Sunday, October 26, 2014

Steve Hackett: This Is What Genius Sounds Like

Genesis has reentered the realm of current events with two recent releases:  a career-spanning CD retrospective that also gives equal time to the solo career of its individual members, along with a filmed documentary that explores the band’s journey from inception through dissolution. It is the latter of these events that has made further headlines as guitarist Steve Hackett publically stated that he felt that the solo careers of Genesis’s individual members were not fairly apportioned, and that he would not offer the DVD of the documentary for sale on his website when it is released in January 2015.

Fans of Genesis (before and after Peter Gabriel) know all too well the sonic wizardry that guitarist Steve Hackett brought to the mix. A brilliant painter with sound, Hackett’s palette ranged from the subtlest pastel imagery of his acoustic/classical guitar playing to the otherworldly frequencies of his electric guitar. Hackett’s musical offerings to Genesis, from his induction into the band in 1970 through his departure in 1977, were highly influential upon the group’s sound, and his is the pen behind the group’s first hit single, an event which paved the way for all the successes to follow.

Hackett is the sole member of Genesis who has kept the music’s flag aloft. Currently on the road for his Genesis Extended 2014-2015 World Tour, Hackett and band visit Long Island on November 15th at The Space at Westbury, a gem of a live music venue.

Having been turned onto Genesis by my friend Steven LeClair in college and subsequently discovering the solo careers of the band members with the passage of time, I have tremendous respect for Steve Hackett as a musician, composer, arranger, and producer. The opportunity to spend some time talking with Steve on a recent Sunday phone call to the U.K. resulted in what you are about to read: The full transcript of a conversation with a creative genius.  

Steve Hackett’s candid and revealing insight into Genesis—a band that many people feel ranks among the greatest the world has ever known—was delivered in a voice devoid of malice; rather, his tone conveyed a mature wisdom that lent considerable weight to his words. Our discussion covered a variety of areas, including his solo career, his innovative use of double-tapping on guitar, his collaborations with Yes members Steve Howe and Chris Squire, past albums and performances, his current world tour, and a new album that he has just completed.

For his candor, friendliness, and most importantly, time, I thank Steve Hackett for spending part of his time with me.

Read on and enjoy!


Roy Abrams: This is the third time that Genesis Revisited is on the road since the first tour in 1996. What is your perspective on the musical power of Genesis with the passage of time?

Steve Hackett: The way I see it, I imagined I’d just do one tour of this because there’s a stiff amount of competition out there with all the tribute bands doing this stuff, and my tour manager was saying to me, “If you’re going to do this stuff again, the stuff you wrote with the band back in the ‘70s, you’ve got to be better than the tribute bands.” I thought, well, how do I approach that? Obviously, you’ve got to be thorough about it, so I rerecorded the material in order to teach it to myself again, and everyone else. So everyone who took part learnt it via recording it. And when it came to the live show, it took me about three months of solid work to manage to relearn a Genesis set, because it’s complicated music. I realize I was a different person when I was involved with that at the time. It’s not that it’s technically more difficult than all the things I’ve done separately, but in terms of a memory test, it’s all over the fret board, it’s all over the keyboard. So there is logic to it; when you’ve got five guys all throwing in ideas, as we were originally within Genesis.

SH: Oh yeah, that’s right—I remember doing that one.

RA: It’s about a 40-minute long concert, opening with “Please Don’t Touch” and ending with “Angel of Mons” … I watched it twice through last night and just kept saying to myself, “This is what genius sounds like.”

SH: Well, I’m glad you liked it that much! At the time, I was still pretty young at that point, I was still in my 20s, and I remember we did the show and the band were pretty nervous because they (the production crew) were telling us that we were playing too loud and there were lines on the camera and all this kind of stuff, so we were trying to figure out what it was that was going to spook the cameras! It was the technology in those days. And we found out that just the sound of a cymbal being struck acoustically created these sort of waves on the camera so I just agreed to turn down and then we did exactly what we liked for the show. In other words, we got out of in the time-honored way, but it did kind of spook everybody and so we were bristling, really. But it’s got some young fire, doesn’t it; it’s got some young energy!

RA: You mentioned fire … To me your music has always been an amalgam of the four basic elements: fire, air, water, earth, each with its own inherent power. Fans of your music will attest to the powerful listening experience which results. What insights you can share into your perception of the power of music?

SH: Oh my goodness me! The power of music is extraordinary; it certainly has the power to heal! We know that from the studies of Dr. Oliver Sacks, talking about people with (various brain issues). And he mentioned the example of a woman who could only move (in her normal state she’d be ‘frozen’), she could only move when she heard moving music; she was moved emotionally in order to move physically. So there is an instance of the power of music. Isn’t that extraordinary? And, on a more basic level, it’s guys whistling in a bathroom to perform. It’s all sorts of things; the very air that I breathe is the oxygen that I have to have around me; it keeps me going, it keeps me motoring. Visconti (the Italian film director) talked about having a cold of the flu, then working on the set, directing, saying “suddenly, I’ve no longer got a sore throat; suddenly I’m engaged with the process and things start happening and I forget about how I’m feeling—something else takes over.” At least, that’s the spirit of what he was saying. If you go onstage and you’ve got the flu [laughs]. I’ve done it many times, because that’s the way it is. By the end of the show, I can guarantee you’ll be feeling a lot better for having gotten through it, for a start! So music is a very good and powerful medicine.

