Wavy Gravy, Hugh Romney, will turn 70 on May 15, 2006. Fast approaching official geezerhood, he is more active and more effective in the world then he was 37 yrs ago. Back then when still known as Hugh Romney he stood on the stage of the original Woodstock concert and announced...." What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000!" He was at Woodstock as a member of an entertainment/activist commune known as the Hog Farm. Today, the Hog Farm still exists, collectively owning and operating the 700-acre Black Oak Ranch and hosting the annual Pig-Nic. And Wavy lives a third of the year in a Berkeley Hog Farm urban outpost, a big communal house he refers to as "hippie Hyannisport" But Mr. Gravy (as he's known to readers of the New York Times) has expanded his activities over the past two-and-a-half decades to include codirectorship (with his wife, Jahanara) of Camp Winnarainbow, a performing arts program for children which takes over the Hog Farm for 10 weeks every summer, and the organization of all-star rock concerts to raise money for a variety of environmental, progressive, political, and charitable causes, most notably Seva, a foundation he cofounded 18 years ago, initially to combat preventable and curable blindness in the Third World.
He may be best known to millions as a cosmic cut-up and the inspiration for a Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor – "I am an activist clown and former frozen dessert," he says – but it is because of his good work on behalf of the planet and its least fortunate residents that Wavy Gravy has achieved his own brand of sainthood. His friend and satirist Paul Krassner has called him "the illegitimate son of Harpo Marx and Mother Teresa." Wavy says, "Some people tell me I'm a saint, I tell them I'm Saint Misbehavin'."
"I'm sure that some people could regard Wavy Gravy as a leftover from the '60s crowd," says James O'Dea, executive director of Seva, upon whose board of directors Wavy sits along with a host of MDs and PhDs. "After all, here is this guy who is still hanging out with tie-dyes and seems lost in the '60s. But he really took the '60s idealism and made it his life, and practiced it. We live in a time when, in some ways, there has been a certain unscrupulous use of morality and family values and official religion and righteousness in the public domain. What a remarkable contrast to somebody who spends the summer with inner city kids and the kids of homeless people, teaching them circus performing arts. He is your board member who is always there, who comes to every event, and who is helping you raise money for the 'eyeballs' in India, as he says. He is clearly a person who does his own inner spiritual work in a very persistent way and then matches it with his walk in the world."
Indeed, when you spend any stretch of time with Wavy Gravy, strolling around the Hog Farm during the Pig-Nic, hanging out with him at his "hippie Hyannisport" in Berkeley, observing him in action at a public function – you quickly discover that the man with the rubbery face and ever-changing costume is a walking public service announcement for positive social change and compassion. During an exploration of the Pig-Nic's "backstage" area, which encompasses a meadow with a labyrinth based on an ancient pagan model, a lovely wooded creek, and the magnificent oak grove where the Camp Winnarainbow teepees are pitched, the Balinese gongs of Berkeley's Gamelan Sekar Jaya are ringing through the trees. How many people does he think have migrated to Laytonville for the weekend? "I don't know, count the legs and divide by two," he says. Countless campers, coworkers, and admirers shout Wavy's name or greet him with "Hi, Boss," a title Wavy just as quickly bestows on others.
As Wavy carries a bucket of water from the creek to quench the thirst of the flowers in the labyrinth, it is boggling to imagine the paths he has trodden in his six decades on the planet: As a child growing up in Princeton, New Jersey (he was born in East Greenbush, New York), he took walks around the block with Albert Einstein; when he was poetry director at the Gaslight Cafe on MacDougal Street in New York City during the early 1960s, introducing "jazz and poetry" to Greenwich Village, Marlene Dietrich gave him a book of Rilke poems, and Bob Dylan shared his room upstairs, writing the first draft of "A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall" on his typewriter; when, still as Hugh Romney, he became a traveling monologist, "talking about weird stuff that had happened to me," he opened shows for John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Ian & Sylvia, and organized the Phantom Cabaret with Tiny Tim and Moondog; when Lenny Bruce was his manager, the infamous stand-up comic gave the then Al Dente and future Wavy Gravy a yarmulke to sew inside a cowboy hat that had belonged to Hollywood western star Tom Mix – "So I could say 'Howdy Goyim!" He also earned a part in the San Francisco improvisational group The Committee and later taught improvisation to neurologically handicapped kids in Pasadena.
