Welcome to the Stoney Zone, where free speech still rules.
A fixture at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, street performer Stoney Burke has been riffing on current events from a progessive perspective in Cal’s free speech zone since the mid ’70s. But when he first hit campus, it was as a mime. Stoney soon realized he was going to have to ramp up his game to get any attention. That’s when he went into full Mort Sahl mode, without the V-neck or rolled up newspaper. While not an overnight success, the Stoneman has done a lot more than just draw a semi-circle crowd at Sproul with his musings. Back in the day, none other than Whoopi Goldberg, during her Berkeley period, opened for Stoney. He has also appeared in films such as The Matrix Reloaded, Bartleby, and The Californians. In 2006, the city of San Francisco held Stoney Day to honor his street-performing exploits. He has even had a Swedish documentary team follow him around doing his thing to produce the film An American in America. Now Stoney has a new book out about his life on the street entitled Weapon: Mouth, Adventures in the Free Speech Zone. The book’s title comes from the actual description a UCLA police officer used to describe his arrest of Stoney on that campus for what he was wielding. Fully girded, I recently called the Stoneman to see what he had stuck in his craw.
PK: Now that I have a smartphone, I have a new way of walking where one eye is on my phone and one eye is on traffic. How does a distracted audience impact the street performer?
SB: You’re asking all the right questions—the ones I was afraid to put in the book. It’s like “BC,” Before Computers. Who was your competition? Nobody, except maybe another street performer. But now what you might call the 1 percent’s product is right in front of you. There will never be a time when you perform outside now when someone (who is perhaps the best person you’ve got in the front, laughing their ass off) all of a sudden has their phone ring. They look at you, turn their back, and if you’re lucky, leave the circle. If you’re not lucky, they’ll carry on a conversation right in front of you, and I’m thinking, oh, my god. When you go to the theater, of course, they say turn off your cellphones or go outside.
PK: That’s a huge problem. We are also seeing a resurgence of protests now about the violence against young black men by the police. The protests have turned violent. Is that inevitable?
SB: I suppose the long answer is that it’s complicated and there are a lot of elements out there that you have no control over, but there is a cadre of people that come to demonstrations and break stuff. I’m not into breaking things personally.
PK: I know you’re not.
SB: And I’ve said to people many times: It’s easier to break a thing than it is to build it. One of the student protesters from Cal—she said a very intelligent thing: Aren’t we protesting against violence? Why are we going to a demonstration and being violent? It’s like a cancer. I mean, the Occupy movement? Where did that go? It went nowhere because of that. What are we trying to do here? Can’t you have your own party where it’s, “Let’s break windows” or whatever? I’m not gonna be there.
PK: Right. Have the ancillary riot for people that want to engage the police. I know you tried to the spin the rumor that you would be a replacement for recent Cal commencement speaker and infidel Bill Maher, but that ship has already sailed. How about just getting on his HBO show?
SB: Well, I was trying to spin that rumor on the Internet. It’s getting a little bit of traction, I think. Something is happening, but I’m not getting any calls supporting me.
PK: How about just getting on his HBO show?
SB: Oh, definitely. One shot on his show with my book? That would change my life.
PK: Stoney, brah, let me talk to my peeps.
SB: Like I haven’t heard that one a million times.
PK: Hey, a million plus one. It can’t hurt. The pendulum is swinging back to the right in this country. Why? Is it just hatred of Obama? Racism?
SB: Yeah, hatred of Obama, racism. I mean, we started this whole conversation discussing short attention spans. Shorter attention spans just favor the right, the ones who put candy in your mouth about money and profits. Changing the world takes time. Some people said that in this last election the Millennials checked out. They said Obama is not the perfect guy, click delete. Let’s go back to the other side.
PK: As a street performer, what do you consider the price of admission. What’s a ticket to your show? A dollar?
SB: I just give it away. But other comics like Andrew “Dice” Clay, who made his career making fun of homeless people? If you actually have them in your audience 4 feet away like I do, you wouldn’t talk about them like that. And you wouldn’t take any money from them, either.
PK: Right, but I mean just in general you’re in the service industry, getting tips. What if you could take donations like it was Uber? What if somebody could walk by, dig your act, and donate to the “Stoney Zone App” on their smartphone?
SB: You’ve got a damn good idea. I think we need a Kickstarter campaign for this.
PK: Yeah, let’s get this going. I’ll talk to my homie Travis.
SB: But to make it fair, the next day when they’re walking by, if they don’t like what I’m doing, they can deduct money.
PK: I don’t think you need to be quite that fair.
SB: I don’t know of any other street performer who has done that.
PK: Duh. Dude, street performers need apps like a hog needs slop. Let’s get on this, now. We need to be “distruptive” in the street performer sector.
SB: Absolutely. You should be able to find any street performer at any time by hitting the button on your Stoney Zone app.
PK: Yep. It’s that whole other aspect of the Stoney Zone. Where is the nearest street performer? How far away am I from some mime action? Or a guy drumming his heart out on a set of upturned plastic buckets? Oh, how I love that sound. Stoney will always let you know—just click and be there now, mein freund.
SB: I’ve always joked about making being a street performer at Cal’s Sproul Plaza into a video game like that Grand Theft Auto. You get past the Jesus guy. Then there’s the “Everything is Beautiful” person and the half-naked weirdo. Get to the top and you’ve reached the Stoney spot.
For more Kilduff, visit the “Kilduff File Super Fan Page” on Facebook.
Birthplace: Highland Park, Mich.
Astrological Sign: Capricorn
Heroes: George Carlin and my parents
Former Motto: “To live outside the law you must be careful.”
Twitter account: twitter.com/stoneyburke