COYLE & SHARPE / ARTICLES
Liner Notes, Coyle & Sharpe On The Loose
written by Jennifer Sharpe
Released in 1995
That's where Jim and I spent the night in jail." My father is pointing to a drab civic building off the freeway. As we drive past it, my father tells the story of how he and Jim had been working that day, hovering the streets of San Francisco with their hidden tape recorder looking to create and record tense situations. Having successfully ensnared a pedestrian into conversation, Coyle & Sharpe were now needling him to lend them his car in the interest of "trusting citizens you've never seen before." Jim and my father had just psychologically throttled their subject into believing their pitch, when, all of the sudden, the man panicked, hailed a police officer and had them both arrested. Aside from this story and a few others like it, I never knew much about this Jim person, a.k.a. James P. Coyle, who had disappeared before I was born. Vaguely, I knew that he and my father had worked together in the early sixties, that they had had a radio show (Coyle & Sharpe on the Loose), that they'd put out a couple of records (The Absurd Imposters and The Insane Minds of Coyle and Sharpe) and that they had made a television pilot for a show that would have been called The Imposters, had it sold. The Coyle & Sharpe albums lying around the house and the few black and white photographs of the two men in action seemed like relics of some long since buried old-world experience. The interviews themselves, or, as Jim liked to call them, the "terrorizations," were stored on 1/4" reel to reel tape which took up more space in our closets than the belongings of an additional sibling. Despite the looming presence of these dingy tapes, no one in my family ever touched or discussed them, and ultimately, it was in the interest of freeing up closet space that we began to transfer them onto DAT. One hundred hours of Coyle & Sharpe tape transfers later, I realized that I still didn't know much about the origins of these interviews, so I called my father and asked about his venture with Jim Coyle. As loosely translated from Mal-speak, this is their story:
It was the late 1950s when my father first spotted Jim Coyle pestering other dinner guests at a San Francisco boarding house. When Jim turned to my father and asked him what he did for a living, my father told him that he specialized in animal-to-human brain transplantations and that he was waiting to receive a flamingo brain. In turn, Jim confessed that although he looked like he was in his late twenties, he was, in fact, 83 years old and living off of a Spanish American War Pension. This was the inaugural conversation between Coyle & Sharpe, the conversation to spawn their friendship which would, for the next few months, revolve around the edgy terrorizations they would generate within San Francisco business establishments. Although they had no professional aspirations for these terrorizations, they did occasionally enjoy small monetary benefits. For example, Jim would turn his collar backwards and accompany my father to movies dressed as a priest. More often than not, Jim would be addressed as "Father" at the ticket booth, and with much deference, the conspirators would be ushered into the theater for free.
In 1959, my father left San Francisco and Jim Coyle behind for New York--he'd been hired by the United States Government to write army training films. I should mention here that Jim, who had dropped out of high school to play semi-pro baseball, was now 28 years old and had held about 140 jobs. According to his wife, Naomi, Jim enjoyed the challenge of conning his way into jobs he wasn't qualified for. He would stay for one paycheck, find a way to get himself fired, cash in on the severance pay, and then go on to the next job. As my father explains, "Jim was just sort of a harmless con-man drifting around America." Eventually Jim left the Bay Area and drifted into New York City where he and my father ran into each other on the street. The two immediately resumed their ways, this time, focusing their powers of manipulation on confused tourists in Greenwich Village. While both were making decent money at their jobs, the dreariness of a 9 to 5 existence began to hit them and they started to wonder if there was a way to convert these "terrorizations" into some sort of money making venture. That's when they decided to move back to San Francisco and buy the "Mohawk."
The "Mohawk," most commonly used by F.B.I. agents at the time, was a steel tape recorder measuring approximately 3" X 12". Although the Mohawk ran forward, to rewind it, you had to grab its handle, which looked like a fishing reel, and manually wind the tape back. After purchasing this technology, Coyle & Sharpe stuffed it into a briefcase and cut a small hole out of the top, out of which peeked their tiny microphone. Jim and my father then wandered San Francisco for two years, planting the briefcase on store countertops, recording scenarios with employees such as "Druggist." Fantasy Records, which my father describes as having been "a pretty far out, small label that had people like Lenny Bruce and Dave Brubeck on it," signed Coyle & Sharpe. But for some reason, Fantasy ultimately decided that the team's material was too sick to release. Their relationship with Fantasy Records ended when the head of the company threw all of their tapes down a flight of stairs screaming, "Get out of here, you Communists!" Warner Bros., who were doing well with comedy acts like Bill Cosby and Bob Newhart, ultimately agreed to sign them. Because Bob Newhart's albums were selling millions, Coyle & Sharpe were confident that they, too, would become millionaires. Their first album, The Absurd Imposters, was finally released in 1963. It only sold 13,000 copies.
