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The story of Moondog: blind poet, Viking vagabond, genius composer

New York City in the 1960s. A silent sentinel stands on the corner of West 54th Street and Sixth Avenue, in midtown Manhattan. A totemic guardian who keeps a blind watch on the vices of the Big Apple, selling poetry and playing home-made percussion instruments of his own invention.

He was Moondog, the most unique artist of his generation.

When suits and ties traipsed the banal streets of New York in the ’40s, and tossed a coin to the homeless man on Sixth Avenue, few knew they had donated to one of the most ingenious composers of the 21st century. Sporting a snow-white beard, horned Viking cap, and leather cloak, The Beats, intrigued by his abrasive uniqueness, took him in.

Later the counter-culture hippies adopted him, and soon the city itself. Moondog acquired a close circle of elite admirers. From record executives to rockstars, Moondog was a championed denizen of the streets, professing short-burst poetry in a stoic, stentorian voice.

By the time of his death in 1999, age 83, he had written more than 80 symphonies, 300 rounds, countless organ and piano works, scores for brass bands and string orchestra, and five books called The Art of the Canon. He also left a nine-hour piece for 1,000 musicians and singers called Cosmos, which is yet to be performed.Moondog

This is the strange but true story of Moondog. A pure artist, itinerant composer, drifting poet and an emblematic figure of New York City’s history.

“Machines were mice and men were lions once upon a time. But now that it’s the opposite it’s twice upon a time” – Moondog.

Born in Kansas 1916, Louis Thomas Hardin (distant cousin to famous outlaw John Wesley Hardin) was playing a set of drums made from cardboard at age five. His father relocated to Wyoming and opened a trading post at Fort Bridger. On one occasion his father took him to an Arapaho Sun Dance where he sat on the lap of Chief Yellow Calf and played a tom-tom drum made from buffalo skin.

Hardin played drums for a high school band in Missouri before losing his sight at the age of 16 in a farming accident involving a dynamite cap on July 4, 1932. After studying under the tutelage of Burnet Tuthill at the Iowa School for the Blind, Hardin moved to New York in 1943.

He soon met noted classical luminaries such as Leonard Bernstein and Arturo Toscanini, as well as jazz heavyweights Charlie Parker and Benny Goodman. In 1947 he adopted his epochal title: Moondog, inspired by his childhood dog Lindy, “who used to howl at the moon more than any dog he knew.” 

The Viking gear came later so that people would stop telling him he looked like Jesus – his father was an Episcopalian minister – and to help him navigate a metropolis where metal parking signs were at head level. Many thought he was mentally ill; they didn’t know he was an acclaimed composer, recorded for major labels, praised by Frank Zappa, Leonard Bernstein, Janis Joplin, and Duke Ellington. There was a lot more to Moondog than met the eye.

Moondog had rejected Christianity in his late teens and developed a lifelong interest in Nordic mythology – hence the outfit – and even maintained an altar to Thor later in life.moondog

In 1947, Hardin became a welcome guest at the New York Philharmonic rehearsals at Carnegie Hall, invited by conductor Artur Rodziński until he was told he had to change his attire. Hardin refused, stating, “I had a lot of offers from people who said that they would help me but that I had to dress conventionally […] But I valued my freedom of dress more than I cared to advance my career as a composer. I just wanted to do my own thing.”

British documentarian (once a stand-in for Po on Teletubbies!) Holly Elson is working on the first feature-length look at the marvellous life of this bizarre individual.

“Reputedly he had $60 in his pocket when he got off the bus,” Elson explains. “He survived by his wits, selling yearbooks with poetry and music and photographs. He was a fixture. People specifically seek him out and talk to him at lunch. Grey Line buses use his image in an ad saying, ‘You should see the things that aren’t in a normal tour.’ It’s a phenomenon.”

Moondog became the most photographed and recognisable street figure of New York, practically synonymous with the corner of 54th Sreet and 6th Avenue.

“He wouldn’t compose at a piano, but while standing on the street,” Elson continues. “He would have a Braille slate with a puncher and punch the notation into the card under his robes. He’d get that transcribed, and they’d read the music back to him, which was made into the scores—a very expensive process. To stand on 6th Avenue and to compose these rich scores is extraordinary—keeping all the voices in your mind.”

After a trilogy of records with Prestige in the ’60s, Moondog was hailed as the ‘godfather of minimalism’ although he rejected the title, saying, “Bach was doing minimal in his fugues. So what’s new?” That being said he also described his music as “the art of concealing art: maximum effect but with minimum means”.

In 1969, a then-young Philip Glass, a student at the infamous Juilliard School of Music, discovered Moondog playing outside of a New York jazz bar called Birdland, playing along with the quartet inside. Fascinated, Glass invited Moondog to live with him, where we would introduce him to Steve Reich, both founders of the minimalist movement. Both students claimed they learned more from Moondog than during their studies at Juilliard.

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Moondog playing an instrument of his own invention called the Trimbasolo. Germany, 1980.

He described himself as a student of classicism, walking humbly in the footsteps of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner and Brahms. “With spear in hand I defend those values against all comers,” he wrote. “I am a tonalist at odds with all atonalists, polytonalists, quartertonalists, computerisers etc.”

Revolutionary free-jazz altoist John Zorn concurred, calling Moondog, “a true American maverick who bucked the system, fought the powers and won on his own terms.”

In 1951, Moondog wrote his first round (a circular poem) All Is Loneliness, which was recorded in 1968 by Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company. During the ’50s Moondog also befriended the likes of Joan Baez, Ravi Shankar, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg.

After the lobbying of Janis Joplin, Moondog had his major-label debut with Columbia. This eponymous 1969 album is widely considered his masterpiece. Among his most accessible works, the portrait of classical avant-garde is brimming with ambitiousness and visionary composition. The Viking may have been blind but his vision was crystalline.

Moondog inhabited an innovative musical microcosm of his own creation. But he also embodied this work in the manner in which he lived his life, as a macrocosm of art. He was the artist, but also the art.

Though his two albums with Columbia were as essential as Che Guevara shirts, Moondog was still on the streets in the early ’70s and more or less penniless. In 1974, the self-proclaimed “European in exile” left New York and settled in Recklinghausen, and obscure German town near Cologne, where he lived until his death in 1999. Moondog saw this as a way to get back to the roots of his musical idol, Johann Sebastian Bach.

This proved to be the most fertile creative period of his life. In 1984 he wrote his first symphony. In 1990 he supervised a performance of his 50th, and in ’89 he triumphantly returned to New York to play at the New Music America festival. Rather than conduct the orchestra from the podium, he stood at side-stage and meticulously lead the ensemble by beating time with a bass drum.

Left to right: Allen Ginsberg, Moondog, Steve Reich, Bob Weir, Felicity Seidel, 1989.

Though it is difficult to grasp, let alone catalogue the miraculous life of Louis ‘Moondog’ Hardin, one can only marvel at his philosophies, creative output, and way of life. From blind homeless Viking, to Beat fascination, to esteemed composer, one thing is certain, Moondog was a powerful and visionary individual.

To surmise, perhaps I should leave you with the profound words of Moondog himself: “Please take care of my music.”