The blind ‘Viking’ from Kansas influenced Tom Waits, Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson and Steve Reich, and his studio experiments also blazed a trail for hip hop and punk
Did you ever sit in your bedroom as a child and become so engrossed in your playthings that in a state of sugar rush you gathered every wind-up toy you owned, lined them up, wound them up tight and then unleashed them onto your carpeted world? Remember the cacophonous free-for-all that would ensue? The clanging of monkey cymbals, the surprising boing of the Jack-in-the-Box, the industrial whirring of your favourite race car… ahh, good times. That’s why it’s so much fun listening to Moondog. The experience really is a sentimental joy.
Born in Kansas as Louis Thomas Hardin in 1916, Moondog was a musician, composer, poet, street performer, occasional actor, and inventor of some particularly bizarre musical instruments. As if growing up in Kansas wasn’t bad enough (drive across the state, you’d rather give yourself a razor blade enema), Moondog became blind at age 16, the clumsy result of a dynamite explosion on a farm. Boys will be boys.
The Dogg was born a musical genius. By the age of 5, he had already built his first drum kit, mostly out of cardboard boxes; the difference to regular kids being that he had taught himself various sound manipulation techniques, such as muffling, deadening, and one that Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham “borrowed” from him, lining the inside of each drum with aluminium foil to provide a sharper, more intense cracking effect. Moondog continued to play drums throughout his childhood and well into high school, often performing at popular socials, before driving the majority of the audience away with his unconventional, avant-garde, and occasionally abrasive style of delivery.
After he left school, he traveled across America, enrolling in several music schools for the blind, where he learned to play many other instruments and trained his ear for composition. Without that pesky sense of sight, Moondog was able to hear much more in composition than most sighted musicians ever could.
By the early 1940s, Moondog had migrated to the burgeoning musical hub of New York City, where he befriended some true dynamos of the scene; Benny Goodman, Leonard Bernstein, Charlie Parker and Arturo Toscanini, to name a few. But, unlike his famous contemporaries who’d all forged illustrious careers to the point of household name-dom, Moondog, despite his own prodigious talents, followed a completely different path. Taking root on his own section of the legendary New York City nightclub strip, 52nd Street, he set upon what would be a three-decade-long career as a street performer, improvising offbeat, often humorous, jazz tunes with his own patented instruments, while wearing his trademark Viking costume.
After a while, disgruntled with the passing crowd’s mockery of his music, Moondog stopped performing his compositions, preferring to leave his instruments at home and stand in concrete silence as people glared into his disfigured eyes hoping for reaction. Being blind, he never did give them the reaction they craved. Ironically, he made much more money from the curiosity seekers by standing stone silent than when he played his compositions.
Eventually, he made a small patch of Manhattan his own, the corner of 53rd and 6th. Anyone looking for Moondog from the 1950s to the early 1970s knew exactly where to find him. Playing less and less music publicly, he began to improvise poetry, something that many New York office workers really took to. Many would spend their lunch breaks standing in the street, circling and listening to the mysterious Viking, soaking in the genius, with many creatives adapting new styles for themselves from his off-kilter hollering.
But the Dogg missed playing regular music gigs. So, in 1956, championed by New York Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Artur Rodzinski, he was ushered into the recording studio to record his debut album. Insisting on an autonomous virtue regarding production, recording, and using his own unique collection of homemade instruments, Moondog set about recording what is now regarded as one of the most important albums of the twentieth century. Rarely does someone, let alone a street performer, hold as much respect, power and influence within the music world as Moondog did in the late 1950s.
Moondog was the ultimate D.I.Y. musician. Who else wrote his own compositions, played every single instrument in a recording session, produced and edited, and built his own gear? Not too many come to mind; in fact, none at all.
Released on the Prestige label, Moondog is totally outside the box. Taking influence mostly from general street sounds, the album’s opener ‘Caribea’ kicks off with what would later become a late-career Tom Waits signature opener; muffled toms, beaten upon in a drunken minimalist style at a slow, groove-inducing tempo. Then comes the wind-up toy excitement; the cranking of perhaps a music box or an old cast-metal model car. It only takes one crank to get the album going, Moondog’s moody, claustrophobic piano displays a jazz knowhow within its first five descending notes, but with such an off-the-wall temperament, it evokes images of spreading cobwebs, sad, sepia photographs, and a dishevelled Charlie Chaplin marauding forlornly in the gutter.
