An archival interview with blind street performer and composer Moondog

Be a hobo and go with me

In this brief pause between the end of the holiday gift-giving and the start of the New Year huzzah, I thought it would be fun to revisit something I wrote for the defunct newspaper New York Press back in 1997. It's never been re-run in print, never gone up online, and there simply aren't a lot of interviews with Louis Hardin aka Moondog (1916-1999) out there.

I've made the case before (in one of my first blog posts, soon after I began the job of music editor for Metro Times one year ago) that Moondog's music should be repurposed as a sort of secular holiday music that doesn't suck. A feature-length documentary on the composer is imminent, and if you don't own any of his records, I highly recommend the double album compiling early material that the label Honest Jon's released in 2004, The Viking of Sixth Avenue.

Ask any New York City old-timer about Moondog — odds are his or her face will light up with recognition. From the late '40s well into the '60s the affable blind man could be found along Sixth Avenue, between 51st and 56th. A large man, he cut an imposing figure with his long beard, handmade leather poncho, and clothing, clutching his large staff and various funky-looking instruments. He befriended Leonard Bernstein, Marlon Brando, Julie Andrews, Diane Arbus (she snapped him several times), Charlie Parker. Moondog made his living on the streets for many years. He'd reel off poems, sell mimeographed copies of his book The Art of the Canon, collect money for playing his music. After famed columnist Walter Winchell wrote about him, small companies began to release 78s of his music, then larger labels released full-length albums of orchestral work, and he became an icon of the burgeoning counterculture. He performed in concert with Lenny Bruce and Tiny Tim and appears in Conrad Brooks' artsy movie Chappaqua alongside William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. On their first record in 1968, Big Brother and the Holding Company covered his "All Is Loneliness."

The last few years have seen a revival of interest in Moondog's music, among indie rockers and elsewhere. English hipsters from the Too Pure label, Moonshake and Stereolab, have sampled his distinctive rhythms. The fanzine Ugly Things did a major piece on him a few years back, and in every interview I've ever read with Run On's cerebral guitarist Alan Licht, he's name-checked Moondog (the best music his old band Love Child ever did was a 7-inch on Forced Exposure called "Love Child Plays Moondog.") And in 1989, B.A.M. presented two evenings devoted to his compositions. Knowing all this, it still came as a shock when the phone rang late last November: "Do you want to interview Moondog?" "Will I need a Ouija board?" was all I could think to reply. Like a lot of Americans, I had no idea he was still among the living.

Eccentricity to notoriety

The thing about Moondog is he's been lumped in with all these countercultural freakweirds and margin-walkers. Most people assume that Moondog's music is gonna be art brut koo-koo nonsense or like Harry Partch Lite or something. In the tradition of the American visionary artist, Moondog has worn the cloak of eccentricity to attain a certain notoriety. Sure, he did perform in the streets, he did dress funky, and he incorporated urban field recordings and his lively poetry into his compositions, but his music is nothing if not a total joy. Delightfully accessible, interwoven melodies float atop shuffling beats, accompanied by washes of strings or maybe lush blending vocal harmonies, and perhaps punctuated by sweetly stampeding saxophones, or maybe a brash-sounding men's chorus — it depends on the piece.

"Well, music is no good unless it has a melody. Also, I don't write atonal music, it's all tonal. Tonality plus rhythm plus melody is what makes it for me; you have to have those three components I think," the no-bullshit, extremely jovial, well-spoken gentlemen explained over the phone from the Ruhr Valley in Germany, his home since 1974. At 81, he sounded very youthful ("my music definitely keeps me young, my complete devotion to my music") and spoke with a classic American Midwesterner accent.

Blinded in his teens when a dynamite cap blew up in his face, this son of Episcopalian missionaries received a cursory musical education from the Iowa School for the Blind in the 1930s. The rest of his musical teachings came from a lifetime spent learning from books and from listening. In the '40s and '50s Moondog was privileged to be the only attendant at rehearsals of the New York Philharmonic, which taught him a lot about how orchestras put sounds together.

Moondog was profoundly influenced by Native American music during a 1948 excursion West, where he was exposed to the ritual music of Navajo and Blackfoot Native American tribes, and from earlier experiences.

"When I was about 6 my dad, who was a missionary, went to a convention at the Arapaho Reservation in Wyoming and at that time they were doing the Sun Dance. Chief Yellow Cap let me sit on his lap and he gave me a drumstick and let me beat on the tom-tom. And that's how it started. I learned the running beat, which is bom-bom-bom-bom, and the walking beat, bom-bom-bom. And I used those rhythms on my newest record, Sax Pax For A Sax (Atlantic) while I was playing a big bass drum."

The 'heartbeat'

His music is so heavily rhythmic, it's the glue that holds it together and makes it instantly recognizable as his, whether voices, strings, or saxophones float atop the drums. "Oh yeah, it's the heartbeat, you know, it's universal and timeless. And it has to have that beat I think. Although I do write music where there is no beat. But where a beat is needed it's certainly put in there. Like in the song "New Amsterdam" from Sax Pax that's the Indian walking beat. But the musicians don't like to hear a booming bass drum, they always like to have me put tape and the drum-heads and such. But I say 'I don't want to sound like Buddy Rich!' I always want the booming sound, which is what the Indians like. Hell, those drums are about two meters across, taking up one whole hide, you know? They used to use buffalo, now I guess they have to use bull hides."

