Wavy Gravy will forever be associated with Woodstock, but from the moment you start talking with the clown prince of the counterculture, the former Hugh Romney makes it clear he isn’t a relic from the ’60s. “Did you like my haiku?” he asks, referring to one he’s just penned in honor of Prince: “A sexy God weeps/Soft wet tears fall on St. Paul/A purple rainbow.” “I enjoyed Prince,” Wavy says. “I like all good music, I bounce around.” Then he adds, with just a hint of solemnity, “It’s something in my geezer-ness, that, as people expire, I create haikus.”‘
Although he’ll turn 80 on May 15, Wavy Gravy works hard at avoiding his own geezer-ness. He continues his work with Camp Winnarainbow, a performing arts camp for kids in Laytonville, California, and the Seva Foundation, the nonprofit group dedicated to curing blindness for people around the world. In honor of Wavy’s milestone birthday, Steve Earle, Blues Traveler’s John Popper, the New Riders of the Purple Sage (still led by singer-guitarist David Nelson), and other acts will join forces on May 22 at the Somo Village Event Center, the solar-powered outdoor venue in Rohnert Park, California. Proceeds from the event (along with those raised by another Wavy tribute in Mill Valley on May 15) will benefit Seva. Those on the East Coast can honor Wavy’s 80th as well at “Unlimited Devotion: An Evening of Goodness,” which will feature an appearance by Wavy and a collection of rare Grateful Dead posters, all at the Main Line Art Center in Haverford, Pennsylvania on June 10 and 11. (A portion of proceeds will go toward the Rex Foundation, the charitable non-profit spun off from Wavy’s longtime friends, the Grateful Dead.)
Given all this activity, it felt high time to catch up with Wavy, a one-man tour of American counterculture over the last five decades.
How do you feel about turning 80?
All I got to do is keep breathing. In 20 years, I’ll be 100.
How did you come to be involved with Seva?
The [first] benefit was a Grateful Dead show. [Co-founder] Dr. Larry Brilliant’s boss came to him: “Larry, we must do something about this blindness.” And in Larry’s Rolodex were me and my wife Jahanara. I was given the task to get the Dead to do some music. I went to Detroit and who was on the airplane? The Grateful Dead, and they didn’t have parachutes. I sided with the drummers. I got Mickey and Billy to concur and then Jerry was a pushover. He always said, “Might as well.” It’s his exact quote. I used to talk to Jerry mostly about art. The last discussion I had with him was about a conceptual artist named Andy Goldsworthy who makes stuff out of logs and trees and bushes. That was ’93, ’94. Jerry was bubbling. But it was a hard ride for him.
You were there for some of the early Acid Tests, of course.
I was there in the beginning with the Merry Pranksters and I spent the better part of the early evening at one saying, “The Kool-Aid on the right is the electric Kool-Aid. The Kool-Aid on the left is for the children.” Two giant galvanized ash cans, brand new, one with acid and one not. Tom Wolfe got the information that I put the acid in the Kool-Aid at Watts. I didn’t. Fucking Owsley [Stanley] did. I still have mothers hit me with umbrellas, because they think that probably 50 people committed themselves that night.
What do you get out of being involved with Seva?
We’ve been at it for 40 years and 3.5 million sight-saving surgeries. So it was all about making a little music in the free world and then causing somebody on the other side of the world to not bump into shit anymore. How could you not jump at it? Standing next to cataract surgery performed on the poorest of the poor was one of the highest moments of my life. It’s a high that is not achieved in that pharmaceutical cabinet.
How did you round up the musicians for this show?
I’ve watched Yonder Mountain String band rise over the last five years and they keep going up, up, up and getting better and better. They take bluegrass into the stratosphere. Steve Earle has been with Seva for at least five years; it’s his second main cause, along with being against people being executed. John Popper, from Blues Traveler – we’ve been great friends over the years. Of course, the New Riders, we go back to the ancient times. I thought David Nelson would have been the most logical person to step into Jerry’s vacant shoes. I don’t know why that didn’t happen – because I was not in charge, obviously.
Ben and Jerry are also attending the 80th birthday event in Sonoma, giving out free ice cream. Bu they don’t make the Wavy Gravy flavor anymore, do they?
No. I was a flavor for eight years and then they went public stock and all. They sold it to people who immediately sold out to this big Dutch corporation, who immediately dumped me for not being cost effective. But some day, I’m trying to resurface as a rainbow sorbet. I used to get $30,000 a year when I was a flavor. I donated all that money to Camp Winnarainbow.
Do you have a stash of it somewhere?
I wish. I’ve been offered hundreds of dollars.
Did you ever think the legalization of weed would happen?
I thought it would happen about 30 or 40 years ago. Lenny Bruce was my manager at one point, and he convinced me: “Look, it’s going to happen. Everybody knows a lawyer that smokes pot or a law student. They’re going to carry it through and it’ll be legal in five years.” He was really, really off about that. But it’s happening now – “An eternity, now!” I always say. That’s a line of mine, by the way, that I began with the Nobody for President presidential campaign. We ran nobody from 1976 up until Obama with cross-country tours. When nobody did speeches, we used these windup clicking teeth. It was pretty hilarious.
Are you reviving Nobody this year?
No. This time, I’m supporting anything but Trump. And people should make their vote count. I suspect that if we do, and if people realize the horror of that possibility, that people that never voted before will rise in mass numbers and blow him out of the water. And I suspect we’ll have a woman president.
I hope you’re right.
Trust me on this. The alternative is so horrific. I don’t know anybody that I ever talked to that would support that fucker. He’s got the right-wing crazies and the disillusioned ones. But we’re so much more. I think you’d be stunned to discover how many we are. They always say to me, “Wavy Gravy, you were at Woodstock. How many people do you think are here at this event?” Well, count their feet and divide by two and hope there aren’t any pirates.
Woodstock still follows you around.
I was a teenage beatnik, turned into a standup comedian who became a hippie icon at Woodstock. “Good morning. What we have in mind is breakfast in bed, for 400,000.” It just flew out of my head at the moment. It was without thinking. I maintain that thinking gets in the way of thought.
And you were at Woodstock 3 in 1999, which got pretty gnarly.
Let me tell you – it was fine. I was all the way back to my hotel. I was exhausted. And what happened was, Limp Bizkit was the band that ignited it and this asshole, Fred Durst, says, “Go out and destroy something, it’s good for you.” So they set a semi on fire. People were screaming about the high price of water, but what about the free water that came out of the taps? That was never brought up. I got very steamed by a lot of that. I’m a very dear friend of [Woodstock promoter] Michael Lang and I think he’s always trying to do right. If anyone was to blame, it was Fred Durst igniting the crowd of Limp Bizkit fans.
How is your health—your longstanding back issues, for instance?
Oh God. I got beat up a lot by the police and the National Guard. I spent months in body casts. In fact, the picture of me in the first Rolling Stone that I appeared in, which was a huge article, had a picture of my all-star cast. It went from my knees to my nipples. We painted it blue and put stars all over it. They would bring me on stage to Grateful Dead shows and put me under the piano. I believe I was under Keith [Godchaux]. The second cast I had, we covered with money from all over the world and I called that one the cast of thousands. I try and use humor with hard stuff.
What’s left on your bucket list at this point in life?
Well, I’d like to see more and more blind people not bump into shit. Ken Kesey said to me, “Always put your good where it will do the most.” I’ve underlined that one in my heart, in my mind and everything in between.