In 1965, when he and his wife (then known as Bonnie Jean) were living in a one-room cabin in Sunland, California outside Los Angeles, they and 40 of their closest friends in the Grateful Dead and the Merry Pranksters (Kesey was on the lam in Mexico at the time) posed for a photograph for a Life magazine cover. "The landlord went ballistic," Wavy recalls, "and we were bummed for about an hour and a half until a neighbor came by and said, 'Old Saul up on that mountain had a stroke and they need somebody to slop them hogs!’ So we were given a mountain top rent-free for slopping 45 hogs." Thus was born the Hog Farm, soon to hit the road in buses purchased with money earned as extras in Otto Preminger's Skidoo, presenting the free "Hog Farm and Friends in Open Celebration" show all over the country.
And all that took place before Woodstock made Wavy’s raspy voice recognizable to millions; well before he wrote two books: The Hog Farm and Friends (1974) and Something Good For A Change: Random Notes On Peace Thru Living (1992); before he started campaigning on behalf of Nobody for President ("Nobody's Perfect, Nobody Keeps All Promises, Nobody Should Have That Much Power"); and before Gravy splashed all over the rock-and-roll milieu, becoming bosom buddies with everyone from veterans Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills & Nash to neo-punksters Green Day (after acting as an emcee at Woodstock 2).
But celebrity, while crucial to his fund-raising efforts, seems tangential to the essence of Wavy's work. Back in Berkeley, on a hot September morning, he waddles up to his corner bedroom, a psychedelic cave in which every inch of wall space is festooned with posters, photographs, mandalas, banners, and bumper stickers. Every shelf, nook, and cranny is crowded with books, beads, videotapes, Buddha figures, crystals, tetrahedrons, incense, Mickey Mouse and Goofy figurines, antlers, wind-up teeth, and empty soda pop cans. A pair of oversized clown shoes appear to be crawling out of one of the canvas bags on the floor. Wavy's lair feels like a cross between a tree house and a New Age/kitsch shrine to the bard of Woodstock himself.
Wearing shorts and athletic shoes, Wavy settles back on his bed for a two-hour conversation. His short-sleeved shirt is unbuttoned and he dreamily strokes his ample belly as he talks. He looks like nothing less than a reclining Buddha disguised as a counterculture tourist as he waxes rhapsodically through stream-of-consciousness segues about his life's work. Topic number one, dearest to his heart and freshest in his memory because he has just returned from his annual summer sojourn at the Black Oak Ranch, is Camp Winnarainbow.
"We just finished our 24th year," he begins. "It originally started as day care for Sufi kids. I thought it unjust that parents should be penalized spiritually, not being able to meditate and stuff, because they had kids. So I said 'Give me all your kids,' and we concocted this little circus arts day care. We discovered that perhaps the kids would be better off without the parents and the parents would be better off without the kids, so we rented the next camp down the road, which was maybe two miles away, and turned it into an overnight camp." A decade or so ago, the Hog Farm acquired its permanent country land outside Laytonville. "I knew instantly it was ideal for our camp," Wavy says. In addition to the oak grove for camping, the Farm boasts its own lake (Lake Veronica with a raft named George) and a 350-foot water slide from Marine World.
Each summer, Camp Winnarainbow conducts four two-week sessions for kids, a one-week introductory session for seven-year-old novices, and a one-week session for grownups. Volunteer teachers share such skills as juggling, unicycling, tightrope walking, and trapeze, as well as music and art. "Grownup camp is just like kids' camp," Wavy explains, "except you get to stay up late and you don't have to brush your teeth. We're not trying to turn out little professional actors or circus stars, although it does happen. What we're really into is producing universal human beings who can deal with anything that comes down the pike with some style and grace. We've been pretty darn successful at that. A lot of the kids who are running the camp now started as campers when they were seven.They can usually do it on a unicycle while juggling three balls. We curry both hemispheres of the E brain. In school, kids learn numbers and letters; we teach timing and balance, which I think is equally important – without competition, except with yourself."
