"Here’s Gravy in your Ear
An interview with Wavy Gravy
By Leslie D. Kippel and Toni A. Brown
We met with Hugh Romney, better known as Wavy Gravy, while he was in New York as spokesperson for the Woodstock generation. Fifteen years after emceeing the Woodstock Festival, Wavy Gravy spends much of his time endorsing several charities which include the SEVA foundation and a camp for brain damaged children.
The conversation delved into many realms, including colorful reminiscences of the travels of the Merry Pranksters.
The following are excerpts taken from our very extensive interview.
Relix: A lot of people have heard your name, but don’t really know who you are. You’re the Clowned Prince of San Francisco. How did you get involved in some of the scenes and why do you have such a radical look?
Wavy: I used to be an exotic dancer in ancient times. It started right here in the Big Apple. I was a young beatnik, and involved in a place at 116t McDougal Street, the Gaslight Café, first reading my poetry and then becoming the poetry director with John Brandt, and then introducing folk music into the poetry scene. Then, I put the poems aside and started to talk about my weird day. Then Victor Menudas wandered in, who later became Bobby Dylan’s road manager, who told me that if I skipped the poems and talked about my weird days, he’d put me in a suit and mail me around the country.
The Gaslight was an amazing thing in those early days of folk music. I remember when Bobby Dylan came in and asked me if he could go on and sing. It was rather late in the evening when he wandered in. He was wearing Woody Guthrie’s underwear, and he had a sign on his guitar that said, “this machine kills fascists.” I said, “what’s your name, kid?” He said, “Bob Dylan.” And I grabbed the mike and said, “here he is folks, a legend in his lifetime, Mr. Bob Dylan.” And we shared a room over the Gaslight for some time. “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” was written on my typewriter. I was married in the Gaslight to my first wife by Reverend Gary Davis, with Dylan and Dave Van Ronk and Tommy Paxton and all those people hanging out. Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, everybody came through there. At around two o’clock, all the clubs would close and all the entertainers in the city would come down to the Gaslight and play for eachother until six in the morning.
I think my first psychedelic trip was in there too. I took mescaline and went to Coney Island and I had fifty dollars and I spent it all on roller coaster tickets and I didn’t get off the roller coaster for three hours. It was only scary when it stopped. It changed my life, let me tell you. I’ve been an adrenaline junkie ever since.
I had started a show called the Phantom Cabaret. We opened at the Fat Black Pussycat, starting off with Tiny Tim, me in the middle, and closing with Moondog. We got the front page of the Village Voice and the biggest rave they had given anything since the Connection. The next day the club was closed for back taxes. It was then that I went to see the Becks—Judith, Malina, and Julian Beck—at the Living Theatre and they said, “we’ve been kicked out of a lot of places, you can use our joint.” So we would go on at midnight after the break was done, and the whole stage was framed in barbed wire, and we’d turn on all the lights and everyone would get in a big huddle and go, “bong, bong.” Our “bongs,” depending on how stoned we were, we’d do five or six or forty. Behind the barbed wire, Tiny (Tim) would shuffle out with his little shopping bag, no one had ever seen him before, and he’d do his descent into the cathedral as a Philco radio and those old recording artists would come inside him. I remember one time he was shaking like a leaf. He had sung Rudy Vallee songs for forty-five minutes, and he said, “Mr. Vallee came inside me and would leave, I think I’ve lost my Crosby power.” After a while, Moondog was thinking he didn’t like Tiny Tim because he was gay, and he didn’t like what I was saying about President Kennedy, so he quit and Sandy Bull took Moondog’s place, really beautiful music. Then I came out to L.A., and when I was out there I wanted to put the Phantom Cabaret together. So I went to San Francisco, to North Beach, and got this club that was then called the Coffee Gallery, and on the strength of the New York Times rave, the New York Post rave, the Village Voice raves of the Phantom Cabaret, they went for it, even built a little theater for us, and I arranged a motorcade to meet Tiny Tim. We had a Rolls Royce filled with daffodils. He was coming on the train, he was scared to fly in those days. I got a telegram from Tiny, saying, “sorry, I can’t come, my mother won’t let me.” So there we were, and instead we opened with Elmer Snowden, who used to back up Bessie Smith on banjo. It kind of bombed out, and there I was with my first wife pregnant in San Francisco. We were just in this room, waiting for something to shake, and there were auditions for the Committee, which was an improvisational theatre of some note, and I went down and auditioned and got the job.
