Thursday, 18 July 2019

Moondog

Moondog (1969 Moondog album).jpg 

It was all my brother’s doing. Some years older than me, already adult while I was still a child, he educated me — without meaning to — in good taste. He and my other brother brought books into the house, where before there were few, and all those discs of shiny black vinyl encapsulating the newest ‘sounds’. As the 60s gave way to the 70s, the record companies hit on a canny marketing tool, the ‘sampler’: budget-price anthologies collecting single tracks from their latest releases. We lapped them up. 

CBS’s Fill Your Head With Rock (1970) was an innovation — a double album, a bigger canvas allowing for a loosely thematic arrangement of tracks. By the time you got to Side Three, you were skating the border between singer-songwriters and folk-rock. There were Laura Nyro and Leonard Cohen jostling alongside Al Stewart and Trees. But in between was something very weird. ‘Stamping Ground’, an instrumental track for orchestra, by someone — or something — called ‘Moondog’. An insistent rising motif over repetitive percussion, preceded by a man’s voice intoning an aphorism about “men” and “mice”, it wound itself into your brain like a coiled snake and lodged there. So, of course, my brother bought the Moondogalbum. The marketing pitch had worked. I don’t think he played it much, but I loved it, and I wanted to know where it came from.

‘Moondog’, I discovered, was really Louis Hardin, an American musician of classical training, born in 1916, who had spent much of the previous twenty years busking in New York. He took his name from a pet dog who used to “”howl at the moon more than any dog I know”. Blinded from his teens after an accident with a dynamite cap, he was a familiar figure around 54th Street in his horned helmet and loose-fitting robes, playing a variety of instruments he’d invented himself. ‘The Viking of Sixth Avenue’, they called him. David Bowie, on his first promotional tour to the US in 1971, encountered him there, a model of self-liberation at a point where, as Bowie later recalled, his own ‘Ziggy’ persona was beginning to gel. Moondog’s earliest recordings are, literally, street art: field recordings with titles like ‘Lullaby (2 W 46th Street)’ made on the thoroughfares of the Big Apple, his own idiosyncratic music-making in competition with passing sirens and fog horns. It was right that Moondog shared Side Three of the CBS sampler with Laura Nyro’s ‘Gibsom Street’, that chilling evocation of backstreet abortion from the ‘Bronx Brontë’: both breathe the spirit of subway vents and tenement fire escapes. 

When I was at school, I remember a lot of talk about ‘fusion’. All music was going to come together. Deep Purple and The Moody Blues recorded with symphony orchestras. Miles Davis shared concert bills with rock artists. The Soft Machine played at the Proms. That’s why we middle-class boys loved ‘progressive rock’, with its complicated time signatures and classical pretensions (so brilliantly lampooned by Jonathan Coe in The Rotters’ Club, where one of his schoolboy characters — who just happens to have the same first name as me — labours away at his prog masterpiece, ’Apotheosis Of The Necromancer’). It didn’t quite turn out that way, the ‘fusion’ thing. As the digital revolution made everything available, it makes everything avoidable, too, isolating us within our silos. Instead, we must look for hidden pathways through music, subterranean channels linking one tributary to another. Moondog is one of those. As a child he’d seen the Arapaho Sun Dance; later he’d played tom-tom with the Blackfoot tribe in Idaho and found a route through percussion to jazz, all the while obsessed with the counterpoint of J.S. Bach and the textures of European classical music. Others recognised and taught me to recognise that, somehow, this outsider’s outsider was on the inside track of coolness. I found a song about him on Pentangle’s 1968 album, Sweet Child. Janis Joplin recorded his madrigal ‘All Is Loneliness’ with Big Brother And The Holding Company in 1967. Frank Zappa praised his ‘dada clockwork’. Even T. Rex smuggled a topical reference into 1972’s ‘Rabbit Fighter’ (‘Tramp king of the city he’s my friend / Moondog’s just a prophet to the end’).

Big label interest peaked in 1969, when Jim Guercio, producer of Chicago and Blood, Sweat And Tears, landed him a deal with Columbia, hired forty accomplished musicians and laid down the breakthrough album, the one my brother would so presciently buy in 1970. Representing over thirty years of composition, it distils into little more than half an hour what Moondog was about. A chaconne in memory of Charlie Parker (‘Bird’s Lament’) and ballet music written for the Martha Graham company (‘Witch Of Endor’) nestle alongside a Swing-style homage to Benny Goodman (‘Good For Goodie’). Everywhere, except beneath the interlacing strings of ‘Ode To Venus’, we hear the driving rhythms of his extensive percussion battery.

In later life he moved to Europe and entered on an Indian summer of renewed compositional fervour. Apparently, he left hundreds of unperformed works at his death in 1999. His last appearance in Britain was at the Meltdown Festival in 1995, at the invitation of Elvis Costello, another fan. Sadly, I missed that. Moondog described his music as being about “the art of concealing art: maximum effect but with minimum means”. Not surprising, therefore, that he is held up as a godfather of minimalism — Philip Glass and Steve Reich both revere him, though he disclaimed the accolade himself. The ‘freak folk’ movement of Devendra Banhart et alalso owes him a debt (not just for his unconventional dress sense). And I owe my brother. Big-time.

[First published in RnR]