Corrections or additions?
This story by Tricia Fagan was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on March 31, 1999. All rights reserved.
Sure, the millennium’s only a man-made designation
— valid only in our own minds and culture — but as the days
and hours race towards that arbitrary dateline, there’s still an undeniable
sense of heightened awareness, soul-searching, and rediscovery. Shakespeare
is embraced once more, fractals reveal themselves in their brilliant,
psychedelic glory, the ’60s become a mini-series, and Baby Boomers
are asking `What now?’ Well, if you’re looking for a guide to help
you successfully navigate this great cosmic kaleidoscope, you might
consider Wavy Gravy.
No, I’m not talking about the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (although it
may make a good start), I’m suggesting the real thing, the 1960s persona,
founder of the Church of Fun, "Please Force" Chief at Woodstock
— now 63 years "young" and still living his life of commitment,
social involvement, art, and FUN.
The redoubtable Wavy Gravy — artist, philanthropist, prankster,
’60s icon, and ’90s activist — brings a collection of his collages
to the Firehouse Gallery in Bordentown April 3 to 30. The artist will
fly in from the West Coast to attend the opening reception on Saturday,
April 3, from 1 to 4 p.m. The free reception is open to the public
and features live blues by Trenton’s own Joe Zook on guitar and Philly’s
Steve Guiger on harmonica.
On display will be Gravy’s collage homage works, "Wavy Gravy,
His Blues Period," which feature legendary figures of the blues
scene. Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Jesse Fuller, Leadbelly (with
Woody Guthrie and Memphis Minnie are all present. Elvis Presley and
Jerry Garcia are also included in the mix. The works feature mixed
media images that although humorous — and even occasionally ironic
— are intended as tributes.
Gravy began experimenting with collage during the ’60s. "My hero
was Kurt Switters, who said, `My palette is the wastebasket of the
world.’ In those days I never worked on regular surfaces. I did people’s
refrigerator doors, I did motorcycle helmets for Peter Fonda and Barry
McGuire, I did an Oldsmobile, a bunch of toilet seats — working
mostly with pages from old Life magazines. Originally I used lots
of images, but my recent work is very minimal."
He admits that the tone of the Blues Period series on exhibit at the
Firehouse — although often humorous and playful — deliberately
cultivates a religious sense. "Yes. They are religious. The blues
are very spiritual. They evoke the spirit in the world. I think there’s
a lot more spirit in the blues than there is in the Hallelujah Chorus
— although they’re both beautiful forms of music."
Wavy Gravy’s works are an act of homage, mostly to musicians and performers
now dead. "I have very few living artists in the Blues Series.
I’m starting to move into jazz icons. There’s a large Thelonious piece.
I did a couple of Elvis works, because people have been after me for
some Elvis pieces. One is called `Elvis Leaving the Building,’ and
another called `Steam Basket Angel." Many of his original collages
are owned by House of Blues and the Hard Rock Cafe, places that can
afford the $900 price tag for Gravy’s original collages — but
Gravy also generates high-quality laser prints of his works that sell
for under $100.
This is Gravy’s second trip to the Firehouse Gallery.
His first was almost four years ago, shortly after the Firehouse opened.
Gallery owner Eric Gibbons says, "I’m really looking forward to
having him back here. It was a lot of fun the last time — he was
walking his trout around the gallery during the reception. Gravy’s
also great to talk with. He has wonderful stories."
He certainly does. In the course of a phone conversation from his
California home, Gravy shared some thoughts and many stories from
a life that is cram-packed and still going strong. One immediate impression
is that this is a man who is still "young" in the best sense
of the world. He has really enjoyed his life so far, but it is still
very much a work in progress. It is also evident that both his past
and present are liberally populated with famous characters most of
us will only ever read about or see on TV.
Wavy Gravy is cordial and easy to talk with over the phone. "Sorry
we missed each other yesterday," he starts, "I was a judge
at a local `Shuck and Swallow’ oyster eating event. It was the most
disgusting thing I ever saw in my life. After 10 minutes of shucking
and eating, we judges had to count up the number of shells in the
bucket. The eater from the one team ate 126 oysters in 10 minutes.
I was jiving. I got a great fish dinner out of it — Fortunately,
we ate first." He mentions in passing that one of the other judges
was Barry Melton, the much underrated lead guitarist of Country Joe
and the Fish. "You know, he’s still playing music but he’s also
working as a public defender for death row prisoners. He almost got
elected to the California Supreme Court recently," Gravy says.
