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It Wasn't Moondog's Night to Howl : Even When Harrelson's Alter Ego Turned Off the Politics, He Couldn't Make Fans Dance

September 10, 1991|JESS BRAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

FOUNTAIN VALLEY--Setting down his copy of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," Woody Harrelson outlined the mission he had taken to Orange County.

He had come, he said, to enlighten the masses about the failures of American society, from its inability to protect the spotted owl to its collapsing school system.

He felt compelled, he said, to rip the lid off a U.S. government he blasted as "corrupt" for its wasteful military spending and its complicity in the destruction of Amazon rain forests.

Then the Emmy Award-winning star of "Cheers," the actor-activist whose outspoken opposition to the Persian Gulf War had thrust him in the harsh light of public controversy, unveiled the medium for his message:

Manly Moondog and the Three Kool Kats.

In his alter ego as Moondog, accompanied by the three-part harmonies of the Kool Kats, two electric guitars and a three-member horn section, Harrelson brought his agenda Sunday night to the Hop, a rock 'n' roll nostalgia club in a shopping mall.

Or, he'd planned to, at any rate.

"Music," Harrelson explained before his show, "has potentially more power than any other medium. I feel that if in any way I can get across the way I'm looking at the world, maybe people will say, 'Hmmm, maybe he's right,' and then, suddenly, we'd have some unity."

Though tempering his agenda with a dose of humility ("God only knows that what the world needs now isn't another TV actor trying to sing," he allowed), Harrelson did point out his rock 'n' roll credentials. As a student at Indiana's Hanover College, he had headed a band called Woody and the Off-Keys that specialized in satirizing the school administration. Later, while struggling in New York to build his acting career, he occasionally composed and performed songs with friends.

And now, as Manly Moondog, Harrelson appears occasionally at local clubs, singing covers of rock oldies as well as his own compositions, which he writes with guitarist Alphonse Kettner.

"Hey you," goes the chorus of Harrelson's "Hey You,"

in love with your nation.

Hey you, patriotic generation.

Hey you, clinging to your Red, White and Blue.

Hey you, we've got a lot of thinking to do.

The song goes on to score the U.S. government for disproportionately taxing the poor while neglecting children's health and ignoring urban blight. "You got to bring your leaders down," it urges listeners.

But when Harrelson took the stage Sunday night, "Hey You" wasn't on the playlist. Though he did perform several of his own songs, including the anti-war "Celebrate Yourself" and the autobiographical "TV Star Blues," Harrelson said he toned down his repertoire because of Orange County's legendary conservatism.

"People here have some hard-core belief systems, and they kind of shut down if you affront them," he said later. "I decided I just wanted to make them dance."

Even this aim, though, was somewhat frustrated. In the intimate setting of the Hop, where the stage is barely 2 feet above the dance floor and the musicians perform at an elbow-length's distance from audience, the energetic Harrelson and his band began their set to the perplexed stares of the 150 or so patrons.

"They were just kind of sitting there, looking at me," Harrelson said.

The reason, many of Harrelson's fans confessed, is because they came to the Hop expecting neither a lesson in political correctness nor bar-band rock 'n' roll.

His appearance had been billed as "Woody Harrelson In Concert," and "I thought it was going to be a comedy show," said Colleen Clark, 28, of Costa Mesa.

"I thought it was going to be a comedy act," said Denise Halstead, 35, of Irvine.

"I thought it was going to be stand-up comedy," added Sean Elkin, 24, of Fountain Valley.

Nonetheless, patrons said they enjoyed Harrelson's music, even if it was a surprise. And many, such as John Ratfelder, 24, of Costa Mesa, said that though they disapprove of Harrelson's politics, they appreciated his friendly, unassuming manner.

"I think President Bush is the best thing that's happened to this country in years," Ratfelder said. "But Woody is super down-to-earth. He's a lovable character."

And Harrelson, who said he was happy just to be able to perform, wound up pledging to give his fans more of what they want as he takes his musical mission further on down the road.

"Between now and the next time," he said after the concert, "I might have to write a few jokes."

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