Current Issue Details

Buy Current Issue


Published: 2005/06/07
by Josh Sabatini

‘Feel for That Breeze and Open Your Sails’: Sound Advice with Wavy Gravy

Hanging by the train tacks in sunny Palo Alto, northbound train rolled by, a massive, energetic, rumbling-rush, when the intuitive clown called. I’ll have to come down to the gate and shepherd you into the house because there’s a vicious black dog who might sink his teeth into your jugular.

That was days ago, which passed strangely stream-like. When morning arrived for the interview I was wearied — lack of sleep, rivers of whisky nightly while staring madly at self in mirror nursing my way through gloom.

Had to find my light. No excuse this morning. Got to make it in time. Found my Spirits. Wasn't there a girl to kiss good-bye? But no, she'd left days ago too, now down in Los Angeles by her dying mother's bedside and ….

Garcia singing "Might as Well," blasting out rolled down windows into morning sunshine as I drive along Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, hippie chicks walking down sidewalks waking like beautiful flowers opening to first rays of light.

Rose, somewhere around Rose, I remember him saying. But it was beyond Rose. That's right: Big, old, brown house — big, blue peace sign. A right turn, parked car and then stood along an unusually tranquil street.

Gate opened: Blondish, grayish locks falling here and there, revealing a portion of the top pate, corpulent-like frame, puffy face, piercing brilliant eyes, holding self up with assistance of a brown cane. It was like some enchanted medieval grove and I entrusted my safety to this Shakespearian-like misfit.

It's Wavy Gravy in elder-hood, four days before his 69th birthday bash headlined by Phil Lesh and Friends at the Berkeley Community Theatre, a benefit for the Seva Foundation.

Hugh Romney was his birth name. His life weaves in and out of the rock n' roll music scene and shares marvelous vistas with such legends as the Grateful Dead pantheon to Thelonious Monk and Bob Dylan.

He dips into the past like a Jackson Pollock of story-telling: sensory overload, bright segments that morph, transition and somehow strike the intended aim or, even when misses it, it somehow works — the real magic of it all.

Wavy Gravy is well-known for his saying at Woodstock. "Good morning. What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000,'" Wavy Gravy said, imitating himself those many years ago. "And I think I've had to do that as many times as James Taylor has had to sing Fire and Rain.'"

Wavy Gravy is busy these days with the Seva Foundation, an organization working to cure blindness around the world, a few annual concerts and his successful Camp Winnarainbow, which serves all ages.

This year on June 11 the adult camp begins (, a nine day workshop among 500 wooded acres in Laytonville, Calif. "It's just like kids camp except you don't have to brush your teeth and you can procreate if you aren't too noisy," he said.

There's a "mini-rock concert," a kick-the-can film festival, croquet party and so on. "Never too late to have a happy childhood and its big fun or your money back as the clothing merchant says."

Camp Winnarainbow is a circus and performing arts camp. "Kids learn timing and balance. I call it survival of the 21st Century, or how to duck with a sense of humor," he said. There's juggling, tall stilts, theater from clowning to Shakespeare, dance from hip hop to West African dance.

"We're not trying to turn out little film stars or circus stars, although this does happen. But what we are trying to turn out are universal human beings who can deal fluidly with anything that comes down the pike with some compassion and some humor," he said.

About 700 children visit the camp each year. Twenty-five percent of the kids are on some form of scholarship. Musicians like David Grisman, Joan Baez and Jackson Browne frequent the camp.

The recent Berkeley benefit headlined by Phil Lesh was "to raise some money for the Seva organization using my birthday as an excuse," said Wavy Gravy.

Downstairs at his Berkeley home there hangs pictures on a brick mantel and chimney of those who've died. The most recent addition: Pope John Paul II. Each room is loaded with artifacts, each a symbol of some conscious-expanding heroic charge.

There're two pictures in the bedroom upstairs painted by Jerry Garcia. Wavy Gravy's wearing an oversized T-shirt, displaying Garcia's everlasting visage. The shirt appears shroud-like when he lied down on the bed.

