Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Moondog: The Viking of Sixth Avenue

More than 40 years later, I remember him: A guy in a salt-and-pepper beard down to his chest, holding a six-foot spear and dressed in a homemade Viking costume, with leather footwear and some kind of tight-fitting cloth or leather cap with two horns inserted. A blind guy. Sort of begging, sort of selling recordings of music he had written or made.

I was a college freshman too shy to say anything to him, so I stood at a little distance down Manhattan's Sixth Avenue and watched him talk to passers-by. Some of them ragged him, some showed respect, some bought a tape. Most just gawked, as I did.

By chance, I came across two LPs with his picture on the cover a couple of years later: "Moondog" and "Moondog 2," which have been reissued on one CD. Here's a sampling from the latter:

After I did some research via the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature (a lot more trouble in the pre-Internet era, I assure you), I dug up magazine articles that told me about Louis Hardin, a Midwesterner who had rubbed shoulders with everyone in New York from jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker to minimalist classical composer Philip Glass. He'd become a composer and poet as the self-dubbed Moondog, living on the street all day and crashing in a small apartment at night. By the time I learned who he was, he had emigrated to Europe forever.

I thought about my non-encounter while reading "Moondog: The Viking of 6th Avenue," the freshly reissued biography by Robert Scotto. The softcover version doesn't include the CD that came with the hardcover edition of 2007, but it links you to downloads of all the music. Glass, a multiple Oscar nominee who served as Moondog's reluctant landlord for one year, wrote the preface. (It's $22.95 from Process Books. See http://processmediainc.com/.)

That preface reveals an unsavory guy who threw fast-food trash around his room and expressed anti-Semitic attitudes while accepting the hospitality of his Jewish host. But Glass acknowledges Moondog's remarkable skill and daring as a musician, which comes out more clearly in Scotto's book. (It also includes his philosophic poetry, whose point I couldn't always untangle.)

We Americans have rarely understood what to do with odd members of our culture. If their voices don't seem immediately accessible, if they look or dress oddly (even as a form of self-definition, in Moondog's case), we write them off as loonies and close our ears. That's our loss: Though Moondog lived mostly on the street and dwelt always on the musical fringe, he had something to say.


Bob Nathanson said...

One of my favorites. Thanks Larry for this. An additional tidbit: 243I believe Louis Hardin was blind.