New York has something to howl about again - Legendary Street Musician Moondog is Back
On the gritty streets of Manhattan there once lived an eccentric, homeless blind man named Moondog. Dressed in Viking regalia, with horned helmet, spear and scraggly beard, Moondog was a familiar New York sight for 25 years. He claimed to be a composer and poet. "Hey. Dog!" or "Yo. Moonie!" yelled passersby, swapping change for a bit of beatnik poetry or listening as he sang his songs while banging on a drum or strumming his homemade zither. Then, in 1974, Moondog suddenly wasn't there any longer. People soon figured he had died.
Actually, and perhaps more incredibly, he had just gone to West Germany. Now Moondog, 73, has reappeared in Manhattan as suddenly as he left - this time as a recognized composer and performer. Following a lead in an old newspaper, organizers of the New Music America festival found him in West Germany a year ago and arranged his triumphant return. This month he played his drum alongside top avant-garde musicians in a concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Brooklyn Philharmonic performed his jazz and his Symphony No. 50. Says Moondog, who now wears simple robes: "There's no greater experience than to be wanted."
Even when he was a sidewalk fixture immortalized by columnist Walter Winchell, Moondog was never the dropped-out hobo most people assumed. He was befriended by jazz greats Charlie Parker ("You and I should make a record together," Parker said shortly before his death) and Charles Mingus, with whom he once played at the Whitney museum. He appeared on TV beside then Mayor John Lindsay, read poetry with Allen Ginsberg and jammed with composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich. His All Is Loneliness was even recorded by Janis Joplin, who "really murdered it," he remembers. Most surprising of all, two albums of his atonal jazz and madrigals were released in 1969 and 1971 by Columbia, drew raves and made the charts; Columbia has now released both as a CD, and it already ranks as the most requested between-shows music on National Public Radio.
Moondog's careening career has been created by circumstance and his own unusual will. He was born Louis Hardin in Kansas and raised in Wyoming, the only child of an itinerant minister and a housewife. "We had our own trout stream," he recalls. "I had my own horses." But at 16, the boy was blinded while playing with dynamite caps he had found on railroad tracks. After studying music at the Iowa School for the Blind for a year, he headed for New York. By dint of stagedoor persistence, he was adopted by the New York Philharmonic, invited to rehearsals and met Toscanini and young Leonard Bemstein. Then, in 1949, he started playing on corners and calling himself Moondog after a pet that "howled at the moon a lot," and thus one of America's famous homeless men was born.
"I was kicked, urinated on a couple of times, spit on, oh, and robbed a couple of times," says Moondog, who rocks slowly when he speaks, like a fighter. "You get the impression that New York is a cold, heartless place, but it's really not. Taxi drivers and doormen look out for you."
In 1974 Moondog was invited to do a radio concert in Frankfurt and decided to linger there. "I just liked it so much, I thought I'd see what happened," he says. It was on the streets that he met Ilona Goebel, a geology student. "My whole family heard one of his records and said, 'What music!'"she recalls. "'What a man and what a life!'" Moondog was invited into the Goebel's Ruhr Valley home. "It was very logical," says Ilona, now 35. "I forgot about my university plans. We met, and this had to be done."
Since then, Ilona has written out all Moondog's music. He has composed thousands of works, including a 1,000-part, nine-hour canon. He is considering his first music video, a sax piece called "Tout Suite", which he hopes will finance another curious goal. "I'd like to do 100 concerts," Moondog says dreamily. "So I can buy my own castle."