When I was a kid, my Dad worked in Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. My Mom and I went into the city to visit him pretty regularly, mostly because my dentist’s office was in the same building. This would have been from about 1972 to 1980, which means I was around for the tail end of the illustrious busking career of Moondog, whose favorite venue was the corner of 6th Avenue and 54th Street, just a few blocks from my Dad’s office. Did I ever get to see Moondog in action? Sadly, I can’t remember. I’d say odds are good that I did, and odds are even better that my mother hurried me, mouth agog with freshly scrubbed pearlies, past the blind, white-bearded man dressed up like a Viking, telling me that it wasn’t polite to stare.
For over two decades, millions of New Yorkers and tourists stopped to stare at the man born Louis T. Hardin, most of them having no clue that the crazy, hairy guy in the leather helmet, playing what looked like a shoeshine box with a cymbal attached to it, was actually an accomplished musician and composer who hung out with the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Charlie Parker. As street musicians go, Moondog was both as eccentric and as accomplished as they come.
Before he became Moondog, Hardin was a Midwestern farm kid, born in Kansas and raised in Wyoming and Missouri. He lost his eyesight at age 16 when, as he tells it, “I picked up a dynamite cap on a railroad track after a flood and pounded on it. It exploded in my face.” Already a drummer in his high school band, Hardin was accepted into the Iowa School for the Blind, where he picked up some formal musical training on various other instruments, including the pipe organ, which enabled him to start composing his own works.
In 1943, while he was in his late twenties, Hardin decided to move to New York City, hoping to connect with the city’s great classical composers and conductors. From hanging around outside Carnegie Hall, he met and befriended the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Artur Rodzinski, who invited the young blind man with the flowing black beard to sit in with the orchestra’s rehearsals. But Hardin, who wasn’t yet dressing like a Viking but did favor long, hooded monk’s robes, was a little too leftfield to hit it off with the buttoned-down classical musicians of the New York Phil. Soon, he was back on the street, where he instead began busking, reciting poetry and playing music on a growing collection of homemade, portable instruments.
As Hardin’s peculiar sidewalk performances attracted more notice, he began getting write-ups in the press. But as the estranged son of an Episcopalian minister, he was unhappy that many journalists described his berobed, long-bearded appearance as “Christ-like.” By the mid-’50s, he had transitioned to Viking garb for a more pagan look. He had also started calling himself Moondog and making more references to the Native American influences in his music, particularly in the syncopated rhythms that he liked to call “snake-time.”
We could end Moondog’s story right here and still make a case for including him on the Weird List. But it gets better. From his preferred street corner, midway between Carnegie Hall and the jazz clubs of 52nd Street, Hardin began attracting a cult following among many of the city’s best-known musicians. Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman were fans; so were Igor Stravinsky and Arturo Toscanini. By the ’60s, he was hanging out with such counter-culture luminaries as William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. When he performed indoors—which he did on occasion—he shared stages with the like of Lenny Bruce and Tiny Tim. He even lived for a time with the minimalist composer Philip Glass, who cites Moondog’s spare, percussive fugues, rounds and minuets as a strong influence on his own work. (Moondog is often described as “homeless,” but this is somewhat misleading—only occasionally did he not have an apartment of his own, and when he didn’t, he usually stayed in fleabag hotels or with friends.)
Moondog’s music is, if anything, even more intriguing than the man himself. A mix of cryptic poetry, slinky jazz and stately, classical chamber pieces, it achieved an improbable level of popularity during his New York years, culminating in 1969’s Moondog, released on Columbia Records and produced by James William Guercio, whose other credits included Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears. The cover photo of Moondog, with his snow-white beard and glaring Viking’s visage, remains an iconic image of the ’60s alternative music scene.
By the time he left New York for Germany in 1974, Moondog had released six albums, four EPs and, of all things, an album of children’s music with Julie Andrews. His song “All Is Loneliness” had been covered by Janis Joplin. He had been interviewed and profiled by everyone from Collier’s to the New York Times. He even successfully sued DJ Alan Freed for the rights to the Moondog name.
But as New York City took a turn for the seedier in the ’70s, Moondog grew disenchanted with his adopted hometown. While on a tour of Europe in 1974, he decided to stay, eventually settling in a small city in West Germany called Recklinghausen. His move was so abrupt that many people back in New York assumed he had died. (Actually, many New Yorkers tend to assume this of anyone who leaves the Big Apple, it being the center of the universe and all.) But he lived on in Germany for another 25 years, continuing to compose and record and occasionally perform.
He rarely returned to America, though a welcome exception happened in 1989, when he came back to New York to conduct the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra at the New Music America festival. Treating him as though he had risen (Christ-like?) from the dead, the New York press fawned over him for a week. “Maybe it takes New York 15 years to miss you,” he quipped.
Moondog’s later works grew far more ambitious: Among them was his first complete symphony, a 25-part canon, and a nine-hour piece for 1,000 musicians called “Cosmos” that, for obvious reasons, has still never been performed. Oddly, his best-known work nowadays is probably a tribute to Charlie Parked called “Lament 1 (Bird’s Lament),” mainly because it was sampled in a popular jazz-house track by Mr. Scruff.
One of Moondog’s final works was among his weirdest. Released in Europe in 1994 and in the U.S. in 1997 (the final Moondog album released here before his death in 1999), Sax Pax for a Sax is a tribute to both the inventor of the saxophone and the great city Louis T. Hardin called home for three decades. Most of the music was performed by an all-sax-and-drums ensemble called The London Saxophonic, with occasional touches of piano and a solemn male chorus.
We’ll leave you with some classic Moondog from his NYC street-busking days. As far-out and eccentric as Moondog and his music could sometimes be, there’s also a simple, childlike beauty to a lot of it that stops you in your tracks. Almost as much as the sight of a white-bearded Viking hanging out on a street corner in midtown Manhattan.
Also, one final quote, from a 1953 magazine article. This is Moondog explaining to a bemused journalist why he liked performing on the streets:
I like to flaunt convention. In commercial music, I’d have to conform. But so long as I stay on the streets, people take this* because they think I’m a harmless eccentric. Maybe I am. But I do as I please. That’s more than most people can say. So far as I’m concerned, I’ve arrived.
(*By “this,” the journalist seemed to assume Moondog was referring only to his unusual manner of dress. We like to think he was referring to his music, as well.)
All hail the Viking of 6th Avenue!
P.S. Thanks to the magnificently named reader Eustaquio Habichuela Irsuto for first suggesting that we write about Moondog, well over a year ago. Sorry it took us awhile, Eustaquio.
- Moondog’s Corner (fan site)
- Managarm (Moondog label site, currently under construction)
- Stefan Lakatos official site (the inheritor of the “trimba,” Moondog’s most famous instrument)
- Moondog: The Viking of 6th Avenue (official site of a forthcoming documentary film)
- Moondog’s catalog on Amazon.com