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Biography information from the WavyGravy.net website
Wavy Gravy, Hugh Romney, turned 60 on May 15, 1996.
But, if anything, despite (or thanks to) a long history of spinal fusion operations, he is more active – and more effective – in the world than he was 27 years ago when, still known as Hugh Romney, he stood on the Woodstock stage and announced, "What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000!" He was at Woodstock as a member of an entertainment/activist commune known as the Hog Farm. Today, the Hog Farm still exists, collectively owning and operating the 700-acre Black Oak Ranch and hosting the annual Pig-Nic. And Wavy lives a third of the year in a Berkeley Hog Farm urban outpost, a big communal house he refers to as "hippie Hyannisport" But Mr. Gravy (as he's known to readers of the New York Times) has expanded his activities over the past two-and-a-half decades to include codirectorship (with his wife, Jahanara) of Camp Winnarainbow, a performing arts program for children which takes over the Hog Farm for 10 weeks every summer, and the organization of all-star rock concerts to raise money for a variety of environmental, progressive, political, and charitable causes, most notably Seva, a foundation he cofounded 18 years ago, initially to combat preventable and curable blindness in the Third World.
He may be best known to millions as a cosmic cut-up and the inspiration for a Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor – "I am an activist clown and frozen dessert," he says – but it is because of his good work on behalf of the planet and its least fortunate residents that Wavy Gravy has achieved his own brand of sainthood. His friend and satirist Paul Krassner has called him "the illegitimate son of Harpo Marx and Mother Teresa." Wavy says, "Some people tell me I'm a saint, I tell them I'm Saint Misbehavin'."
sure that some people could regard Wavy Gravy as a leftover from the
'60s crowd," says James O'Dea, executive director of Seva, upon whose
board of directors Wavy sits along with a host of MDs and PhDs. "After
all, here is this guy who is still hanging out with tie-dyes and seems
lost in the '60s. But he really took the '60s idealism and made it his
life, and practiced it. We live in a time when, in some ways,
there has been a certain unscrupulous use of morality and family
Indeed, when you spend any stretch of time with Wavy Gravy, strolling around the Hog Farm during the Pig-Nic, hanging out with him at his "hippie Hyannisport" in Berkeley, observing him in action at a public function – you quickly discover that the man with the rubbery face and ever-changing costume is a walking public service announcement for positive social change and compassion. During an exploration of the Pig-Nic's "backstage" area, which encompasses a meadow with a labyrinth based on an ancient pagan model, a lovely wooded creek, and the magnificent oak grove where the Camp Winnarainbow teepees are pitched, the Balinese gongs of Berkeley's Gamelan Sekar Jaya are ringing through the trees. How many people does he think have migrated to Laytonville for the weekend? "I don't know, count the legs and divide by two," he says. Countless campers, coworkers, and admirers shout Wavy's name or greet him with "Hi, Boss," a title Wavy just as quickly bestows on others.
As Wavy carries a bucket of water from the creek to quench the thirst of the flowers in the labyrinth, it is boggling to imagine the paths he has trodden in his six decades on the planet: As a child growing up in Princeton, New Jersey (he was born in East Greenbush, New York), he took walks around the block with Albert Einstein; when he was poetry director at the Gaslight Cafe on MacDougal Street in New York City during the early 1960s, introducing "jazz and poetry" to Greenwich Village, Marlene Dietrich gave him a book of Rilke poems, and Bob Dylan shared his room upstairs, writing the first draft of "A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall" on his typewriter; when, still as Hugh Romney, he became a traveling monologist, "talking about weird stuff that had happened to me," he opened shows for John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Ian & Sylvia, and organized the Phantom Cabaret with Tiny Tim and Moondog; when Lenny Bruce was his manager, the infamous stand-up comic gave the then Al Dente and future Wavy Gravy a yarmulke to sew inside a cowboy hat that had belonged to Hollywood western star Tom Mix – "So I could say 'Howdy Goyim!" He also earned a part in the San Francisco improvisational group The Committee and later taught improvisation to neurologically handicapped kids in Pasadena.
In 1965, when he and his wife (then known as Bonnie Jean) were living in a one-room cabin in Sunland, California outside Los Angeles, they and 40 of their closest friends in the Grateful Dead and the Merry Pranksters (Kesey was on the lam in Mexico at the time) posed for a photograph for a Life magazine cover. "The landlord went ballistic," Wavy recalls, "and we were bummed for about an hour and a half until a neighbor came by and said, 'Old Saul up on that mountain had a stroke and they need somebody to slop them hogs!’ So we were given a mountain top rent-free for slopping 45 hogs." Thus was born the Hog Farm, soon to hit the road in buses purchased with money earned as extras in Otto Preminger's Skidoo, presenting the free "Hog Farm and Friends in Open Celebration" show all over the country.