RA: I see that some of your current band mates have been with you for quite a while; others are relatively new.

SH: The guy who’s on vocals, Nad Sylvan, who’s Swedish-American—he got on board with us a couple of years back, when we did the Revisited II album. He sang three tracks on it. We chose him as lead vocalist because he’s got a very flamboyant thing about him. He just is flamboyant. You see him walking down the street; he just doesn’t look like anybody else. An extraordinary-looking guy and happens to have this really soulful voice—he almost sounds like a black singer singing this Genesis stuff and Gabriel and Collins both had very soulful voices themselves, you know, so he fits into that category. His voice seems to be pitched in a similar kind of area. It’s a funny thing because his speaking voice isn’t particularly deep or anything but when he starts singing his throat seems to open up and it’s a whole different deal. It’s been great working with him. Of course, I work with the guys who have been favorites for a while. In the bass department, I had Lee Pomeroy last year. But it’s been Nick Beggs this year; I’ve been working with him again, he was working in my band a couple of years back. He’s been floating between myself, Steven Wilson, John Paul Jones, and he still keeps up his pop connections as well. So yeah, that changes from time to time; these guys are much in demand. He’s always busy, so is Lee Pomeroy, working with Take That, who are hugely successful in Europe, so I can’t always guarantee that I’ll have the same bass player each time, but I love working with good bassists. On record, in recent years, I managed to work with Chris Squire quite a bit; we’ve done one or two things together. I’ve just made a new album, funnily enough, that has Chris on it as well, so I’m really thrilled about that! I’ve been spoiled with choice in recent years; I’ve had some of the world’s greatest bass players with me and it’s wonderful when the music is driven by that extraordinary engine pinning it like a lead instrument. I like bass players who play it like a lead instrument; they don’t just play supporting parts, they lay into it like their life depends on it.

RA: What was the collaborative process between you and Chris Squire like? How did that evolve?

SH: Very, very good! He approached me years ago, he was making a Christmas album and I thought, ‘Oh, wow! Here’s a chance to work with Chris Squire!’ … you know, no slouch! I enjoyed working with him! He helped me on some solo stuff, first of all, after I’d done this Christmas album for him. And then, we found we liked working together. It was very natural—it was as if we’d been working together for years and years and years. With our respective histories of both Yes and Genesis, there was common ground. He loves classical music, he loves choirs, loves strings, big arrangements, pipe organ, all of that—and so much of that was common to Genesis, or the spirit of it, that I think when I left Genesis I started working with orchestras from time to time and working with classical music, so we were on the same page with all of this. I discovered the way Yes liked to write songs; what happens is that somebody has an idea and then someone else has another idea (but we’re talking about the same piece of music) so the same, main section of music expands to incorporate the idea of the next guy, and the next guy, and the next guy, so the same (piece) of music just gets longer and longer and longer, so that people can improvise and try all their ideas out. They don’t edit each other, unlike Genesis. Genesis was a huge editorial school of “They don’t like this, and you can’t do that.” There were lots of ifs, ands and buts—

RA: —Wow …

“Genesis was a huge editorial school of ‘They don’t like this, and you can’t do that.’ There were lots of ifs, ands and buts.”


SH: —Whereas Yes was much more a case of “OK, yeah, we’ve done that, we can do this with it.” They worked on a number of bars, and got them right, and then they edit another bunch of bars on together, and it seemed to work like that. It was a unique way of working, and I thought, “Well, we can have a cross between the two. There’s no idea that I brought forward to the plot that Chris has rejected, and there’s no idea that he’s brought forward that I rejected either. We just worked together in the most natural way imaginable—most of the time, in my living room, because I have a studio and at the time, there were some problems about using it for one reason or another, I couldn’t access it, so we just did this album called Squackett in the living room. It was great fun, people came and went, babies were born, friends wandered in and out (I say babies were born—not literally in the living room, but newborns were brought along to listen to things), food and wine flowed and was just an extension of living and being friends. It was very much the organic, natural way of doing things, and it was great fun.

RA: How did the connection with Steve Howe materialize?

