Turning 80

Posted on in The Interview by Rob Sidon

The Creative Life and Times of Wavy Gravy

Born Hugh Nanton Romney on May 15, 1936, Wavy tells many funny stories, including one of his first memories growing up in Princeton, New Jersey, hanging out with Albert Einstein. A beat poet,comic entertainer, Merry Prankster, and Hog Farmer

in the early 1960s, he was chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. He was chosen as head of security at Woodstock and earned international notoriety as the altruistic MC who announced, “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000.” Two weeks later at a pop festival in Texas, blues guitarist B.B. King called him Wavy Gravy, a moniker that stuck. He married his wife, Janahara, in 1965. They had one son, Howdy Do-Good Gravy Tomahawk Truckstop Romney, who was born in 1971 and subsequently changed his name.

A political activist in a clown suit, he has been frequently arrested at demonstrations. Well connected to the Who’s Who of prominent artists and leaders of the counterculture movement, Wavy used his creative guile to help improve the lives of the underprivileged by founding or cofounding nonprofit charities such as Camp Winnarainbow and the Seva Foundation. He is the subject of the documentary biopic Saint Misbehavin.

Common Ground: Tell me about Hugh Romney. Where did he grow up?

Wavy Gravy: That was my name until the fall of 1969, but that’s another story. One of my earliest experiences was living near Albert Einstein in Princeton. My mom was airing me out in the yard one day, and he asked if he could walk me around the block. My mom was like “huh?” but said “yeah.” Over the years people have tried to hypnotize me to find out little things he said to me, but the only thing I can remember is his smell. Sometimes I will walk up to somebody and say, ”Hey, man, you smell like Albert Einstein.” He had an unusual odor. What can I tell you? I can’t define it, but one can remember odors from their extreme youth. I was about 5.

Was your dad part of Princeton University?

No, he was an architect who traveled the world. He was in Venezuela at the time I went around the block with Einstein. My parents divorced when I was 7. I moved with my mom to her parents in Albany in New York, where I went to Public School No. 16 with Stephen Levine, my oldest friend, who just passed away.

Happy childhood?

From what I can remember, yeah, I had a pretty good time. Stephen and I later reunited as beat poets in Greenwich Village and then later at Camp Campbell with Ram Das. Stephen ended up running the Death and Dying Project.

You’re turning 80, which means you’ve seen a few come and go, and now your friend Stephen. Do you ever get used to death?

I worked for many years at the Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Cancer Research Institute and had a lot of children die. So old people dying—it is just part of it. I try to toss out a haiku when anybody special to me dies. When I have 108 of them, I can make a book. Here is one for Stephen called “Haiku for My Oldest Friend”:

Yo, Stephen Levine,
teacher of death and dying
now it is you who dies.

That is a play on his book, which I think is the most important book. When people tell me they are dying or working with people who are dying, I always tell them to go to the bookstore and get Stephen’s book Who Dies.

Prince died last week. Do you have a Prince haiku?

Yes, here it is—“Music legend dead at age 57, a haiku for Prince”:

A sexy god weeps
soft wet tears fall on St. Paul
a purple rainbow.

5-7-5, that’s how you build a haiku.

How do you feel about your own mortality? Of course, you’re going to be around for at least another 20 years.

The first hundred years are the hardest. Actually, I never thought I would make 40. Those were turbulent times between my 30 and 40. That was when you didn’t know if you were going to live from one day to the next. We got pummeled by the police and National Guard. Every breath was for trying to shut down the genocide in Southeast Asia. Turning 80 is similar to 79 except it seems more spectacular. More people are curious about it. Just now I spent an hour and a half on the phone with Rolling Stone magazine and am kinda pooped. In three years Woodstock will be 50—my stock will go through the roof. They like those even numbers.

Stick around, they’re gonna need another MC.

I survived three Woodstocks. The first one made me famous, the second two got me paid.

Did you ever hear the phrase “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000”?

Good line, huh? That came without thinking at Woodstock. We were bringing granola in Dixie cups to these kids who were enmeshed in mud near the main stage. We had the Hog Farm free kitchen, which could feed about 10,000 meals and also had our little free stage where people would wait in line to sing. Joan Baez had her hair cut short so nobody recognized her, and she actually waited her turn in line to be able to sing at the free kitchen. What an ace she was, and continues to be.

