by Ian Simmons
[ bookreviews ]
Moondog is something of a cult at nthposition; his economic, arresting, beautiful music is never far from editorial CD players. Nearly 10 years after his death, he has a higher profile than ever, though, given his biography, the outcome could have been so very different. He belongs to a tradition that is pretty much unique to the US: the outsider composer. He lived a hobo life, at least at some point, inventing his own instruments and remaining defiantly outside the mainstream. In this, he shares something with the likes of Conlon Nancarrow, Charles Ives and, most particularly, Harry Partch; however, his long-term insistence on street living and his sheer eccentricity put him in a league of his own.
Blinded by a horrific accident with a blasting cap at 16, he nonetheless spent a large chunk of his life living on the street in New York, habitually at a corner on 6th Avenue, resplendent, in later years, in the home-made Viking costume which gives this book its subtitle. He begged, sold self-produced publications and LPs and continually wrote music, punching his notes onto a Braille pad under his robes and greeting passing friends and acquaintances who, over the years, included Toscanini, Phillip Glass (in whose house he lived for a year in the 1960s), Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Marlon Brando, Alan Ginsberg... He seemed to know everybody and everything that went on, and became New York landmark in his own right, a kind of East Coast Emperor Norton - his spot was popularly known as "Moondog Corner".
However, there was a lot more to Moondog than famous friends and high-profile vagrancy. His music, which he also performed on the street, at least the simpler pieces, was recognised widely as imaginative and original, drawing on Bach and Beethoven; but in his cyclic madrigals and repetitive drum patterns, it also looked forward to the minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, who acknowledge him as an influence and, indeed, appear on the book's companion CD playing with him.
Moondog's life was complex and restless. Born Louis Hardin in 1916, he was the son of a difficult marriage between a not particularly successful preacher and a teacher. He travelled with his family all across the US as his father moved from church to church. Attending music school after losing his sight, he was potentially heading for a relatively conventional musical career; however, right from the start, his eccentric and self-willed nature set him apart. In 1943, he headed to New York, where circumstances led him to a life predominantly on the streets, and where - despite famous friends and a high media profile - he remained for most of his life. He recorded intermittently, and at one point sued rock 'n' roll DJ Alan Freed over copyright infringement, after the latter took to calling himself 'Moondog' on the radio, even appropriating a Moondog howl from one of Hardin's own record as his signature.
Moondog seems to have had an Ivor Cutleresque talent for being rediscovered every 10 years or so by a new generation, without their entirely realising his former successes. He released two albums on Columbia in the late 1960s which made the US charts, and one of his madrigals was recorded by Janis Joplin on a Big Brother and the Holding Company album. Many years later he came from Germany, where he spent his last 25 years, to star at the South Bank Meltdown festival curated by Elvis Costello. Robert Scotto makes an excellent job of navigating his way through the complexities and contradictions of Moondog's long and productive life. As well as his early LPs, there were several derived from his years in Germany and posthumous ones of unreleased material (some of which is included on the book CD), but this doesn't begin to scratch the surface of what he composed, the majority of which remains lost or unrecorded.
Scotto balances Moondog's fame, which came swiftly after his arrival in New York, with a sense that he never actually quite made it; his systematic distain for money with a frustrating feeling that he never really got what he deserved; and his gregarious street raconteur personality with an underlying sense of loneliness. For all the newspaper coverage and famous friends, his life is littered with lost family, estranged wives and children, close friendships suddenly broken and an element of distance from it all. Even when he moved to Germany in the 70s, Moondog lived a marginal life for the first few years until Ilona Sommer rescued him, finally put a permanent roof over his head and gave him a sense of place and family in his last years.
You get a good picture here of a complex, driven man who would not compromise on his principles and paid a great cost for his intransigence. It is an affectionate portrait, but not one to paint over Moondog's faults. His occasionally racist inclinations are not shied away from, and the sheer difficulty those close to him found coping with his chosen path for long periods is clear; but the overall picture is of a dignified and dedicated man, who lived for his music and created a legacy that in all probability will give him greater standing after his death than it did when he was alive.
Coupling this with a CD that gives a superb cross-section of his work makes this a gem of a book for anyone interested in modern music and its more surprising fringes.
Moondog was a one-off, but we could do with a lot more like him.