New York Times, 1989 November 16
Moondog Returns From the Hippie Years
Anyone who spent time in midtown Manhattan between the late 1940's and the early 1970's is likely to have seen and perhaps puzzled over Louis T. Hardin, better known as Moondog. For nearly 30 years, the gaunt blind musician with a flowing beard haunted the Avenue of the Americas around 54th Street, dressed in a homemade robe and a horned Viking helmet with a long spear at his side. He sold copies of his poetry and music to passers-by who stopped to talk. And he recorded his music on the Mars, Prestige and CBS labels - some of it scored for small wind and percussion ensembles, with a jazzy accent, some of it in a flowing, tonal symphonic style.
When he vanished in 1974, it was as if a landmark building bad been taken down. It was rumored that he had died. Actually, he had been invited to perform his music In West Germany, and having declared himself "a European in exile" during his New York years, he decided to stay.
Program in Brooklyn
Now the 73-year old composer is back in town, albeit temporarily, and he can be seen leading an orchestra in Brooklyn rather than standing on a Manhattan Street corner. He gave a preview at the opening of the New Music America festival on Nov. 8. Tonight at 8, Moondog will conduct the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra in a 30-minute suite of his works as part of a Meet the Moderns concert at the Majestic Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (651 Fulton Street, near Ashland Place, Fort Greene section). The program, which is also part of New Music America, indudes premieres of works by Gloria Coates, Robert Moran, Lawrence (Butch) Morris and John Zorn. There is also to be a free open rehearsal of Moondog's works at the Majestic Theater this afternoon at 2.
Like much else about him, Moondog's conducting style is unusual. He is uncomfortable with being an authority figure, so he sits to the side of the orchestra and provides the beat on a bass drum or timpani.
Speaking of the orchestra members during an interview in his East Side hotel room the other day, be said: "I see my relationship with them as being first among equals, so that in a way there are 40 conductors, each in charge of his own part, and each responsible for the performance. Orchestra players respond well to that idea.
"In my music, they don't have to worry about time changes. If I start In 4/4, I end in 4/4. All they have to do is count straight. When it's absolutely necessary, I give them cues. But for the most part, once I start them, I don't want them to look at me, I want them to concentrate on their parts."
Moondog was born in Maryville, Kan., in 1916, and because his father was an itinerant minister, he traveled a good deal, settling for periods in North Carolina, Wyoming and Missouri. When he was 16 years old, he was blinded when a dynamite blasting cap exploded in his hands and a year later, after he began studying stringed Instruments, organ and harmony at the Iowa School for the Blind, be decided to be a composer.
Getting to Carnegie Hall
He arrived in New York in 1943 and found his way into musical circles through a series of coincidences. Having established an outpost outside the stage entrance of Carnegie Hall, he caught the attention of some of the New York Philharmonic's musicians, who persuaded their conductor, Artur Rodzinski, to speak with him. Rodzinski gave Mr. Hardin (he did not adopt the name Moondog until 1947) an open invitation to the orchestra's rehearsals and said that if the composer produced an orchestral work, he would conduct it.
Manhattan's street Viking conducts in Brooklyn.
"The problem was, to prepare music for an orchestra. I needed someone to help me write out the parts, and I couldn't afford that at the time," Moondog recalled.
He has fond memories of Rodzinski, and dedicated his recent Symphony No. 50 to him. One movement of it is on tonight's program. After Rodzinski left the Philharmonic In 1947, Moondog found he had worn out his welcome at rehearsals, partly because he had started wearing his Viking garb.
Helmet Was a Hindrance
"I had a lot of offers from people who said that they would help me but that I had to dress conventionally," he said, speaking in a soft voice that still bears a trace of the Midwest. "But I valued my freedom of dress more than I cared to advance my career as a composer. I just wanted to do my own thing, and no matter how much it cost me in terms of my career, I did it."
He did make some headway, though. In the 1950's, he began making his living as a street musician, using a set of triangular drums be calls trimbas. Eventually, the head of the Spanish Music Center, Gabriel Oller, invited him to make some recordings. Once Moondog had access to the recording studio and to session players, he began expanding his horizons. Building belatedly on Rodzinski's suggestion, be was also putting together a body of orchestral music in a conservative melodic style, and in the late 1960's, CBS took him into the studio to make two recordings. The first, "Moondog," has just been reissued on CD. Moondog said a three-CD set of his more recent works, called "Tonal All the Way," is being issued in West Germany this week.
Turning Point in Germany
"When I went to Germany, 15 years ago," he said, "it was supposed to be only for a concert. But imagine bow I felt, walking around in the land of the great composers. I stayed in Hamburg for a year, basically living as I did in New York, selling my stuff on the street. Then I met a wonderful girl there named Ilona Goebel, who began helping me with my music and my notes. She took me to meet her family in Oer-Erkenschwick, and her father said, 'You must live with us.' Just like that. I've been living with them for 12 years now, and they treat me like a member of the family.
"Ilona was studying to be an archeologist, but she gave up her plans to help me. She is my eyes and more than that: she copies and publishes my music, she helps me in recording sessions, and she is my companion everywhere. It couldn't be nicer."
Miss Goebel also persuaded him to abandon his Viking regalia. "The persuasion of a woman is unbeatable," he said, "They really get at you.
"But I still love horned helmets and swords and spears. I like to feel that I'm loyal to my past. I wouldn't want to be on the street anymore. But you know, that led to a lot of things."