SH: Well, that was much earlier, that was mid-80s. Steve Howe and I got in touch via Brian Lane, who was originally Yes’s manager, and then managed Asia. Steve left Asia, he wasn’t doing anything at the time and was looking for something, and the idea came up of putting two guitarists together and we were looking at the previous models of English bands that have managed to combine the potentially explosive egos of having two guitarists together: Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, Keith Richards and Brian Jones, and we figured, if they managed to do it for a while, perhaps we could do the same. Of course, it had its detractors and critics who would say, ‘Well, if you have two guitarists, is it perhaps one guitarist too many?’ And of course, who would argue with that? Does any band need two lead guitarists? Often, no.  At times, of course, you have to take a passive role in order to allow the other guy space to express himself. The most important thing for me, having come out of the Genesis school, was the writing. I thought, we need to be able to write material that people can understand and I hope we get enough space on it to be able to stretch out as players. Of course, we were signed to Clive Davis’s label, Arista, at the time, and he was having huge commercial success, as he does. He had Whitney Houston riding high for the first time, but they didn’t really have a rock band signed to the label, so it was tremendous to get all of that fire and energy and commitment from a label that were making it practically a science; provided you did things a certain way, provided you delivered the goods, they were going to do their part, and it was a science of having a hit. It was almost guaranteed! I thought, this can’t be true, this is like Hollywood. They’re telling us this is going to be a hit before anyone has seen or heard anything, and I thought I cannot afford to be this smug, and I wondered if this is really going to happen but sure enough, it turned into a hit! They were true to their word and they did whatever they could to make it happen. It was interesting for me because I thought, if Steve Hackett worked with Genesis and he was lucky to have hits with them, maybe that was just a fluke … but doing it a second time with another band, much like my pal Ian MacDonald—he invented King Crimson and then he went on to form Foreigner, and obviously it was no coincidence because on one hand he created the blueprint for all progressive bands to follow and the next he’s writing mainstream rock and pop; that can’t be coincidence.

RA: In another interview, you referred to Genesis as “a very competitive band, very gifted— but with those gifts, there’s a certain price.”  Did that statement relate to your earlier comment about the editorial nature of the band in the realm of songwriting?


“I would watch gems being thrown into the pot with other people, and then we would end up not recording that stuff, and it used to drive me up the wall, I used to think that there was an agenda at work here … (Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford) stood in Pete’s way, they stood in my way. At the end of the day, for Pete and I, our allegiance was to music, and not to what many people might think of as the world’s best band. You could justify that, certainly. Tons of talent, but not enough heart.”


SH: Well, I think that you couldn’t always get cooperation from Genesis. I think that there was a tremendous amount of power play going on, which eventually led to the loss of Anthony Phillips, Peter Gabriel, and then eventually Phil Collins. It’s because whatever it is, whatever drives people to make great music, and spurs people to excellence, there can be a down side of all that; that’s what I was trying to say, although that remark was quoted out of context. The side of it is that sometimes you have to work with very difficult people and just because you’ve come up with a great idea, or someone else has, it doesn’t mean to say it’s going to get done. I would watch gems being thrown into the pot with other people, and then we would end up not recording that stuff, and it used to drive me up the wall, I used to think that there was an agenda at work here. At the end of the day, when we had a meal, many years after the event, maybe three or four years back, I remember Tony Banks … 20 of us sitting around, people who had been involved with the band over the years, and he raised his glass and said, “Oh well, we managed to sack the lot of you.”  So that was the agenda all along! And, I think, well, yeah, but if you did that, then what about a guy like Peter Gabriel, who managed to come up with stuff that was not just influential musically but was a humanitarian and managed to move mountains, managed to get behind WOMAD to bring the rest of the world into the picture, and now we think of the mainstream encompassing bands from all over the globe. So, I think, my God, what a terrible loss. I tried, at the time, to convince Pete to stay with the band, but he knew that his best ideas were going to get blocked, and he was not allowed to have a parallel solo career. Tony and Mike would not (tolerate) that, and they wouldn’t (tolerate) it with me either. One of the things that is not in the documentary that we both said to camera is the reasons why we left, quite apart from what Mike Rutherford says later on, “we always encouraged solo careers”, well, that’s not true! They stood in Pete’s way, they stood in my way. At the end of the day, for Pete and I, our allegiance was to music, and not to what many people might think of as the world’s best band. You could justify that, certainly. Tons of talent, but not enough heart.

RA: That’s a lot of insight right there!

SH: Well, I’m being honest! I’m not trying to cover. I think up until recently, I was always trying to cover, I didn’t want to sound like I’m ratting on the regiment, but I think that people are old enough now to realize that there is a truth. People want to know why there is no band these days, why is it the band can’t do anything? Why is it I’m out there doing a separate show of Genesis music myself? I’ll answer that rhetorical question (by saying) it’s the music that’s the star of the show and, to a certain extent, as all the tribute bands have shown, the cast members have to be flexible. Sometimes it’s going to be with a different singer, different guitarist, but the music is the thing that’s stood the test of time, so no one can own that.

RA: What about the influences of certain writers upon you? I know you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis, as evidenced by your composition “Narnia.”… are there any other works by any other authors that have also played a part in tweaking your muse, so to speak?

