With The Grateful Dead’s 50th Anniversary shows approaching, and HeadCount organizing a “Participation Row” non-profit village at the shows, we are running a series of interviews with key people from non-profits and various social good initiatives tied to the Grateful Dead. Today, we talk to Wavy Gravy (born Hugh Nanton Romney); a poet, comedian, and social activist.
The official clown of the Grateful Dead, Wavy Gravy cut his teeth in New York’s Greenwich Village counterculture movement where he once roomed with Bob Dylan. After touring as a comedian and monologuist, Wavy Gravy founded the Hog Farm, an activist commune. The Hog Farm was hired to prepare the grounds for the Woodstock Festival and Wavy Gravy was in charge of security, or as he called it the “Please Force.” Two weeks after Woodstock at the Texas International Pop Festival, thanks to an interaction with the late B.B. King, the clown adopted the name Wavy Gravy and has used it personally, professionally and legally ever since.
Throughout his life, Wavy Gravy has had a commitment to charity including serving as a co-founder of the Seva Foundation – an international organization dedicated to building sustainable health projects with a focus on eyesight restoration. Seva is one of 17 organizations who will be with us at the Fare Thee Well Participation Row.
HeadCount: How did Seva start?
Wavy Gravy: [In 1970] We discovered how horrific flood relief was going to Bangladesh, at the time. We’d just seen this play in London about Gandhi, where he said, “If God were to appear to starving people God would not dare to appear in any form other than food!” and I said, “Well, suck a chicken” We had so much media from doing the free kitchen at Woodstock, what if we drove there and started feeding people, we could start embarrassing the governments to get off their ass and say, “My God, there are hippies doing it, we better do it better!”
The Indo-Pakistani War broke out, it was amazing, can you imagine the Taj Mahal covered with camouflage netting! Because of the war we couldn’t get to Bangladesh, so we distributed the food and medical supplies to Tibetan refugee camps, and then we went out for Kathmandu [in Nepal], we built a playground there, and then we were the first western vehicle on the Chinese road to Pokhara, where Annapurna sits, and then we said, “If ever our life circumstances could turn, we would give back to this beautiful country that has given us so much”.
[A few years later] Dr. Larry Brilliant, who was the doc for the caravan [to Tibet and Nepal] ended up running the American team for smallpox eradication. He went to the University of Michigan to teach public health, and his boss there, Nicole Grasset, who did a ton of work in South India on smallpox, saw many other health issues in the region and [in 1978] went to Larry, “We must do something about this blindness.” 80% of the people in the world that are blind don’t need to be, and could get their sight back for about $5-10 bucks then. So Larry opened up his rolodex–I wound up being called, along with Ram Dass along with Danny Rifkin who was one of the managers of the Grateful Dead, it was quite a crew. We got our first grant from Steve Jobs who gave us $10G to come together in Heartlands, MI where we had the first Seva meeting. We were pitched by Nicole Grasset, and we were moved.
It was my job to get the Grateful Dead to do a Seva benefit show. Weir was already on board. So I go to get on the plane in Detroit, and who is on the plane, but the Grateful Dead! Where are they gonna go? They don’t have parachutes! So I start with Billy, and Billy’s easy, and Mickey, and then I go to Jerry, and Jerry is such a sweetheart, and by the time I got off the plane I got them to do a benefit at the Kaiser Auditorium.
Bill Graham was producing this show, and he didn’t know it was a benefit, [doing a Bill Graham impression] “Why am I the last to find out about these things, goddamnit!” so the Grateful Dead is playing music, and I’m sitting backstage with Steve Parish, who is Jerry’s buddy, and we’re smokin’ a fatty, and Bill hands me a note, and I open it up, and it’s a check for $10,000, and I say, “Bill, why are you doing this?” and Bill says, “Because you did not hit on me [for a donation], my friend.” So that was the beginning. And believe me, $10,000 was a lot of money back then.
Can you tell me a bit about what Seva is doing right now with the tragedy in Nepal?
Right now we are up to, and over, our eyeballs with earthquake biz. We’ve raised, small potatoes compared to other people, but a half million in dollars, with people throwing money at us because they knew we had networks in Nepal and the ability to get cash money where it would do the most. We also did a benefit show for Nepal for my 79th Birthday Party [on May 17th] with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, along with the Steve Kimock Band, the California Honeydrops and Hot Buttered Rum, in Rohnert Park, it was a great show. We must have done 100 shows and raised many millions of dollars for Seva. Seva has organized 3 and a half million sight saving surgeries, in 25-30 countries now.
What was your relationship with the Grateful Dead like?
It goes back to, not quite the very beginning, not Mother McCree’s Jug Band and that stuff, but they were the house band for a little travelling show we did called, “Can You Pass the Acid Test?” and that always was extremely interesting. I first connected with them while I was in The Committee [comedy troupe] and we did one at Muir Beach, and I had a love affair with about 300 chairs that I stacked in various formations as the band played.
Did any of the band members take the “Acid Tests” with you?
Everybody but Pig Pen was always taking it. Pig Pen just drank booze, too bad, because it destroyed him and he couldn’t turn it around, and that was a great tragedy, because he was the blues, and sorely missed.
