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The Viking of Sixth AvenueCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
MoondogThe death of Louis Hardin, known to countless New Yorkers as "The Viking of Sixth Avenue", has ended one of the most colourful careers in 20th century music. Hardin, who was best known under his self-chosen nom de plume of Moondog, eventually won acceptance as a serious composer, but had been a cult figure for several decades prior to that recognition.
From the late 40s until his move to Germany in 1974, Hardin was a familiar fixture on Sixth Avenue in Manhatten. He was hard to miss -- tall, gaunt, and blind, he dressed in a Viking helmet, a homemade flowing robe, and carried a spear, a regalia inspired by his love of Norse culture. He lived on the street, performing and selling his music in all weathers, and became a cult figure in Manhatten lore, and a hero to both the Beat Generation poets and the hippie movement of the 60s.
Both of those groups saw him as an obvious soul-mate, not only through his unconventional music, but also for his outspoken anti-establishment philosophical writings. His noteriety was stoked by invitations to espouse his ideas on television chat shows.
Hardin took the name Moondog in 1947, inspired by a dog he had owned which he said howled at the moon more than any other dog he had ever known. He was born in rural Kansas, where his father was an Episcopalian minister, but the family subsequently moved to a ranch in Wyoming. He was blinded at the age of 16 when a dynamite blasting cap exploded in his hands.
He recalled being taken to Native American ceremonies as a child, and the insistent tom-tom rhythms absorbed on those visits were a major influence on his music. He studied music for a short period at the Iowa School for the Blind in 1936, and later in Memphis in 1942, and developed an obsessive desire to compose, but was largely self-taught in that field.
He moved to New York in 1943, and began his life as a street musician on a pitch outside Carnegie Hall. He became friendly with some of the musicians of the New York Philharmonic, and through them, the orchestra's distinguished conductor, Artur Rodzinski. Rodzinski took a liking to this extravagant apparition, and both allowed him to attend rehearsals and encouraged his aspirations to compose.
In the late-40s, he mixed with jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and Benny Goodman, and his music reflected that association throughout his life. He recorded his first album for Prestige, one of the key independent jazz record labels of the day, in the mid-50s, and went on to make records for several major labels, including CBS and Epic.
His principal instruments were keyboard and percussion, although he played his own weird self-made hybrid variations on the street. His music generally employed modal structures, a skillful use of counterpoint, and repeating rhythmic patterns which foreshadowed the later emergence of minimalism.
His idiosyncratic musical vision incorporated influences ranging from Baroque music through to jazz and pop, and he liked to interpolate humourous asides and street sounds (one piece combined the whistle of an ocean liner with bamboo flute). He had learned to read braille, and used the system to write his music, particularly when he began to have the opportunity to compose for full orchestra, a process which began in the 60s with his first album for the CBS label.
He flirted with mainstream success at various points in his career, including enjoying a hit in New York when disc jockey Alan Freed took up his three-minute Moondog Symphony in the mid-50s, and in 1972, when Janis Joplin recorded All Is Loneliness . Despite his bohemian stance, he was happy to write soundtracks for radio and television commercials.
In 1974, Moondog disappeared from the streets of Manhatten. He had accepted an invitation to perform his music in West Germany, his first such visit to Europe. Pleased with the experience, he decided to stay. He earned his living as a street musician for a time, then was taken up by a German family. Its members provided material comforts and business support, including transcribing his braille music manuscripts and looking after his publishing, and also managed to talk him out of his Viking robes and into more conventional attire.
He recorded, performed and conducted regularly in Europe, and was invited back to New York in 1989 to conduct the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra in his own music. He was no more conventional in his conducting methods than in any other aspect of his life. Uncomfortable with the authoritarian role of the conductor, he eschewed the podium in favour of sitting to one side of the orchestra and laying down the pulse on a drum.