And all that took place before Woodstock made Wavy’s raspy voice recognizable to millions; well before he wrote two books: The Hog Farm and Friends (1974) and Something Good For A Change: Random Notes On Peace Thru Living (1992); before he started campaigning on behalf of Nobody for President ("Nobody's Perfect, Nobody Keeps All Promises, Nobody Should Have That Much Power"); and before Gravy splashed all over the rock-and-roll milieu, becoming bosom buddies with everyone from veterans Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills & Nash to neo-punksters Green Day (after acting as an emcee at Woodstock 2).
But celebrity, while crucial to his fund-raising efforts, seems tangential to the essence of Wavy's work. Back in Berkeley, on a hot September morning, he waddles up to his corner bedroom, a psychedelic cave in which every inch of wall space is festooned with posters, photographs, mandalas, banners, and bumper stickers. Every shelf, nook, and cranny is crowded with books, beads, videotapes, Buddha figures, crystals, tetrahedrons, incense, Mickey Mouse and Goofy figurines, antlers, wind-up teeth, and empty soda pop cans. A pair of oversized clown shoes appear to be crawling out of one of the canvas bags on the floor. Wavy's lair feels like a cross between a tree house and a New Age/kitsch shrine to the bard of Woodstock himself.
Wearing shorts and athletic shoes, Wavy settles back on his bed for a two-hour conversation. His short-sleeved shirt is unbuttoned and he dreamily strokes his ample belly as he talks. He looks like nothing less than a reclining Buddha disguised as a counterculture tourist as he waxes rhapsodically through stream-of-consciousness segues about his life's work. Topic number one, dearest to his heart and freshest in his memory because he has just returned from his annual summer sojourn at the Black Oak Ranch, is Camp Winnarainbow.
"We just finished our 24th year," he begins. "It originally started as day care for Sufi kids. I thought it unjust that parents should be penalized spiritually, not being able to meditate and stuff, because they had kids. So I said 'Give me all your kids,' and we concocted this little circus arts day care. We discovered that perhaps the kids would be better off without the parents and the parents would be better off without the kids, so we rented the next camp down the road, which was maybe two miles away, and turned it into an overnight camp." A decade or so ago, the Hog Farm acquired its permanent country land outside Laytonville. "I knew instantly it was ideal for our camp," Wavy says. In addition to the oak grove for camping, the Farm boasts its own lake (Lake Veronica with a raft named George) and a 350-foot water slide from Marine World.
Each summer, Camp Winnarainbow conducts four two-week sessions for kids, a one-week introductory session for seven-year-old novices, and a one-week session for grownups. Volunteer teachers share such skills as juggling, unicycling, tightrope walking, and trapeze, as well as music and art. "Grownup camp is just like kids' camp," Wavy explains, "except you get to stay up late and you don't have to brush your teeth. We're not trying to turn out little professional actors or circus stars, although it does happen. What we're really into is producing universal human beings who can deal with anything that comes down the pike with some style and grace. We've been pretty darn successful at that. A lot of the kids who are running the camp now started as campers when they were seven.They can usually do it on a unicycle while juggling three balls. We curry both hemispheres of the E brain. In school, kids learn numbers and letters; we teach timing and balance, which I think is equally important – without competition, except with yourself."
Camp Winnarainbow's concept of practice embraces so much more than physical skills. Mornings begin with Wavy reading from something like the Tao Te Ching or Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, and then the kids choose between high-intensity aerobics or yoga for their warm-ups. "I've also in the last five years discovered that kids will do anything if they can stay up later than other kids, even sit with a straight back and watch their breath. So we instituted WISE Gaias. WISE is Winnarainbow Inner Space Exploration. Three or four years ago we created a labyrinth for Jose Arguelles’s Dreamspell ceremony. They leave their problems at the center of the labyrinth and come out pretty clean."
Thanks to royalties from the Ben & Jerry's Wavy Gravy ice cream flavor and grants from the Grateful Dead's Rex Foundation, Winnarainbow is able to provide camp scholarships for homeless children from the Bay Area and Native American kids from a reservation in South Dakota. That assures what Wavy calls "a little diverse miniworld."
