Faces in the Crowd: Moondog

"I don't mean to be arrogant by saying this, but the only music that relaxes me and satisfies me

is my own, because I know that I'm not going to insult my own ears, you know," 

 

''He led an extraordinary life for a blind man who came to New York with no contacts and a month's rent, and who lived on the streets of New York for 30 years, without question, he was the most famous street person of his time, a hero to a generation of hippies and flower children.'' (NY Times obituary 1999)

 

"Moondog, born Louis Thomas Hardin (May 26, 1916 – September 8, 1999), was a blind American composer, musician, poet and inventor of several musical instruments. In New York from the late 1940s until he left in 1972, he could often be found on 6th Avenue between 52nd and 55th Street wearing a cloak and Viking-style helmet, sometimes busking or selling music, but often just standing silent and still. He was widely recognized as the Viking of 6th Avenue by thousands of passersby and residents who had no idea that this seemingly homeless eccentric standing on Moondog's corner was a respected and recorded composer and musician.  Moondog's music took inspiration from street sounds, such as the subway or a foghorn. It was characterized by what he called snaketime  and described as a 'slithery rhythm, in times that are not ordinary...I'm not gonna die in 4/4 time.' Many of his works were highly contrapuntal, and he worked hard on perfecting his counterpoint." (Wikipedia)

 

The mind clock is slowly turning back to the summer of 1972.

Here's the way it was at that time: I was living in a tiny apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan with a college friend of mine named Michael.  That summer in Ann Arbor, We were pretty much being bums and liking it.  Just next door to the apartment we were renting was a bagel factory that sold their bagels for 9 cents apiece.  These cheap bagels were the mainstay of our daily food intake; our biggest culinary issue being that we couldn't afford anything to put on the bagels so we were pretty much eating them as they were...au natural. That summer, since we had no air conditioning in the sauna that was masquerading as our apartment, we used to go driving around town in Michael's car searching for things to do.  Sometimes we would head up towards this old football field where they'd have free live concerts.  As I recall, they usually put on shows by a lot of local players such as The Stooges, MC5, Bob Seger, and Commander Cody.  Most of the time we'd hop into Michael's old Toyota and go driving around to different record stores just to look at the records in the rack.  Seeing as how we couldn’t afford to buy any albums, we would pretend to be searching through the stacks of records in search of a particular one.  If the store clerk said, "Can I help you find something?" I would name a fictitious band.  "I'm trying to find the new album by The Hoot Men, that band from Scotland that plays banjos."

 

One particularly hot day we were on our way to a little record store in town called The Cave or something exotic like that.  On the way to the store we caught sight of an old man dressed up as a Viking standing by the side of the road with his thumb out. The sight of this guy wearing a Viking helmet with two long horns and holding a tall homemade spear sort of froze us up for a second; but then we pulled the car over, backed up a bit and opened the door to give this roadside apparition a ride. It was only as we got closer that we both realized, "Hey, this guy is blind...and he is hitch hiking..." The old guy fumbled around quite a bit as he got in the back seat of the old Toyota. We heard a ripping sound and Michael yelled, "Hey, watch where you point that spear of yours, it's ripping up the upholstery fella!"  The old Viking guy leaned forward and stuck his horned helmet head between us in the front seat. In a quiet voice he announced, "My name is Moondog and I'm hitch hiking around the country to promote a new album of mine that was just released by Columbia records. I'm supposed to do an in-store appearance at a local record store called The Cave somewhere in Ann Arbor.  Would you happen to know where this store is located?"

 

Now I'm looking at Michael and he's looking at me. My eyes are saying something along the lines of: "Let's see if I got this straight…this guy just had a record released on Columbia records, he's blind, he's dressed as a Viking, his name is Moondog and he's hitch hiking across the country...what's wrong with this picture?" But seeing as we were two college students out on a summer lark anyhow we didn't really think the matter required much debate. "Sure Moondog, we can take you there!" ...and off we went through the streets of Ann Arbor.  Moondog's long white beard wistfully danced in the breeze as he leaned his helmet head out the back seat window staring around intently as if he really was seeing something out there. Maybe he was hearing a new piece of music in his head, I didn't know for sure.

When we pulled up outside of The Cave there was a small crowd waiting to meet Moondog. A few hippie types with Sonny Bono fur vests, a couple of suburban housewives, one fella in a Marine dress uniform, a little kid in a gold lame jump suit and two guys who looked like champions from their chess club at the local university. Moondog thanked us for the ride and then as the crowd led him into the record store started whistling a happy little tune of some sort. We went in and skimmed through the record racks while Moondog held court in the front of the store. The music from his latest album, Moondog 2, wafted across the length of the store. I was taken aback by the sound of this music.  Many of the songs were simple compositions that were in the style of rounds (you know, like "Row Your Boat") and sung with the type of circular logic that only a true musician of Moondog's caliber would create. I dedicated myself to buying a copy of Moondog 2 as soon as my meager funds allowed such a luxury... which I finally did about six months later. I found the record still held the same magical sway over me as it did that day I first heard it in The Cave record store, watching Moondog holding court and from time to time shaking his head and doing a little jig of a dance. "Hee hee hee!" The music was so free of attitude and so full of simple joy.

 

Moondog 2 is an album that evoke visions of childhood.  Among the wonderful little songs that populate Moondog 2 are two of my favorite Moondog pieces; one is called This Student of Life. "This student of life has enrolled as that student of life, his alma mater is of the world, it's such a timeless mentor."  The other song on this album that I listen to quite a lot is an early morning favorite of mine called "Coffee Beans" The song is almost...stupid...that's how artfully simple it is as it perks along, dispensing its caffeine-addled joy: "Coffee beans make the finest coffee in the world, it's time to take a coffee break!"

 

Here's more info on the Moondog 2 album from Wikipedia: "Unlike his previous instrumental album, which was largely performed by an orchestra, Moondog 2 contains vocal compositions in canons, rounds, and madrigals. In the liner notes to the album, Hardin states he first began writing rounds in the late winter or early spring of 1951 but soon moved on to instrumental music. But after he'd heard in 1968 that Big Brother and the Holding Company had recorded All Is Loneliness he took to writing them again."

 



Many years later, as I get lost in the memories of that day in Ann Arbor, I find myself grateful to have had a chance encounter with such a renowned  musician.  Moondog was indeed a magical character.  His music on Moondog 2 always reminds me that all that we ever really need is a simple song.

 
 
FURTHER INVESTIGATION

To learn more about Moondog, read the fine biography: The Viking of 6th Avenue
 
 
 

Next Week's Blog Post: 
ROCK & ROLL ADVERTISING 1975
 

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