Sunday, July 10, 2005
Moondog was a street musician and poet who hung around the 52nd to 54th Street area and around the old Madison square Garden in Manhattan in the 40's and 50's, through to the 70's. He often dressed in Viking regalia considering himself to be Nordic in sensibility. His costume would consist of homemade robe, sandals, a flowing cape, a horned Viking helmet, with a long spear of his own manufacture in his hand. Passers-by called him "the Viking of Sixth Avenue". Reaction to this garb was to hamper his musical development due to him being considered a crank. In later years he was persuaded to abandon it for more conventional dress (by his own admission, this was a good move). He was a mainly self-taught composer who worked with home made instruments and produced eccentric jazz and classical based pieces as well as vocal rounds. Part of the charm of his work is the brevity of much of it.
He was born, Louis Hardin, in Marysville, Kansas on May 26, 1916 but his family moved to Wyoming. He was interested in drums and drum rhythms from an early age. He played drums in Hurley High School in 1929 and in 1949, he played tomtom and flute at a Sun Dance held by the Blackfoot in Idaho. By then he was already blind as he lost his sight in his early teens when a dynamite cap exploded. He studied music and finished high school at the Iowa School for the Blind, and in 1933 studied braille at the Missouri School for the Blind in St. Louis. He composed all his pieces in braille.
In 1942 Hardin got a scholarship to study in Memphis but he mostly taught himself ear training and other musical skills and theory from books in braille. In 1943, he came to New York and met Artur Rodzinski, Leonard Bernstein, and Toscanini. Supposedly he bowed to kiss Toscanini's hand but Toscanini pulled it away saying,' I am not a beautiful woman '. Hardin also began to meet jazz performers such as Charlie Parker and Benny Goodman. This gave his work a jazz feel which together with a certain beat quality in the form of humorous philosophical statements and the use of background sounds gives makes him a true eccentric.
Hardin began to call himself Moondog from 1947 in honor of a dog "who used to howl at the moon more than any dog I knew of".
Despite his status as street musician he intermittently recorded for the CBS, Prestige, Epic, Angel and Mars labels. One of his songs, "All Is Loneliness," (on "More Moondog" for Prestige and "Moondog 2" on CBS) was recorded by Janis Joplin. He also wrote music for radio and television commercials, and his music was used on the soundtracks for Jack Nicholson's "Drive, He Said," and the Coen Brothers "Big Lebowsky". Moondog also worked on an album of "Mother Goose Songs" with Julie Andrews. He was also feted by jazz musicians - Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, 50's beat poets and 60s flower children. His CBS "Moondog" album came about when James William Guercio - producer of Chicago and director of cult film "Electra Glide in Blue" - heard him and decided to record him. Moondog was also interviewed on many television shows, including both "Today" and "The Tonight Show."
In the fifties Moondog sued the disc jockey Alan Freed, the rock and roll king. Freed used the name Moondog as well as one of his records because it had a howling wolf in it. Then, when he came to New York, he had a program called the Moondog Show. Moondog won the case and Freed stopped using the name. There is a rumour that Stravinski intervened by speaking to the judge.
Moondog disappeared from the streets of New York in 1974 because he had been invited to perform in Germany. After his performances in Hamburg, he began to perform on the streets of Europe where he met Mrs. Sommer who transcribed his music and acted as his publisher and business manager. Her father supported Moondog in his later years. He produced at least five albums in Europe, including a "sound saga" titled "The Creation," and regularly performed his compositions with chamber and symphony orchestras in Paris, Stockholm and cities in Germany. Moondog died of heart failure on Wednesday, September 8, 1999 in a hospital in Munster, Germany. He was 83.