Out in Chicago, one of the 13,000 to buy the album was Jim Dunbar, who had just been hired to reformat KGO radio in San Francisco. KGO's nightly 7 to 10 p.m. slot, formerly filled with religious programming, was replaced by a new show called Coyle and Sharpe on the Loose. C&S, who had never done radio work before, were suddenly faced with the terror of filling 18 hours of air time a week. They realized that they would have to completely reinvent their format--their clandestine briefcase technique, with its unpredictable sound quality, had given them only five hours of good material in two years--so they began stopping people on the street with microphone and tape recorder in full view. Coyle & Sharpe's taped confrontations were quickly embraced by San Francisco listeners; according to an article in Newsweek, their ratings increased by 2,200% within nine months and generated more fan mail than any other ABC show on the air at that time. Even Warner Bros. felt a new surge of confidence in them and decided to go ahead and release a second album, The Insane Minds of Coyle & Sharpe. But Coyle & Sharpe on the Loose came to an end after about two years, shortly after Jim and my father had secretly moved to Los Angeles. I say "secretly" because Coyle & Sharpe did not tell KGO that they had left the Bay Area. They stood at various Los Angeles locations, like the Santa Monica Pier, and began interviews with, "we're here on Market St. in San Francisco..." They would gather their week's worth of material, head up to San Francisco, drop the tapes off, linger around the radio station for a while as if they still lived around the corner, and then drive back to L.A. Although KGO never suspected this transplantation, they were fired anyway. At a party, many years later, my father actually met the ABC executive responsible for kicking the team off the air. The executive boasted that he had been driving across the Bay Bridge en-route to his first day of work at KGO, when he heard Coyle & Sharpe for the first time. Appalled, he thought, "What is THAT doing on an ABC station?"
By 1965, Coyle and Sharpe were hovering around Los Angeles without work. My father had married my future mother, Sandra, and the two couples lived in Westwood. Things got optimistic when they shot a hidden camera television pilot with George Fenneman, best known as Groucho Marx's sidekick on You Bet Your Life, but the pilot didn't sell and there were no job offers from L.A. radio. On a personal level, the partnership was becoming a bad marriage. One day, my parents called the Coyles and there was no answer. After days of attempting to locate them, a mutual friend, Bev Barton, revealed that the couple had borrowed his luggage and headed off to New York. Neither the Coyles nor the luggage would resurface for twenty years. My parents stayed in Los Angeles where my father finally found work and became known as The-Man-On-the-Street, doing hundreds of ads for radio and TV, a TV series filmed in towns around America called The Street People, and two albums for Rhino. The Coyles were still M.I.A.
In 1979, when I was ten, my parents moved to Berkeley, and in 1985 my father decided to track down Jim Coyle--he had gotten over the animosity of their unspoken rift. Through a mutual friend, he learned that the Coyles were living in Cambridge, England. In their first conversation in twenty years (which my father taped), Jim explained that he had fled "the vulgarity of Los Angeles" for New York, then gone to Austria in the early 1970s, to Germany, and finally, to Cambridge, where he'd devoted his life to the pursuit of philosophical ideas (primarily Nietzsche's and Heidegger's) and music (Mahler and Bruckner); he'd never worked in broadcasting or humor again. Carl Coyle, son of Jim and Naomi, has told me that none of Jim's Cambridge contemporaries even detected a shred of humor in his father, nor were they in any way aware of his previous career. Naomi Coyle recently told me, "I knew when I walked into the room that day and heard Jim on the phone, that he had to be talking to Mal--I hadn't heard him chuckle that way in years."
Jim died in February, 1993, of diabetes; he was 61 years
old. Although Jim is gone, his widow, Naomi, very much carries the Coylean spirit
of the put-on. I met Naomi for the first time last week when a friend, Ken,
interviewed her in his Soho apartment about the Coyle & Sharpe days for
his radio show. When Mrs. Coyle walked into Ken's apartment, she immediately
suggested that we wait for "Trevor and his camera crew." Totally confused
and slightly horrified, Ken repeatedly explained, "this is just a radio
interview, not television...r-a-a-a-d-i-o." Even after Naomi revealed that
this was all a put-on, I could see that Ken was still really rattled. Ken never
heard the original Coyle & Sharpe on the Loose broadcasts--he isn't old
enough--yet he avidly collects and airs their interviews. It amazes me that
these interviews are still circulated thirty years later and that they still
push people's buttons. In short, it amazes me that these interviews have managed
to live on and possess meaning.
Although there has always been a core of small but maniacal Coyle & Sharpe fans out there, I was never one of them. I have to admit that I actually felt a sense of horror when my father asked me to transfer all of the tapes a year ago. The overwhelming population of 1/4" reels which I thought I'd finally gotten away from had followed me once again, this time, to my New York City apartment. When I reluctantly threaded the first deteriorating tape onto my reel to reel and began listening, I was taken aback by the strange and distant world of chirpy voices that suddenly came to life over my speakers. Within a few hours, I had become totally engrossed in this mangle of conversations which revolved around mutation, experimental surgery, Bugravia, criminal scams, and other crackpot ideas. Around that same time, a strange, coincidental thing happened. Out of the blue, my father got a call from what would turn out to be one of the more intense Coyle & Sharpe fans I've ever met. "Have you ever heard of someone named Henry Rollins?" my mother asked me. "Well, he called Mal today and he wants to put out a Coyle & Sharpe CD--apparently he's been trying to track Mal down for years." The odd convergence of Henry's phone call, my parents' urge to "free up closet space," and my unforseen fascination with the material is what led to this CD.
After listening to all of the tapes now, I am struck by the fact that beyond their sheer entertainment value, these interviews inadvertently reveal America in the early 60's on it's way to major change: the Vietnam War, the Watts riots, the first human heart transplant, Charles Manson, the assassinations of J.F.K. and Malcolm X, psychedelia, and the first man on the moon. I've come to think that the mindset of the early sixties was not so different from that of the nineties--we have a lot of the same excitement, fear, and innocence about technology. Thirty years ago, technology was revolutionizing air travel and worldwide communications, bringing people into contact with cultures and ideas that threw their own 1950's identities into crisis. Today, interactive cyberspacian technologies seem be doing the same thing. In that way, these interviews manage to reflect how freaked out and naive we people were then and still are, now.