If you lived in Manhattan in the beat era, chances are you saw this guy hanging around the intersection of 53rd Street and 6th Ave. Naturally, he seems like the kind of character New Yorkers would cross the street to avoid. After all, a guy wandering the downtown dressed head-to-toe in the Norse garb traditionally donned for pillaging is usually up to no good.
But this guy actually spent the better part of thirty years advancing avant-garde jazz, performance art and percussion without ever compromising his deep-seated strangeness. Born 1916 in Marysville, Kansas, Lewis Chapin would become a fixture in New York’s fertile jazz scene beginning in the 1940s. However, by matter of choice, he was not exactly an insider.
In fact, quite literally, he elected to remain steadfastly on the outside, occupying street corners near the strip of popular jazz clubs along 52nd. A self-styled percussive multi-instrumentalist, he adopted the name Moondog in 1947. It was under this moniker that he gained notoriety as an outlandishly outfitted but artistically serious performer.
His visibility was helped in no small part by his horned helmet, flowing cape and eye-catching white beard. This earned Moondog the nickname, the Viking of 6th Ave. Moondog was also blind, the consequence of a farming accident involving an errant dynamite cap at the age of 16. These qualities contributed to the common assumption that Moondog was a homeless man.
He was, in fact, a serious composer who opted for a life of street performance. It was in this capacity that he developed friendships with mainstream supporters like Leonard Bernstein, Benny Goodman and Phillip Glass, the last of whom sites Moondog as among his chief influences.
Unsurprisingly for a guy who dressed as a Viking on a daily basis, his music was often pretty far out. Indeed, he was the inventor of an array of unconventional time signatures which he called ‘snake time rhythm’ for its slithering syncopation.
More often than not, this rhythm would be put to use through an array of instruments that Moondog himself invented. The Trimba is perhaps the most well-known of these scarcely known instruments.
Remarkably, Moondog found a home with prominent jazz label Prestige, who released his first two records in 1956, with a third, independent release coming out that same year. His records echoed the soundscape in which he performed, merging his snapshot exotica compositions, his out-of-time Native American syncopations and his Third Stream minimalism with the voices, horns and headiness of the city around him. Moondog’s early records literally sound and feel like busking, context and all.
His unrepentant authenticity generated significant attention in the hip and intellectual circles of the time, bringing Moondog acclaim and curiosity. Indeed, he achieved significant enough visibility that famed Cleveland DJ Alan Freed (oft-credited for coining the term Rock ‘n Roll), co opted his name and “Moondog’s Theme” from his second record as the title and lead-in to his radio show. Note Moondog’s signature rhythmic jangle beneath Freed’s intro.
Moondog successfully challenged Freed’s use of his name in court. With the assistance of Benny Goodman and Arturo Toscanini, both of whom testified that the strange man was in fact a serious performer, Moondog emerged victorious from court.
Though Moondog would record steadily through the late ‘50s, a twelve year hiatus from recording would follow. His focus for the intervening time would be solidifying his reputation as one of New York City’s legendary characters. 1969 and 1971 would see the release of two records for Columbia.
Although Moondog appeared by all accounts to be homeless, he was said to actually have maintained a stable residency in the Upper west side of Manhattan. Additionally, the eccentric Moondog was married and had children.
However, by 1974, he had had his fill of New York. He relocated to Germany, where he continued to record and perform throughout his life. His recordings would, as with New York, be decidedly shaped by his surroundings. These tended increasingly toward Bavarian traditionalism, his own bizarre take on the Rhineland marches and anthems of yesteryear.
Moondog died in 1999 at the age of 83.