"[Jerry Garcia] was like a tied-eyed Santa Claus that also was one of the greatest guitar players on the planet," said Wavy Gravy. "He was so multi-faceted. I think my last conversation with Jerry was about the art of Andy Goldsworthy. He constructs things with flowers and leaves and rocks and twigs and, like that kind of stuff, and it was before a show in Jerry's little niche you know how they used to tack out those little areas of territory on stage and I think we did an hour on Andy Goldsworthy. He just wouldn't leave it alone. We kept going through the book and wondering at all the things.

"It was an honor to share a microphone with Neal Cassidy," said Wavy Gravy, rolling now, having found a rhythm. "That was one of the great thrills of my life. I'd say one word, Neal would say another and we would rapidly build something. Neither one of us knew what we were going for. Neal was ahead of time. I really had to scamper to stay even close and I remember busting him because something really funny happened and he was too busy being ahead of time to laugh so I said, Neal if you don't stop and laugh I'm not going to play anymore.' He just smiled and blushed and we kind of made a deal there."

Ken Kesey's advice to Wavy Gravy was: "To always put your good where it would do the most."

Phone rings loudly as Wavy Gravy is lying on his bed. It’s musician Corrine West. Who is it? ... Are you home? ... I’m doing a jamband interview now … Are you home? ... OK, well maybe I’ll catch you or you’ll catch me or well speak to each other down the line and I love you big Corrine…

Music pulsed into the room from a black Bose stereo system on top of the TV, whose screen was covered in a veil showing Mickey Mouse.

Wavy doesn’t need questions to get him to open up, to turn the faucet on, to lighten up the soul. Throw him a hint of a thought and he’s already down that path a few steps ahead of you. He seems to grow younger as the conversation progresses and he continuously looks for that sudden chance to create laughter from deep inside your guts.

"I think that the role of music is exquisitely expressed in the I-Ching. I'm paraphrasing: Music elevates the people and takes them out of the mundane and into the land of the spirit and lifts them up and creates an opportunity for all the ancestors to be present and creates a bridge to the world of the unseen. And that's what it does. That's why people went to hear the Grateful Dead because they got lifted up and that has a lot to do with the love affair between the band and the audience and they would just bat that love back and forth," Wavy Gravy said.

He defies a formal job description: "I'm an intuitive clown, a rock on tour, oral historian. I'm trying to figure out who I am.

"I used to open for a piano player named Thelonious Monk who said everyone is a genius just being themselves. So my job is just to be the best Wavy Gravy I can from moment to moment."

Moment to moment, his title just kind of happened that way as well.

"In the fall of 1969 we camped out on Lake Dallas and setup a free stage there and it was on that free stage I was lying, when this voice came over the P.A.: B.B. King is here and he is going to play for free and could we clear the stage.' And I started getting up real slow, it was before one of my multitudes of back surgeries, and I felt this hand on my shoulder and I looked up and there was B.B. King. He looked down and said, You Wavy Gravy?' I said, Yes, sir.' (No one called Hugh Romney Wavy Gravy before). Well Wavy Gravy, I can work around you.' And he leaned me up against his amplifier, took out Lucile and played to sunrise."

Are these tricks by a magician? No, they are a bit beyond that.

"It's the muse. You learn to make your life like a sail. And the muse? Look at it as the wind of creation and you just kind of feeeeeel for that breeze and open your sails and it will take you where it takes you. My life is the land of one thing after another."

So whatever it is that Wavy Gravy does, he does it well.

"My favorite festival out there is called the Gathering of the Vibes. I'm going to do that again this year. My gift to big time rock n' roll, which is something that's been more than 30 years in development, is when I took my mic off the stage and setup my little headquarters with accessibility to all. And when the bands aren't playing and the equipment is moving around my mic becomes live.

"Usually I set up the dial tone and the dial tone is that everybody at the event participates in the creation of this altar. So everybody at this event — 200,000 to 300,000 people — know if they really need to they can find their friend, search for their insulin, whatever they need to do. This is the people's tool and I kind of shepherd it. I don't allow people to hustle drugs, or nookie or promote commercial events.