That began a year-and-a-half of working for The Committee in improvisational theatre, and requiring a lot of stuff, like a condominium and a Packard. The next thing you know, I was beginning to move around with some of Owsley’s finest early stuff, and we’d do it every Monday. And then the next thing I knew, I gave away all my stuff and went to live with the Hopi Indians. There’s this thing in the Book of Hopi that in times of disaster all the races will gather at Haute Villa, which they refer to as the center of the universe, certainly, they maintain, the Jerusalem of this hemisphere. They migrate to this place the only way they can make it through divine intervention, it’s so tough. I went there and they said, “you’re a little early, but you can hang out.” So that was my love affair with the Hopi Indians.
I came back to L.A. and eventually got a grant at Cal State, teaching the same stuff that I had perfected at the Committee to brain damaged kids, classes filmed and taped through one-way glass and all. Finally, Tiny Tim gave me a call and said he wanted to come do the Phantom Cabaret, and he was a big star, already done some Carsons and Merv Griffin shows. We got this little place near the Hollywood Ranch Market and we began to do the midnight again, with Steve Darden, one of the founders of Second City in Chicago, and Dell Close, whom John Belushi talked about a lot, one of his great teachers. Dell is wild. He used to travel to Second City from his place by roller skating through the Chicago sewer system with a flashlight and a beebee gun to shoot the rats. It was a wonderful, amazing show! Tiny was living in the back room because it had its own shower, he had to take six or seven a day. One night, it was on the eve of my first real public event in L.A., called the Lord Richard Buckley Memorial Sunset. In fact, the guy who recorded my album for World Pacific, Jim Dixon, who later recorded the Byrds and the Burrito Bros. And a lot of the Gram Parsons stuff, recorded all of Lord Buckley. So we had this mountain top, called Moonfire Mountain, which is like Sugarloaf in Rio, except it’s in Topanga Canyon, and owned by this lunatic, Louis Beach Marvin, III, who was the heir to Greenstamps, and you’d see him often in various rock happenings in black clothes and a black hat followed by sheep, which are constantly smiling because they’re so fond of Louie. He also has an island off of Columbia with one of every female animal on earth, and he keeps them all happy. It’s a little strange, but you know, different folks… So he would let me use his mountain top occasionally and I would help him in his various causes for worldwide vegetarianism. So it was raining and raining that night and people were calling up, wondering what we’d do about the sunset. I said, “hang in there.” It was raining and raining when I went to sleep. I got up and went downstairs and there were forty people in the kitchen in dayglo clothes cooking eggs—the Pranksters and the Dead had just hit the house, getting ready to do their first “pass the acid test” in that area. I had done a few in the Stinson Beach area up north and had become close to Kesey when he came through L.A. and I was living with Timmy Hardin then at this place in front of Samson Debeers house that was made famous in Kenneth Enger’s movie, The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.
