In his 78 years on – for the most part – planet Earth, Wavy Gravy has traveled from the bottom of the Greenwich Village folk scene to the top of the Himalayas, emcee-ing the first Woodstock festival, hiring Lenny Bruce as his manager, rooming with Bob Dylan and helping kids around the world get sight-saving cataract surgeries. Next week, he comes to New York’s City Winery to tell these stories in a “one-man oral history” playfully titled “Wavy Gravy: Hippie Icon, Flower Geezer and Temple of Accumulated Error,” and while finishing preparations, the temple himself talked to Rolling Stone about the long, strange trip that brought him to this point. “I’m in it for the buzz,” he explains. “You catch my drift at the Winery, and you’ll see just what I’m talking about – it’s contagious.”
Can you tell us a little bit about the show, what to expect?
It’s basically my life and times, an oral history. In 22 years I’ll be 100. I kind of started as a squirt in Princeton, New Jersey – and at age four who should swing around the block and want to take me for a spin but Albert Einstein! That’s the jumping-off place. My mom was like, ehh, but she acquiesced. And you would not believe the Einstein nuts that threatened to have me deeply sedated and talk to them on various drugs, because obviously he was shooting theorems off as we went around the block. I remember nothing! I remember a shotgun of white hair pre-dating Don King by half a century, a twinkle in his eye and a peculiar odor, as you do remember smells in your infancy. And someday I’ll walk up to somebody and say, [sniffs] “Hey!”
Auspicious beginning. Where do you go from there?
I was a teenage beatnik, and I started just on poetry on the East Coast and Boston, but really evolved in the coffee houses of Greenwich Village, where I was there for the folk revival. I remember Bob Dylan coming into the Gaslight wanting to play the hootenanny, and I grabbed the mic and I said, “Here he is! The legend in his lifetime. [Whispers] What’s your name, kid?” We ended up a renting room and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” was actually written on my typewriter. The original draft was burned up in storage along with Lenny Bruce’s couch, but that’s a whole other story. There’s a million stories.
We drove two buses to the Himalayas, taking food and medical supplies to Pakistan. We were deeply involved in the revolution. Abbie Hoffman was a close friend, and I’ll tell some Abbie stories. I was there for the march on Washington. I was arrested a lot, once as the Easter Bunny and once as Santa Claus, among other things. Police didn’t want to be photographed busting a bunny. I somehow knew that, and not only that, I wore a human foot for luck. A large, human foot on a sash on my side.
Where do you get one of those?
Some hippies gave it to me – that’s how I get everything! They said a bunny needs a lucky human foot, so I took it. It made the bunny much more interesting.
What was it like living with Dylan? Talk about your apartment.
Well, there was a pot belly stove. There were a couple of cots and chairs, and it was a funky little room just upstairs from 116 MacDougal Street. It was my hangout where we would all go and hang together and get delightfully altered. Various artists would practice a song, and when they got it where they liked it, they’d run it downstairs and play it for the folks. It was an amazing time. There was a time even that we went from one in the morning until sunrise. All the artists would finish doing their gigs over New York and then show up at the Gaslight and play for each other.
What was Dylan like as a person back then?
Dylan was extraordinarily sweet and curious – very curious about stuff. And paranoid. He’d grab me and say, “Let’s duck in this alley until that guy goes away.” “Who’s that guy?” “I don’t know but let’s just stay here.” And then, you know, Dylan was a treat to be hiding in an alley with for 10 or 15 minutes, until the object of his paranoia disappeared around the corner. He worked up a lot of songs in that room up over the Gaslight, and then he’d come downstairs and he’d grab Tom Paxton or Hamilton Camp, who sang with Gibson, and they’d debut the song. Like “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.”
So how do you portray all this in the show? Because it’s a one-man show, right? It’s just you?
I just talk. One time Jimi Hendrix came down wearing a Sgt. Pepper jacket, playing with John Hammond, Jr. So I was told I smoked hash with him. I don’t remember that. But I went down and did a set after that, and I was told about it from Marshall Efron, who was supposed to perform with me but was too loaded to move. And after the show we all walked to the Hudson River to this warehouse where Jimi hooked up with Eric Clapton and they played until sunrise. It was amazing.
Now I run a circus and performing arts camp, Winnarainbow, which I talk about a lot. At the end of every session, we wake the kids up with Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at full volume, and they have a pillow fight. They rush out of their teepees and have a pillow fight. No head shots. It’s gorgeous; it’s glorious. I’m sure Jimi is smiling down from somewhere.
How did the show come together? How did you decide what to talk about and what to leave out?
Well, I certainly have a lot of stuff. I’ve been messing around with this little theater in Berkeley called the Marsh. And just in case I get stuck, I put together a little book with little catchphrases that would propel me to tell a particular story. I’m going to be highlighting those and probably grabbing the top 20, and just going with that. I hate to do that. I love to be more spontaneous and I probably will, but Mrs. Gravy feels it might be a good idea if I knew what I was doing.