Are you going to be going to the Chicago or Santa Clara Fare Thee Well Shows?
Unfortunately as of now I don’t plan on it, I have this little thing called Camp Winnarainbow, and I’m busy with my 79th Birthday Party.
What are you working on in Camp Winnarainbow?
Well it’s at least our 35th year, now we are getting the children of the children, we’re second generation-ing it, and it’s the most amazing thing. People ask me what my greatest legacy is, and it’s the kids that come out of this camp that give me nostalgia for the future. We teach them juggling, tightrope, trapeze, unicycle, tall stilts, our theatre department goes from Shakespeare to improv, our dance department from Hip-Hop to West African, to swing, to you name it, and I used to teach improvisation at Columbia Pictures, Harrison Ford was one of my students back in the day, I was with an improvisational theatre called the committee and I taught improvisation for years, and mainly because of my infirmities, my teaching has taken a back seat, but they are putting me back in the ring again this summer. I’ll be teaching some improv.
Who is your favorite for the 2016 Presidential Election?
Well, [in 1964] The Committee supported LBJ, and then he came in with [Secretary of Defense] Bob McNamara and killed more than anybody since Atilla the Hun. In ‘68, we ran a pig for president, Pigasus, and she was the first black and white and female candidate. In ‘72 we came back from Asia and ran a rock for president. I had this great rock I got from the base of Mount Ararat and we ran a roll for vice president. At different rallies we passed out different rolls, like cinnamon rolls, or jelly rolls, or bagels, so you could always eat the Vice President, as the roll kept changing.
Then up the spinal telegraph came the concept of “Nobody for President”
Who keeps all campaign promises? Nobody
Who should have that much power? Nobody
Who bakes apple pie better than Mom? Nobody
Nobody was president before George Washington!
Hey, let’s face it, Nobody’s perfect!
So we fully embraced Nobody [starting in ‘76]. I became Nobody’s Fool. The president has Air Force One, well our car was the Nobody One. We ran Nobody for quite some time. Until I defected for Barack [Obama] and all the anarchists got on my case, and I said, “Well Nobody made me do it” and they couldn’t argue with that.
So where I’m gonna go with in 2016 is Nobody’s guess. I haven’t heard everyone’s horseshit and we’ll see who piles it deepest. I do love Bernie [Sanders], I love Bernie, I don’t know who I’m gonna vote for, but I love Bernie. Hillary [Clinton] intrigues me, anybody but those Republicans. I’d like to vote for someone I think can win.
Given your history with civil disobedience, what are your thoughts on what is going on in Baltimore and police brutality elsewhere?
Police have always been difficult, but Lenny Bruce said, “There’s pigs but there’s always good police officers.” I once had a run in with a Kansas City Police Officer at the ‘76 Republican Convention where a cop frisked me, felt a bump, thought it was a weapon but found one of those chattering teeth toys [the mascot for the Nobody for President campaign] and told me, “Get out of here, you are too weird to arrest.” I try to keep it that way. As Hunter S Thompson used to say, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
What I’ve always done, over the years, is give my nose the best cop I see. And sometimes it’s a really sweet moment. I’ve also been beat up by the police and the National Guard.
I began to be a clown at the Oakland Children’s hospital to cheer up children. Then one day I had to go to the People’s Park for a political demonstration, and I didn’t have time to de-clown, and I got there and discovered the police did not want to hit me anymore, you know why, clowns are safe!
I’m the guy that ties balloons to barbed wire, I think bubbles are a secret weapon. Humor, humor! When someone laughs at something their defense go down and they can hear a concept ands think, wow, holy shit. Laughter does that. It enables you to look at things with a clear slate. That’s why satire is so brilliant. So I think if some of the [Baltimore] protesters dressed up as Orioles it could be hilarious. But of course only some of them, it’s an individual thing, who your inner clown is. It doesn’t need to be somebody with a clown and a big wig.
Not yet, but one of my favorite Simpsons episodes was…
When Mr. Burns dressed up as me! My wife and I were at a movie that night, and when we came home, my son was about 18 at the time and I hadn’t impressed him in years, he was waiting for me and very excited and said, “Dad, the Simpsons mentioned you!” I love Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and miss Stephen Colbert desperately.
Even before you became Wavy Gravy, you worked with some incredible comics, who is the funniest?
Well Lenny Bruce was my manager for a while and certainly became my mentor and friend and he was a skyrocket. I also revere Jonathan Winters and Richard Pryor. That would be my big 3.
Are you friendly with Bill Cosby, I know you two came up through the same comedy scene?
First of all, I displaced him, when [Bob] Dylan got me to come back to the Gaslight [Cafe], Cosby was staying [with Dylan] in that little room I had had, and Dylan kicked him out so I could have that room back. At that time I was opening for Thelonious Monk at the Village Gate, when I went back to the Gaslight it was a big deal. Cosby and I never got into stuff, not even a little bit. He never liked the naughty words I said, he never liked Lenny [Bruce] that much. He’s a different species.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Just want to plug, SEVA.org, CampWinnarainbow.org. Also Camp Winnarainbow has an adult camp, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. It’s just like kids camp except you don’t have to brush your teeth and you can fuck.