Wire Magazine, May 1991 p. 22-26 and p. 63
Moondog. A viking conquers New York
Out of Hell's Kitchen he came, the caped composer with a Viking helmet. Stravinsky admired him, Charlie Parker played his music. Julie Andrews sang his songs. For 20 years he roamed the streets of New York, a "sidewalk Mozart" draped in army blankets. Then he vanished - Joel Lewis recounts the extraordinary story of Moondog and how at last he had his day. Photo courtesy of Danny Thompson.
"Moondog! Giving a concert at BAM on Thursday!! Joel, somebody is pulling your leg. Moondog died years ago! The guy they got to conduct the orchestra must be a fake Moondog or something! Get real!"
The semi-solonic voice on the other end of the phone was my old boss, Bob Porter. While at college, I managed his all-jazz record store in my home town of North Bergen, New Jersey. I have called him in between records on his morning jazz show on WBGO/Newark for some inside dope. Before I can ask another question, Bob cuts in "Got to go and cue up Elmo Hope!" Click.
"Moondog? Didn't he die a few years back?" I am at Rutgers/Newark's Institute of Jazz Studies speaking to Dan Morgenstern, distinguished critic and director of this massive archive. Morgenstern, however, has no theory of fake Moon-dogs. Instead, he pulls out two folders marked "MOONDOG" and clears a table space for my research. The first dipping I spy is from the tabloid New York Enquirer, dated 9 July, 1956. The front page proclaims, in a type usually reserved for serial killers "THEY CALL ME MOONDOG!". Below is a picture of a blind man with a cane walking in Midtown Manhattan dressed as a Viking. To the right of his head is another headline: "'It ain't no sin to sing', moans Presley."
A week later, I am waiting in the lobby of the Carlton Hotel in mid-Manhattan, listening to a Pakistani desk clerk argue with the Israeli bellboy in staccato broken English. Then the elevator doors open and out comes a six-foot man dressed in brown pants and sweater wearing a neat prophet-length white beard. This is no fake Moondog - it is the same man whose blind eyes stared out at me from my record collection and whom I passed as a teenager on my first solo flights into Manhattan.
Moondog, a fixture on New York City streets playing homemade triangular drums and selling his poetry from the late 40s to the early 70s, returned recently to New York for the first time in 15 years to conduct the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra in a programme of his music as part of the New Music America festival. When festival organizer Yale Evelev discovered that Moondog had been living in a small town in West Germany since the mid-70s, he invited him to participate in a festival renowned for an eclecticism that accommodates Philip Glass as well as the thrash band Blind Idiot God. Thinking of him as a near-forgotten figure, Evelev was overwhelmed by the public response that made Moondog's performance the most widely covered event of the festival.
"Maybe it takes New York 15 years to miss you," said Moondog, obviously enjoying all the attention he was receiving. For New Yorkers who remember him as the oddly noble figure in Viking helmet and army blankets, he is a signifier of another epoch in the life of New York; perhaps no gentler but, at least, where civil life functioned by an unwritten code of fair play. Moondog's story, as it was covered in the local papers, was about the freedom of the city - where a man could live and work on the streets if he chose to.
A 1953 article in Colliers tells its readers: "Moondog doesn't have to play on the streets, hut he seemingly has no intention of leaving them. 'I like to flaunt convention', he says." Convention in early 50s New York is chasing the 'Reds' out of CCNY and the public schools. It is waiting for the Korean War to end and using the GI Bill to buy one small Cape Cod out of thousands rising out of an old Long Island potato field. Fifty percent of all women are married by age 19 in 1953. The restaurant that people line up for is Toots Shoor, which serves guy-type food and caters to the baseball and boxing crowds.
