Ah, the sixties in San Francisco. What a time to be alive!
I was living a triple life. First, I was a graduate student in anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley. Second, I was a writer for the "Berkeley Barb," under the pen name "Harpo" (my silent voice). And third, I was a standup performer--Captain Contraceptive--doing satirical monologues in golden sneakers, black tights, and a maroon velvet, silk-lined cape.
My partner, who accompanied me on a priceless Amati bass (fiddle, not guitar) was known as Billy Pill. Together, we cruised the night in our Foam-mobile, searching for our supervillain arch-enemy: THE MOTHER. (Actually, we cruised Upper Grant Avenue in the City, where we played The long-gone Coffee Gallery every weekend.)
One of my favorite places in Berkeley was, of course, Moe's Books. You could not only find eclectic reading at very affordable prices, but there was the pleasure of Moe's company. I used to hang out at the cash register just to listen to him comment on the passing scene. Turns out we had an additional connection: we had both attended Queens College in New York City.
Moe was always very kind and encouraging to me, and expressed regret that he could never get to North Beach to see me perform. One day, he said, "Why don't you do your act here in the store? I'll get another act, we'll rig up a stage area, and make an event out of it."
Of course, I was delighted, and Moe was as good as his word. He teamed me with an esoteric neo-classical guitarist named John Fahey, who was known (still is) in somewhat rarified circles of guitar afficienados -- a most unlikely double bill, which I think tickled Moe's love for the absurd. Fahey, an artist who takes himself and his music very seriously, was clearly not amused to be sharing the stage with Captain Contraceptive and Billy Pill. Which added to Moe's delight.
At about this time, Moe was interviewed by a local newspaper for a profile of him and his store, which was a beloved local fixture (still is, thanks to his daughter Doris.)
In the article, the writer referred to Moe as "a balding intellectual." When he showed it to me, he was highly amused, but pretended to be outraged. "Balding intellectual? Out of all the ways they could have chosen to describe me they settle on 'balding intellectual?' What the hell is that? Some kind of putdown? Who the hell do they think they are? Will no one speak up for balding intellectuals?"
So Moe declared that he was founding a new organization, to add to the many that were always springing up in Berkeley, making the landscape an alphabet soup of abbreviations and acronyms: The Society for the Defense of Balding Intellectuals. Or, as he preferred to abbreviate it, S. F. D. B. I.
About a week before the gig, psychedelic-style posters started appearing in the store and around town. They read, enigmatically: S. F. D. B. I. PRESENTS JOHN FAHEY AND THE CONTRACEPTIVE AT MOE'S BOOKS. On the appointed night, the place was packed and the show was a success. Moe even paid us. We both knew he didn't have to. It was so much fun we would have done it for free.
Richard Milner, an Anthropology Associate at the American Museum of Natural History, is author of The Encyclopedia of Evolution and Contributing Editor to Natural History Magazine. A Darwin scholar and musician, he's been able to combine the two into a musical called: Charles Darwin Live in Concert. You can also read MR. Milner's blog at Redroom.com
Also, a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle about Richard Milner's one-man show when in San Francisco celebrating Darwin's bicentennial .