Although music, friends, and having fun are still very much part of
his approach to life, for some time most of his energy has been dedicated
to Gravy’s many philanthropic activities. (When asked once what inspired
his commitment to service, Gravy said, "It gets me high; service
is a drug I can’t find in the pharmaceutical closet.")
Much of his philanthropic work these days is done through the Seva
Foundation, which he helped create almost 20 years ago. The organization
was founded in 1980 to help fight preventable blindness in India and
Nepal. "Eighty percent of the people in the world that are blind
don’t need to be, and 80 percent of them can get their sight back
with an operation that takes about 10 minutes," Gravy says. "It’s
horrifying that so much of it goes untreated in the world, but the
money isn’t there in those places."
Gravy — whose official title on the Board of Directors for Seva
is "clown emeritus for life" — is clear when describing
the focus and work of the foundation. "We try to keep as low a
profile as possible and work from the bottom up rather than top down.
A lot of what Seva does is to identify a really bright light in a
community and then to support that person with all our guns."
The foundation has branched out to help provide practical solutions
to unmet basic needs in locales throughout the world. The organization
currently is working with residents in the Chiapas region of Mexico,
and with the widows of the `disappeared’ in Guatemala. "We started
out bringing yarns into refuge camps in Chiapas so they could do their
traditional weaving and earn some money. That evolved into helping
out with sanitation, building privies, and getting more and more involved."
What road brings a middle-class youth from the high-end suburbs of
the East Coast to a life of altruism at age 63 on an established hippie
commune in the wilds of California? To hear Gravy tell it, it was
a road far less wavy and far more fated than you might suspect.
He was born Hugh Romney in the late 1930s in East Greenwich, New York.
He grew up an only child, although he has two half brothers from his
parents’ later marriages. His father, an architect with Brown, Lawford
and Forbes, had been living in Hawthorne, New Jersey, until his death
a few years ago. "My dad did the children’s wing at the Metropolitan,
and he also did the kitchen at my kid’s camp. He was a really fine
architect, but was pretty much enveloped by the large firm he worked
He says his personality draws directly from each of his parents. "My
mom is a pretty strong extrovert, and my dad was from space, so I’m
an extrovert in space. I got the best of it."
The family moved to Princeton shortly after Gravy was born, and lived
there until he was almost six years old. "One of my claims to
world fame is that Einstein used to spin me around the block every
day when I was five. I can remember his shock of beautiful white hair
— which pre-dated Don King by at least half a century. I remember
that he wore sneakers, and he had an odd odor that I’ve never come
across since. When you’re a kid you remember smells so well. Some
day I’m going to walk up to somebody and say (sniff, sniff), `Hey,
man, you smell like Albert Einstein!’"
His parents divorced and he moved with his mother first to Albany,
New York, and then to Greenwich, Connecticut, when she remarried.
From an early age, Gravy was drawn to the arts, particularly the performing
arts. He entered Boston University in the early ’50s as a theater
major — as it turns out, a remarkable time in the B.U. theater
"At that time, they had the best theater school in the world.
What happened — and this is very topical with Elia Kazan, etc.
— is that they hired all these great, talented people who had
been blacklisted. Sandy Meisner, David Pressman, all these great directors
were there — and the department was isolated from the rest of
the university at that time, way out of the way. And we had this big
Admiral Theater which was 2 or 3,000 seats. The whole school would
read for a play, even freshmen. Even if you didn’t get a role and
just did costumes, you were working with the guy who did costumes
with Katherine Cornell. I mean, Martha Graham taught there."
When the university, fearing that their theater students weren’t really
going to college, moved them closer to campus and began requiring
more academic courses, "most of the teachers simply quit,"
Gravy says, "and they took me with them."
He followed his teachers to New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse
where he had a scholarship. "I supported myself by doing poetry
readings in Greenwich Village. I became a teenage Beatnik and evolved
into the poetry director of the Gaslight Cafe on McDougal Street.
I ran the entertainment trip there. I remember when Dylan first came
in. He was wearing Woody Guthrie’s underwear — I’m not making
this up — and there was a sign on his guitar that said `This machine
kills fascists.’ He asked me if he could go on, and I just grabbed
the mike and said, `Here he is, a legend in his lifetime — uh,
what’s your name?’"
In 1961, after four years in the Village, Gravy moved to Los Angeles.
His poetry readings had become stand-up humor and philosophy routines
— "I was not exactly a comic, but not exactly not a comic"
— and Lenny Bruce was his manager. For some time Gravy opened
for Thelonious Monk at the Renaissance, recording an album, "Hugh
Romney Third Stream Humor," during that same period.
