Moondog on film

Blind street musician, poet and composer Moondog, who was born on this day in 1916, was a high-profile, eccentrically-garbed presence on Manhattan streets throughout the 1960s and into the ’70s. Given his visibility and the fact that he lived until the end of the millennium, it’s always puzzled me that I couldn’t find any videos of him online – on the street, in concert, in interview or otherwise. I’m convinced that such footage is out there and just hasn’t been digitalised, but in the meantime I recently came across these two tantalisingly short feature film extracts from the 1960s.

The first comes from The Moving Finger (1963), a “beatnik film noir” set in Greenwich Village. From this brief encounter it’s hard to know if we’re dealing with an open-minded dip into the underground or a beatsploitation flick. In any case, there’s Moondog, playing himself, standing on the street in viking warrior garb of his own devising. Find more on The Moving Finger here.

The other fragment is from the utterly intriguing sounding Chappaqua (1966), whose cast includes French film legend Jean-Louis Barrault along with walk-ons by countercultural luminaries like William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Ornette Coleman and Ravi Shankar. It sounds like this is definitely worth returning to, but in the meantime, here’s a glimpse of Moondog:

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8 comments

  1. When I was a boy I would go into the city with my Dad and return home with him at the end of his workday. I would wander the streets of Manhattan transfixed. I never looked at a map I just went with the flow and the rhythm of things Still in my teens , but a flaneur of the first order. Equal parts Walter Benjamin and Janet Flanner and that rotten boy from Catcher in the Rye. Fresh from reading Steppenwolf I fancied myself the newest iteration of Harry Haller. On weekends I would orchestrate overnights and hang out after dark at a jazz club {Eddie Condons} and later would wind up at The Peppermint Lounge where really beautiful girls would frug and twist in giant birdcages till 3 in the morning. Always relying on the kindness of strangers I never wanted for a comfortable place to sleep. I knew about Moondog from a splashy piece in the Times. The aimless wanderer, an exotic, urban legend. One day not soon after, I espied him in Midtown. He was wearing a not terribly clean serape with lateral stripes. I determined to follow him. He cantered through the streets on automatic pilot. He wasn’t really looking. Not taking in anything. Eyes forward, same steady pace. There was no denouement. I certainly wasn’t going to speak to him. He was too scary and hairy and third worldy. Yet I followed him for about the space of two hours. I could meander on my own with indefinite energy and curiosity, but he exhausted me. It is delightful to find him reprised in Strange Flowers.

  2. after I sent this it occurred to me that I never thought about Moondog as being blind…I found a piece by Phillip GLASS and it solved the riddle> here is an excerpt>
    I looked out the window and the sight of Moondog crossing the street startled me. He was such an imposing figure, about six foot eight counting his Viking headpiece; and he was so confident in his walk, you wouldn’t think he was blind. I wondered how, as a blind man, he managed to cross the street without an instant of hesitation until he showed me how he listened to the traffic lights; I had never heard them before in this way.

    • Thanks so much for your vivid recollections! Philip Glass was very patient with Moondog, putting up with his anti-semitism even while Moondog was living under his roof.

      I think Moondog is a highly underrated composer, and I feel a little guilty concentrating on the persona he presented to the world at the expense of the far greater musical gifts he bestowed. I’ve never found his music less than interesting and it’s frequently sublime.

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