So there I was, Kesey was on the lam. It was the bus and Babbs and Paul Foster and Hassler, you know, the Pranksters. Tiny was all upset. He came in and said, “Mr. Neal Cassidy was knocking on my door at 3 o’clock in the morning and he wants some grass and I don’t understand it, he was on a whole lawn full.” Meanwhile, it’s raining and raining and people are saying, “what about the sunset.” Finally, I couldn’t handle it any more and said, “okay, call off the sunset, we’ll all move the party to the Unitarian Church in the Valley, where they’re doing this show called Can You Pass the Acid Test? I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.” The word just went out, and it got closer and closer to the sunset, although the acid test didn’t start until seven at night. I started to feel this weird feeling and Hassler and Mary Microgram and a couple of other people picked up on it and said, “you want to go out there, don’t you?” I said yes. So we got in this rented Valiant and cruised out to Topanga and up to Moonfire, and you come to this sign that says, “no admittance: police dog training course.” Not many people go beyond there unless they know better. We wandered up the road and then suddenly it was like Flash Gorden’s den if he lived in the stone age, with an open roof and piano on pulleys that was sort of on the roof and the birds lived in it and they’d fly out and make music. It was raining, but the minute we got there the rain stopped and the clouds parted and the most beautiful sunset that anyone had ever seen in the history of Los Angeles went down. I said, “my god, dear Lord Buckley was doing his thing and we didn’t even show up.” I was so ashamed. The acid test turned out wonderful, but ever since then when the Hog Farm has said we’re going to be somewhere, if it says so on the poster, whether it’s an earthquake, flood, monsoon, we’d be there and do it, even if only three people showed up, and somehow we’d be richer for it.
Anyhow, I’m sure lots of your readers are familiar with the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. What happened when all the Pranksters were supposed to pose for a Life magazine cover, Babbs stole the bus and they didn’t have anywhere to go, and I had moved to a little two-room cabin and all these Pranksters moved in with me, and the landlord came by and said, “you can’t have forty people living in two rooms, you’ve got to leave.” We didn’t know what to do. We were just living in the land of one thing leads to another. This neighbor came down the road and said, “old Saul just had a stroke up on the mountain and I bet you can get that place if you take care of them hogs.” He was referring to a nearby mountain top in the Verduga Hills overlooking colorful Burbank. We cruised up there in the dead of night to look at the place and I stood up on a knoll to get a better look and the knoll started walking. It was a big old sow, about the size of a davenport. I later discovered that 48 hog farmers a year were devoured by their livestock. We always fed them in groups of two after we learned that statistic. The roads would wash out and the pigs would attack the house and we had to pack garbage up in knapsacks, it was quite a thrill. On Sundays, we would have events and people all over Southern California would call up and say, “what is it this Sunday?” And we’d say, “dress up like kids.” And everyone would dress up like kids and bring water guns and pull girls hair. One day we just had mud, so it was mud wrestling and mud sliding. I remember once we had a kite day and there was no wind, that was amusing. Except when the sun went down, the thermals kicked up and people were standing around in the dark, but you couldn’t tell if anyone was really flying a kite or putting you on. They just had their hands up in the air and you had to take their word for it. Once Tiny Tim came out and we built a little theatre for him. He sang for everybody and we had a Tiny Tim day, him feeding the garbage to the hogs.
I remember occasionally it used to be my task to wake the band up. Especially Pig Pen, it was hard to tell where the floor left off and Pig Pen began, back in those days. But a lot of that time frame I covered in the last Relix interview. Fridays and Saturdays we were working at the Shrine Auditorium doing the light show for the Cream and the Airplane and everybody that came through. Big shows.
We wanted a bus so bad. We’d all go out and do different jobs during the day, with a couple of people left behind to run the kitchen and the ranch, the Hog Farm. We used to live on three dollars a day, and all the Safeway bins and supermarket bins. For three dollars a day, we’d feed sixty-seventy people. The mechanics and gas station guys saved up money and secretly bought this bus and brought it up. That turned into the Road Hog, our first bus. We made a film that I wasn’t actually in because I wiped out and went away for my first surgery. Skidoo, was the first psychedelic movie ever made, and one of the last. Groucho Marx played God, and the Hog Farm was all extras in it. It was an Otto Preminger movie. I only saw it once.