Moondog is the negation of the Organization Man and, therefore, hot copy ... a blind genius who refuses the narrow tie and square pad in Levittown. He calls his music "snaketime", plays homemade instruments called "oo", "trim-bas" and "uni" and hands out poetry that some derisively call "Moondoggerel": "Go commercial", cried the prostitutes, in every calling. /"Sell your soul, but sell yourself. Get with it. Stop the stalling."
The transformation of one Louis Hardin, son of an Episcopalian minister, into the street performer called Moondog begins on 4 July, 1932 in Hurley, Missouri. "I picked up a dynamite cap on a railroad track after a flood and pounded on it. It exploded in my face." The 16-year-old high school drummer was totally blind. "At first I didn't want to live," Moondog told a reporter in 1944. "Everyone pitied me. That's exactly what they shouldn't have done." Moondog went to the Iowa School for the Blind and received formal training in violin, viola, pipe organ and singing.
After Iowa, he worked on his father's farm for five years. In 1943, he decided to go to New York City, as he envisioned the city as a Mecca for composers. He survived, initially, by posing in art schools. He spent most of his time, however, composing on a small organ in a tiny room in the Hell's Kitchen district. Taking to wearing a cape and monk's hood and sporting a long dark beard in the midst of World War II austerity, Moondog must have piqued the curiosity of New York Philharmonic conductor Artur Rodzinski when he saw him standing at the entrance to Carnegie Hall. "Today, I had a great shock", he told his wife Halina, "I saw a person with the face of Christ." Rodzinski permitted Moondog to attend the rehearsals of the orchestra.
The Rodzinskis were so taken by this young, intense blind man that they invited him to stay at their Fifth Avenue apartment. However, something inside Moondog kept him from accepting this offer. "I didn't accept it," Moondog told me with some bemusement in his voice, "I don't know why - too proud or independent or something. Halina even took me to the eye doctor and brought me to Julliard to get music lessons." At the same time, Moondog's attire became more and more bizarre, shifting from hoods to army blankets. "I started changing my clothes little by little," Moondog recalled, "and one day Artur said: 'Louie, I'd like to have a long talk about your clothes'. A few weeks later, one of the violinists came by and said: 'Louis, you can't come back to rehearsals unless you change your clothes to a conventional style. This is a message from Bruno Zarato, the Philharmonic's manager.'" Moondog, who imagined himself a "European in exile", refused to conform to the fashion codes of the orchestral world he aspired to and headed towards two decades on the streets of New York.
Louis Hardin took the name Moondog in 1947, in honour of his dog back in Hurley "who used to howl at the moon more than any dog I knew of". In 1948, talk of atomic war caused him to flee to the West Coast. He made it to Los Angeles, played a piano piece at the Million Dollar Theatre opposite Duke Ellington, but the press confused him with "Nature Boy" - a novelty act of the period who dressed like Bomba the Jungle Boy and wrote the eponymous song that Nat King Cole made famous. The first glimmerings of freakdom are obvious in the headlines from that tour of the West and Midwest: "Blind, Bearded Apostle of New Dance Rhythm Startles Moline", "Povo Citizens Gape at 'Moondog' Getup", and "Match for Nature Boy Sells His Music Here" are a few of the typical headlines.
Returning to New York City in 1949 and finding that musical bookers were not interested in what they took to be another "Nature Boy", Moondog started playing his drums in the streets around Times Square. He soon shifted his venue to Sixth Avenue around the Fifties (this venue changed over the years). A few blocks away, bebop music was filling the clubs along Fifty-Second Street. Moondog soon became something of a cult figure for the musicians who played along "the Street". One night Charlie Parker dropped by Moondog's corner, heard his drums and suggested that they record together; but Parker died soon after this meeting.
Moondog recorded quite extensively in the period between the late 40s and early 50s. Tony Schwartz, a young audio engineer with a bulky Telefunken recorder, brought Moondog to the attention of Epic Records, who released a 45rpm EP in 1953. Prestige, one of the primary documenters of bebop, released three LPs of Moondog's music. These albums, extremely rare today, feature Moondog's "snaketime music", (named because of their odd, "snaking" time signatures), percussion pieces and street documentary recordings. The most legendary of the latter is of Moondog playing a flute duet with the steam whistle of the HMS Queen Mary.
