The Story of Louis Hardin also known as Moondog
There's a common lie, still circulating; it states that the debut album by Big Brother And The Holding Company's debut somehow disappoints. Those of Us who loved it in exile, unable to bask in their live power, still find an attraction in its rough-shod amateurism, its naive but purposeful enthusiasm. One of its many highlights was All is Loneliness, a round originally written by someone called Moondog, a composition with such a hypnotic form it demanded further investigation. Yet before that was complete another reference appeared, this time by The Pentangle who's drummer, Terry Cox, included a tribute piece on their Sweet Child album, dedicating it to a blind New York Street musician.
The same year, 1969, saw the release of Moondog, what we considered to be his debut album. The sleeve alone was striking, it showed an imposing figure, obviously old, with a full grey beard, robe, cloak and hood; dressed in invocation of ancient Europe, of Saxony or of Viking Scandinavia. The image continued into the gatefold and pictures which suggested someone transported in time. Musically, however, the shock was even greater, an ensemble of some fifty players wove through a conglomeration of sound, not quite classical, not quite jazz, but something ambitious, grand and compulsive. How did this square with the image of some busker working from the metropolis subways? Who indeed was Moondog?
Louis Hardin was born in Marysville, Kansas on May 26, 1916. In common with his namesake Tim, he was a distant relative of an infamous figure from America's Western heritage, John Wesley Hardin(g), acknowledged in song by Bob Dylan. The son of an episcopalian minister, Louis was brought up in several states, (North Carolina, Wisconsin, Wyoming), and while living at the latter he was taken to an Arapaho Reservation, where he beat a drum for the Sun Dance, sitting on Chief Yellow Calf's lap. A love of percussion followed; at five his first kit was a cardboard box, by 1929 and now living on a Missouri ranch he was playing in the Hurley High School band.
It was here Hardin was blinded when, at sixteen, a dynamite cap exploded in his face. He then began studying braille in St. Louis but during the summer of 1933 his Sister read to him The First Violin, a book he later acknowledged as his first inspiration to become a composer.
However it was at the Iowa School for the Blind that Louis both discovered classical music and received his first formal lessons. He studied several instruments, violin, viola, piano and pipe-organ, but much of what he learned was self-taught. Following a six-year hiatus, living in and around Batesville, Arkansas, he won a scholarship to study in Memphis. Hardin spent a year there, before moving to New York in 1943. It was here he met Artur Rodzinski, Leonard Bernstein and Toscanini, and began his unconventional lifestyle.
He took the name Moondog in 1947, after a pet he recalled from Hurley, who howled at the moon more than any dog I knew of. Even more unusual was his pitch, a traffic Island in Times Square, where he'd play the "oo" and "uni", two percussion instruments he'd designed. As with his fellow maverick, Harry Partch, Louis would often create his own, unable to find the sounds he craved amongst conventional implements. The fondly named tools also included the hus, od, yukh and tuji.
By 1955, he'd lessened his performances, the crowds he drew were now too large. Instead he'd often stand motionless around West 54th Street and Sixth Avenue, remaining for hours on end, wrapped in army surplus blankets, brandishing a staff and wearing a Viking helmet complete with tusks. I tell them it's my way of saying no, he'd reply when quizzed about his garb. By this time he'd began recording, and had appeared on television, but Moondog lived by begging. It's not degrading." he would say. Homer begged and so did Jesus Christ. It was only the Calvinists who ordained that no man shall eat who does not work."
His earliest recordings were made for Prestige and consisted of three mid-1950s releases, Moondog, More Moondog and The Story of Moondog. There was a pronounced jazz influence on these albums, themes which would continue on three further volumes, Moondog And His Friends (Epic), On The Streets Of New York (Decca) and Moondog And His Honking Geese (Moondog Records). The last of these he financed himself, hired the players and sold the finished copies in the street; it was his last release for several years.
Hardin's unique position brought him contacts he might never have otherwise made. He met Marlon Brando who, having completed The Wild One, stayed around for a week, accompanying Moondog in bars, hotels and his patch. Lord Buckley or Duke Ellington would pause, speak and give money; one enterprising individual financed a show made up of Moondog, Lenny Bruce and Tiny Tim.
Notoriety, however, is not opulence. In her biography of Diane Arbus, Patricia Bosworth describes the photographer's brief relationship with this true eccentric. Sometimes she would sit with him while he ate his supper at a cafeteria near Carnegie Hall. (She photographed) him at his fleabag hotel on West 44th Street, apparently Moondog had a wife and a small baby (Mary and June). Diane talked about his tiny, cockroach-infested room, which he loved because there were pigeons flapping and cooing outside his window."
The Arbus photographs were apparently never shown, but something of the 1960's Moondog was captured in Chappaqua, Conrad Rooks' magnificent, impressionistic film which also included cameos from Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Ornette Coleman originally provided the soundtrack, but his work was declared "too intense" and a new collection was demanded. Sadly Hardin was overlooked, Ravi Shankar was recruited instead, although he'd later disown his involvement, appalled by the hedonism his music accompanied.
