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Music

The outsider musician who changed David Bowie’s life when he first went to America

David Bowie once said, “If it’s wearing a pink hat and a red nose and it plays the guitar upside down, I’ll go and look at it. I love to see people being dangerous.” He was a product of his own fascination with anything outside of the norm. As Bowie said of his Promethean creation, Ziggy Stardust, “He was half out of sci-fi rock and half out of Japanese theatre.” What he represented was a bohemian revolution of individualism. 

However, for some folks, this exploration of identity is not a constructed one. If Bowie was a collage of oddities, then there are others who sit outside of the norm as a single entity, and we call these individuals ‘Outsider Artists’. Bowie would first run into one of these figures when he first ventured to New York City, and it was an encounter that had a profound effect on him. 

“I first came here in 1971,” Bowie once wrote. “The earliest graphic image I have is of Louis Hardin, better known as Moondog, the legendary boho and musical outsider. One of the guys who worked at Mercury Records, with whom I was under contract at the time, took me over to 54th Street, and there, dressed as a sort of Viking, Moondog stood.”

Naturally, ‘The Starman’ was enamoured by this apparition and had to get to know him. “Usually, he would be playing his strange compositions accompanied on a keyboard or some kind of homemade drums, but not this day. I went for sandwiches and coffee, which we consumed as we sat on the sidewalk. He told me something about his life, and it came home to me only after a while that he was completely blind.”

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This strange sight was commonplace 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. 

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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 was, quintessentially, a genius who operated on his own terms. It was this sort of bohemian liberation that made Bowie fall in love with New York City. If you can’t write in a town where Vikings rule the streets, then where can you write? However, beyond this boho love affair, there was a second inspiration that came from the unbridled creativity of the prodigious Moondog—the art of boldly pushing art forward by following the bolt of your own whims. 

This act of escaping the shepherding of the norm is something that touches upon art in the most primitive sense. As Bowie would say of another outsider artist, the late great Daniel Johnston, “[he] reminds me of aspects that made me love art in the first place.” As Bowie would late write of these souls who purged themselves through art for an audience that could’ve simply numbered one in his outsider ode ‘Wood Jackson’: “I bet you never knew / What I went through / What I had to do / Just to bring you a lonely song.”

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