SH: Oh, yeah, tons! I’m probably going to forget them all when I try and think of them at this point. Usually when I discover an author, I try and read everything he’s written, much like listening to a favorite band.  With Lewis, it wasn’t just the Narnia stories. Back in ’77 I started recording “Narnia” as the first track on the first effort when I left Genesis. The thing that I was drawn to with him was the creation of worlds; here’s a guy who invented worlds, whether it’s science fiction or something historical, magical, mythical. There were a ton of writers who have done that kind of thing … (like) Phillip Pullman with his Dark Materials trilogy, “The Amber Spyglass”, “The Subtle Knife” … what’s the name of the other one? I think they knocked it into one movie; tons of other people. D.H. Lawrence, love that! Milan Kundera, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” … all these guys, their stuff gets made into movies because it’s so wonderfully well-written, so a film like Women in Love, which I think is the definite D.H. Lawrence movie with Oliver Reed—just a stellar cast of actors, and I think it was Kim Russell’s greatest movie; I absolutely adored it, it was so beautifully done. But yeah, you’re talking about writers—someone like Lawrence, because he painted, tended to use words on the page that were full of color. And I did a version of “The Virgin and the Gypsy”, now I had only knew it as a movie and had only seen a couple of trailers for it. I deliberately didn’t read the book although I knew what the story was all about. I didn’t read the book until I’d done the song. That might sound strange, (but) I was really pleased to see that he’d used certain worlds that I’d used in the song, and they were words where, as a painter, he would choose a flower like a marigold, for instance. You’ve got the color implicit in the name, and I used that as well. I was writing from a Victorian book of flowers; I was trying to construct a lyric made up entirely from flower names.

RA: There always seemed to be a very tight link between Genesis and Italy.

SH: Yes. Yep.

RA: What sparked that?

SH: Well, I think the early songs of Genesis often used early resurgent love of Greek myths, substituting for direct experience. You  have to remember that Genesis was a band that went to a single-sex school and were starved of contact with girls/women completely. And that kind of education tends to breed guys who are capable of leading a charge into Crimea without flinching, but it doesn’t necessarily make you a great conversationalist! What happened was a ton of things taken from Greek myth, and of course all the Greek stuff—I’m talking about “Fountain of Salmacis”, Father Tiresias and Narcissus and various references to various characters. When you think about it, the Greeks obviously were a huge influence on the Romans, and Rome still influences the rest of the world as we know it, not just in terms of religion, but philosophy and a wonderful host of colorful stories with archetypes informing everything including psychiatry; so it’s a heady mix, and I think the Italians recognized straight away that we were subscribing to their combined history, so songs with derring-do, things that perhaps had less of a mating ritual involved, but were little stories, little operettas, as progressive music is. You know, progressive music and programmed music, the classical music term ‘programmed music’ … music that tells a story; it’s the same thing. Progressive music, if you define it as something longer than the regular pop or rock song, that’s fair enough, but most of the time you get the feeling that you’re watching a kind of film for the ear, and different themes are going to pass, and the music progresses and uses themes perhaps, and things come back, and so it borrows from classical music, but it also expands to involve aspects of jazz, and if you’re lucky, you might get a good solo in there from time to time! It’s that amalgam of all the stuff … and your original question was why did the Italians go for that? Well, I think it’s this connection to their background. You know, they preserve their past, they live with it. It is a living museum; they don’t knock down their old buildings, the Coliseum is still there, you can go visit. I think this orientation toward these old heroic characters and ideals was part of early Genesis. Like I said before, I think the reason why (is that) the guys were forced to delve into books, where perhaps a high school on your side of the pond, there’s not that separation, there’s not that emphasis on single-sex (schools). “Better separate them or they’ll be breeding!” [laughs]

RA: When did you first discover the technique of double-tapping, and when did you first begin to employ that in your playing?


SH: It was before I had done the first Genesis album, the first album in 1971, Nursery Cryme. I practicing one day at home and there was a difficult line, and I thought, this could be simpler if I try to do it on one string, and hammer on and hammer off with all the fingers of both hands. I thought, if I could do this … at first it seemed very difficult, because I couldn’t coordinate playing it in time—and then I started to practice it and use it with live solos with the band, so on a couple of tracks on Nursery Cryme, there’s some tapping, and on some of the subsequent albums, of course, Foxtrot and Selling England By the Pound, so it was a technique of being able to play furiously fast but with only one string … obviously the rest of the world has copped on in a big way since then; it’s part of the language of heavy metal and shredders—anyone who wants to play a solo in that way, it’s immediately impressive. It’s not always the most musical way of going about things, but to come up with a ton of “note salvos” if you know what I mean, it’s a good way of gunning the guitar, if you like—as many bullets as possible! But not killing anyone in the process, so all’s fair in war and guitars!