By the time of the Epic EP, Moondog had taken to wearing full Viking regalia. New York was, in the early 50s, still a city with nine daily papers and many column inches to fill. He is referred to as a "sidewalk Mozart" by one columnist and is compared to a street musician in an Oriental Bazaar. He becomes something of an adjunct to the bop world, which is, in the days before Elvis, the only unsquare show in town. The New York Enquirer dubs him "The prophet of 'the progressive jazz idiom'". The history of his nickname is now attributed to American Indians, with whom (it is claimed) he learned his drum technique. It is even reported that he tells reporters that his home land is "Sasnak" (Kansas spelt backward). "How was I to know that newsmen take the world for granted? / How was I to know the news they deign to print is slanted?", laments Moondog in one of his couplets of the period.
Moondog achieved national notoriety in 1954 when he sued disc jockey Allan Freed in a $100,000 damage suit for the misuse of his art. Freed, who is generally credited with coining the term 'rock and roll' and introducing white youth to sounds of black R&B, had proclaimed himself "King of the Moondoggers" on his WINS "House of Moondoggers" radio show and was using the Moondog Symphony as his theme. An article published in Our World magazine shows a photo of Moondog picketing on the streets with a sandwich board that proclaims "WINS UNFAIR" and "I AM MOONDOG". A 24 November, 1954 article in the New York Times reports on the introduction of Moondog's music as evidence in the court hearings: "As the musical melange of jungle sounds, plus harmonies that sounded like melodies from a Chinese mambo and clattering chopsticks, poured from a portable phonograph and echoed throughout the chambers, Justice Walter buried his face behind a handkerchief." Moondog did, however, win his case and Freed went on to a brief, mercurial career without his old moniker. Only with his return to New York did Moondog learn what may have influenced the judge's surprising ruling: "Igor Stravinsky knew about me and called up the judge and told him, 'You must take this man seriously, he's a fine composer'. Imagine that!"
There were others in a position to help Moondog, but the criterion always seemed to include the cashing in of his Viking garb and army blankets. He appeared on Steve Allen's TV show and he arranged an album of Mother Goose rhymes for a pre-My Fair Lady Julie Andrews for Angel records, but none of this translated into a "real" career as a musician. He lived in a series of fleabag hotels and spent most of the money he made on the streets on copyists who could translate his braille scores into musical notation. He had gone beyond his madrigals, percussion pieces and snaketime - he was devoting his time to full-blown classical pieces written tonally and in counterpoint, but no orchestra was willing to play his music.
Although he spent the 50s in almost total isolation from other classical composers, in the 60s he became friendly with a group of men who would shape the classical world of the 80s - Philip Glass, Steven Reich and Terry Riley, with Moondog dubbing this musical circle as "The Manhattan Four". As refugees from the oppressiveness of the dominant serial composers, these young iconoclasts must have seen the older composer as a fellow traveller. Glass's use of simple melodic reiteration and Reich's use of maracas in some of his works seem to have roots in Moondog's compositions.
Moondog was finally afforded the opportunity to record his classical music when he was signed to a Columbia Masterwork contract in 1969. A crack studio orchestra plays his works with Moondog conducting and playing his battery of homemade percussion. The album would be in Columbia's catalogue for 17 years, selling 40,000 copies - remarkable for a composer whose works were never performed in public. Moondog, a favourite of the boppers, was now taken up by rock musicians. Janis Joplin records his "All Is Loneliness" on her first album and called the composer "a beautiful cat" in the liner notes. The band Insect Trust (featuring music critic Robert Palmer on reeds) recorded "Be A Hobo" on their Hoboken Saturday Night album.