By June 1968, Moondog was living at Hippie House on West 82nd Street, where he completed his first book of musical rounds. He then had it printed up (as he would his poetry) selling copies to those who showed an interest. Stationed outside the Warwick Hotel, he began a conversation with a young musician who had been transfixed by the sight of this strange being the previous year when, as part of The Buckinghams, be'd been in town from Chicago, on the back of "Kind Of A Drag". Jim Guercio introduced himself again and described how he was now a record producer. Moondog sold him a copy of book I, and thought little more about it. The following year Guercio returned with a Columbia executive.
The result was Moondog and Moondog 2, Hardin's most polished works. I am a classicist at heart, he proclaims in the liner note to the first, walking humbly in the footsteps of Bach, Beethoven, Wagner and Brahms. With spear in hand I defend the values they upheld against all comers. I am a tonalist at odds with all atonalists, polytonalists, computerizers etc.
It is a remarkable work and spans twenty years of compositional writing. The opening piece, Theme, dates from 1952 and first appeared on Moondog And His Friends, Symphonique No 3, written in 1954, was revised and scored in 1960, while Symphonique No 6, conceived as a tribute to Benny Goodman, comes from 1955.
Lament 1 continued this eulogy to Jazz and was written during the same year as Symphonique No 6 on the death of Charlie Parker. Bird often stopped to talk with Moondog, and the two often discussed recording together. One night (we) met in Times Square and (I) shook a shaking hand, not realising that this would be the last time we met. It was eventually performed live at The Village Theatre in the Autumn of 1967.
Moondog 2 followed in 1971. Subtitled Moondog Madrigals or Round The World Of Sound, they better explain the conception behind the collection. I began writing rounds in 1951, he recalls in the sleevenote, and vaguely remember writing the first one 'All Is Loneliness', in a doorway on 51st Street between 7th Avenue and Broadway. For the next year or two I wrote about six dozen, recorded a few, but nothing much happened and I lost interest. But when I heard that Big Brother and the Holding Company had recorded 'All Is Loneliness' I took to writing them again.
The record features 26 rounds. the shortest Down is Up lasts a mere 1.07; the longest, What's The Most Exciting Thing weights in at a mammoth 2.31. Lyrically, they resemble the couplet verse he would hawk from his street corner: No, the wheel was never invented / no, no, no, no / Your legs are spokes of a two-legged wheel / And your hips are knobbly axles / The world was always on wheels. Musically they sound like nibbles from a greater pie, individually frustrating in their brevity but together they form a wondrous patchwork.
Sixteen of the pieces originally date from Moondog's first compositional spree, and they include Be A Hobo, which The Insect Trust (see Strange Things 3) interpreted on their second album Hoboken Saturday Night. All 26 are arranged in such a way that they begin at C Major and continue through and around the chain of fifths, through the flat keys into the sharp keys, ending again in C Major and thus also completing a circle.
The ensemble herein is much smaller, six plus a lone contribution on troubador harp. Violas, harpsichords, recorders and ancient organ blend with Hardin's wonderful trimbas, his triangular drum upon which a cymbal is Set. Covered by a piece of soft leather, it's then struck by a maraca to give off that distinctive, pulsating, percussion sound, his "delicate Copelandesque modern rhythms", as one critic has described them.
Early in 1974, Moondog travelled to Germany to perform a series of radio concerts. That he'd then settle there was rather unsurprising. Hardin often referred to himself as a European in exile; one (foot) in the present and one in the past. His image was not merely that of surprise, he studied The Eldar Edda and revoking his Christian upbringing in the wake of his blinding, began embracing the gods and myths of Northern Europe.
Live performances in Sweden and France latterly followed, but the most immediate legacy of this remarkable exile were the three albums he cut for the Kopf label. Moondog In Europe was recorded in 1978. H'Art Songs and A New Sound Of An Old Instrument followed it in successive years. Meanwhile, a small slice of his archive past preceded these in 1976 when German MCA/Coral placed three live tracks, recorded 3.4.63, on Jazz Lab Volume 13, part of their impressive Jazztime U.S.A. series. These may, or may not, collate with material released on On The Streets Of New York, however a 1980 release, Selected Works, issued in America by Musical Heritage, did, in part, re-assess some of Moondog's exceptional legacy. It's now some six years since this writer had knowledge of this remarkable man's whereabouts, further news of his circumstances, or indeed any other recordings would indeed be welcome. Classicism is a very large puddle, he noted on Moondog. I am content, if need be, to be a very small frog in it. Only time and posterity can decide just how big a frog I will be.
(The author acknowledges Tom Klatt's piece 'Moondog In Europe' first published in Bucketful Of Brains 6 (1983). Several quotes are taken from Diane Arbus - A Biography, written by Patricia Bosworth and published by William Heinemann in 1985.)