If anyone in this world had front row seat for the counter-cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s it was Wavy Gravy. From the Greenwich Village beatnik scene to the Acid Tests, Woodstock and more, Mr. Gravy (born Hugh Romney) had a hand in all of it, often using his particular brand of off-kilter humor to shed light on the absurdity of the age. These days everyone’s favorite hippie clown is busy doing what he’s always done—sharing zany stories of his past adventures with the masses. I caught up with Wavy to talk about his upcoming show in New York City (October 20 at City Winery), the awesome work he does with the SEVA Foundation, convincing the Grateful Dead to play a benefit show, bringing comedy to political activism, his children’s summer camp and much more.
You’ve got a couple of upcoming shows on the West Coast and in NYC, “Hippie Icon, Flower Geezer, and The Temple of Accumulated Error.” What can we expect from these shows? What’s going on here?
It’s basically my life and times and all of the weird stuff that I’ve encountered. We’re gonna’ spend some time with our lovely grandchildren and do the dinner thing and then segue into the “Cement Apple” and the City Winery, which is October 20th.
What I’m gonna’ do is spill the proverbial beans. Everything from when I went around the block with Albert Einstein when I was five years old. I’ve survived three Woodstocks. The first one made me famous; the second two got me paid. I’ve got a lot of stories about that. It’s not only Woodstock number one. I remember Woodstock two with Green Day and Billie Joe Armstrong getting on the microphone and saying “I bet you idiots can’t hit us with any mud” and it had just rained and a couple of hundred thousand people reached down and grabbed a handful of mud and threw it at the stage. You could have planted rutabagas on that stage in about a minute and a half. Three minutes in you couldn’t tell who was which band member because they had all turned brown. In fact, a security guy was pounding on Mike Dirnt, the bass player, because he thought he came out of the mosh pit. It was hilarious. You had to—no, you didn’t have to be there. I was there and I’ll tell you all about it and many other things.
I’ve done the Gathering of the Vibes every year for 15 years, I’ve run a circus and performing arts camp called “Winnarainbow” for close to 40 years. I am now getting the children of the children who first went to camp. We do 700 kids a summer, 150 at a time in 17 teepees and they learn juggling, tightrope, trapeze, unicycle, tall stilts. Our theatre department goes from Shakespeare to improv, our dance department from hip hop to West African. It’s survival in the 21st century or “How To Duck with a Sense of Humor” and a castle of compassion. They’ve got all that timing and balance. They learn numbers and letters in school. We teach them timing and balance. These kids give me nostalgia for the future, let me tell you.
Also my life is involved with a charity called SEVA which I have been doing for about 38 years with our house band. In the beginning it was the Grateful Dead and it was in Michigan. It was first formed in Michigan—Walden Woods, Michigan. I got out of the plane in Detroit to come back to the Bay Area and who should be on the plane but the Grateful Dead. They didn’t have parachutes so they were at my mercy. I got them to do the benefit.
The first one was at Kaiser Auditorium and Bill Graham didn’t know it was happening — “Why am I the last to know about these things, goddammit!” I was with Steve Parish, who was Jerry’s roadie backstage and listening to the band play and Bill comes by and slips me a note and I open it up and it’s a check for $10,000 for SEVA and I’m like “Why are you doing this?” and he goes “Because you did not hit on me my friend.”
I’ve got a bunch of Bill stories, lots of Jerry stories and all the other bands that I’ve interacted with. I just got to spend time with David Crosby and Graham Nash—David left early and gave me a guitar pick to remember him by but both David and Graham have played The City Winery where I’m gonna’ be October 20th and they liked it. They say I’m gonna have a good time there.
Sweet. So is this the kind of thing we can expect from the shows then? Crazy anecdotes about The Grateful Dead and Bill Graham and whoever else?
You bet whomever else! Whoever pops up in my soul. You know we actually drove two busses from London to the Himalayas which is recorded in this amazing movie called Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie made by Michelle Esrick who worked on this film for 10 years. We opened it at SXSW maybe three or four years ago and it has been on Showtime, it’s been on PBS, they showed it in all the movie theaters in America and then all over Canada. It’s an amazing documentary. We never looked at it until it was done and finished. It’s amazing, it’s a thrill and when I get into extreme geezerhood and I start to forget stuff, I can watch this movie once a week and remember who I was.
You’ve been MCing Gathering of the Vibes for some time now. Can you talk about how you got involved with Gathering of the Vibes?
My god, my chromosomes have amnesia. I’ve been doing the darn thing for close to 15 years I think and it’s the only time I leave camp Winnarainbow—to Gathering of the Vibes or to Woodstock. Like I said, I’ve survived three of them and if Woodstock comes back I’ll go. In five years it’s gonna’ be 50 years and that’ll be a big deal. Otherwise I just do Gathering of the Vibes because I’m an integral part of Winnarainbow and I like to give as much energy as I can to these kids because these kids are our future and they give me nostalgia for the future.
The Vibes is just like, it’s become my family, and I feel like I know all these people and enjoy not just MCing the show, but to wallow amongst them and exchange molecules and smiles and hugs and it’s an excellent festival. People don’t need to be told to pick up the trash. They are conscious concertgoers, which is a rare thing on planet earth. I’ve got to honor that and respect it and I am thrilled to be part of it.
This year you actually performed with Edward Sharpe and Leftover Salmon. Does that kind of thing happen often? How do you like getting on stage with the musicians?
Well, let me just tell you this—Vince [Hermann] from Leftover Salmon is my friend. They were bus rats and I’ve been connected with them since the beginning. I got to spend some time with Vince in Colorado where he took me to the festival honoring the frozen dead guy, which is some Lithuanian or something and once a year they pack him on ice and parade him downtown. I actually have a tee-shirt that says “I survived a frozen dead guy show.” It’s hilarious and Vince allows me to come on stage and grab a mic and make up stuff with the band playing and he is bouncing back and forth and we share a collective wacko together that develops into the music. I enjoy doing that with them.
Hot Tuna—I often get to go off with those guys.
The Magnetic Zeros! Those guys, holy moly! Edward Sharpe is the name of the dude with The Magnetic Zeros? The drummer in the middle of their set, I was getting tired and he jumped off the drums in the middle of a tune and ran over and gave me his drumsticks which I have in this room to this moment. And I adored them and also “Dispatch”—I got jiggy with “Dispatch” also. Hopefully we’ll be doing some SEVA stuff with those guys in the future.
How are your shows formatted? Do you have a few stories that you intend to tell or are you just sort of winging it? Is the audience participating?
Well sometimes the audience participates. At the end of the last show I did I asked if anyone had questions because the next to the last show I did people said “Well, how come you don’t ask if anybody has any questions at the end?” So I thought I better do that, and I asked that the next show and nobody had any questions. So, you win some you lose some. You never know what’s gonna’ come down the pink or what’s gonna’ come out of my ass. I may begin chronologically in my life or whatever pops up first and if I get stuck I made a couple of notes in a little book. Just one word to kick myself off, like Paul Krasner once told me “When I do a show I always write down seven things in case I get stuck.” I took his advice except I wrote down about 47 things. I’ve hardly scratched the surface.
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