"I AM AN OBSERVER OF LIFE, A NON-PARTICIPANT WHO TAKES NO SIDES. I AM IN THE REGIMENTED SOCIETY, BUT NOT OF IT." THIS IS WHAT MOONDOG SAID IN 1964 AND IT IS A TRUE MANIFESTO OF A LIFE DEDICATED TO MUSIC, WITHOUT COMPROMISES, ETERNALLY GOING AGAINST THE FLOW.
Elegantly wrapped in a sort of Franciscan cape and adorned with a leather helmet with oversized horns and a very long beard, which was way too often compared to that of Christ, Moondog lived for most of his life on the streets of Manhattan (on Sixth Avenue, to be precise, and this earned him the nickname of the “Viking of Sixth Avenue”), somewhere between indifference and admiration. He experienced these long years of urban nomadism dedicated to a conscious opposition to the system that wanted to transform, incorporate and bring him into line.
He earned the money he needed to keep himself from the sale of his music and of his handwritten poems, the symbols of an intense, internal world steeped in a pagan mysticism with Nordic influences. Son of an Episcopal church pastor, who encouraged him towards music from childhood, after he lost his sight at the age of 16, as the result of an accident, and after his parents divorce, Moondog decided to abandon the Christian religion and to embrace a self-taught spirituality based on Scandinavian myths. This decision influenced not only his music (with an ethnic and meditative flavour) but also his way of presenting himself: unconventional, mysterious and intransigent.
In spite of his undeniable musical gifts, Moondog can also be seen as a great performer, able to remain immobile for eight hours, like an ancient statue of flesh, but free to stamp it with his own presence, thanks to a mysterious and imposing physicality (his height, of over one metre eighty, helped him a lot). For most people, who were generally uninformed about any performance that was out of the ordinary, Moondog was simply a homeless person who begged, but the reality was very different: admired by Janis Joplin (who took over his piece All is Loneliness), considered an innovator by Jazz legends Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus, respected and admired by (minimalist) composers like Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, who invited him to work with them and, the icing on the cake, the companion of artistic rambles of Salvador Dali, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and of genius of the sitar, Ravi Shankar.
In the sixties, with the arrival of the beatniks and hippies and thanks to publicity from Janis Joplin, Moondog’s bizarre music gained an unexpected popularity. The guru of Sixth Avenue became a maverick icon, the symbol of a generation “against” a conservative society, the patriarchal family and a bourgeois life considered boring and pointless, not to say, dangerous. What they wanted was the freedom of an existence lived in the pursuit of creativity and mysticism. And who better than Moondog to incarnate these values? “I had a lot of offers from people who said they would help me, but that I had to dress conventionally (…) but I valued my freedom of dress more than I cared to advance my career as a composer. I just wanted to do my own thing, and no matter how much it cost me in terms of my career, I did it”. That is just how much Moondog was ready to sacrifice for his ideals and his thirst for freedom.
The American Viking employed the same anticonformist philosophy also, and above all, in his music, for example, building himself musical instruments with sibylline names: “uni” (a zither with seven cords) “utsu” (a rudimental keyboard) “tjui” (an instrument made from wooden clothes pegs) and even “oo” (a triangular harp with 25 cords). Apart from these hand-made instruments, Moondog loved using the everyday sounds around him in his own compositions: cars, police car sirens, footsteps on the tarmac or echoes of far away voices. This seductive mix is more often than not enriched with silences (which become melodies) and rhythms inspired by Native Americans (one of his first influences) that gave life to what he called Snaketime Rhythms.
In 1976, destiny took him far from New York, to the German city of Recklinghausen where he met a young woman with the evocative name of Ilona Sommer. Ilona became his family and the only person who managed to support and make known Moondog’s music (thanks to the record label, Managram) beyond the confines of America, in a sort of artistic and human rebirth without precedent. Moondog, the king has finally been crowned!