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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Moondog






Yesterday evening, while visiting my record shop of choice, Ivan The Pusher had - just behind him - a record with a strange, seldom-seen picture on the sleeve (with no name or title...)

A bearded man, prophet-like looking, long grey hairs and... a blind, white eye... a very Delphic persona.

Curious, I asked Ivan: "Hey, is him Moondog, by any chance?"

"Yes!" was the reply...

I realized I knew him from an old picture I saw somewhere, years ago... and I remembered ALL.

This freak musician and bard lived in NYC for years, playing at streets corners on self-made instruments, percussions, small strings zithers, kalimbas, flutes, and voice...

He often weared a viking costume, horns helmet and fur and all...

I remember I read of him on Pentangle "Sweet Child" 2-records-set liner notes, where drummer Terry Cox dedicated to him a nice hommage, titled, you'd bet it, "Moondog"... only voice and an hand drum.

I always loved this 1968 record which I own since my boyhood, and this very simple, childish song always impressed as it was very "un-Pentangle"...

Honest Jon Records reissued (remastered at Abbey Road Studios...) the two sought-after vinyls someone recorded decades ago... sounds in the background from a no longer existing NYC, a far boat honk in the fog on Hudson river, a burglar and these so ancient, simple melodies...

The single disk, containing several short cuts, is one of those rare stuff able to stop the clock during listening...

Not music you can tap your feet on, nonetheless it's as mysterious as looking at Tihuanaco buildings... where do this bard came from?

Illuminated people was visiting him at his Manhattan spots, chatting with him, like a blind troubadour would have been visited, maybe also cherished, in a medieval town... those people were, in the years: John zorn, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Benny Goodman, Igor Stravinski!!!

Maybe he (humbly) invented - sure suggested - minimalism...

As he says on one "song"... "It's not important who am I, or where I come from... it's where I'm now!"

Poverty, money, music, ownership, composing... all this seems as far as the moon... while listening at Moondog's musical vision... his melodies are slightly weird, yet already heard, like they are part of DNA or something...

Maybe a visitor?

Some infos from the Web:

"Louis Thomas Hardin
aka: "Moondog"
b. Marysville, Kansas, , USA, d.Sept. 8, 1999, Münster, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. (Coronary Arrest) Age: 83.
CAUTION: Do not confuse with another composer, eden ahbez, who is perhaps better known as "Nature Boy".
Here's a photo of a very young Louis Hardin, as he appeared in his 1937 "Arkansas College" yearbook. It was while studying music at this school, near Batesville, Arkansas, that he began adopting an eccentric style of dress, and making plans for his life as a composer. Here's is a photo of Hardin, now known as "Moondog", as he appeared to passersby in New York City during 1956 (photo courtesy: New York Times). (He is standing on the corner of 54th Street and 6th Avenue, where this author -Murray L. Pfeffer - often stopped and spoke with him.) For about 30 years, this eccentric, gaunt, bearded and blind 'Beat" poet and musician was a familiar New York city landmark, standing (usually) on the corner of 6th Avenue and 54th Street in, wearing a Viking helmet, home-made robe, sandals, and holding a 6 foot long spear. (During winters, his feet were wrapped in some sort of heavy cloth.)

In 1932, this son of a Episcopal church minister lost his sight in an accident in Hurley Iowa, when he pounded on a dynamite cap he had picked up on a railroad track after heavy rains had flooded the area. it exploded in his face, leaving the 16 year old high school drummer totally blind. Hardin was then sent to the 'Iowa School for the Blind', where he received formal training in violin, viola, pipe organ and singing. After this school, he returned home and for the next 5 years worked on his father's farm.

In 1943, he relocated to New York City, first earing a living by posing as an artist's model. His spare time was spent composing on a small organ in his tiny room in New York's 'Hell's Kitchen' district. During WWII, he first started wearing a cape and monk's hood and sporting a long dark beard. In 1947, he began using the name "Moondog" (his dog liked to howl at the moon), and earned his living distributing his hand printed poems, and music to passersby in return for some small contribution.

In 1948, Hardin took up residence in Los Angeles, CA, where, among other activities, he played a piano piece at the 'Million Dollar Theatre' opposite Duke Ellington. That may have been the first time that the Press confused him with a then somewhat popular novelty act, "Nature Boy" eden ahbez - (yes, small e small a), who like "Moondog" also dressed like some prehistoric man (and wrote the eponymous song that singer Nat "King" Cole made famous. One of the newspaper headlines at the time (talking about "Moondog") exclaimed "Match for Nature Boy Sells His Music Here". In 1949, finding no success in California, Hardin returned to New York, and began playing his drums in that city's famed Times Square" theatre district. In the 1950s, he began standing on the corner of 54th Street and Sixth Avenue, and sometimes on the corner of 52nd Street and Sixth Avenue. He soon became friendly with many of the Jazzmen, including Benny Goodman, and Charlie Parker, then playing at the clubs on New York's famed "Swing Steet", as well as with Classical musicians such as Toscanini and Artur Rodzinski.

In 1954, New York disc jockey Alan Freed (credited with coining the term 'rock and roll') adopted his "Moondog Symphony" as a theme song, and began calling himself "King of the Moondoggers". However, "Moondog" obtained a legal injunction preventing Freed from using the music or the name 'Moondog'. Hardin later learned that composer Igor Stravinski had interceded with the judge on his behalf. (It has been reported that Stravinski told the judge that 'Moondog' was not a lunatic, but a serious composer.) 'Moondog' soon became an icon of the 'Beat' movement, even singer Janis Joplin had a hit with one of his songs ("All Is Loneliness" ), while other compositions found their way into advertising jingles and film soundtracks. One of "Moondog's" pieces was used for the soundtrack for "Drive. She said" starring Jack Nicholson. During this time, Hardin arranged an album of Mother Goose songs for singer Julie Andrews, and in 1969, recorded his LP "Moondog".