This interest in his songs encouraged Moondog to write madrigals again and, in 1971, he records an album's worth. However, with Columbia failing to promote the album, it did poorly and Moondog was dropped from the label. By now, the novelty of Moondog began wearing off. The man whom the Miami Herald once dubbed a "pre-Beatnik" began looking positively mainstream. The appearance of hippies made a bearded man in an army blanket rather a common sight on the streets. And with New York City entering a Golden Age of Speed and Heroin that sent many of its old Bohemians and Beatniks fleeing, the streets became less and less safe for a blind man.
Moondog's new phase began when he went to Frankfurt in 1974 to perform a series of concerts. He was on the streets (dressed, of course, in his familiar Viking garb) selling his poetry when a 27-year-old geology student named Ilona Goebel saw him. She, like other passersby, took him for a crazy person. Soon afterwards, she saw, and later bought, his Columbia orchestral album and was startled by what she heard. She invited Moondog to her home in Oer-Erkenschwick and this is where he has been since then.
Ms Goebel, after a good deal of prodding, convinced Moondog to give up his helmet, spear and army blankets. "You're either a fashion designer or a composer," she told him and Moondog chose the latter, though in gradual increments. Goebel became the heroine in Moondog's life - she is his agent, producer, manager, transcriber and life companion. She formed Managram, a publishing company that makes his musical scores and poetry available - thus avoiding a problem that plagued him in his New York days. Although his music is not performed as much as he'd wish, symphonies have finally been performing his music in Paris, Vienna, Salzburg and Stockholm. He has had, however, two albums of music released in recent years, with a three-CD set due for release by a West German label. In addition, his two Columbia albums are now available on a single CD, his first Prestige album is available on Fantasy's OJC series and an instrumental arrangement of the folk song "Guggisberglied" was on the Swiss Pop charts for ten weeks. And to the surprise of those put off by his appearance, his pieces are 'straight' enough to have one critic dub him "a radical conservative".
He writes his pieces in chaconnes, grounds and canons - forms going back to the beginning of Western harmony. He is an enemy of atonality and is an unashamed worshipper of Mozart, Bach and Beethoven. "There is no such thing as originality," he assured me, "only individuality and if you're true to yourself, you can't help but be different." And as to those who see his music as being naive or retrograde, he responds a bit cryptically, "Darwin was wrong! Not everything wants to rise up higher and higher. Some want to stay - I call that 'levolution' - I just add the 'l' to evolution."
Moondog' appearance at BAM's Majestic Theatre was appropriately prefaced by a rare brace of tornadoes that ripped through the New York City metropolitan area. He was the finale to an evening that featured compositions by John Zorn and Butch Morris, two musicians at the centre of experimentalist musicscenes. He was accompanied to the stage by his youngest daughter - whom he hadn't seen for 20 years (and who had only learned of his appearance that morning in her hometown of Philadelphia through an issue of Tower Records' Pulse Magazine).
He was wearing a red tunic over a black velour shirt and had a red wool skull cap on his head - would Rodzinski have approved such casual dress to conduct a 50-piece orchestra? Halina, Rodzinski's quite-old widow was brought to the concert by a limo and one of Moondog's pieces on the programme, "Dark Eyes", was dedicated to her. Moondog seemed under the spell of the music he was conducting, beating the bass drum like the conductor of a Roman galley ship. The music sounded like Sundays' worth of America - brass bands, Roaring 20s 'dirty' saxophones and metronomes embossing time in the brains of reluctant Van Cliburn juniors. In a music festival whose underlying theme is "how out can you get", Moondog took that imaginary loving cup by going back, way back, to Palestrina and snaketime rhythms.
His standing ovation was earned that evening; it was also the interest accrued in acknowledging a life full of misconnections and hard pride - a life that seems to have righted itself with the simple act of being respected in one's time for one's works and accomplishments. As his daughter gently led him backstage, he seemed advancing into the country of his heart.