The Hog Farm could feed 10,000, but that leaves out the other 390,000.

There were vendors all over the place. We were able to help a lot of people that didn’t have money or were too lazy to go to the vendors.

Clowning has always been your thing, and poetry, but at Woodstock you earned a reputation for being good at security.

On our way to Woodstock when we came off the airplane at Kennedy, the world press was there saying, “Oh, you are the Hog Farm? They made you guys the security.” I said, “My God, do you feel secure?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “See, it’s working.” Then he asked, “What are you going to use for crowd control?” I said, “Cream pies and seltzer bottles.”

As the chief of police of Woodstock, we kept it pretty cool. After Woodstock we were delighted to climb on these buses and buzz across the country drawing a lot of attention. People went nuts seeing us go by. Somebody threw a Time magazine through the window, and there was this whole editorial about Woodstock and our altruistic work there. It made you want to weep. We had no idea of the magnitude of what we had experienced.

It was right after Woodstock that Hugh Romney became Wavy Gravy.

After Woodstock, the Hog Farmers were recruited to help keep the peace between the hippies and the rednecks at this big rock ‘n’ roll festival [the Texas International Pop Festival] at a speedway near Lake Dallas. Despite some skinny dippers in the lake that we had to clear out, including a water skier with a hard on, the scene at the speedway was mellow. My compliments to the chemists of Texas for their product being so smooth.

At one point in the evening, this announcement came over the PA that B.B. King had arrived and wanted to play for free and if we could clear the stage. So I stood up—it was before my multitude of back surgeries—and felt this hand on my shoulder, and I looked up and it was B.B. King. I just looked at him, and he said, “You Wavy Gravy?” I said “Yes sir.” He said, “I can work around you.” Then he leaned me up against his amplifier, took out his guitar named Lucille, and Johnny Winter came out of the other wing and they played until sunrise. That was everybody’s reward for the skinny dippers putting their pants back on and picking up the trash—a tiny tip of Texas went to heaven.

How did you originally break into the cool scenes you’ve consistently been part of?

I was a teenage beatnik starting in Boston University. I was there on the GI Bill. I read about the jazz and poetry scene in San Francisco in Time magazine and said to myself, “Fuck a chicken—I can write poetry, I know some musicians, let’s do that.” So with a bunch of kids, we took over the basement of this bar on Huntington Avenue in Boston. We put mobiles up and black tablecloths and transformed the place and read poetry to jazz.

After the McCarthy era blackball lifted, the university professors in the theater department moved back to New York to work on Broadway, and they took me with them. I began to read my poetry in the coffeehouses, ending up at the Gaslight, where I became poetry director along with John Brandt. We passed the hat around, and all the poets would divide it up. I made all my money with poetry. Then I suggested to John Mitchell, the owner of the Gaslight, that we include folk music between poets—and that caught on. Eventually, the folk music took over. The poetry had gotten tedious and just didn’t spill out of me like it used to. Even then it started to turn into haikus.

Then I would talk about the weird stuff that happened to me during the day—anything but to have to read another poem. It was so funny. So I skipped the poetry and just talked about the weird shit, and next thing you know, I am in a suit and being mailed around the country touring and opening for jazz players like Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. I opened for Peter, Paul and Mary and did their first gig.

Didn’t you introduce Bob Dylan at the Gaslight?

Yeah, I remember when he came wearing Woody Guthrie’s underwear. He had a sign on his guitar that said “This machine kills fascists.” We ended up sharing a room over the Gaslight along with other artists, and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” was written on my typewriter.

Isn’t your wife [then named Bonnie Beecher], who is from Minnesota, the subject of Dylan’s song “Girl from the North Country”?

She doesn’t like to talk about it. I’m amazed you know that, but it does appear in some books about Dylan.

What more can you say about what it was like to be around these amazingly creative people, particularly the dearly departed, such as Monk or Coltrane, Hendrix, Joplin, Garcia, or someone like Allen Ginsberg?