Camp Winnarainbow's concept of practice embraces so much more than physical skills. Mornings begin with Wavy reading from something like the Tao Te Ching or Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, and then the kids choose between high-intensity aerobics or yoga for their warm-ups. "I've also in the last five years discovered that kids will do anything if they can stay up later than other kids, even sit with a straight back and watch their breath. So we instituted WISE Gaias. WISE is Winnarainbow Inner Space Exploration. Three or four years ago we created a labyrinth for Jose Arguelles’s Dreamspell ceremony. They leave their problems at the center of the labyrinth and come out pretty clean."
Thanks to royalties from the Ben & Jerry's Wavy Gravy ice cream flavor and grants from the Grateful Dead's Rex Foundation, Winnarainbow is able to provide camp scholarships for homeless children from the Bay Area and Native American kids from a reservation in South Dakota. That assures what Wavy calls "a little diverse miniworld."
Not long after the founding of Camp Winnarainbow, Wavy found another way of working with kids. Rather, it found him. Some doctors at Children's Hospital in Oakland had read about all this hippie do-gooder work in the Oakland Tribune, and they stopped by my house and asked if I would come entertain the kids." Still in deep pain from his third spinal surgery and "bouncing on the bottom," as he puts it, Wavy figured he had nothing to lose. "On my way out the door, somebody handed me a rubber nose. Without it I could have struck out completely. With it I was able to move outside my own bummer and make little kids laugh. I thought I had troubles 'til I eyeballed some of those kids!"
Wavy continued to visit kids at the hospital on almost a daily basis for seven years. "Then I went on a tour and came back and they wouldn't let me in anymore. It was quite a blow. I still don't know why, and nobody has been able to find out, but I guess somebody on the board didn't want this hippie freak coming in there." Wavy simply transferred his efforts to the Children's Cancer Research Institute in San Francisco. In his book Something Good for a Change, he tells the story of 11-year-old Billy, who had lost his hair to chemotherapy. Wavy had covered Billy's head with white clown makeup when Billy's little sister came up with the idea of showing a movie on Billy's smooth pate. "Could we, Wavy Gravy?" Billy asked. "Could we please show Godzilla on my head?"
"There was no way I could deny such a bizarre and heartfelt request," Wavy concludes. "So there we all were, sitting around eating popcorn and watching Godzilla on Billy's head."
Of course, Wavy learned many of his strategies, which combine fun and survival, at Woodstock.. The Hog Farm, the "mobile, hallucination-extended family," was on the road on the East Coast in '68 and '69, and was holed up in a big loft on New York's East Side, when Woodstock Ventures made a proposition. "One day this guy showed up looking like Allen Ginsberg on a Dick Gregory diet with an attaché case," Wavy recalls, "and he asked us 'How would you like to do this music festival in New York state?’ The Hog Farm had just rented land in Llano near Black Mesa, New Mexico, and the commune was just about to split the New York scene and settle in Llano. He said, 'We'll fly you in on an Astrojet.’ We just figured he was one toke over the line, went back to New Mexico, and thought nothing of it. So we're celebrating the summer solstice in Llano, and this guy shows up with one of those aluminum rock-and-roll valises full of 'linear overlay,' and an Astrojet with room for 85 hippies and 15 Indians."
Recruited to build fire pits and fire trails around the festival grounds, the Hog Farm convinced the promoter! to let them set up a free kitchen, as well. When they stepped off the plane at Kennedy Airport, the Hog Farmers were met by the world press and told that they had been assigned the task of doing security at Woodstock, too. "I said, 'My god, they made us the cops,"' Wavy recalls. "And I said, 'Well, do you feel secure?’ The guy said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, 'See, it's working already.’ That's when he said. What are you going to use for crowd control?' I said, 'Cream pies and seltzer bottles,' and they all wrote it down and I thought, 'The power of manipulating the media, ah ha!"'
