2006: Moondog - The Viking of Sixth Avenue

He howled at the moon before Allen Ginsberg, freewheeled it to New York from the Midwest before Bob Dylan, and was more adept at self-fashioning than either of them. An object of fixation for the high-profile bohemia of the ’50s and ’60s -- from Charlie Parker to Leonard Bernstein to Dylan and Ginsberg -- he never saw the mainstream success of the fashionable artists who championed him. Moondog (born Louis Hardin in Marysville, Kansas) was attractive to the avant-garde partially because he was unmarketable (though Columbia records briefly tried, releasing two Moondog records in the late ’60s/early-’70s): blind, homeless, stubbornly eccentric and always dressed in his customized translation of Viking attire, he was an outsider in the most fundamental sense. A composer, poet, street performer, and inventor of instruments, he went without all but the most basic comforts and dedicated himself fully to his art.

It’s understandable if Moondog’s romantic profile as the quintessential practitioner of art brut, driven by an unstoppable need to create above all practical concerns, arouses your skepticism. His extraordinary life story has made him a fetish for obscurists, folk academics, record collectors, and field recorders such as Tony Schwarz, who captured Moondog’s impromptu street performances on the record Moondog on the Streets of New York. Yet, as this early career (I use the term career loosely) compilation from Astralwerks proves, Moondog’s works are strange but immediately pleasurable, as idiosyncratic and playful as the legend of the man himself.

Moondog’s freak appeal is advertised by the cover art: New York photographers’ favorite subject stands in full Viking attire on a street corner (presumably 6th avenue and 54th St., now officially known as Moondog Corner) while a swanky Manhattan couple staidly side-step around him. His outsized image was inseparable from his work and his personality; it reflected his complex worldview, one that I frankly fail to fully grasp. It involved a love for the classical tonal compositions of the Renaissance and a deep, possibly controversial identification with the ancient Nordics.

“Theme and Variations” opens with tribal percussion; then a four-note, cycling flute melody enters while other flutes and horns slowly play counterpoint to the original pattern. It’s the kind of concentrated, mesmerizing build-up the minimalist composers were after, and indeed, Steve Reich and Phillip Glass often referred to Moondog as the original minimalist. Rejecting this title, Moondog argued that his songs were in the classical tradition of Western tonal music. The second track “Down is Up” brings this point home; it’s a canon that places (what sounds like) amateur choir singers over Renaissance-style melody and instrumentation, punctuated by quirky percussion. “Bumbo” comes on strong with its pulsing, repetitive jazz. “Big Cat” is a sparse exercise in rhythm, interspersed with Native American influenced flute.

These four songs introduce the major styles that occur throughout the record. There are the melodic flute-driven pieces, the madrigals, the hard-bop numbers, and the rhythm-based songs utilizing Moondog’s unique percussion instrument, which he called the trimba. “Bird’s Lament,” which falls under the bop category, is an impossibly satisfying tribute to Charlie Parker that radiates theatrical cool on every second of its perfectly short 1:44 length. “All is Loneliness,” once covered by Janis Joplin’s Big Brother & The Holding Company, perfectly evokes the alienation of living on the fringe of society, with its single line “All is loneliness here for me” repeated over a haunting flute and acoustic guitar line. “Be a Hobo” finds Moondog entreating anyone with an open spirit to “be a Hobo and go with me/ From Hoboken to the sea” in a melody that echoes “All is Loneliness” but somehow excises the despair. It’s beautiful, funny, and understated. Album closer “Invocation” sounds like the stoic and insistent march of an army of horns led by Terry Riley towards the netherworld.

The Viking of 6th Avenue skillfully arranges a heterogeneous selection of songs from various Moondog releases so that his singular, though eclectic, vision emerges intact. The tunes are minimalist in a few senses; excluding the 10-minute “Invocation,” they are all extremely short. Each idea is allowed enough time to germinate, and no more. Additionally, the songs are stripped down in terms of instrumentation and players; Moondog overdubbed many of the parts himself, and he sings with his daughter on a few of the madrigals. His influence on capital M Minimalism can be found in the contrapuntal pieces where dueling melodies in the same key enter and leave at random intervals.

For all his formal concerns, Moondog rarely abandons the pleasure principle: one listen to bawdy “Rabbit Hop” or endearingly irreverent “Enough About Human Rights!” will prove as much. These songs were written on the streets, not in the academy, and it shows. Those looking to The Viking of Sixth Avenue for a slice of weird Americana will not be disappointed. Try playing it sometime for people who know nothing of the Moondog myth -- if they’ve got any howl in them, they’ll love it too.

DeLorean

There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

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