Howling at the Moon.

Truth Mark Twain said is stranger than fiction, because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities, truth is not. A chap by the name of Louis Hardin that I’ve recently read about seemed to have a life that echoed Twains adage rather well.

Louis was born in 1916, in Marysville a sleepy little town in the mid-west USA  that doesn’t have much to shout about, Sir Richard Burton the British explorer & orientalist better known for his journeys in the Arab World passed through on his way to California in the later part of the nineteenth century,  he described Marysville as a small country town that existed by selling whiskey to ruffians. Marysville was not a destination, like the railroad with a station in town, it was a place to pass though, on the way to somewhere better.

Today just over three thousand people live there, about the same number of folks as there were a century ago when Louis was born, there are fifteen churches to choose from in Marysville, God is really quite at home in Kansas it seems.  If you wikipedia Marysville its main claim to fame is a bunch of black squirrels that live in the area, rumoured to have escaped some time back from a travelling show. The highlight of the social calendar is a parade once a year where painted models of black squirrels are paraded through the town on floats.

The human population is almost entirely white – you are extremely unlikely to find a local of colour ( unless it’s one of the squirrels)  this is bible-belt & apple pie America, not rich or particularly poor, but middling in everything, these days it leans conservatively towards that nostalgic land that feels safest, that wants to make America great again, where remarkable hardly ever happens and life rolls along in the same way as it did yesterday and will tomorrow if the good folks of Marysville have any say in it.

Were you to make an educated guess on how young Louis’s life might pan out you would probably come up with a ‘normal’ kind of life for a kid growing up in Kansas in what was Americas century. He would go through high school and college, marking the passing with obligatory year book photos, to be looked back on at some future time, when an older Louis would wonder where the years went and what had happened to the bright eyed young man with the sharp haircut. Once college was dispensed with he would most likely settle down, with his one and only sweetheart, the one he’d dated for years, buying that clapperboard house with the missus, popping out a couple of kids along the way, he would drive one of those enormous American gas guzzling cars through the 50’s, work solidly at that ever so solid company for the duration of his working life, then the gold watch, settle into a cosy retirement, maybe if he’d made enough money he’d have bought that condo in Florida, worked in a relaxed kind of way on turning his skin leather handbag brown, to end his days the unfortunate victim of a carcinoma of one variety or another, or maybe he would have been stored away in a retirement home by busy children with lives of their own, where once a week, time permitting the grand kids might come and visit. Given good health and a bit of luck Louis might make it to his 80’s, at which point he would gradually begin to shrink and fade away until there was nothing left of him at all, to be remembered only by the fewer and fewer friends that out-lived him, his ending chiseled on a headstone in a manicured cemetery somewhere in sleepy and change-less Kansas.

In all he would have a good and decent life, like millions of others, quiet, un-fussy a homespun wholesome American kind of life. 

Well if that was what the fates might have had in store for Louis it all changed on a day in 1932, Louis’s world exploded, quite literally in front of his eyes, ( quite how and why a fifteen year old is messing about with Dynamite I can’t tell you ) but he was blinded and in an instant his life changed. 

Louis could have slipped into sightless obscurity there in Kansas, but he attended blind schools, learnt braille, took up music with a vigour, self taught composition, became interested in native american music and culture, as well as developing a passion for the heavyweight greats, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms etc. He went on to gain a scholarship to college. 

But something else happened along the way, once devoutly christian,  a ministers son with an organist for a mother  he turned his back on God & never looked back.

Louis ended up in Memphis at college, and there met a woman and married, for some reason it didn’t work out & so post college he decided to head off for pastures new, with the aim of becoming a composer.

At the age of 27 in 1943 Louis moved himself to New York. For any hick from the sticks a move from the Mid West to NYC has to be a bit of a shock to the system, but for a young Man from Squirrel Town Kansas? How about doing it blind, with no job, with next to no money and nowhere to live? Big cities can be unforgiving even to strong souls, they can swallow the meek never to be heard of again. But Louis survived and maybe you could say he even thrived.

