Sunday, May 8, 2011
Long May He Wave
Wavy Gravy, the raspy-voiced 1960s icon who famously announced to the crowd at Woodstock, "What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000," will turn 75 on Sunday. And what a long, strange trip it's been.
Wavy - whom satirist Paul Krassner calls "a cross between Harpo Marx and Mother Theresa" - will celebrate with a public "Birthday Boogie" Saturday night at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond, featuring a Who's Who of the Bay Area music scene including Bob Weir and Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead, Barry Melton of Country Joe and the Fish, Henry Kaiser, Ace of Cups, and Narada Michael Walden.
It's a fundraiser for Wavy's favorite charity, the Seva (a Sanskrit word for "service to humankind") Foundation, which Wavy co-founded in 1978 with spiritual leader Ram Dass and public health expert Larry Brilliant to fight preventable and curable blindness in Asia and Africa.
"Thirty years and three million eye surgeries later, we're still truckin'!" he says.
Wavy, who describes himself as "an activist clown and former frozen dessert" - a reference to Ben & Jerry's naming a flavor after him - was born Hugh Romney on May 15, 1936 in East Greenbush, New York. But soon afterward his family moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where one of his neighbors was a kindly old man named Albert Einstein, who took him on daily walks around the block.
"I was only five, but I still remember that shock of white hair that predated Don King by half a century, the twinkle in his eye, his sneakers with no logo, and, especially, the way he smelled.
"I've never smelled anything like it since; but if I ever do, I'm gonna walk up to the guy and say, 'Hey man, you smell like Albert Einstein!'"
Flash forward 20 years to Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, where he found a job as poetry director at the Gaslight Café.
He shared a room above the café with a fledgling songwriter from Minnesota named Bob Dylan, who wrote the first draft of "A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall" on an old manual typewriter in that room.
One of the café's steady customers was Marlene Dietrich, who gave him a book of poems by Rilke.
"I still have the book, but I still haven't read the poems," he confesses.
At about this time he embarked on a career as a monologist, "talking about the weird stuff that had happened to me," opening shows for John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Peter, Paul & Mary.
His manager was standup comic Lenny Bruce, who gave him a new stage name: Al Dente. Bruce also gave him a yarmulke sewn inside a cowboy hat that once belonged to silent movie star Tom Mix "so I could say, 'Howdy, Goyim!'"
Next, he formed a musical review with Tiny Tim and Moondog at a dubious venue called the Fat Black Pussycat.
"We got front page in the Village Voice and a rave review in the New York Times," he recalls. "The next day the sheriff came and padlocked the joint for back taxes."
So he headed out to San Francisco, where he did a stint with The Committee, then moved to Los Angeles, where he taught improvisational techniques to Hollywood actors by day and neurologically handicapped kids by night.
In 1965, when he and his wife, Jahanara (then called Bonnie Jean), were living in a one-room cabin outside Los Angeles with about 40 friends, including fellow ice cream flavor Jerry Garcia, they all posed for a Life magazine cover photo.
"The landlord freaked out and evicted us, but the next day a neighbor came by and said, 'Old Saul up on the mountain had a stroke, and they need somebody to slop them hogs!' So we were given the mountain top rent-free if we would take care of about 60 hogs the size of Davenports."
And so the Hog Farm was born. Eventually, the Hog Farm moved north to Black Oak Ranch in Laytonville, which boasts a lake - Lake Veronica - with a raft named George and a 350-foot water slide from Marine World.
In 1969 the Hog Farmers were hired by the promoters of the Woodstock Music Festival to build fire trails around the festival grounds.
"But we convinced them to let us set up a free kitchen, too. When we got to JFK Airport a bunch of reporters were there to meet us, and they told us we had been chosen to provide the security, too. I said, 'My God! They made us the cops?'"
By the time the festival was over, Wavy - or as he was still known, Hugh Romney - had become the MC.
A few weeks later, he was performing similar tasks at the Texas Pop Festival, where the great bluesman B.B. King dubbed him "Wavy Gravy." And Wavy Gravy he has remained ever since - except in the pages of the New York Times, which refers to him as "Mr. Gravy."
It was inevitable that the free kitchen concept would be expanded internationally, and when a horrible flood struck Pakistan, Wavy knew what to do.
"We'd had so much attention from the free kitchen at Woodstock, we thought if were in Pakistan with any kind of food, it would embarrass the government into speeding up food relief."
When war broke out between Pakistan and India, the Hog Farmers "hung a left into Kathmandu" and continued their work in Nepal and Tibet, building playgrounds and distributing food and medical supplies on the way. In Nepal they met large numbers of blind people, most of them suffering from conditions that were easily preventable or treatable.
And so the Seva Foundation was born, with help from $10,000 in seed money from rock promoter Bill Graham.
"Bill had no idea what it was all about, so I was flabbergasted when he gave me the check," Wavy recalls. "I asked him, 'Why are you doing this?' And he said, 'Because you did not hit on me, my friend.'"
In addition to fighting blindness in the Third World, the foundation has branched out in recent years to prevent diabetes and other chronic health problems in Native American communities in the U.S.
In 1975 Wavy launched Camp Winnarainbow, a clown camp at the Hog Farm offering sessions for both adults and children, who learn juggling, unicycling, tightrope walking, trapeze, music and art.
"Grownup camp is just like kids' camp, except you get to stay up late and you don't have to brush your teeth," he says. "We're not trying to turn out little professional circus stars. We're trying to produce universal human beings who can deal with whatever comes down the pike with some style and grace."
The camp offers scholarships to homeless children from the Bay Area and Native American kids from a reservation in South Dakota, funded by Wavy's royalties from Ben & Jerry's ice cream sales.
Only one rule at Camp Winnarainbow: No drugs.
"We're very firm about that," he says. "I can do nicely, but lots of people can't get stoned and work."
These days, Wavy splits his time between the Hog Farm and his home in Berkeley, a communal house that he calls the Hippie Hyannisport. Every nook is filled with books, beads, Buddhas, incense, wind-up teeth, moose antlers and Mickey Mouse and Goofy figurines. Dominating the scene is an enormous, larger-than-life portrait of Wavy.
"David Crosby bought it at a flea market. He held on to it for two years, then he mailed it to me. He said he couldn't stand me staring at him any more."
So what's next for Wavy Gravy?
"I don't know. As Tiny Tim always used to say to me, 'Time will tell.'"