RA: How did you come up with the song selection for the current tour? I know that there are some that are holdovers from the prior tour, and I understand that you’ve added some, changed some—

SH: There are some floaters in there, or what we call “revolving door songs” … sometimes there’s a song in the set, and sometimes it’s out the door. We’ve got some that I can’t remember exactly the set we were doing last time. We’re about to do a British tour, and it’ll be the first time I’ve been onstage for over 40 years doing certain songs like “Squonk” from A Trick of the Tail, and “The Knife” from Trespass and “Lillywhite Lilith” from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and then sometimes we do a couple of other songs from The Lamb; sometimes we do “The Lamia”, sometimes we do “The Carpet Crawlers” and sometimes we do one called “Shadow of the Hierophant” and I do that when Amanda Lehmann’s around who sings it, so I think she’s going to sing it on a couple of dates on this tour, but I just saw her today and she’s lost her voice, so I don’t know if she’s going to pull through on that. Sometimes we just do the end of it, because that’s a piece of music that works in itself as a crescendo; it’s a good excuse to make a tremendous amount of noise, from the drummer’s point of view, because he gets to solo through that whilst the rest of play really slowly, so the drummer gets to play really fast while the rest of us play really slow, but it’s a powerful piece of music. In fact, it was Stephen Wilson who said to me, why don’t you reintroduce that? I said what, that whole thing? No one’s going to dig that. And then since I started doing it live again, audiences seem to respond to it. Ideally, it’s with a girl singer, it doesn’t work with a guy’s voice. I tried it; Dik Cadbury came close when he was singing it in falsetto, but it’s really pitched for a girl’s voice.

RA: Of the Genesis albums you were involved with, which one rises to the top for you as a personal favorite?

SH: Well, the one that I enjoyed doing most of all was Selling England by the Pound. That’s the album that I think took a quantum leap forward, not just the playing, but the writing; in other words, it combined both complex and simple stuff. We got a hit single from it, but we hadn’t compromised the album at that point. You’ve got “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” on it, which I still think is tremendous, and it’s got “Firth of Fifth” which I think is tremendous, and it’s got “I Know What I Like”—a little, short single. I think for all those reasons I felt that the band took a quantum leap forward, both in terms of playing and production and John Lennon liked it, so I can’t argue with that! He said we were one of the bands he was listening to at the time, and that was our new album. He said that on WNEW and that was a time when we were in New York and we couldn’t really get a gig in the rest of the States; on one hand, you’ve got one of The Beatles praising us, and on the other hand, you can’t get a gig. And that’s in the days long before tweeting and texting—no one sneezes these days on one side of the globe without someone else hearing about it on the other, but in those days, boy, news moved slow! The next gig we had, we had to wait two weeks, which of course was a financial disaster for us at the time, but then we were in L.A. doing the Roxy doing three nights, two shows a night, and that was it. We couldn’t get any gigs in the Midwest. That’s how it was—later on, of course, it was wonderful, to do Canada, French Canada and all of that, it was terrific.

RA: It’s amazing; on your website, I’ve looked at your dates, and you really make it a point to visit as many places in the world as you can. I really salute that, because not that many artists really seem to have that kind of focus. I’m sure your fans really appreciate that!


SH: I love gigging! This will be my first British (tour) for a while; we won’t have done a gig for a couple of months, since we did a festival here, so might be a little rusty on that first gig, but once you’ve got that first gig under your belt, it’s a great feeling. It’s a great feeling when you can take the stage by storm, you know, that nervous flutter before you go on, and the audience meets you halfway with their energy and enthusiasm; it’s a great feeling!

RA: My final question for you, Steve: I know that you’ve been working on a new album. Is there any information on when that’s coming out?

SH: I do have a new one, I just finished it, and we’ve mixed it stereo, it’s been mixed in 5.1 (Surround Sound). I let Roger (King) get on with the 5.1 because I knew the process; there were so many balls in the air; it’ll be much better if you let me get on with it, and then come in and criticize and I didn’t have too many things to say about his mix of it. He reads my mind; he knows what I’m going to suggest. It’s got a lot of orchestral moments on it. It’s a rock album, but the big moments—if you can just surround us with those, and if it’s a big chorus, surround us with those, and the rest of it is splitting it up and he’s done a terrific job on the Surround Sound mix, so this will be the first solo Surround Sound mix of a studio album that I’ve ever done of a solo thing. I’ve done Surround Sound (mixes) of live gigs; we did a Surround Sound mix of the Squackett album, but basically the first time … so I know it’s a small elite niche market, but I figured that even if you don’t possess a Surround Sound system yourself, you’ll know a friend who does. All I would say is, it’s worth listening to that on someone else’s system, even if you don’t buy the album, because then you’ll get the feeling of being surrounded, and those musical ambushes I think work very well in Surround—the surprise factor of not just what is going to happen next, but where it’s going to come from. I do love that, I must admit!


RA: Looking forward to seeing you in Westbury next month! I will definitely be there—

SH: Thank you! This is what I live for; it’s playing live!


©2014 by Roy Abrams

All Rights Reserved—Contact for permission to reprint


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Wavy Gravy Brings One-Man Show to NYC

Wavy Gravy's One Man Show comes to New York City 10/20/14

“Once you realize the interconnectedness of all stuff, there’s no going back.”

“I’m sure that someday I’ll walk up to somebody and say,
 ‘Hey, man, you smell like Albert Einstein!’”

From standup comic and improvisational actor to spiritually enlightened clown and humanitarian, Hugh Romney’s journey through life has been nothing short of, well, cosmic. Romney/Wavy Gravy is a fascinating character in American history whose presence in various places at various right (and wrong) times has influenced (or been influenced by) a staggering variety of creative intellectuals. Dubbed a saint by the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, the self-proclaimed Saint Misbehavin’ is coming to Manhattan’s City Winery on October 20th. Advertised simply as An Evening with Wavy Gravy – Hippy Icon, Flower Geezer & Temple of Accumulated Error, the event promises to be an unforgettable evening of laughter, philosophy, memories, and more laughter.

