The Authorized Biography by Robert Scotto
It is time for the biography of Moondog. He has just died at the age of eighty-three in Germany after producing more elaborate and, possibly, more important music than at any other time in his career. His life has not only been interesting, but also instructive, in many ways as much a cautionary tale as an adventure. Most remember him as the Viking of Sixth Avenue during the sixties, a true eccentric in a city famous for every imaginable form of anti-hero and bohemian: his broadsides against government, the monetary system and established religions -- coupled with his unconventional modes of dress in juxtaposition to his serious devotion to music -- brought him both fame and notoriety. He appeared often in the media and was scrutinized from a variety of viewpoints: he was, in short, a sort of celebrity against the grain at a time when an anti-establishment stance had great appeal.
Moondog was, however, and had been from the start, a rebel whose roots were not nearly as shallow and ephemeral as some made them out to be, a man who had a religious devotion to, of all things, the past. Although he evolved despite his wishes into a cult figure, and welcomed, despite his deeper powers of discernment, his moments in the spotlight, his unpopular beliefs about western civilization and his commitment to traditional tonal music, on the surface an unwieldly dichotomy, were the twin halves of a world-view he had built up steadily and laboriously for decades, and which he refused to abandon when they ceased to be fashionable. Although he will be recollected as the proto-hippie (or beatnik, if memories extend far enough into his past) or remembered nostalgically as the consummate blind street-poet-musician of his day, the supreme loner articulating an extreme position, Moondog was quite serious about what stood behind him and what, as a consequence, he figured forth. Fortunately, many know him as a serious musician, primarily, and an interesting versifier whose work has evolved steadily through the apparent chaos of his life. Even after all of the images have been shed, and labels like "primitive" and "naif" properly understood, his music may last. He was, in short, more than a symbol for a generation on the road or in revolt: he was a man of talent and discipline committed to living the life of the artist in order to make music when he might just as easily have lapsed into bitterness or, worse, self-pity.
A biography of a life so variegated, filled with so many changes and contradictions, puzzles and paradoxes, must account for the growth of the mind as well as the adventures of the body. Music, therefore, is embedded in the text quite simply because Moondog's life breathes music. His search for his roots and his identity, which consumed so much of his time, he did for the most part alone as he lived so much of his life by himself. The alienation he experienced in childhood evoked responses that frustrated his orientation to the world; blindness made him more vulnerable and wary. Only a strong man, with a strong sense of self-survival and an even stronger commitment to his ideals, could have have made it through unscathed, let alone remain sanguine, productive and optimistic. The facts speak for themselves.
Born in Marysville, Kansas, on May 26, 1916, Louis Hardin lived in a variety of places through his early years. His father, Louis Thomas Hardin, an episcopal minister, changed churches frequently. His marriage to Norma Alves, who was her son's schoolteacher in the formative years, deteriorated as his relationship with his superiors became strained, especially after they published a book entitled Archdeacon Prettyman in Politics ; in order to support his family, he was forced to become from time to time a merchant, a farmer, a rancher, a postman and an insurance salesman. Young Louis's earliest memories were formed in Plymouth, Wisconsin; he grew to his teens in Wyoming; at the age of sixteen, in Hurley, Missouri, he was blinded for life when he tinkered with an object he had found, not realizing it was a dynamite cap. It exploded in his face on July 4, 1932.
Through the years of his painful adjustment his parents separated, and finally divorced in 1937. His older sister, Ruth, would read to him patiently day after day for years after the accident. His first encounters with philosophy, science and myth helped to bury his beliefs in his parents' Christianity, at least those which had lingered beyond his bitterness and spleen. One book in particular, The First Violin , inspired him to choose music for his life-work. Up to that point he had been interested in percussion instruments, playing Indian rhythms out west or drums for the high school band, but from that time forward he became positively obsessed with the desire to become a composer. His father had been not only a man of the cloth but a well-rounded, well-educated and talented eccentric in his own right, whose library contained a great number of books about warfare and a host of recordings of march music. Louis, in the midst of his private battles, recaptured with success the visions and the sounds of his youth.
He learned braille in St. Louis and became proficient in several instruments at the Iowa School for the Blind. He lived with his father until 1943, after the now ex-preacher re-married and settled down at a farm in Arkansas. During 1943 he studied in Memphis, Tennessee and secretly married a socially prominent older woman. Although the relationship lasted but a few months, she secured a patron for him. In November of 1943, with a monthly allowance in hand, he took his first great "leap in the dark" and headed off alone and without prospects or connections for New York City. Those who knew Louis as the Viking probably had little idea how long it took for him to arrive at his name, his dress and his credentials. His "conversion" to his Nordic beliefs, for instance, was not merely a pose nor simply a reaction against the faith he had surrendered at childhood's end, but an expression of concepts won through harsh experience and patient research.
At first he did some modeling and formed a relationship with a dance instructor. He was "adopted" by members of the New York Philharmonic and its conductors, Arturo Toscanini and Artur Rodzinski, both of whom treated him as a serious musician, but finally fell out of favor because of his dress, which was becoming more "bizarre" because he was fashioning it himself. He also began to create his own poetry, music and instruments. He became "Moondog" in 1947, when he officially identified himself with the memory of his childhood pet who would howl at the moon: the cry captured on one of his first 78 RPM records, "Moondog Symphony," was used by Alan Freed, the hottest disc jockey in New York, as his program logo until he lost his case in court in 1955.