"When the band is ready to go, it goes back up to the stage again. As Garcia says, that's when the magic can happen, when there's an open mic like that. It was Jerry who encouraged me to continue to pursue this effort. Sometimes it gets really, really high in that vector and I hope that when I dissolve when I shuffle off my mortal coil — I hope that open mic between sets continues along with the Seva Foundation and Camp Winnarainbow, which are two things I've dedicated my life to."

Wavy Gravy was there from the beginning. "I just sort of evolved. I started out as a teenage beatnik. When I was five or six years old we lived in Princeton, New Jersey. Lo and behold, one day my mother put me out for my daily airing in the yard and this bushy haired gentleman asked if he could take me for a spin around the block and that bushy haired gentlemen turned out to be Albert Einstein. Now people have grilled me over the years as to what we talked about. I was five. I don't know. But I do remember a shock of white hair predating Don King by half a century. I remember his mustache, the twinkle in his eyes, sweatshirt no logo, sneakers no logo. But what I mostly remember is odors and this man had a particular odor that I haven't experienced since. Except some day I may walk up to somebody and say, Hey, you smell like Albert Einstein.'"

The Big Apple started to bring Wavy Gravy's role more into focus. "I began reading my poems in the Gaslight Cafin New York City on MacDougal Street) as a teenager and began to segue folk musicians. I convinced the owner it would be interesting to try and break up the flow. I had to fight for it. I made all my money on poetry so I said well lets just try this.

"Dylan first came into Gaslight and he was actually wearing Woody Guthrie's underwear, at least I think he was, and had a sign on his guitar that said: This machine kills fascists.' I grabbed the mic and said, Here he is, a legend in his lifetime.'" Then, in a lower voice to the young Dylan, "What's your name kid?" They shared a room over the Gaslight and "A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall" was written on Wavy Gravy's typewriter. Bruce Springsteen asked: "Do you still got that typewriter?"

I noticed it now: Steve Kimock, Live in Colorado Vol. 2. was what was playing in the CD player.

"It's a lifelong quest. I believe in the mystery. Let the mystery be and honor the mystery. Decide that you will put your good where it will do the most and you leave your life open to coincidence. I maintain coincidence is a miracle that God does not take credit for. But stuff happens. One of my things that I check out is to see if the hairs on my arm have fled to rigid attention and I appeal to them as a presence of some kind of true thing. And it just pops up and it's a direction and I explore and then one thing will lead to another.

"And so, ah, you have to trust the miracle. But you have to meet it halfway, you can't just lay dormant. As Hunter says, Keep your day job til' your night job pays.'
Philosopher Rumi said: Let what you love be what you do. There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.' So many people are involved in labor that they don't love. Figure out a way to make it fun, that's the job of the intuitive clown: To turn shit into fun. And sometimes it's really difficult and sometimes you have to rise to the challenge and that's my job."

How do you maintain that optimism?

"It's a survival tool. I maintain if you don't have a sense of humor it just isn't funny anymore. Laughter is like the valve of the pressure cooker of life. Either you laugh at stuff or you end up with your brains and your beans on the ceiling."

"Keep listening with an open heart," he said, when, at that moment, the last notes of Kimock's CD play and the interview is brought to a close.

"I adore Kimock instrumentally… especially charging through scenery on road trips. He's on an exploration of boundaries of time and space. I enjoy the adventure of it."

"Don't forget to vote for my ascension to flavor-hood," he said referring to the Ben and Jerry's flavor Wavy Gravy that was discontinued but may come back if enough people vote online for its return.

"Stuff clicks," he said, making a clicking sound with his fingers. "Clicks. And you kind of hear that sound (keeps clicking) and you listen to that click (ends with a final clicking sound)."

He showed me to the gate. "Expect a mackerel," he said.

In loving memory of Judith Reilly.

Show 1 Comments