Not long after the founding of Camp Winnarainbow, Wavy found another way of working with kids. Rather, it found him. Some doctors at Children's Hospital in Oakland had read about all this hippie do-gooder work in the Oakland Tribune, and they stopped by my house and asked if I would come entertain the kids." Still in deep pain from his third spinal surgery and "bouncing on the bottom," as he puts it, Wavy figured he had nothing to lose. "On my way out the door, somebody handed me a rubber nose. Without it I could have struck out completely. With it I was able to move outside my own bummer and make little kids laugh. I thought I had troubles 'til I eyeballed some of those kids!"
Wavy continued to visit kids at the hospital on almost a daily basis for seven years. "Then I went on a tour and came back and they wouldn't let me in anymore. It was quite a blow. I still don't know why, and nobody has been able to find out, but I guess somebody on the board didn't want this hippie freak coming in there." Wavy simply transferred his efforts to the Children's Cancer Research Institute in San Francisco. In his book Something Good for a Change, he tells the story of 11-year-old Billy, who had lost his hair to chemotherapy. Wavy had covered Billy's head with white clown makeup when Billy's little sister came up with the idea of showing a movie on Billy's smooth pate. "Could we, Wavy Gravy?" Billy asked. "Could we please show Godzilla on my head?"
"There was no way I could deny such a bizarre and heartfelt request," Wavy concludes. "So there we all were, sitting around eating popcorn and watching Godzilla on Billy's head."
Of course, Wavy learned many of his strategies, which combine fun and survival, at Woodstock.. The Hog Farm, the "mobile, hallucination-extended family," was on the road on the East Coast in '68 and '69, and was holed up in a big loft on New York's East Side, when Woodstock Ventures made a proposition. "One day this guy showed up looking like Allen Ginsberg on a Dick Gregory diet with an attaché case," Wavy recalls, "and he asked us 'How would you like to do this music festival in New York state?’ The Hog Farm had just rented land in Llano near Black Mesa, New Mexico, and the commune was just about to split the New York scene and settle in Llano. He said, 'We'll fly you in on an Astrojet.’ We just figured he was one toke over the line, went back to New Mexico, and thought nothing of it. So we're celebrating the summer solstice in Llano, and this guy shows up with one of those aluminum rock-and-roll valises full of 'linear overlay,' and an Astrojet with room for 85 hippies and 15 Indians."
Recruited to build fire pits and fire trails around the festival grounds, the Hog Farm convinced the promoter! to let them set up a free kitchen, as well. When they stepped off the plane at Kennedy Airport, the Hog Farmers were met by the world press and told that they had been assigned the task of doing security at Woodstock, too. "I said, 'My god, they made us the cops,"' Wavy recalls. "And I said, 'Well, do you feel secure?’ The guy said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, 'See, it's working already.’ That's when he said. What are you going to use for crowd control?' I said, 'Cream pies and seltzer bottles,' and they all wrote it down and I thought, 'The power of manipulating the media, ah ha!"'
The Hog Farmers' finest hour came with the rains that swamped Max Yasgur's farm and threatened to turn the hippie dream into a National Guard nightmare. "The weather turned Woodstock into a national disaster area," Wavy continues, "and we had a chance to show the world how it would be if we ran the show, so we pulled ourselves up by our collective bootstraps and were amazing – by surrendering ourselves to this interesting energy that enabled us to work days without sleep and intuitively pull off stuff that we couldn't have thought about in our wildest dreams. And the minute we thought that it was us doing it, we'd fall on our butt in the mud. So I think that the universe was acting out these archetypes. I've puzzled over it for decades, and that's the best I can come up with, that there was this amazing energy that you could surrender to, and it would move you."
Shortly after Woodstock, the Hog Farmers helped keep the peace between the cowboys and the hippies at the Texas Pop Festival, where blues giant B. B. King gave Wavy Gravy his name. "It's worked pretty well through my life," he says, "except with telephone operators – I have to say 'Gravy, first initial W."
great Hog Farm adventure set the stage for Wavy's participation in the
founding of Seva. Recruited by San Francisco underground radio
pioneer Tom Donahue and Warner Brothers Records to travel around the
country and be filmed for a movie called Cruising for Burgers,
later renamed Medicine Ball Caravan, the Farmers bused themselves across
America, setting up stages for mainstream rock and rollers. After one
last concert with Pink Floyd in Bishopsbourne, England, the Farmers
pooled their movie pay and some funds raised for them from a benefit
staged by a London commune and continued their trek across Europe. "It
was around the time of the great Pakistani flood," Wavy remembers, "and
relief was pouring in so very, very slow. There was a line of Gandhi's
that hit me at that time, it was something like, 'If God should appear
to starving people, God would not dare to appear in any form other than
food.’ We'd had so much attention from that free kitchen at Woodstock,
we thought if we were in Pakistan with any kind of food, we could embarrass
the large governments, and they would speed up the food relief. Then
the Indo-Pakistani war broke out, and we hung a left into K-K-K-Kathmandu,
distributing food and medical supplies to Tibetan refugee camps as we
traveled. We fixed leaky roofs with rolls of plastic and built a playground
in Kathmandu for impoverished kids. We also
saw a tremendous number of blind people in Nepal."