He took to busking on the streets of NY, sometimes he would hang outside Jazz joints and bars where live music was playing and join in from the street. He struck up friendships with Jazz legends like Charlie Parker & Benny Goodman.

he was taken under the wing of the conductor of the New York Philharmonic who invited him on a daily basis into concert halls. He collaborated with many of the ‘names’ of music of the time. He gave up cutting his hair & shaving and in time grew to look Jesus like,  which just made him seem all the more outlandish to the passers by on the 1940’s streets of the Big Apple. After being told he looked like Jesus he decided it was time for a new image,  he took to wearing a long robe, a viking helmet complete with horns & carrying a spear. 

Moondog Viking of 6th Avenue

He settled on one particular corner, as his favoured busking spot. He gave himself the monicker ‘Moondog’ after a mutt he had back in Kansas that would howl up at a full moon, and so was born Moondog, the Viking of Sixth Avenue.

To the vast majority of passers by Moondog was at best a curiosity of the streets of New York, he became a kind of tourist attraction, at worst he was seen as a mentally ill nut usually found down on 6th ranting away or hustling people to buy poems. But this was just one side of the story, his biog on wikipedia describes him as musician, composer, theoretician, poet and inventor of musical instruments. Over his lifetime he wrote hundreds of compositions and during the course of thirty plus years of street time on 6th the people he hung out with and knew reads like a who’s who of 20th century Arts. from Jazz greats to Janis Joplin who recorded his material in the 60’s, he knew William Burroughs & Ginsberg, Joan Baez & Ravi Shankar, a young Philip Glass had Moondog as a lodger for a year, he went on to say he learnt more from Moondog than he did as a student of Julliard. He knew Toscanini & Bernstein, Alan Freed, godfather of rock and roll named his DJ show after Moondog. Moondogs connections were as strange as the man himself, he recorded an album of his music and stories with Julie Andrews in the 50’s had record deals with Columbia Records. But day after day year after year he would be there on 6th, rain or shine. Moondog married for a second time, to Sukho a Japanese American, though I’ve found out little about his private life. 

Moondog & his second wife, Sukho

In 1974 almost thirty years after he first arrived Moondog disappeared from 6th. People assumed maybe that old crazy guy must have died, or been locked up, or something. But instead he had been invited to a performance of his work in Germany & off he went.

Moondog liked Europe & stayed. He toured France, Germany & Sweden, played Londons Southbank invited by Elvis Costello for a festival there and made Munster in Germany home, returning only once to New York, briefly in 1989 to conduct a performance of his work.  He spent the reminder of his life in Germany making music until his heart eventually gave out in 1999 at the age of 83.

I wonder if the time we live in now is a pick and mix age, where the options through which we may define ourselves are wide ranging and multiple choice. Political, tribal, social-medial, we can choose to be left or right, consumerist or activist, yogi or pill popping party animal, there are innumerable groups to belong to, and we can add one on top of another, multiple choices, to see ourselves as a part of these niches, and whether real or imagined they offer a comfort and a sense of safety in the belonging or the association. 

Perhaps the reality is that it has always been thus, man has always been a creature with an innate desire and need to feel part of a larger family or tribe, a kind of safety in numbers, survival & insurance package and validation all rolled into one . The difference now as opposed to the past is that for many of us, particularly in the ‘West’ belonging to a particular group is no longer necessary for survival, but now a lifestyle choice, and rather like going to the supermarket, where shelves are filled with countless  pre-pack options, we simply choose the ones we want.

We need people like Moondog in the World, who don’t fit in neatly, who are just possibly a little bit crazy, or even perhaps totally off their rockers, we need the people who don’t fit into the norms of society, or don’t want to, sometimes these people scare us, sometimes we make them objects of ridicule or pity, or as bogey-men to warn what happens if you go off the rails, but they also help to remind us that we create our own paths and that if we step out of the comfort and safety of the normal ( whatever we choose to call normal ) that there in those less trodden paths lie other realities, the extraordinary, where reality becomes more fantastic than fiction.

Moondogs stone,
Munster, Germany

There is apparently a documentary in the offing about Moondogs life, I for one would like to see it, a movie would be even better.  

Moondog Website:-

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