"I don't want to sound like Buddy Rich! I always want the booming sound, which is what the Indians like."
by Mike McGonigal
Ask any New York City old-timer about Moondog (born Louis Hardin in Kansas, 1916) - odds are his or her face will light up with recognition. From the late 1940s well into the '60s, the affable blind man could be found along Sixth Avenue, between 51st and 56th streets, making music and reciting poetry. A large man, he cut an imposing figure with his long beard and hand-sewn leather poncho, clutching a large staff and various funky-looking, self-invented instruments.
While performing on the street, Moondog befriended Leonard Bernstein, Marlon Brando, Julie Andrews, Diane Arbus (she snapped him several times), and Charlie Parker (for whom he composed a lyrical tribute, "Bird's Lament"). After columnist Walter Winchell wrote about him, record companies began to release his music, and he soon became an icon of the burgeoning counterculture. He performed in concert with Lenny Bruce and Tiny Tim and appears in Conrad Brooks's artsy film Chappaqua, alongside William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. On their 1968 debut, Janis Joplin's group Big Brother and the Holding Company covered his "All Is Loneliness."
In the tradition of the American visionary artist (such as Harry Partch, Arthur Dove, and Captain Beefheart), Moondog wore the cloak of eccentricity to attain a certain notoriety. On his album covers he looks like Sun Ra's cousin, but the most interesting thing about his music is its simple, dulcet beauty. Delightfully accessible, interwoven melodies float atop shuffling beats, accompanied by washes of strings and/or lush vocal harmonies, perhaps punctuated by sweetly stampeding saxophones or a brash-sounding men's chorus. "Music is no good unless it has a melody," the extremely jovial, well-spoken gentleman explains over the phone from the Ruhr Valley in Germany, his home since 1974. "I don't write atonal music. Tonality plus rhythm plus melody is what makes it for me; you have to have those three components, I think."
At 82, the musician comes across as very youthful and speaks with a classic Midwestern American accent. "My music definitely keeps me young, my complete devotion to my music," he explains. Blinded in his teens when a dynamite cap blew up in his face, this son of Episcopalian missionaries received a cursory musical education from the Iowa School for the Blind in the 1930s. The rest of his musical teachings came from a lifetime spent with books, and from listening.
In the '40s and '50s, Moondog was privileged to be the only attendant at rehearsals of the New York Philharmonic, which taught him an awful lot about how orchestras put sounds together. Moondog was profoundly influenced by Native American music during a 1948 excursion out West, where he was exposed to the ritual music of Navaho and Blackfoot Native American tribes. "When I was about 6, my dad, who was a missionary, went to a convention at the Arapaho Reservation in Wyoming, and at that time they were doing the Sun Dance," he recalls. "Chief Yellow Cap let me sit on his lap, and he gave me a drumstick and let me beat on the tom-tom. And that's how it started. I learned the running beat, which is bom-bom-bom-bom, and the walking beat, bom-bom-bom. And I used those rhythms on my newest record, Sax Pax for a Sax, while I was playing a big bass drum." Moondog's music is heavily rhythmic - rhythm is the glue that holds it together and makes it instantly recognizable as his, whether voices, strings, or saxophones float atop the drums. "It's the heartbeat, you know, it's universal and timeless," Hardin relates. "Like in the song 'New Amsterdam' from Sax Pax, that's the Indian walking beat. But the musicians don't like to hear a booming bass drum, they always like to have me put tape on the drumheads and such. But I say, I don't want to sound like Buddy Rich! I always want the booming sound, which is what the Indians like. Hell, those drums are about two meters across, taking up one whole hide, you know!? They used to use buffalo, now I guess they have to use bull hides."
In a typical Moondog work, a catchy, strangely syncopated (5/4) beat is introduced, then a sugary harmony is played or sung atop it. Then there's a series of repeated melodies, staggered one after the other. All Moondog music is strictly composed and performed according to ancient rules of counterpoint. Counterpoint is the act of combining multiple melodies at the same time; it's the technical basis of polyphonous sound, where a bunch of melodies are woven together to form a pleasing texture. The musical form known as the canon can achieve mazelike contrapuntal complexity, when a particular melody's heard in one voice and then repeated by one or more voices - "Row Your Boat" and "Three Blind Mice" are examples. The canon's the basic form Moondog continuously returns to; he's even written a book about it.
Moondog has become such an adept composer and critical listener that every time he hears Bach, he winces at all the "mistakes" the guy made. "Bach made more mistakes than anybody else," Hardin says. "Half the time he did it correctly, but the rest of the time he really went overboard, you know. I always think that he didn't have time to analyze his work after he wrote it; he wrote thousands of pieces. When I write a piece, that's only about one-third of the work. The rest is to analyze it and eliminate any mistakes you have in the voicing, in the leading of the parts. That's where the time comes in. It's very boring to analyze your own work, but it's very necessary."
The ultimate fruit of his love affair with counterpoint is surely "Overtone Tree," an unfinished composition Moondog has been steadily working on for more than 20 years. "Overtone Tree" is a thousand bars long. Though approximately 40 minutes in length, it's so complex that in order to be properly performed, four conductors will be needed - three subconductors and one grand conductor. Until "Overtone Tree" is finished and recorded, Moondog fans will have to content themselves with the jazz-infused Sax Pax for a Sax, a strange, driving concoction, fueled by inspired playing from Tim Redpath's London Saxophonic. Moondog insistently bangs away on bass drum and bongos while, in addition to the London Saxophonic, there's folkie Danny Thompson on contra bass, plus a booming male chorus that sounds very Cecil B. DeMille and that includes, of all people, prog-rock pioneer Pete Hammill (formerly of Van Der Graaf Generator).
"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," Moondog says. "All the music on Sax Pax - as far as I know there's not one technical mistake in the counterpoint, and that's so important. That's why I'm against improvising, because the soloist can't possibly know what the other guys are going to play and the chord changes don't always fit the melody." After this writer mentions that large portions of Sax Pax do sound improvised, in particular the rerecorded "Bird's Lament," he beams back. "Thank you! That's the highest praise! For me to have worked so closely, so strictly, within the rules of counterpoint, and to still have the music sound as if it were improvised, that is the most I could ask for."
Amazon.com editor Mike McGonigal has written for Word, Feed, Artforum, No Depression, the Village Voice, Halana, Spin, and some other places. A happily married junk food addict, his favorite writer ever is this dead guy named Robert Walser. [Great, U.S.]