If you lived in Manhattan during the beat era, chances are you saw this guy hanging around the intersection of 53rd Street and 6th Ave. Naturally, he seems like the kind of character New Yorkers would cross the street to avoid. After all, the man dressed head to toe in the Norse garb traditionally donned for pillaging and burning small villages. I mean, he carried a spear. Nobody would judge you for not stopping to hang out with him.
Believe it or not, this guy actually spent the better part of thirty years advancing Third Stream jazz, avant-garde performance art and percussion without ever compromising his own deep-seeded strangeness. Born 1916 in Marysville, Kansas, Louis Hardin would become a fixture in New York’s fertile jazz scene beginning in the 1940s. However, by matter of choice, he was not exactly an insider.
In fact, he quite literally elected to remain on the outside, occupying the intersections nearby 52nd street’s buzzing nightclub strip. A self-styled multi-instrumentalist, he adopted the name Moondog in 1947. It was under this title that he gained notoriety.
His visibility was helped in no small part by his enormous stature, horned helmet, flowing cape and pre-Duck Dynasty beard. It should require no explanation that he was alternately known to locals as the Viking of 6th Avenue.
Adding to his mystique, Moondog was also blind, the consequence of a farming accident involving an errant dynamite cap at the age of 16. These qualities contributed to the common assumption that Moondog was a homeless man.
He was, in fact, a serious composer who opted for a life of street performance. It was in this capacity that he developed friendships with mainstream supporters like Leonard Bernstein, Arturo Toscanini, Benny Goodman and Phillip Glass, the last of whom sites Moondog as among his chief influences.
Moondog’s music combined his early exposure to Native American rhythms, his own Beat-style poetry and a prescient use of found sounds in the traffic and bustle around him. In other words, Moondog managed to look and sound like an ancient relic, to be perfectly of his time and to simultaneously be ahead of it. He was also the inventor of an array of unconventional time signatures which he called ‘snake time rhythm’ for their slithering syncopations.
After coming to the attention and acclaim of New York Philharmonic conductor Artur Rodzinski, Moondog, remarkably, found a home with prominent jazz label Prestige. He released his first two records in 1956, with a third, independent release coming out that same year. His records echoed the soundscape in which he performed, merging his snapshot exotica compositions, his out-of-time Native beats and his spoken word minimalism with the voices, horns and headiness of the city around him. Moondog’s early records literally sound and feel like busking, context and all.
His unrepentant authenticity generated significant attention in the hip and intellectual circles of the time, bringing Moondog to the interest and curiosity of New York’s cultural elite. Indeed, he achieved significant enough visibility that famed Cleveland DJ Alan Freed (oft-credited for coining the term Rock ‘n Roll), coopted his name and “Moondog’s Theme” from his second record as the title and lead-in to his radio show. Note Moondog’s signature rhythmic jangle beneath Freed’s intro.
Moondog successfully challenged Freed’s use of his name in court. With the assistance of Benny Goodman and Arturo Toscanini, both of whom testified that the strange man was in fact a serious performer, Moondog emerged the legal bearer of his trademark name.
Though Moondog would record steadily through the late ‘50s, a twelve year studio hiatus would follow. His focus for the intervening time would be on solidifying his reputation as one of New York City’s legendary oddballs.
1969 and 1971 would see the release of two records for Columbia. Both would feature Moondog’s compositions played through full backing orchestras. Both were critically acclaimed.
Although Moondog appeared by all accounts to be homeless, he was said to actually have maintained a stable residency in the Upper Manhattan. Additionally, the eccentric Moondog was married and had children.
However, by 1974, he had relocated to Germany, where he continued to record and perform throughout his life. His later recordings would, as with New York, be shaped by his surroundings. His music tended increasingly toward the Bavarian, his own bizarre take on the Rhineland anthems of yesteryear.
Moondog died in 1999 at the age of 83. A documentary on his life is scheduled for release later this year.