In New York City, he adopted the moniker Moondog in honor of a childhood pet with whom he used to howl at the moon. "In '49 I started playing in the doorways," Moondog explains, "and developing what I call my snake-time rhythm, 5/4 and 7/4, those kind of rhythms. I had a big drum and then on top a little one. But squatting down in the doorways it was a bit too high for me, so I made some triangular drums, which were lower down and much better. I called them Trimbas; I used those on a lot of my recordings. [Other instruments include] the Oo, a little triangular harp with piano strings on it. I'd hit that with a clavice with my left hand, and played the drum with my right hand, using a maraca. And the Tuji — I think that was the one that had a board with dowels sticking up, of different lengths. It sounded like running your finger along a comb, hitting different pitches."

In the song "New Amsterdam" off Sax Pax for a Sax, the chorus sings "I'm the better for having met her." Does he still have fond memories of NYC, then? "Oh yeah. She's a great lady. I got all my breaks from her." Once upon a time, guidebooks steered tourists toward this striking and friendly character, who dressed in Viking regalia to express fondness for his European origins. How different the streets of New York must have been then, in the '50s and '60s, when a guidebook might say anything positive with regards to street performers. "I hear that Giuliani — is that your mayor, Giluiani? — he's cleaned up the streets and driven my type and the hookers off the street. So I don't think it would be quite the same anymore," Moondog muses. "New York has its... attractions" he says, adding that "I hear they've got an ice cream parlor now called Moondog, the only trouble is they charge about four dollars for a serving."

Typically, a catchy, strangely syncopated (5/4) beat is introduced, then a sugary harmony is played or sung on top of it. Then a series of melodies are repeated, staggered one after the other. All Moondog music is strictly composed and performed according to ancient rules of counterpoint. Counterpoint is the act of combining multiple melodies at the same time; it's the technical basis of polyphonous sound, where a bunch of melodies are woven together to form a pleasing texture. The musical form known as the canon can achieve mazelike contrapuntal complexity. A canon's when a particular melody's heard in one voice and then repeated by one or more voices — e.g. "Row Your Boat," "Three Blind Mice," etc. The canon's the basic form Moondog continuously returns to; he's written a book about 'em, as well as over 300 canons in the form of madrigals (a particularly mannered type of rhyme scheme). "The older I get, the more critical I get of everything, including my own music. I read a book in my 20s which said if you don't master counterpoint, you'll never be a composer. So I started studying counterpoint by myself because I didn't have a chance to study it in school."

Unfinished business

Moondog has become such an adept composer and critical listener that every time he hears Bach, he winces at all the alleged "mistakes" the guy made. "They always said in the books that this composer did this thing and this thing and it was all so great. And the more I analyzed it, the more I saw that they were breaking all kinds of basic rules, in particular Bach. Bach made more mistakes than anybody else. Half the time he did it correctly, but the rest of the time he really went overboard you know. I always think that he didn't have time to analyze his work after he wrote it; he wrote thousands of pieces. Now, when I write a piece, that's only about one-third of the work. The rest is to analyze it and eliminate any mistakes you have in the voicing, in the leading of the parts. That's where the time comes in. It's very boring to analyze your own work, but it's very necessary." The ultimate fruit of his love affair with counterpoint is surely "Overtone Tree," an unfinished composition Moondog has been steadily working on for more than 20 years. "Overtone Tree" is a thousand bars long. Though approximately 40 minutes in length, it's so complex that in order to be properly performed, four conductors will be needed — three sub-conductors and one grand conductor.

Until "Overtone Tree" is recorded, Moondog fans will have to content themselves with the jazz-infused Sax Pax for a Sax. A multiple pun, the title refers to Adolph Sax the instrument's inventor, and the Latin word for peace. Originally released in 1994 on a German label, it's a driving, strange concoction, fueled by truly inspired playing by Tim Redpath's London Saxophonic. Moondog insistently bangs away as usual on bass drum and bongos. In addition to the London Saxophonic, there's Danny Thompson (formerly of U.K. folk-rockers Pentangle) on contra bass and a booming male chorus that sounds very Cecil B. DeMille and includes Pete Hammill (formerly of U.K. prog-rockers Van Der Graaf Generator.) It all sounds extremely nifty, nattily contemporary despite the allusions to centuries of sound, from church music to early musicals to Duke Ellington.

"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," Moondog says. "All the music on Sax Pax, as far as I know there's not one technical mistake in the counterpoint, and that's so important. That's why I'm against improvising, because the soloist can't possibly know what the other guys are going to play and the chord changes don't always fit the melody. And that's all because he has no oversight of what they're doing at that moment. The only improvising I could accept would be a drummer accompanying one instrument. The instrument couldn't possibly make any contrapuntal mistakes if he's doing a solo by himself," he enthuses. After I mention that lots of Sax Pax sounds improvised to these ears, in particular the re-recorded "Bird's Lament," he beams back. "Thank you! That's the highest praise! For me to have worked so closely, so strictly, within the rules of counterpoint, and to still have the music sound as if it were improvised, that is the most I could ask for."

About The Author

Mike McGonigal

Metro Times music editor Mike McGonigal has written about music since 1984, when he started the fanzine Chemical Imbalance at age sixteen with money saved from mowing lawns in Florida. He's since written for Spin, Pitchfork, the Village VOICE and Artforum. He's been a museum guard, a financial reporter, a bicycle...
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