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Moondog, Wavy Gravy, and Tiny Tim Walk Into a Bar…

“Man, it was great. But some of it was embarrassing too. Made you feel like the English when they went down into Bedlam to laugh at the crazy people”

by

Ghouls at the Pussy Cat
July 25, 1963

A talented musician was watching the show at the Fat Black Pussycat the other night. Within 90 minutes he witnessed a long-haired grotesque who sounds equally convincing as Rudy Vallee or an old-time vaudeville queen singing love duets with himself; a bearded, monkish blind man dryly reciting world death to his own lively piano canons; and a poet-satirist free-associating in half a dozen voices on such American phenomena as fag truck drivers, Superman with hyacinths growing out of him, and the Kafka side of the Hartford police.

When it was over the musician wiped his brow and muttered, “Man, it was great. But some of it was embarrassing too. Made you feel like the English when they went down into Bedlam to laugh at the crazy people.”

In part he was right. The Fat Black Gang, consisting of the famed Moondog, Hugh Romney, and Tiny Tim — or “TT, Hugh, and Moon,” as they’re known on MacDougal Street — do make you feel you’ve dropped into the Lower Depths from time to time. But when you realize it’s your standard of reality you’re doubting, then more power to them. For unlike the random ravings of Bedlam, here’s device, focus, and much tragicomic meaning. Uneven as it is, this “show” offers a wide travelogue in technicolor into the whole world’s insanity.

Fantastic Falsetto

First comes Tiny Tim. His image has little to do with Christmas goose, though the facade of Dickens’ little crippled innocent is there. Out he prances, a slight, flowing-haired creature with a hook nose that would have made him a fortune in vaudeville comedy, blowing kisses and repeatedly squeaking “Thank you — how sweet you are.” On this level he’s a real camp as he glides through nostalgic favorites like “Pardon Me Pretty Baby,” or “Little Man You’ve Had a Busy Day” in a fantastic falsetto accompanied by a toy banjo. Then he jolts you by abruptly switching into a deep crooner’s voice for “Avalon” or a militantly manly “California Here I Come.”

But “TT” does more than evoke the ’20s and ’30s. Patriotic songs become particularly ridiculous when he sings them. And whether intentional or not, his crooner-queenly ballads get double-edged as they satirize those sentimental times too. If you were to hear him only (preferably on one of those old Brunswick radios that looked like liquor cabinets), you’d take him as a highly successful imitator. But watch that marvelous clown’s face, the ridiculous banjo, the constant swaying of his body, and the reaction is far different. Hysterically funny, yet funny on so many levels. Tim is a surrealist who can leave your senses jangled and your belief in popular Americana badly cracked.

Crude and Deft

Hugh Romney’s surrealism (now that we’re on that wave length) is as modern as LP records. In fact, his hip free-associating and his weird stories which marry science fiction to the Cool have indeed been put on record by World Pacific. Stuff like the man who gets lost in his own head (or drum, or little finger) are routine with the demi-monde coffee house set. But the other night Hugh was changing voices, turning on sound effects, riffing on one subject after the other, and all so fast it was hard to keep up with his mental chord changes. The story of the Diamond T truck driver who picked him up when he was 17 for a ride to New York jarred the notion of the simple knight-of-the-road we’ve had fed us for so long. Funnier though was the imitation of the old lady who found Superman in her closet, or of how Margo Lane and Lamont Cranston — better know as The Shadow — cut up in their all-glass house in New Rochelle. Rough stuff some of it, crude as the groundlings could want, but deft and occasionally brilliant — like his true experience of fending off a knifer in Hartford by propping a marble table over the door, and how weirdly illogical cops worried over the “marble door” when they got there.

And then there’s Moondog, resplendent in his long grey hair and beard, his hermetic monk’s garb and even more hermetic voice. Usually seen around 53rd and Sixth, he’s come to the Fat Black to star in this triumvirate. Moondog reads couplets while a lovely young woman with strawberry blonde hair named Suzanne Fremon (a Julliard graduate who’s just started working with him) plays his Bach-like canons on the piano. Just watching them is a delight — Moondog’s peripatetic hands “playing” his couplets on a Braille sheet while Suzanne energetically plays at the decrepit upright. Aphorisms come out, some of them only corny doggerel, some of almost Haiku precision, some with a shocking aptness for our time. The remedy for the city, for instance, is “the atom (that) will remove the cancer from the body politic.” But more like Edith Sitwell is his “the quaver hid behind and looked across his demi-tasse, to see a semi-quaver sip his demi-semi-tasse.” Neo-Baroque and very Humanist in spite of his aridity, Moondog leaves us close to reality, weird costume or not.

The Fat Black offering is a jolt, and sometimes a joke. But save for the occasional gauchery or completely subjective insanity, it’s no freak show. It really says something. And because it does take the trouble to communicate, it falls into an old Village tradition. That is, it serves to remind us that the truly insane are still those living beyond the seashores of Bohemia.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 12, 2019

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