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Mal on the Street 

Verbal Prankster Mal Sharpe and his partner, Jim Coyle, bushwacked San Francisco in the early '60s, posing absurd man-in-the street questions to the unsuspecting. Taping the encounters, the dup invented a shtick that was part comedy, part performance art

Wednesday, May 24 1995
America in the early '60s: people whistling songs from West Side Story. First-class postage costs 4 cents. Jet airliners have made intercontinental travel practical. Alan Shepard Jr. rides a Mercury capsule into the space race. JFK halfheartedly invades Cuba. Cassius Clay is crowned light heavyweight champion of the world. Color TV flickers in the living rooms of the wealthy. NaivetŽ and optimism have not yet given way to conspiracy and protest.

And in San Francisco, hipsters and anarchists are bubbling to the surface once again. Howard K. Smith brings a CBS News crew to North Beach as part of a radio program called The Hidden Revolution to get to the bottom of this crazy beat thing. Kenneth Rexroth and City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti are helping promote poetry readings in North Beach clubs and coffeehouses like the Cellar and the Blackhawk. Berkeley-based Fantasy Records, flush with cash from high-charting jazz albums, signs deals with spoken-word iconoclasts like Lenny Bruce, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg.

But Fantasy Records co-owners Sol and Max Weiss have an abrupt change of heart over another hip project, an anarchistic album idea by two young men in suits named Jim Coyle and Mal Sharpe, who are obsessed with the art of ambush. Prefiguring '90s phone-pranksters such as the Jerky Boys and video vŽritŽ like America's Funniest Home Videos, Coyle and Sharpe have conducted wildly improvised man-on-the-street interviews with unsuspecting San Franciscans and submitted the tapes to Fantasy. Packing a tape recorder hidden in a briefcase, the duo double-teams credulous citizens with straight-faced yet oddball questions like, "Are you essentially opposed to taking an animal and trying to evoke music from it?"

But the material is just too weird for Fantasy Records. Max Weiss heaves the precious tapes down a flight of stairs at Coyle and Sharpe and screams:

"Get out of here, you communists!"
Three decades later, Ginsberg still writes poetry, Ferlinghetti still helms City Lights Books and Mal Sharpe -- after releasing albums on Warner Bros. and Rhino, creating and hosting numerous TV and radio shows, and building a loopy career in advertising -- still conducts man-on-the-street interviews.

Sharpe's absurdist humor is currently enjoying a major revival, too, although such a revival is undeserved when its subject never went out of vogue. Maintaining his presence in Bay Area TV, radio and advertising for these many decades, Sharpe remains as common as a Pete Wilson anchor desk update -- and infinitely more interesting. Even so, a retrospective of his video wackiness recently aired on KQED-TV; punk mogul Henry Rollins is issuing a CD of unreleased Coyle and Sharpe material on his 213CD label; and New York's public radio station, WFMU, has scheduled the rebroadcast of old KGO-AM Coyle and Sharpe programs.

And though Sharpe lives in Kampuchea by the Bay -- Berkeley -- Max Weiss was wrong to characterize him as a communist. The Weiss brothers did have a knack for spotting talent. They just shouldn't have taken Joe McCarthy seriously.

EE"We never knew what he meant," says Sharpe of the commie comment. "It was so weird."

Born in 1936, Malcolm Sharpe grew up an only child in Boston and studied broadcasting at Boston University. He enrolled in ROTC, attended Michigan State for a year, then in 1959, with six months to kill before active duty, was drawn to San Francisco by the bohemian looks of the city depicted on a Turk Murphy album jacket. Sharpe landed a job at Macy's and met a beatnik girl who introduced him to North Beach.

EEE"She had a mattress on the floor and stuff made out of orange crates, and she was living with a guy but she wasn't going out with him, and I thought, 'This is so cool!'"

Sharpe boarded at a co-ed guest house at Broadway and Laguna, and during dinner one night found himself engaged in conversation with an intense young man with a large vocabulary: Jim Coyle.

Coyle asked Sharpe what he did for a living and Sharpe replied that he specialized in animal-to-human brain transplants, and that he was actually waiting to receive a flamingo brain. Coyle offered his own autobiography, revealing that while he looked 23, he was 80 and a Spanish-American War pensioner.

Coyle was an autodidact who had read Nietzsche and claimed to have held 114 jobs for durations ranging from 25 minutes to two months; Mal remembers himself as "just a guy out of college." Coyle looked the part of a short, freckled IBM executive. Sharpe stood at least 6 feet 5 inches, large-nosed and dark, with sinister-looking eyes. Coyle was biting and quick; Sharpe, probing and ironic.

Despite their polar natures, the two hit it off, staging pranks throughout the city, harassing innocent tourists, lying their way through Financial District job interviews.

"He was the kind of guy that would become your mentor in a strange way," Sharpe says of Coyle. "He was very intelligent, and turned me on to all this stuff. And he had other friends like that, people who would sort of become his acolytes."

When Sharpe moved to New York in 1960 to write Army training films, he bumped into -- who else? -- Jim Coyle. Realizing some sort of destiny, the two moved back to San Francisco in 1961 to carve out a career with their mischievous talent. They obtained a Mohawk tape recorder, a concealable and portable model favored by private investigators, and mounted it inside a briefcase.

They entertained vague ideas of perhaps releasing a record, but like many of their peers, they didn't care as much about the money as they did the adventure.

For almost two years, Coyle and Sharpe stalked the streets, spoofing people and taping the results. Both were basically broke: Sharpe made ends meet with $14 a week playing trombone in a North Beach club, until he and his fellow musicians were bumped by a topless all-girl combo. Coyle made his living getting jobs from which he promptly was fired or quit. A typical C&S day might begin over coffee at a bakery, where they would discuss the day's ideas, choose a neighborhood and hop a bus in their suits.

About The Author

Jack Boulware


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