It was during the 1950s and '60s, he became friendly with three avant garde composers, Philip Glass, Steven Reich and Terry Riley, with Moondog completing the quartet as "The Manhattan Four". At a later date, "Moondog" told interviewers that only listened to his own compositions because the work of others was full of "unspecified mistakes". As a Classicist, he sought: "The art of concealing art, maximum effect but with minimum means". It was this concept thata caused composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich to hail him as the originator of "minimalism".

As a child, Hardin had attended Native North American dances, and, in the 1940s, even performed with an Idaho Blackfoot tribe. Later, the chants, and the cyclic rhythms of North American Indian drums would be integrated into his pieces, adding a contrapuntal texture to his dense, complex melodic lines. (Writing instrumental parts in braille, he rarely produced full scores.)

In 1971, he recorded an album of Madrigals for Columbia, which met with little success, and he was dropped by the label. This was also the start of the "Hippie" era, and a bearded man in an army blanket became a rather common site. Still he was one of the icons of the "Beat" era, performing with Allen Ginsburg at poetry reading, appearing on stage with "Tiny Tim" and comedian Lenny Bruce, and in films with William S. Boroughs. Such labels such as Mars, CBS and Prestige had released his works. However, the start of the drug era (speed and heroin) was making the streets very unsafe for a blind man.

In 1974, he was invited by the Hessischen Rundfunks (radio and TV station in Hessen, Germany) for two concerts. He relocated to Recklinghausen, where he would stay in residence till his demise. His sudden disappearence led many to believe he had died (even singer-songwriter Paul Simon mourned his passing on his TV-show). Hardin's self-exile in Germany was the most prolific period of his career. In Germany, he met a 27-year-old geology student named Ilona Goebel. Ilona, a music translator living in Oer-Erkenschwick, Germany, gave up her job to work full time with Hardin, putting onto paper the music that was in his head. Hardin remained in Germany, composing, and recording, with Goebel becoming his agent, producer, manager, transcriber and life companion.

During his sojourn in Europe, Hardin recorded 10 of his original compositions, including such works as "Witch of Endor" (written for dancer Martha Graham), "Minisym No. 1", and the the nine-hour "Cosmos" for 1,000 musicians and singers. He also composed a symphony titled "The Overtone Tree", for four conductors." (He later told a 'Los Angeles Times' newspaper critic, "One conductor to be the general overlooker, and three sub-conductors to handle their own individual scores.") All this and more than 300 canons and 100 keyboard works.

He remained in Germany until 1989 when he returned to New York for an appearance at the New Music America Festival. In the interim, most Americans had completely forgotten him. Hardin's appearance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Majestic Theatre was the finale of an evening that featured works by John Zorn and "Butch" Morris, - two other experimentalist musicians. It is fascinating to note that Hardin was accompanied to the stage by his youngest daughter, -whom he hadn't seen for 20 years. While she was browsing "Pulse", the music magazine of Tower Records shop, that she learned that her father was scheduled to appear that morning in her hometown of Philadelphia. The magazine 'People' reported: "New York has something to howl again- legendary 'Moondog' is back".

1997 saw "Moondog's" first American recording in 26 years. His "Sax Pax for a Sax" was scored for a reed choir of up to 10 saxophones accompanied by timpani. "Moondog" played the bass drum, and the contra bassist was Danny Thompson. It is a good example of 'Moondog's' rare gift of synthesizing Classical composition with 'Jazz' feeling. (Interstingly, the composition included tributes to two fine Jazz saxophonists, Lester Young and Charlie Parker.)

In his review, The New York Times music critic, Allan Kozinn, wrote that Hardin was "uncomfortable with being an authority figure, so he sits to the side of the orchestra and provides the beat on a bass drum or tympani." During his interview with Hardin (and Hardin's friend Ilona Sommer), Scotto reported that Hardin had told him he married in 1943 and subsequently divorced. He said that a second marriage, in the 1950s, to musician Sazuko Whiteing, also ended in divorce in the early 1960s. Mrs. Sommer thought Hardin was survived by a younger brother, Creighton Hardin, of Kansas City, MO; a daughter, June Hardin, and another daughter, whose name and whereabouts they did not know.

Early in his career as an aspiring composer, Hardin had refused to alter his dress code even when it provoked his eviction from the Philharmonic rehearsals. Finally, Hardin yielded to Ilona Sommer's coaxing and gave up his Viking helmet, cape, and spear outfit. However, in a 1989 interview, he said "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."

3 comments:

Steve said...

Very good. I knew about Moondog from Janis Joplin's stage comments before "All In Loneiness" on the In Concert album. Never knew anything thing about him till now. Thanks

Herbert said...

Interesting seeing Moondog again and reading his bio. He lived with us in Germany - probably at the time of his Hessischer Rundfunk engagement. He stayed like a week, my english was very poor, but I loved watching him navigate the house and outside. He did 90% by ear, no stretched out hands, sticks or touching.
This was in a countryside community home/farm. We were a handful of boys and girls living there doing creative things. Most money came from children's movies we made for TV (Sesame Street Germany).
I was sound-man. The main filmmaker and director was Thomas Wittenburg. You can google him and find my name there too. I worked in that time also with filmmakers Helmuth Costard and Werner Nekes.
herbert jeschke

Iain said...

I had heard that Moondog was from Arkansas but I didn't think it was really true. That makes sense another cool Arky of note.