The opportunity to spend a half hour chatting with the MC of all three Woodstock events presented itself recently. Here is the full transcript of our conversation:

Wavy Gravy: Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and ready to rumba!

Roy Abrams: That makes two of us! So … you’re doing a one-man show and taking it on the road. What’s your vision of the presentation?

WG: It’s the breath inside the breath. It’s just Gravy being Gravy and remembering shit; an oral history. It jumps around a lot; like Kurt Vonnegut said, “History is full of surprises.” I like to surprise myself because I’ve got 78 years on the planet and a bunch of stuff has happened, and a lot of it is interesting and I enjoy sharing it with the rest of the world.

RA: You’ve said that once you realized the interconnectedness of all things, there was no going back. That’s rather central, is it not, to your life’s path?

WG: There’s a line of mine – We’re all the same person trying to shake hands with ourself. War is a complicated way of getting acquainted. I do a lot about the peace movement and the moratorium and all that stuff, and Woodstock, and all the aspects of that (and I survived three of them!) The first one made me famous and the second two got me paid! Then we drove across the country putting on these shows with Warner Brothers stars and ended up in Canterbury with Pink Floyd outside, and then somehow disconnecting from the brothers Warner, extracting one tie-dyed teepee and we were in Paris … they had just had this giant flood in Pakistan and the relief was coming so slowly it was painful to watch on the television, and I said, “My God, these English rock and rollers want to buy us a bus to drive around Europe and spread good vibes … what if we took that bus and filled it with food and medical supplies and drove to Bangladesh? We couldn’t feed the starving millions but because we had so much media from doing the free kitchen at Woodstock, we would get press attention, and then the government would go, “By God, there’s hippies feeding people—we’d better do it better!” So that was the plan, we actually made the drive … so I talk about that kind of stuff.

RA: Regarding your lifelong commitment toward social change and compassion … in the 45 years since Woodstock, in your opinion, has mankind as a whole evolved at all … are we beginning to realize the interconnectedness of all things or does it appear in pockets of the world that mankind is regressing to somewhat of a more aggressive creature?

WG: Boy, that beats me! That’s some deep kind of stuff! [Laughs] I’m just an old clown sharing history with a list of surprises! Ask me that again? That question you just rode by me? It grabbed my interest; let me see if I can jump on it.

RA: The question is this: You’ve demonstrated a lifelong commitment to positive social change and compassion. In the 45 years since Woodstock, in your opinion based on your experience, have we evolved at all along the lines of mankind (or pockets of us) realizing the interconnectedness of all things, or are pockets of mankind slowly regressing into a more aggressive creature?
WG: What do I say? Some of us do and some of us don’t. There was a guy named Mullah Nasruddin, a great Sufi clown, and he was living in this cave; and the people in the village heard about it, and they went to the cave, and they said, “Mullah! Come tell us where it’s at, the interconnectedness of stuff and everything!” So he left his cave by the waterfall and went into the village and looked at them and said, “Good people! Do you know what I’m going to talk to you about?” And everybody said, “Well, no!” And he said, “Ignorant people!” and he split, and everybody thought, “Wow, that’s pretty darn weird! Maybe we’re not ready for him. Let’s go ask him to come back and try us again and we’ll get it.” So the Mullah agrees and returns to the village and it’s packed with neighbors and everybody is leaning toward him and he says, “Good people! Do you know what I’m going to talk to you about?” And they didn’t want him to leave, so they said, “Yes!” And he said, “Then there is no reason for me to be here,” and he left. So everybody thought. “Hmmmmm …. One more time!” And the Mullah agreed – one more time, and that’s it! So he comes into the village and it’s jam packed. He says, “Good people! Do you know what I’m going to talk to you about?” This time, they were ready for him. “Some of us do, and some of us don’t” And the Mullah said, “Therefore, let those who do communicate their knowledge to those who do not!” That’s a true story! Some of us are able to pick up on that – that energy vibe – and some of us don’t. But every breath is another chance to do it better.

RA: Working with children as you do, what have they taught you in the process?
WG: Oh, boy. My task with kids is to give them a sense of timing, balance, and compassion. Juggling, tightrope, trapeze; all that stuff …. Timing and balance, it’s something they don’t really teach in school.  The first thing that kids learn to do at Camp Winnarainbow is to fall and not hurt yourself. I call camp “Survival in the 21st Century or How to Duck With a Sense of Humor” and compassion. People say, why do you do all this stuff? It is encouraging; you know, Seva Foundation, which is a charity that I got involved in almost half a century ago, with Ram Dass and Larry Brilliant, and the manager of the Grateful Dead, all these different folks, working on curable and preventable blindness. Do you know that 85% of the people in the world who are blind don’t need to be? And 85% of them can get their sight back for – it used to be $5 when we started out, now it’s close to $50, but that’s cataract surgery in the Third World and Seva is orchestrating at this time 3.5 million sight-saving cataract surgeries with all their partners around the world. That’s a lot of people not bumping into shit! So people say, “Wavy Gravy, why do you do it?” And I say, “I’m in it for the buzz. There’s a certain high that you get from doing that stuff that’s not available in the pharmaceutical cabinet.