locally run sight programs in India, Nepal, and Tibet, Seva provides
more than 80,000 eye surgeries a year. It also establishes partnership
in Native American communities to tackle the rising epidemic of diabetes,
supports work for sustainable agriculture in Chiapas, Mexico, and monitors
violence against refugees of the Guatemalan civil war. "What we do is
find someone who is a blazing, shining example of doing a particular
piece of service, and we just back them hook, line, and sinker," Wavy
says of Seva’s strategy, "sometimes providing the flashlight to help
them find the light switch.
to Wavy, his commitment to the kind of work he does was indeed a product
of the ‘60s. "That’s when I knew this thing was real," he says, "that
it was the only game in town and I wanted to go to work for it, whatever
it was. There is a wonderful chapter in The
A Quick Sketch of My Thumbnail
From "Something Good For A Change" by Wavy Gravy
Born: Hugh Romney, May 15, 1936, East Greenbush, New York.
Sign: Slippery when wet.
Education: P.S. 16, Albany, New York. William Hall High School, West Hartford, Connecticut. Volunteered for the military draft in the fall of '54 and was honorably discharged after twenty-two months of service in the United States Army. (I am in no way recommending the military as a career choice. The Korean War had just wound down and I figured it was a reasonable assumption that I could slip in and out before the next little war rolled around. It was a dumb decision on my part but it helped pay for my college education.)
1957: Entered Boston University Theater Department under the Korean G.I. Bill. Started jazz and poetry on the east coast at Pat's Pebble in the Rock on Huntington Avenue in Boston. After a year and a half, defected to the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater in New York City. Graduated in 1961.
1958-1962: Attended Neighborhood Playhouse by day, served by night as poetry and entertainment director (with John Brent) at the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village. (I went from being a published teen-aged beatnik poet to hip comic tongue dancer right before my very eyes.) Was married to Elizabeth by a blind Harlem Street singer and preacher named Reverend Gary Davis in the Gaslight.
1962: Moved to California at the request of Lenny Bruce, who became my part-time manager. Recorded "Hugh Romney, Third Stream Humor" for World Pacific Records. (I recorded this live when I was the opening act for Thelonious Monk on the night the great Club Renaissance closed its doors forever.)
1963: Joined the Committee, an improvisational theater company in San Francisco. Daughter Sabrina born. Purchased a condo in Marin City and a Packard Caribbean convertible in Hollywood. Tuned in, turned on, and dropped out -- way out. Entered deep space. Left wife, daughter, and stuff and journeyed to northern Arizona to join up with Hopi Indians and await the coming global cataclysm. (The Hopis said I was early but let me hang out anyway and regroup my head.) Connected with interconnectedness of everything and surrendered to Law of Sacred Coincidence. Returned to Los Angeles and regrouped life. Divorced wife, gave away stuff, and began to float aimlessly on the ocean of one thing after another.
1964: Financed free-floating lifestyle through sale of single ounces of marijuana packaged in decorator bags and containing tiny toys. (The dubious apex of this short-lived profession was when I scored a kilo for the Beatles.) Met Bonnie Jean Beecher at her restaurant, the Fred C. Dobbs. She put peanuts in my hamburger. Together we survived L.A. Acid Tests and in 1965 we married each other. We also married the Hog Farm. The Hog Farm is the name still associated with our expanded family. We acquired it while living rent free on a mountaintop in Sunland, California, in exchange for the caretaking of forty actual hogs. Within a year of moving there, the people engaged in our bizarrecommunal experiment began to outnumber the pigs. At first we all had separate jobs. I had a grant to teach brain-damaged childrenimprovisation while teaching a similar class to contract players at Columbia Pictures. Harrison Ford was one of my students. My wife Bonnie was a successful television actress. Joining the scene were musicians, a computer programmer, a race-car driver, a telephone company executive, a cinematographer, several mechanics, and a heap of hippies.
1966: We performed light shows and energy games at the Shrine Exposition Hall in Los Angeles with Cream, Jimi Hendrix, the Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead. The Shrine holds ten thousand people. On Sunday afternoons we had free happenings on our mountaintop. Maybe a hundred people in open celebration.
