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Music

The strange case of Moondog: The 20th century’s greatest composer

@TomTaylorFO

50 years ago, if you walked up New York’s Sixth Avenue, between 52nd and 55th Street, then the chances are, you would be greeted by the peculiar sight of a Viking simply standing on a box, holding a spear. Most of New York’s busy denizens simply absorbed this oddity as one of the city’s most eccentric vagrants and went on their way — completely unaware that this blind Norseman was quite possibly the greatest composer of the 20th century. Moondog was a true original, a hero and revered numen to boot, this is his strange story.

Louis Thomas Hardin grew up in Marysville, Kansas. As a boy he lived the quiet life of the good little Episcopalian, staying out of trouble and lingering on the fringes of the bustling playground. This outsider notion is one that would crystalise to a wild degree in adulthood. As Moondog once said, “I am an observer of life, a non-participant who takes no sides. I am in the regimented society, but not of it.” Revelling in the playground of his own fervent imagination, he chose to prop up a chair and happily picnic alongside the unfurling stream of civility, taking inspiration from his childhood pet, Lindy, who “howled at the moon more than any dog [he] knew.”

One day while playing in the open pastures of corn beneath the azure blue Kansas sky, the curious boy happened upon a peculiar looking thing discarded in the middle of a field. He was unsure whether it was an explosive up until the moment it exploded and tragically blinded the boy. Moondog was 16 years old. From this disaster came a loss of sight, a loss of faith, and some of the most spiritual and sui generis music that the world has ever heard. 

Finding his simple life thrust into turmoil, Moondog turned his back on his Episcopalian upbringing and instead sought to subsume solace from his own brand of spiritualism, a brand that would do away with the capricious fate of his tragedy. He shipped off to Iowa School for the Blind and pined to pour his newfound mysticism into some form of creativity, the answer would largely be music. He taught himself music theory from the precious few braille books available to him, relished history and poetry and learnt to transcend the grim fate that had befallen him. 

Music called him from New York, and he bravely ventured to the Big Apple. Therein he would not only be whisked up in the frenetic soundscape of the beehive city, but he would also rub shoulders with acclaimed greats of the day like Bob Dylan, Leonard Bernstein, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and anyone else with half an ear for invention. All of these heroes revered Moondog, and not as an outsider artist with more talent than most either, even Igor Stravinsky considered him a true great of modern composing.

He arrived, however, in rags and tatters with a long beard, not much of a care, and seemingly even less of a chance. Almost immediately the few folks who didn’t simply ignore him called him the second coming of Christ. He loathed this. Instead, he went with a Nordic deity that he had greatly admired in the history books he poured over. Thus, he donned his horned Viking helmet, chiselled his spear, tailored his robes with a Scandinavian twist and became, Moondog, the Viking of Sixth Avenue. 

This was the persona that he would sport for the entirety of his career (if you can, indeed, call it a career)… bar one notable tweak. After years of disavowing the Jesus comparisons with his bulky and cumbersome horned helmet appropriated from his beloved tales of Nordic mythology, in 1981, he was lucky enough to be invited to attend a Viking Exhibition in Stockholm wherein he learnt, to his own great despair, that the horned helmet he had been sporting for decades was completely historically inaccurate. Naturally, this stung a bit, but Moondog was never one to despair for too long, he had far too much creation to get on with for that. 

And it is endless creativity that helped him settle into New York. On the day he arrived, the universes concessions department handed him a stroke of luck to usurp the hardship he had known, as Leonard Bernstein took to the stage at the Carnegie Hall. Not only was Moondog so amazed that he claims to have been the first to clap and the loudest cheerer thereafter, but he vowed not to venture too far from the venue forevermore, thus began his position on the street corners of Sixth. 

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While there, he sometimes stood, sometimes busked, sometimes debuted his own homemade instruments and frequently recited poetry. If you were a bohemian who wanted to know what this strange artist was all about then all you had to do was wander up the road. There you would be greeted by a man who lived and breathed creativity. However, singular his work may have proved, he would tell you himself that if he was seeing things differently, it was only because he was huffing rarefied air from the wild height of all the shoulders he stood upon. 

As Moondog once proclaimed: “I deny that there is such a thing as originality. All an artist can do is bring his personality to bear. If he is true to himself, he can’t help but be different, even unique, for no two persons are alike.” Despite being entirely incomparable, he asserted: “I do not strive to be different for the sake of being different, but do not mind being different if my difference is the result of being myself.” He needn’t have worried, he was always himself and always different as a result, and the few who took notice were always basked in a boon of expressionist joy as a result. 

However, he was both hampered and helped by this disposition. He was a hero to heroes and beloved by those who gave him enough time to see beyond the horns to the brilliance beneath, but for some, he was sadly dismissed as an oddball. Frequently he was shunned from concert halls and performance spaces, and frequently he was let back in only after Dylan or Bernstein had vouched for his integrity. 

Soon enough, even more folks would take notice — you couldn’t not! As the renowned pianist, Joanna MacGregor remarked upon witnessing him perform: “I’d never heard of him before I went. And suddenly there was this blind man in robes on the stage of the Festival Hall conducting an orchestra by banging a drum. I was struck by the grace of him and at the same time by the extraordinary structural control in the midst of all this joyful music. There was nothing gimmicky in it, just remarkably intellectually complex music.”

Slowly but surely, he assailed the music scene of the day. Frank Zappa called his work “dada clockwork” and Dylan “dug his poetry” while he enamoured the rest of Manhattan’s curious demimonde and then beyond. He continued to stay perched on his corner by day, absorbing the soundscape of New York, sometimes sleeping rough, but always offering up some form of art for passers-by.

Eventually, he was able to move to his beloved Germany in 1974 and it was here where he lived out the rest of his days. When all was said and done, Moondog departed having written a stunning 80+ symphonies, five books, 300 rounds, a nine-hour piece intended for 1000 musicians and a slew of stunning piano pieces (including his masterpiece ‘High on a Rocky Ledge’); one of which is ‘Do Your Best’ and therein contains the lyrical mantra of Moondog, perhaps the greatest composer of his day: 

“Do your thing!
Be fancy-free to call the tune you sing.
Don’t give up!
That’s not the way to win a loving cup.
Do your best,
And opportunity will do the rest.
Don’t give in!
Capitulation is the greatest sin.
Do what’s right,
What’s right for you, to do with all your might.”