RA: It’s about being there and making a difference—

WG: —And having fun while you’re doing it – that is key! The only way to make change is to live it and reflect it and have fun doing it, so people say, “Wow! I’m going to try doing some of that!” This commune that I’m a part of, we’ve been together almost 50 years, and I said to the mirror the other morning, it’s all done with people.

RA: Clowns are an intriguing concept. Describing his much-publicized Bed-Ins and other media antics in 1969 and 1970, John Lennon said, “We’re quite willing to be the world’s clowns for peace.” Shakespeare used the clown character throughout his work to represent truth—they were the ones who really knew what was going on. What would you say is so alluring about that image?
WG: Because it’s a visual train wreck of the mind, a clown. The shoes are different, the clothes are different, the face is different, the nose is different, and they’re silly. They make people laugh, and laughter is the valve on the pressure cooker of life. If you don’t laugh at stuff, you’re going to end up with your brains or your beans on the ceiling. Wavy Gravy says, if you don’t have a sense of humor, it just isn’t funny anymore!

RA: [Laughs]

WG: Thank you! An audio announcement that fun is being had—I just heard you do it!

RA: In your travels, is there anybody you’ve crossed paths with in the field of politics, or in the field of corporate America, for that matter, who you feel might have a glimmer of a glimpse of the interconnectedness of all things? If you have spotted anybody who has that glimmer of a glimpse, are they acting on it?
WG: I just recently met a Congressperson from along the coast, up north a bit, where our collective is. We’re three hours north of San Francisco; we have a 700-acre spread there. That’s where I do Camp Winnarainbow, and we have organic farms, we have a bioengineer living there, this one woman has a whole barn and makes canvas stuff including the most amazing fireproof teepees. Native people tell us that her teepees are excellent. Her business is called In Tents … I made that up, that’s one of mine. I’m very good at the short dash!

RA: Of all the people you’ve met—
WG: Stop! Stop! Stop! I just remembered something: my favorite definition of a clown. This is from John Townsend’s The Book of the Clown, which is good reference if you wanted to check it out. He says, “A clown is a poet who is also an orangutan.” I think that’s just so sweet and so essence.

RA: Albert Einstein appears on your list of notable characters you’ve encountered. I assume you must have been a young child at the time?
WG: I was maybe somewhere between four and five. We were living in Princeton (New Jersey). My dad was an architect and I think he was in Venezuela doing buildings, and every morning we had a little fenced yard and my mom would put me in the yard for my morning airing, and she’d get to do some stuff that she needed to do around the house, with keeping an eye on me a little bit. There I was, and I think I resembled Winston Churchill. Lots of babies look a lot like Winston Churchill and I was no exception. So for some reason, Al says to my mom, “Would you mind if I walked your child around the block?” My Mom is looking like, “Holy shit! It’s Albert Einstein!” She decided that I was in safe hands.

RA: Do you remember anything you talked about?
WG: Believe me, I have been quizzed beyond belief by people trying to find out what theorems he taught me, or whatever. What I do remember is a shock of white hair that predated Don King by half a century, no logo on the sweatshirt or the sneakers, big white eyebrows and very twinkly eyes … and he had this odor that was nothing like I’ve smelled before or since. I’m sure that someday I’ll walk up to somebody and say, [Sniffs twice, loudly] “Hey, man, you smell like Albert Einstein!” Remember when you were young, like baby-like, you can remember smells, which is unusual. If people remember way back to their crawling around, not-yet-talking time, they’ll remember the way things smelled.

RA: Crayons, for example—
WG: I’ve smelled a few crayons in my life! There’s a wonderful story about dropping crayons by parachute over what was then the Soviet Union by Robert Fulghum … are you familiar with him? Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I used to read the kids some of his stories. I had a shot in the morning after the kids had their breakfast while they’re digesting it because they’re doing their warm-ups and go to class. We’d have Wavy Gravy’s Morning Readings, and I’d mix shit up, everything from Fulghum to Lao Tze. They loved Pablo Neruda!