1967: We scored a couple of old school buses with funds earned as extras in Otto Preminger's movie, Skidoo, and outfitted them for our exodus. I underwent my first spinal surgery and joined the caravan of Hog Farmers in New Mexico.
1968: Summer Solstice. Accompanying our extensive entourage was Pigasus Pig, the first female black-and-white hog candidate for president. We debuted our traveling road show at the Los Alamos proving grounds and set off cross-country to share our open celebration with the rest of the free world. (Driver! The United State of America! And step on it!) We were a light show, a rock band, a painting, a poem, an anti-war rally, an anthem for freedom and change. Mostly we were a palette for the audience to blast off from, and the audience was also the spaceship and the star. Bought twelve-acre farm in Llano, New Mexico.
1969: Served as chief of the Please Force at the Woodstock music festival, where the Hog Farm administered the free kitchen and bad-trip/freak-out tent. Was captured in the movie "Woodstock" and propelled into the world press. Became good-humored peacemaker and purveyor of life support at major rock festivals and political demonstrations of the sixties and seventies. Changed name to Wavy Gravy at the Texas Pop Festival. Experienced spinal fusion and acquired all-star cast.
1970: Helped initiate an experiment of buying back the earth and deeding it back to itself. Purchased 590 acres in northern Vermont and called it Earth People's Park. Made a movie, Medicine Ball Caravan, for Warner Brothers, which ended up in England.
1971: Journeyed with two buses filled with food, medical supplies, and forty-two people from seventeen countries, to Pakistan and the Himalayas. Returned to United States and captured record for having the largest number of active diseases in a single human being at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. Upon my release, I dictated my book The Hog Farm and Friends and traveled to the west coast.
1972: Third and final spinal fusion. The surgery left me in my cast of thousands, firmly ensconced at Pacific High School in the Santa Cruz mountains. This is a center for alternative education rented by David Crosby for me to recuperate at with the whole Hog Farm. Bonnie Jean gave birth to Howdy Do-Good Gravy at the Tomahawk Truckstop in Boulder, Colorado. We helped the Zippies run a rock for president and a roll for vice president (so you can always eat the vice president); I lose the rock in a New York taxicab. We traveled to Sweden for the United Nations Conference on HumanEnvironment with a contingent of eco-freaks, indigenous Americans, poets, scientists, and Margaret Mead.
1974: The largest teaching hospital in Southeast Asia was destroyed by U. S. bombers on Christmas Day. I joined others in effort to rebuild Bach Mai hospital. Camp Winnarainbow founded in the Mendocino woodlands.
1975: Woolsey Street house purchased by the Hog Farm, followed soon thereafter by the founding of the Babylon Telephone Answering Service on the front porch. I attended the World Survival Symposium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and started a new world religion in San Francisco called The First Church of Fun. Wife Bonnie Jean takes Sufi name, "Jahanara."
1976: American bicentennial and birth of the Birthday Party, which nominated Nobody for president. I journeyed to Kansas and the Republican convention, where I was advised by state and federal agents, "Get out of here. You're too weird to arrest." Tenth wedding anniversary. Bill Graham produces The Last Waltz. I told him, "Bill, you shouldn't have."
1977: More blanko.
1978: Temporarily died in Berkeley and was later resurrected in Boulder Creek and Boston.
1979: Purchased the Henry Street house and sold Woolsey Street house, with the exception of the front porch, where we continued to maintain our answering service. The Seva Foundation founded in Heartlands, Michigan.
1980: "Nobody for President" tours cross-country in the family Greyhound, which is temporarily dubbed "The Nobody One."
1982: Began purchase of land in Laytonville, California, called Black Oak Ranch.
1983: Moved Camp Winnarainbow to Laytonville.
l984: Toured in Greyhound bus with Unreal Band for Nobody. Seva "Sing Out for Sight" concert held outside Toronto with The Band and the Grateful Dead.
1986: Turn fifty. Had mind blown publicly by family and friends at massive Berkeley benefit.
1987: Jerry Garcia, with acoustic and electric bands, inaugurated our annual fundraiser to help pay for Black Oak Ranch. Produced in cahoots with Bill Graham, it is called "Electric on the Eel."
1988: Nobody IV tour, with the rock band Vicious Hippies. We went from sea to shining sea. Busted with the homeless in Washington, D.C. Help produce Home Aid Concert for The Seva Foundation in New York City at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
1989: Woodstock twenty-year anniversary.
1990: Hog Farm twenty-five-year reunion. Ran for Berkeley City Council with slogan "Let's elect a real clown for a change." Lost election, but kept marbles, mind, mittens, and sense of humor.
1992: Became ice-cream flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
1994: Master of Ceremonies at Woodstock 2.