I don’t even think of them as being dead. They live in my molecules. At the time Ginsberg died, he was working on a song with Paul McCartney and Philip Glass called “Dancing Skeleton.” I took a picture of Allen dancing at the first Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park and spliced it with a Tibetan thangka of a dancing skeleton. It came together beautifully, and I added this haiku:

Skeleton dancing
out of your closet of flesh
howls at the spring moon

When Jerry [Garcia] died, this was my haiku:

The fat man rocks out
hinges fall off heaven’s door
come on in, says Bill

You remember all those?

I remember some of them. That was a good one.

What was it like to be a Merry Prankster around people like Ken Kesey and Neal Cassidy?

Ken Kesey is dead
but never trust a Prankster
even underground

I used to say Kesey could make the floor change color for a dollar at the door—which is what it cost to get into the acid test. I remember one at Muir Beach stacking furniture with Neal Cassidy and then discovering a bunker out there. I very much enjoyed my bunker time. Do you want to hear the story of when I passed the acid test?


It was the Watts test [February 12, 1966], the eve of Lincoln’s birthday. The Pranksters rented a huge warehouse on the eve of the illegality of LSD. [LSD became illegal in California on October 6, 1966.] We invested in two brand-new, shiny galvanized ash cans, which we filled with cherry Kool-Aid. I must have repeated the speech 15 times. “The Kool Aid on the right is for the kids. The Kool-Aid on the left, however, is the Electric KoolAid.” But people would come off the dance floor thirsty after dancing for two hours to the Grateful Dead and just start lapping up anything wet, meaning several hundred micrograms of swallow. The whole damn place started melting down.

That is when this girl started freaking out, crying out in this voice [like a hooting owl], “Who cares? Who cares? Who cares?” I was pretty loaded, but I crawled to the microphone and announced, “Some sister is unglued. I’m going to try to glue her together, but I could use some help. If any of you want to help, meet me where she is. [Making the cry again] Who cares? Who cares?” So I find her in this little side room where about 20 people joined hands around her. She turned into jewels and light, and we turned into jewels and light, and that is when I passed the acid test. When you get to the very bottom of the human soul, where the nit is slamming into the grit, and you are sinking, but you reach down to help somebody who’s sinking worse—that is when everybody gets high, and you don’t even need LSD to do that.

Did you coin the phrase “Electric KoolAid Acid test”?

I did coin it, but Tom Wolfe wrote the book by the same name and in the book suggests I was the one who put the acid in the Kool-Aid at Watts, where I think 20 or 30 people committed themselves. People still hit me over the head with umbrellas—old ladies—but I did not put the acid in the Kool-Aid at Watts. [Bear] Owsley did it. Tom Wolfe got the word from a woman named Clair Brush, who was one of the editors at the LA Free Press who was loaded out of her mind. She was certain I did it. I didn’t.

That’s a bona fide Prankster story.

You had to be there.

Besides passing the acid test at Watts, what are you most proud of in your life?

The kids that have come out of Camp Winnarainbow and the work of the Seva Foundation.

What happens at Camp Winnarainbow?

It’s a circus and a performing arts camp. We bring economically disadvantaged kids there too. It started when my wife wanted me to babysit our 7-year-old while she went to Sufi Camp in the Mendocino Woodlands. I discovered there were lots of parents that couldn’t do their practice because they had to watch their kids. So I grabbed some grownups that like to play with kids, and they gave us our own cabin. It was such a hit that the following year we rented another camp. Then we moved around the country doing performing arts camps with juggling, tightrope, trapeze, unicycle, tall stilts, dance, theater. Eventually, we found the land in the Oak Grove of Laytonville, and when I saw the 17 teepees I said, “This is it.” We’ve been there ever since. It’s our 41st year. It’s about compassionate living. Our motto is “toward the fun.” We lifted that from the Sufis’ “toward the one.”

Don’t adults attend too?

Nine weeks for kids and one week for grownups. Our motto for the adults is “it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” Adult camp is big fun or your money back. We only had to give money back once in over 30 years, and that was because they didn’t find enough places to smoke cigarettes. So we were glad to see the back of them.

How did the Seva Foundation come to be?

