Taking Moondog for a Walk
I encourage you to listen to Moondog whilst reading this, and perhaps take the album for a walk yourself afterwards.
“And here at the end this is as good as any other entrance to the underplace, journey of the fallen leaf back to the branch, to the bees of Eleusis among olive blossoms, untroubled among crimson wildflowers. Four thousand years later: same flowers, same bees."
- Franz Wright, Bees of Eleusis
It was the 25th of November – the winking out of Autumn – when I first listened to Moondog’s self-titled album. I put my headphones on and set off on a favourite walk of mine, through the rural Northumberland village where I live, and then out of it, winding up one face of the valley to a high, tilled farm. Up there the world is empty, and the wind is slow and clean.
The sun began to set as I embarked and the day, the world, seemed caught in twilight. Robins skipped onto the road mistaking the blue dusk for daylight and the growing chill still for summer, cows circled in a hexed elope, and though a hare in the distance remained alert, bats began to flit overhead. In that hesitant hour, Moondog (the nomad Viking of 6th Avenue), sounded like he was baking an enchantment into the long mist that descended like the year’s curtain call. 'Theme', the appropriately titled first track of his album, cracks sweet and bleary-eyed like opening credits to a world a few steps beyond our own. All of nature seemed to respond to his call and, alongside the boiling pot of stop-out woodland creatures too stubborn to hibernate, he conjured faeries (with an ‘e’) and witches still thought to be Queens.
'Minisym #1‘s' sonata is rapturously rhythmic, but its subsequent movements visualise a woodland ballet whose protagonist is the daughter of a goddess, bending to pick sweet spring narcissus and stalked by a shadow in the bracken. I read about Persephone, whose life was never her own. She was poisoned with pomegranates which are hell's acrid rubies and, hypnotised, flung into eternal darkness. You are always breathing uphill in Hades. On the far crusts of the flat earth, its air is a sulphuric deep-ocean current filled with noxious sand so that oxygen never feels full and crystal and owned. The seas are fire with no illumination, dulled magma that doesn’t glow, and only for half of the year was Persephone allowed to see and breathe, hear the clean notes of Olympus and placate Demeter, her mother, whose tears rained winter onto the earth. The 16th Century BC people of Eleusis pledged to help Demeter search for her daughter and to bridge the gap between man and god they had to perform ancient rites gulping whispers so rich in secret the cost of their recollection meant death. They would prepare for the descent of autumn (Boedromiṓn) during the advent of spring (Anthesteriṓn), initiating themselves with sacrifice and purification, gathering newcomers at the base of Acropolis. When Persephone was poisoned later in the year, the initiates would return torchlit, rites in arms, to begin a long march uphill. At its peak a vigil, feasts, sun dances; a goblet of Kykeon and an endless night. On those initial minutes spent with the album, at the base of the hill, I mistook Moondog’s symphonic rendering of my surroundings to be some kind of gilded theatre, but as darkness descended and I walked upwards, the ending tracks of the album (6 and 7) cast hubble bubble strings, and an older Albion was steeply dragged from the hill. Nature fumbled, waiting for Persephone, who was yet to return home.
Like the initiates of Eleusis, my walk is also an ascent. Meandering past farm animals fenced in pastures, there are long stretches of open fields on the left that in winter turn to pure sheets of cataract white and, on the right, there is guttural, gossipy overgrowth. Creatures behind fences and creatures not, though sometimes streams are crossed. I saw a deer in a sheep paddock and it looked both at once like a taunt and a promise. And, as if in gleaming answer to a surreal question, at the walk's high plateau there sits an alpaca farm. Moondog is an alchemical album (recipe: a pinch of alpaca hair, two pomegranate seeds and the saffron stem of a crocus) about the crossing of colourful, symphonic streams and because of the rumbling subnetwork hidden beneath its obvious whimsy that then gestates to the skin of the album, yes Persephone is here in 2022. She is also in 1969 and I tow another myth with me up this hill, not one from an underground Hellas, but blind in my ears and from New York.
In the 20th century AD, a boy is born Louis Thomas Harding who, once his family relocates to Wyoming, is sometimes taken by his father to Arapaho sun dances and learns to play a buffalo skin tom-tom. At 16, the boy explores a field of corn and finds lying in the dry mud a stick of dynamite with a faded black inscription, and when he picks up the strange apparatus it blows out his eyes. Flung into eternal darkness, little Louis lets music draw roads for him in the mind, and after another ten years drum by, he makes his way to New York (imagine hearing New York and never seeing it) to assume his destined form: a busker from nowhere and no one, dressed like a Viking or rustic mystic or patchwork Hierophant because New York heading into the 50s was magic, anyway, especially for someone who could hear it and never see it. To help him prove so, the friends he made there: Dylan and Brando who knew the world wasn’t real, Glass, Bernstein, Rodzinski with whom he could make arpeggiated mountain music, Parker with whom he could make precious music - and who 'Bird’s Lament' is an ode to - and Ginsberg who makes the universe sound like one neighbourhood. Louis changed his name to Moondog and performed his poetry and compositions on 6th, 53rd, and 54th, like a tarot emblem of that renaissance drunk on cars and stars, and his work suitably sits somewhere between jazz and classical, carrying the same mystical wide-eyed didacticism of all Beats (“Beat” as in “beat down”, said Kerouac; “Beat” as in “beatific” said Kerouac), shoes pavement-scuffed, but with one crooked finger pointed manic to stars constellating truth on a false opioid evening. It works so well in the woods, but perhaps Moondog is an urban work precisely because the time and place it ruminated in was trying to become so un-urban, séancing Whitman and Blake and tinctured with undereye arcane bruises.
I began writing these notes in November and now it is March and though half a year stands between the two, Moondog remains the perfect accompaniment. The turning out of the season, and the anticipation of it again; he must be found here, at the volta of the year. Halfway through 'Theme', engines can be heard, a motorbike perhaps, and it is clear that Moondog’s album is one of momentum, of becoming, going somewhere – up or down doesn’t matter – to unfold something. The fact that I’m walking helps, moving always forward, like the world might be sighed before my feet. Then in 'Stamping Ground', martial drums determine that the form will be assumed, no maybe about it: with a small woodland army gathered, the peak will be reached, Persephone will be rescued, and Spring will be made. On those days in November and March it felt like I’d walked Moondog home, not to an alpaca farm in Northumberland specifically, but some mixed-up city hill inside a bigger hollow mountain, long ago and far below.
Moondog sounds like protean music, when I listen to its waterfall strings and ascending percussion I can feel the leaf of the world unfolding. Walking is a protean business too, breath chugging into the stark air like a steam engine, fingertips coalfired, thoughts untangling from a knot into something flat and clear and, if vast, then still each step okay, okay. Henry David Thoreau wrote that he was often “alarmed when it happens that [he had] walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit.” I think he would have been happy to see the invention of the Walkman. Though there is a semiconscious momentum with my every step, music cradles the spirit and scored by Moondog, it feels as if both he and I might be hand in hand wishing the hollows to sleep in November or winding the fields towards green in the crocus dawn of March. I can hear a great creaking as the horizon kiste is opened, and I can see how its contents irradiate the landscape only in gradient notes, sang bottom-to-top. On the March ground, the world looks to be the moonglow colour of ectoplasm stewing to rise plucky once more and up in the November sky, there are peach trails of sun and cloud, like love letter seals, sleepy but enamoured. It is a slow and dramatic revolution across many months when the sky becomes the ground and vice versa, and in its process, the underworld is uprooted. Persephone is an old woman now and sitting with her in the rafters above Moondog’s orchestra I’m reminded that this is also an old earth.