Moondog - The Viking of Sixth Avenue

"The solution, in Moondog's mind, was to dress up like a Viking and so he took to wearing a horned helmet and carrying a spear."

 

 

Moondog – The Viking of Sixth Avenue

 

To anyone who knows a bit about Moondog – buy this album. It spans his entire ecording career and, unless you are the most devoted of fans, contains tracks that you do not possess. To anyone unaware of Moondog's charms read on.

 

Moondog's music, rather like Sun Ra's, cannot be separated from his own personal history. Moondog was born plain ol' Louis Hardin in 1916 – his stage name was inspired by the memory of a pet dog that howled at the moon. Despite being blinded in a childhood accident Moondog didn't let his disability stop him from his pursuing his love of music. He moved to New York in 1944 and began to record the songs he'd written. To have the money required for making the records he often slept rough. But he didn't just sleep on the streets – it was also here that he sold his records along with the books of poetry he wrote. Tall, thin and with a long beard he even heard people referring to him as 'Jesus-like'. Moondog didn't like this and decided to change his appearance. The solution, in Moondog's mind, was to dress up like a Viking and so he took to wearing a horned helmet and carrying a spear. Through the quality of his music and the force of his personality he became friends with many of the great and the good, from Charlie Parker through to Stravinsky and Janis Joplin. Philip Glass and Steve Reich spoke warmly of him. In the 1970s he swapped the streets of New York for those of Germany.

 

A German family eventually took him in and he stayed with them until his death in 1999 at the age of 83. By now I hope that you want this album without me having to describe the music itself but I suppose, out of something that could be inaccurately described as Professionalism, I should give you an impression of the Moondog sound.

 

Moondog was as versatile as he was prolific. He wrote, for instance, over 300 madrigals and 80 symphonies. As well as countless scores for orchestras he also wrote hundreds of pieces for organ and piano. Little of this was recorded in his lifetime. In fact, it wasn't until 1969 that Moondog was given the opportunity to work with an orchestra and record what was essentially a 'best of' album. Tracks that Moondog had recorded previously in a necessarily basic way could finally be fully realised.

 

You may have heard the most instantly catchy Moondog piece without actually realising it. Get A Move On, by Mr. Scruff, used Lament 1Bird's Lament (written in memory of Charlie Parker) as the basis of the track. Short, stutteringly jazzy, slightly swinging and backed by an almost military beat, it is, as with so much of Moondog's work, utterly timeless. The next track on the compilation is Moondog Symphony 1 (Timberwolf). This shows another side to Moondog – a very basic and minimalist track, almost entirely percussion based, with Moondog (I presume) howling over the top of it. Blocks are hit, jangly things are shaken and that's about it. It may be a symphony but, like much of Moondog's music, it clocks in at two minutes or thereabouts. In 1954 legendary DJ Alan Freed used it as the theme to his Moondog show until Moondog took, and won, legal action to stop Freed from using his name. Stravinsky phoned the judge, saying 'Do right by this man, he's a good musician.' Apocryphal perhaps, but he was certainly right.

 

Most of the early tracks here were recorded very simply and cheaply. Basic backing tracks are overplayed with Moondog's homemade instruments and sometimes the sounds of the streets of New York are clearly audible. There are elements of jazz but much more obvious are the strains of minimalism. Moondog rejected the title of the father of minimalism (as everyone seems to want to do, nowadays) but it is clear why his work would have appealed to people like Glass and Reich.

 

Many of the tracks rarely 'go anywhere' in the traditional sense – rather they are like clockwork pieces that fulfil certain actions before inevitably winding down. Rabbit Hop, for instance, features strict, basic drumming (rather like Moe Tucker on speed) with an insistent and ever repeating saxophone blaring out a simple motif. The main exception to this succession of shimmering and clanking miniatures comes with the final track on the album, Invocation. Recorded in 1995 this a ten-minute masterpiece all on one note, a low A. Scored for brass, this is a brooding and menacing piece that promises to explode at any moment but never does. Before this exercise in tension, and amongst the instrumental pieces, there are also songs, many of them charming and witty. Enough About Human Rights, for example, asks: 'What about whale rights? / What about snail rights? What about seal rights? / What about eel rights?' The rest of the song details all the other rights that animals should have over a simple piano melody. 

 

There is certainly something of a naïve charm to some of Moondog's songs but it would be a mistake to deduce from this that he was some kind of idiot savant. Moondog knew exactly what he was doing and was incredibly strict when it came to composing his works. As he himself said: 'People who don't know it's written down would swear it was improvised, but it isn't. It's the art of concealing Art, that's what I'm always up to.'

 

So: minimal, madrigal, magical. Buy this album.

 

Words: Chris Dawson.