RA: Having had a 20-year dialogue with the members of Crosby, Stills and Nash, I’m curious to know how you crossed paths with him. You’re closest with David, if I understand correctly?
WG: I just saw David about 5 days ago when CSN were in San Jose, and I got to hang out with him and Graham. Stills left early but he left me a guitar pick. It’s here somewhere. I have this little semi-altar in my bedroom, a desk where I keep tossing guitar picks. I have one that Bo Diddley gave me which is interesting … I wonder if it would have DNA on it? Meeting David … the earliest we probably brushed was on MacDougal Street, where I ran the poetry reading at the Gaslight, and later, the entertainment. That’s where I began to develop other expressions beside poetry. I was a teenage beatnik, you understand? I used to read my poems quite frequently but after a year or so it started to get tedious so between poems I started to talk about the weird stuff that had happened to me in my life. Then this guy came up to me, this agent/entrepreneurial dude, and he says, “Look, skip the poems, just talk about the weird shit.” He started mailing me around the country, and the next thing you know I’m opening for everybody from Peter, Paul and Mary to Thelonious Monk. That’s back in the time where I did a lot of standup, and I turned into a communalist and hippie. I made that jump from teenage beatnik into hippieness and the Hog Farm was formed, and the buses, and Kesey, and all that stuff … and anti-war movement was part of that thing. I did a lot of stuff at WBAI in New York City. I would be on Bob Fass’s show from around one in the morning until dawn. And then I would go down to the United Nations and help put up the flags. It was an amazing time!

RA: What gets your juices going these days?
WG: When I see people putting their good where it’ll do the most. I don’t just do Seva but in a big music venue, I leave Camp Winnarainbow and do the Gathering of the Vibes in Bridgeport, that’s about 40-50,000 people, a nice, comfortable bunch, great music, and we can get really focused with our minds toward good work. It’s an audience that I’ve become friends with. I’ve left camp and gone there for over fifteen years, playing with that pile of people, and people come back and back and back. It’s camping, it’s three days; we do a little thing on our property which is also pretty amazing. We’re raising money for camp scholarships, I have to raise about $100,000 every year to have Camp Winnarainbow be all colors and every variety of human to come to camp – boys and girls from 7 to 14, and a lot of them can’t afford it. So I have to raise money for scholarships. We also put on a concert to raise money for scholarships. Jackson Browne did the first one, this year we had Joan Baez and Maria Muldaur. They play in this guy’s yard, man! He has this house that was built in the ‘20s and the daughter of the house was studying dance with Isidora Duncan, so the mom had this little Greek theater built in the yard so the girl could dance, and so I get to do concerts there. We even did one for Obama there, with Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal. That was pretty cool. I appreciate Obama. I realize that he’s in a terrible struggle, and I think he’s dealing with it as amazingly as is humanly possible. It’s harder than anything. I think he’s worthy of somebody to send – if you believe in it – beams of love and health and compassion to this guy because he’s doing it for the right reasons. Now, I’m the guy who ran a pig for president and ran a rock for president. Do you remember the rock? We had a roll for vice-president, and at different rallies we’d give out jelly rolls or bagels, so you could always eat the vice-president; the roll kept changing. Then we lost the rock in this taxi cab in New York – oh my God – and there’s this great search on the radio. There was a picture in the Village Voice … Have you seen this rock? No, nobody saw the fucking rock. From up the spinal telegraph came Nobody for President. When Obama ran, I defected, and all the anarchists were on my case, saying, “Why are you doing this? Why are you going for Obama?” I said, come on – Nobody made me do it! So that quieted them down a little bit.

RA: What does it mean when we have a system which appears to be quite broken? How does one fix that? How do the people take back their government?
WG: You have got to keep spreading the word until the word is what it is … and when the word is powerful enough, even the bad guys will get it. [Pauses] Crosby just took the paint off the walls, man! He is so energized! He can sing, I think, circles around almost about anybody on the planet. Did you get to read Graham’s book?
RA: Yes I did.
WG: Do you know that it was I who pressured him into writing “We Can Change the World”? I was trying to get them to go to Chicago, they were doing a benefit to raise money for the legal defense of the Chicago Eight, and David and Graham wanted to go but Stephen and Neil didn’t. They didn’t come, but Graham wrote the song, and it was helpful. I ended up with 50 turkeys under strobe lights. That’s something I need to talk about in the show. At the Aragon Ballroom on Thanksgiving, 50 turkeys under strobe lights – then we built the show from there. We had to weigh the turkeys. I said, Why are we doing this? The guy said,  “Because you have to pay for shrinkage!” I thought, well, can’t they just stand around and eat? The minute the rock and roll hit the turkeys, they went nuts. So we had to make little leashes and we got people to volunteer to be turkey tenders. When a turkey is on a leash for some reason or other it just kind of calms right down. So then Abby Hoffman comes in and says, “Why are these turkeys in prison? Set the turkeys free!” I said, Abby, follow me, and take this. I handed him something, and we went backstage, and there was this place where were patching up this turkey that had lost its toe in the fray and he opened up his hand and he was holding the toe of the turkey! He looked at without missing a beat and said, “I ate your sister!” Abby was amazing at Woodstock. The minute it became on the verge of a disaster with the rain and mud, they helicoptered in all these medical supplies for us to create a hospital, and it was Abby that organized the whole medical. He did an amazing job. He was an organizer long before the Yippies came along.
RA: It sounds like it’s going to be an amazing show. Incredible stories for the audience, and a lot of fun.
WG: That is the plan!

RA: I’m sure that will be the reality.

WG: Okay, I suck your face through the holes in the plastic! Mwahh! Nice talking to you, boss!
RA: You too!
For more information on Wavy Gravy, visit his website
© 2014 by Roy Abrams