more room for street-walking, poetry spewing Vikings who bang blocks together and vibrate little pieces of string over lush orchestration. And it's a crying shame. I think.