Soon Moondog settled into a mode of life which he sustained, despite frustrations and partial successes, until 1972, for just under three decades: musician, poet, seer, "beggar," living on the streets of Manhattan. With the exception of a country-wide tour in 1948 -- when he left to go live with the Indians and promote his earliest music, with little success -- and the times he spent at his two rural retreats in New Jersey and New York State, he became a permanent New Yorker. His incredible self-reliance, in light of his handicap, became legendary. He was, as he puts it, looking for an identity, both in his life-style and in his music: he studied jazz, attuned himself to the street sounds of the city, and became a master of percussion improvisation. He sold his wares (music, records, booklets, broadsides) on the streets and began to acquire friends and a reputation.
During the fifties he produced several albums, most featuring himself as the primary performer: one appeared on Mars, three on Prestige, one on Epic, a Columbia subsidiary, and one, his musical arrangement of nursery rhymes, on Angel, featuring Julie Andrews at the outset of her career and, on flute, Julius Baker. Pioneers of the sound industry like Tony Schwartz actually taped him in his street performances. He was married, had a daughter and was permanently separated. Even before he became a fixture on the Avenue of the Americas and 54th Street he was well-known, and, to the few who got beneath the aggressive exterior to a more vulnerable apprentice, well-respected.
The patterns in his evolving dress are an interesting measure of his maturing philosophy of life: by the early sixties he became one of the most photographed street figures of his time. Some of the rounds or madrigals he wrote in braille, at times painfully in the extreme damp and cold of New York winters, and had copied at great expense and labor, became hits ("All is Loneliness" by Janis Joplin), some of his music appeared in radio and TV commercials, some became soundtracks for films ( Drive, He Said , starring Jack Nicholson). More and more the public was exposed to his peculiar brand of reactionary rebellion as he appeared in numerous concerts as well as on radio and television. In 1969, however, more people than ever before were made aware of his originality as a composer: Moondog was released, backed by a large promotional campaign, by Columbia Records in its Masterworks series. It was the closest Moondog ever came to stardom, his "breakthrough" celebrated in all of the media. In 1971 Moondog 2 was produced, perhaps an even greater aesthetic accomplishment but one burdened by too much confusion of intent and too little publicity. For two years, from 1972 to 1974, Moondog moved permanently up to Candor, New York, near Binghamton, settling in for an interlude of peaceful work before making another great leap in a life filled with precipices and mind-cliffs.
Booked for a concert in Germany through the agency of friends, Moondog finally fulfilled a long-awaited dream: he went to Europe, returning to the past he had kept alive for so long in his heart, in his clothes and in his music. Except for one brief, triumphal return tour in 1989, he never did return. A long way from Plymouth, Wisconsin or Lone Tree, Wyoming or New York City, he felt he was at home. But, like everything else in his life, it was not easy: for the first year or so he was back on the streets in several German cities, without the airfare for a return nor often without more than a rudimentary shelter.
In 1975 he met Ilona Goebel, and was taken in by her and her family; appalled that such a talented and sensitive man could be left to fend for himself, blind, cold and uncared for, they adopted him and, with their help, he came home to a permanence and a working habitat unlike anything he had ever known. He wrote more music, including most of his mammoth sound saga The Creation , more poetry and printed music, including Thor the Nordoom , his mythic summa, and The Overtone Tree , an esoteric synthesis of music theory, mathematics and arcana, and produced more albums than at any other comparable period of his life. His success in Europe, moreover, was real: in just one instance, when he was in Sweden he gave a concert by special invitation at the national historical museum in Stockholm, and he wrote the soundtrack for a government sponsored film whose premiere was attended by Swedish and Danish royalty.
Thus that singular man in the street and in the doorway, that bohemian Nordic rebel and antiquary, composed a huge tone poem celebrating Norse myth; the improvisational jazzman settled down at peace with an ancient world-view, writing by admission in the tonal, western tradition; the broadside balladeer took his ironies, satires and prejudices and honed them into a unified, symbolic story of civilization and its discontents -- the archetypal blind seer, respected but feared, poetically celebrating permanence despite the fluctuations of the moment. Nearly everything had changed, except the creative spark which was as vibrant to the end as it had ever been, the devotion to loveliness and form despite the grosser realities of the quotidian, the idealism, though less naive, which was still as intense, and the diligence, patience and labor which were if anything more in evidence than ever before. Like so many original people, Moondog seemed to grow younger with age. The biography delineates the stages of his growth, his early ideas, and interprets them in accordance with the logic of his life; it also explores, in some detail, the people and places, the masks and the faces. All the data has been checked, all the testimony duly noted. Moondog himself participated and cooperated: this is an authorized biography. His development as a composer will be analyzed and traced historically. The opinions are either those of the author or Moondog unless clearly indicated otherwise.
We believe the biography has a fine chance for commercial success for the following reasons:
1) Moondog was very popular, with an articulate following throughout the U.S. and Europe. His work is well known, his life truly memorable. Columbia, for instance, has re-issued his two major albums; all three Prestige albums have been re-issued and several albums produced in Germany are now available here.
2) The biography has obvious media possibilities: a film or a television special can be produced out of this compelling material. There is something for everyone: a tall tale, a moral parable, an adventure, a human interest success story.
Finally, there are numerous privately printed works (poems, musical scores, multi-media explorations) that could be gathered into a Moondog Miscellany, for instance, or published separately, or be incorporated into the biography as appendices. We are in possession of, or have access to, many photographs taken over forty years of his life, original records, documents, or copies of them, and a sizeable correspondence.
Read Chapter Three: Snaketime (1943-1953)
© 2002 - Robert Scotto