Track two, the all too literal ‘Lullaby’, begins with a baby crying, kind of like the one in David Lynch’s film Eraserhead. The strangled bawling leads into the main frame of the song like a rollicking bass guitar might in a hardcore punk blueprint. What follows is once again a hopelessly minimalist cardboard drum beat accompanied by a plucky string pick; Moondog’s own version of the early blues instrument, the Diddley Bow. Enter one of the most angelic, yet increasingly disturbing harmonised voices you will ever hear. I imagine a fat nanny, void of love and sex, softly lullabying an innocent baby to sleep before she strangles it with her own bare hands. I’m not sure if that was Moondog’s intention, but it gives me nightmares.
The album in its entirety runs for exactly thirty minutes over a track list of fourteen songs. But that’s all that the Dogg needed to stamp his place in American music history. Across the vinyl’s entire breadth are recorded soundscapes of farm animals, wind-up toys, street noise, playing children, crying babies, and more, all played either over the top of, or at times underneath, a wonderful selection of avant-jazz compositions that have gone on to influence some of the musical innovators of our time. Apart from the aforementioned Tom Waits, the wholly out there Frank Zappa, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Coco Rosie, Philip Glass, Janis Joplin, Steve Reich, Laurie Anderson, Pentangle, and Mr. Scruff all draw huge influence from Moondog, and owe a great deal of thanks to him for allowing them successful careers while playing an entirely different strand of “acceptable” music. To perhaps draw a long bow, I think I would suggest that Moondog was one of the original samplers, not by ripping off other musicians, but by recording everyday noises and bringing them to another dimension as it’s threaded through his music. Maybe the whole hip-hop world owes some gratitude to M to the D!
Perhaps the most conventional track on the album is the sweeping and churning ‘Frog Bog’. Beginning with the obligatory animal noises (frogs and crickets), and the minimalist drumming that by now must have the listener hooked, an impeccably chosen selection of string instruments, all played by our hero, take the helm. The swirling glide over the strings coupled with the frog’s calling chirp, lulls the listener into a beauty sleep twisted with dreams of whimsy and mystic wonder. Clocking in at just over two minutes, you’d better make the dream a quick one.
As you’ve probably already figured out, Moondog, the album, doesn’t care much for convention. Seeming to deliberately defy any segment of normality, Moondog brings with him to the studio a sixth musical sense; an innate understanding of sound and time that comes with a dadaist love of abstraction and decades of total darkness. Stomping all over the chart busting 4/4 and 2/4 time signatures, he feels much more comfortable swinging in the awkward breeze of the square-pegged 7/4 of ‘Caribea’ and the stratospheric 5/4 of ‘Trees Against the Sky’.
“I’m not gonna die in 4/4 time”
And it’s there, in ‘Trees Against the Sky’, where the essence of Moondog is captured. He’s a different cat, and in this 50-second slap of pure experimentation, he not only preempts Brion Gysin’s experimental cut-up methods applied to sound and literature of the late 1950s, he takes sampling and genre crossover to a whole new level. That had never been done before. Schmaltzy 1940s crooning and harmonics are cut, reapplied and looped to satanic proportions, and are played over, yes, minimalistic drumming, but this time, high-tempo and with added elements. While this may not be the best song from those infamous recording sessions, on this album at least, ‘Trees Against the Sky’ is Moondog’s pinnacle. Slapstick, anti-social, and dare I say it, punk.
Moondog went on to have a most interesting life, remaining on the streets of New York until the early 1970s, and taking a 10-year hiatus from recording in the late 1950s and through most of the 1960s. In 1973, he left the United States to live in his dreamland, Germany; the holy land with the holy river.
It was there, in Munster, he stayed until his death in 1999, recording hundreds of compositions, and having each of them transferred to braille at the hands of a young student by the name of Ilona Sommer.
Moondog, Viking, wherever you may roam, on behalf of the music world, I thank you for everything. I mean it, everything.
The Viking of 6th Avenue – Documentary in the works
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