So there we were, and for seven years we lived on the road in these buses. We went everywhere, from sea to shining sea. What we moved around most of all was these Sundays that we did on the mountain. It was with rock ‘n’ roll, it was with geodesic domes that people put together, that 10,000 people could move in and out of, because there was only a wall on one side that sort of hooked in these triangles of white plastic material that we would project on when we did the light shows. It got dark, and it got so that we would drive into a college and we would get sponsored by the SDS and inter-fraternity council, and we’d go into the college and we’d empty out the art department, the music department. It was the only thing these people would agree on all year, one day of madness. We’d take every resource and throw it all on the football field with all the buses, and eventually the students would start asking when it would start. All the dome parts were on the roof, and what would happen is we’d all work together with the audience to set it up. It was called “the Hog Farm and Friends in an Open Celebration.” That’s the title of my book. We drove around the country just doing this, and selling our native hippie crafts to get the gas. The colleges would pay our expenses and then some. While we weren’t protesting the war, we were doing these open celebrations, and sometimes we’d combine the two.
So here we are in the colorful Hotel Chelsea in NYC. What happened is these networks flew me in because it’s 15 years after Woodstock. NBC was the one first to get into it, and they came to my kid’s camp and shot some stuff and brought it back to New York where Linda Ellerbee saw it and demanded that they fly me in. I thought that I’m not into a hey ma, look at me kind of mambo, but if I could get on national TV and have my Seva shirt on or have it mentioned that would help cure some blindness, and if I didn’t do that I couldn’t put on my clown mouth, I couldn’t face life. But for Seva, I’d crawl there. For millions of people, they look at movies in a box and find out there’s something out there besides Red Cross. When they get into the total sixties stuff, I get berserk. We did this third eyeball in Canada, and the CBC was going into the sixties stuff and finally I walked up to the TV and screamed, “fuck the sixties!”…. And I said, every time someone does something that’s decent, trying to help out there fellow critter, or trying to work towards some kind of peace and survival on the planet or cleaning it up, and you say, “well, it’s the sixties,” why don’t you get a calendar? They all cracked up and loved it, so then I really got into it for a while. What these people all agreed is that what they’re trying to show is that in a lot of cases, the spirit of the sixties is still happening now, which is right in the movie. I say the eighties are the sixties twenty years later, old feathers new bird, all that stuff. My favorite line that way is by Steven Ben Israel, who says, “I have nostalgia for the future.” These are the good old days. That’s Gravy, I guess.
Relix: How did the Seva benefit with the Grateful Dead and the Band in Toronto work out?
Wavy: It’s working out better than I thought it would, because all the money’s getting tripled, by an organization called CETA. I think it’s totally out to about a quarter of a million bucks.
Relix: How did the Dead get involved with Seva?
Wavy: Larry Brilliant wrote a piece for the Daily Planet Almanac, something that we first developed with Terry Reem at the Pacific High School when we were all living there.
Bobby Weir reads the Daily Planet. It’s one of the few things on earth that he reads. He read Larry’s piece and so there was this instant connect. It hooked up with me too. He called Larry and then we all go to talking. We thought that Weir was going to set up that first benefit. He’s realy shy about talking to the guys about those things, or was at that time. We showed up thinking that the whole thing was together, and discovered that nobody had really talked about it yet. So right away, I went for Mickey and Bill. They were going for it, and Weir was going for it, and it just happened to be we were in Denver and I was on the same plane with them. I had them pinned and just went from one to the other until it was locked in. That was the first Dead show for Seva, which I don’t think Bill Graham even knew about, and he was producing it.
Relix: As a result of the Toronto benefit alone, how many people do you think you’ve saved from blindness?
Wavy: A lot of the things we’re doing are not the direct operation here. We’re building free eye hospitals. We’re picking projects that CETA will double, and it’s free up other money that we have to use for the operations. If you want to figure it out in eyeballs, what you do is you figure it’s $20 Canadian an eyeball, let’s just figure $200,000, how many eyeballs?
It’s even better than that. One of the things we’re doing is setting up a cottage industry for eyeglass manufacturers for cataract people. What happens is they’re led on a stick, a hundred miles or so, to0 this place where the mobile eye camp is they get their surgery. It takes ten minutes, and then they’re down with the bandages for a week and they’re tended and fed. Then the bandages come off and in most cases, they get glasses.
Relix: Going to do any more Seva benefits?
Wavy: Sure. I have something going that we’re working on that is in the high fantasy stage. Have you heard any rumors? What do you think would be my next move?[ Close Window ]