The Hog Farmers' finest hour came with the rains that swamped Max Yasgur's farm and threatened to turn the hippie dream into a National Guard nightmare. "The weather turned Woodstock into a national disaster area," Wavy continues, "and we had a chance to show the world how it would be if we ran the show, so we pulled ourselves up by our collective bootstraps and were amazing – by surrendering ourselves to this interesting energy that enabled us to work days without sleep and intuitively pull off stuff that we couldn't have thought about in our wildest dreams. And the minute we thought that it was us doing it, we'd fall on our butt in the mud. So I think that the universe was acting out these archetypes. I've puzzled over it for decades, and that's the best I can come up with, that there was this amazing energy that you could surrender to, and it would move you."
Shortly after Woodstock, the Hog Farmers helped keep the peace between the cowboys and the hippies at the Texas Pop Festival, where blues giant B. B. King gave Wavy Gravy his name. "It's worked pretty well through my life," he says, "except with telephone operators – I have to say 'Gravy, first initial W."
Another great Hog Farm adventure set the stage for Wavy's participation in the founding of Seva. Recruited by San Francisco underground radio pioneer Tom Donahue and Warner Brothers Records to travel around the country and be filmed for a movie called Cruising for Burgers, later renamed Medicine Ball Caravan, the Farmers bused themselves across America, setting up stages for mainstream rock and rollers. After one last concert with Pink Floyd in Bishopsbourne, England, the Farmers pooled their movie pay and some funds raised for them from a benefit staged by a London commune and continued their trek across Europe. "It was around the time of the great Pakistani flood," Wavy remembers, "and relief was pouring in so very, very slow. There was a line of Gandhi's that hit me at that time, it was something like, 'If God should appear to starving people, God would not dare to appear in any form other than food.’ We'd had so much attention from that free kitchen at Woodstock, we thought if we were in Pakistan with any kind of food, we could embarrass the large governments, and they would speed up the food relief. Then the Indo-Pakistani war broke out, and we hung a left into K-K-K-Kathmandu, distributing food and medical supplies to Tibetan refugee camps as we traveled. We fixed leaky roofs with rolls of plastic and built a playground in Kathmandu for impoverished kids. We also saw a tremendous number of blind people in Nepal."
With locally run sight programs in India, Nepal, and Tibet, Seva provides more than 80,000 eye surgeries a year. It also establishes partnership in Native American communities to tackle the rising epidemic of diabetes, supports work for sustainable agriculture in Chiapas, Mexico, and monitors violence against refugees of the Guatemalan civil war. "What we do is find someone who is a blazing, shining example of doing a particular piece of service, and we just back them hook, line, and sinker," Wavy says of Seva’s strategy, "sometimes providing the flashlight to help them find the light switch.
According to Wavy, his commitment to the kind of work he does was indeed a product of the ‘60s. "That’s when I knew this thing was real," he says, "that it was the only game in town and I wanted to go to work for it, whatever it was. There is a wonderful chapter in The Wind In The Willows, where the mole and the rat rescue this little baby otter who was actually being protected at the moment by the god Pan. Of course the otter’s parents were beside themselves and all, and they saw Pan and they worshipped him, and he gave them the best gift of the gods, which was to sprinkle forgetfulness upon them so they wouldn’t be tortured with the memory of that amazement. I could have used a little of that, because I’m always looking for that mega-, ultra-divine lick. It’s like the cosmic carrot that keeps me in the movie. I began my study of comparative religion and service out of lust for that stuff. It’s another kind of greed. Once you realize the interconnectedness of all stuff, there’s no going back. I have an old Gravy line, ‘We are all the same person trying to shake hands with our self.’ Remember that the next time you say, ‘pass the gravy.’"
A full length documentary film on the life of Wavy Gravy is currently in production. The film will feature interviews by many of his friends including Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Bob Weir, Steve Earle and many others.