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.”‘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!
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