“Moondog” by Dimitri Drjuchin, acrylic on canvas, 20” x 20”
Longtime commentor and sometimes Dangerous Minds guest contributor Em, will be joining us for the next several months as a blogger.
Hello, gang. I’m stoked about guest-blogging on Dangerous Minds for the next few months. Although I’m not as good a writer as Marc Campbell, and don’t have links of Tara or quite the incendiary comments of Richard, Paul or the others, hopefully for a few months I can keep you reasonably entertained as I dig out stuff that I’ve either run across over the last bunch of years, or that has slapped me across the face recently that I think you might find interesting.
Some of my interests include weird bands and labels (eg Facbn and the Factory spinoff labels), drugs (though in recent decades only caffeine and alcohol have passed these lips, sadly), crypto-anarchy (I was an outspoken member of Cypherpunks for many years), and even gay culture (so much of it happened around me here in NYC in the 70s and 80s and I only recently started digging into it). Oh, even though I work in a “too big to fail” bank, I actually originate from a family of classical and jazz musicians, so maybe I’ll dig out some of those stories too, many of which will be jaw-dropping to some of you straights out there.
If we’re lucky, we’ll have some frikkin’ fun, bustin’ chops and takin’ names, and when we get sick of each other I’ll retire to haunt the comments boards with the rest of you.
My first post is about the legendary New York City weirdo, Moondog.
You know what? Sometimes I catch myself thinking that New York, these days, sucks. Yeah, we now have better food, less crime, and the streets are cleaner, but back in the day, rent control combined with respectably high crime rates meant that real characters could find a place to live they could actually afford, even if it was roach-infested and visited by the occasional super rat. One such character was Moondog, kind of an archetype and patron saint for all New York street characters. But Moondog wasn’t just a grade-A great American eccentric, he was a brilliant composer and, indeed, the real father of minimalism. Oh yes he was.
Moondog was born one Louis Thomas Hardin, in 1916, and moved to New York in the early 1940s whereupon he began occupying the corner of 53rd Street and 6th Avenue for several decades.
As a kid I remember seeing Moondog walking down the street with his staff, home made clothes and his distinctive Viking helmet, but I did not realize at the time that Moondog could not see, having been blinded by a farming accident involving blasting caps when he was 16. Hardin had gone on to study and learn music at various academies for the blind.
But most people did not know that… indeed, my father, a musician who used to walk uptown from Tin Pan Alley to visit with Moondog on matinee days, didn’t seem to know much about Moondog’s compositions, or that he had been friends with Charlie Parker (who wanted to record with Moondog but died before he had the chance), Charlie Mingus, Leonard Bernstein and Lenny Bruce. Janis Joplin recorded one of his songs (“All is Loneliness”) and believe it or not, so did Julie Andrews! Andy Warhol designed one of his album covers, featuring the his own mother’s handwriting.
But what really blew my mind was when I found out that Moondog actually lived with Phillip Glass for a year or so, and that Phillip Glass and Steve Reich jammed with Moondog on a regular basis for much of this time. Indeed, here’s the story as told by Phillip Glass himself, and included in second edition of Moondog: The Viking of 6th Avenue, due out in July from Process Media.
From that little piece, along with the timing (approximately 1968), it’s clear that Reich and Glass both regarded Moondog as basically the father of minimalism, and when you listen to Moondog’s pieces (the earliest of which were released in the early 1950s on 78 rpm records) you hear it very quickly.
Moondog’s music is in many ways unique. Though arguably minimal, there’s a sort of mountain man purity to the pieces that urban Reich, Glass, and La Monte Young don’t really share. Sometimes, these little pieces can bring you to tears with their gentle radiance.
Though most of Moondog’s compositions feature traditional instruments, he also incorporated sound effects (such as tugboat horns) into his music, along with parts played by his own musical instrument inventions, such as the trimba, oo, and hüs (and in that sense he reminds me of another major league New York City character, Rahsaan Roland Kirk ).
Although I could swear that I remembered seeing Moondog as late as perhaps 1976, by 1974 he moved to Germany, where he resided as a revered figure until his death in 1999, though not before returning to conduct the Brooklyn Philharmonic.
A movie about Hardin’s life, The Viking of Sixth Avenue has been made by Holly Elson and will be shown this year, but of course, hep cat reader of DM that you are, you will already have checked him out most thoroughly before everyone else climbs on the Moondog bandwagon!
Below, Moondog’s Moondog album from 1969. Check it out and tell me it’s not wonderful:
(Did you listen long enough to hear Moondog recite some of his cryptic poetry?)