Shelf Life: Moondog

"Moondog" was the name he took, and the corner of 54th Street and Sixth Avenue in New York City is where he stood in the 1950s and '60s — blind, in a full white beard, horned helmet, and the robes of a Viking. He'd sell passersby his poetry or a record of his music, and he wouldn't beg, but he could use the spare change. Those who knew him, knew that he was trained in classical music and composed his own music, even recorded some of it: madrigals, rounds, often with lyrics in rhymed couplets, much of it rocked by a steady drumbeat inspired by his deep debt to Native American chants. But in his day, Moondog, who died in Germany in 1999, was a living, bohemian landmark on the streets of Manhattan, as known to Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, Julie Andrews, Philip Glass, Tiny Tim, Janis Joplin, and Elvis Costello as he was to Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Lenny Bruce, and Martin Scorsese.

Before he was Moondog, however, he was Louis Thomas Hardin Jr., born in 1916, the son of an unconventional Episcopalian priest, who was one part beacon for the boy, one part tyrant. Blinded by an accident at the age of 16, Hardin had followed his father first to Wyoming, then back to Wisconsin, then south to Missouri, and finally to Batesville, Arkansas. But it was in Memphis, in 1943, that Hardin achieved real notice: first, as a student at the Memphis Conservatory of Music under Burnet Tuthill (and thanks to the financial support of philanthropist I.L. Myers); second, as the husband of socialite Virginia Sledge, who was 20 years Hardin's senior. The marriage didn't last, but 1943 was to prove pivotal. In November of that year, Hardin moved to New York City, alone, determined to lead life one way: his way.

Robert Scotto tells the story in Moondog: The Viking of 6th Avenue (Process Media), the first authorized biography of a figure who lived on the fringes but survived to see his work recognized in America and Europe. Read about it, then hear for yourself. A CD of Moondog music comes with the book. M

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