It was started by Larry Brilliant and Ram Das, who had been with their guru Neem Karoli Baba in India, and Dr. Venkataswamy, known as Dr. V, and Dr. Nicole Grasset from the World Health Organization. She was one of the living saints I have brushed with. Larry and Nicole were doctors who turned their work from smallpox, which had been eradicated, to the problem of blindness. Thanks to a small grant from Steve Jobs, we all were flown to meet in a place called Heartlands, in Michigan, and that is where Seva got started. Nicole had shown that 80% of blindness could be cured with simple eye surgery.

What are you proud of regarding Seva?

I am proud to be part of the 3½ million sightsaving surgeries that have come together as part of the Seva Foundation. I am proud of the numerous Grateful Dead benefit shows we’ve done to raise money. Many shows with David Crosby and Graham Nash, Bonnie Raitt, Steve Earle, Elvis Costello. Jackson Browne has done more than anybody. It’s amazing how many people are interested in performing for something that gives sight to somebody on the other side of the world.

I know Larry and Ram Das followed Neem Karoli Baba. What is your spiritual path?

Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan once said to me, “Ah, Wavy, you’re part of the Dervish path.” [Rabindranath] Tagore was one of my heroes, but I like ’em all. What did Kesey say? “Put your good where it will do the most.” Karma yoga. It was Maharaji [Neem Karoli Baba] who said, “God’s gift to humankind would be the elimination of smallpox.” That was kind of cool. I think that most spiritual teachers advocate the doing of good work.

You’re a clown so you’re always happy, but what make you really happy?

A child learning to juggle for the first time or walk on stilts. A grownup discovering their inner clown. Seeing someone walk outside their own definition of themselves and into something entirely new.

It is said that humor is one of the most sophisticated forms of human intelligence.

Wavy Gravy says, “If you don’t have a sense of humor, it just isn’t funny anymore.” John Townsend’s definition of a clown is a poet who is also an orangutan.

How did you get into clowning?

We were living on Woolsey Street [in Berkeley] running a telephone answering service called Babble-on. Everybody took turns being operators. You worked a certain amount of time to pay room and board, and then if you wanted actual money you had to work extra. Some doctors heard about me, that I was some kind of social worker in hippie clothes, and they came by and asked me if I would come by the Oakland Children’s Hospital to cheer up kids. It was just after one of my multitudes of back surgeries, and I thought, “Anything to get my mind off my own pain.” On the way up, somebody handed me a red rubber nose and one thing led to another. I met a clown who was retiring from Ringling Brothers, and he gave me his giant shoes and gradually I began to acquire the patina of a clown. One day I had to go to a demonstration at People’s Park, and I didn’t have time to climb out of my clown shit and discovered the police didn’t want to hit me anymore. Why? Clowns are safe. You don’t hear some redneck say, “Let’s go kill a clown.”

What pisses you off?

Selfish people. If everyone would just be kind to each other, we would be in heaven. That was one of my great lines from Woodstock after “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed.” “We’re feeding each other—we must be in heaven, man.”

Creativity and humor seem to come naturally to you. How does it manifest? Any words to describe this?

Oh God. Then you destroy it. I guess it has to come out naturally; otherwise, it’s contrived and wooden and doesn’t work. Remember that thinking gets in the way of thought. Kurt Vonnegut said, “History is a list of surprises.” Laughter is the valve on the pressure cooker of life. Either you laugh at stuff, or you’re going to end up with your beans—or your brains—on the ceiling.

You were a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor. People loved it.

Eight years and it was marvelous. When Unilever bought the company, I got dumped for not being cost-effective. However, seven or eight years ago they had a contest to see what flavor people wanted brought back from the flavor graveyard, and Wavy Gravy defeated all other flavors two to one. They brought me back for six months or something, and I got a check for $10,000, which went to Camp Winnarainbow scholarships. During the years I was a flavor, it was $30,000 a year and all the money went to scholarships. I never took a penny. Ben and Jerry are going to be at my 80th birthday show on May 22 along with all those great artists that you are going to mention in this article [Yonder Mountain String Band, Steve Earle, John Popper, and New Riders of the Purple Sage, among many others].

Let’s pretend this is your last message to humanity. What do you say?

Eternity now. Feel into whatever lights up and move toward the light. That is what I would tell children in the hospital that were leaving their body. “Just drop your body like some old clothes and move toward the light.” Good advice.

Rob Sidon is publisher and editor in chief of Common Ground.

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