"Somehow or other I hooked up with (Ken) Kesey. I did that little
traveling road show with the Grateful Dead and the (Merry) Pranksters.
Then the Hog Farm commune started." Gravy’s been part of the Hog
Farm commune — which did the life support at the Woodstock Music
Festival — for 35 years. "We spent our first seven years on
buses," he notes, "moving around the country, doing the demos,
and doing our open celebrations — showing people that they were
the stars of their own movie. It was kind of like the Acid Fests,
but you had to bring your own head. We didn’t dose anybody. That was
where Kesey and I had our big falling out. We ran a pig, Pigasus,
for president. We broke a lot of ground with her — she was the
first female black and white candidate!"
Gravy seems to have moved as gracefully through the Acid Test years
as he has through the rest of his life. One of the few regrets he
spoke of centers on a report in Tom Wolfe’s epic "The Electric
Kool-Aid Acid Test" that named Gravy as the person who had put
the acid in the kool-aid at Watts.
"I was staying with Wolfe in his apartment by the U.N. while he
was working on that chapter, and he never asked me anything. He got
the information from a woman named Claire Brush who was a reporter
for the LA Free Press. He had a lot of nice things to say about me
in the book, I mean I actually lift a quote from him where he calls
me a `master satirist.’ A lot of the stuff in that book was right,
it’s just that some of the names of who did what get confused. Little
old ladies still come up and hit me with their pocketbooks because
they blame me for it, and there were 26 people who committed themselves
that night. I just don’t like taking the blame for that."
In 1963 Gravy experienced what he terms the "cosmic
turning point" that led him to redirect his life towards serving
others. "I went to that spot that so many people seemed to go
to, where I just gave away all my stuff and went to live with the
Hopi Indians." He laughs remembering that when he arrived at the
pueblo the Hopi response was, "Well, you’re really early!"
They then told him that in the Book of the Hopi it was written that
there would be a time when all the different races would come together,
but that time was in the future.
He stayed with the Hopi for a few months, before returning to L.A.,
where he got his first job working with brain-damaged children. In
the following years Gravy dedicated himself to public service jobs
or volunteer positions — often with or for children. In 1973 he
established Camp Winnarainbow where scores of children — many
from backgrounds of poverty or homelessness — can escape to a
Clearly, of all his projects and initiatives, Camp Winnarainbow is
closest to Gravy’s heart. The circus and performing arts camp —
located on about 15 acres of the Hog Farm spread in Laytonville, California
— is going strong. "It’s our 27th year. These days there are
138 children all summer long, plus a nine-day session for adults."
Around 30 percent of the child campers — who come from all over
the world — receive scholarships supported through sales of Ben
& Jerry’s "Wavy Gravy" ice cream and Grateful Dead fashion
He views the experiences offered by the camp as life-enhancing, with
an emphasis on cooperation, interdependence, and fun. "It’s a
wonderful place. Our motto is `Big Fun or Your Money Back,’ and only
one man ever asked for his money back — because he couldn’t find
enough places to smoke his cigarets."
Gravy’s wife of 33 years, Jahanara, is the administrative director
for the camp. "We met in Fred C. Dobbs, a restaurant she was running
on Sunset Strip — at the same time she was acting in `Gunsmoke’
and `Star Trek’ and stuff like that. The Byrds used to hand out there
and Brando. It was a cool spot, funky. And she put peanuts in my hamburger
— I couldn’t believe it," he says, and laughs.
The couple named their son, who was "born in the back of the bus,"
Howdy Dogood Gravy. "When he was 13 he said he was too old to
be Howdy, so we went to court and he changed his name to Jordan Romney."
Gravy and his son are currently collaborating on a children’s book
titled "Good Morning, What We Have in Mind Is Breakfast-In-Bed
For 400,000," which is about presenting granola to hippies at
So, where did his name come from — light shows he did for Hendrix
and the Dead? An experience on an acid trip?
"No," says Gravy. "Right after Woodstock we went to Texas
to the Texas Pop Festival to help make peace between cowboys at a
local rodeo and the rock ‘n’ rollers. We ran a free stage there. At
one point B.B. King came out to play with Johnny Winter. As he passed
by, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, `Stay where you are.
You’re wavy gravy, we can work around you.’ And I said, `Yes, sir.’
Gravy’s conversation brims with plans — the new Camp Winnarainbow
season that starts in June, up-dating and re-issuing of his book "Something
Good For a Change," a new super-large format for his collage works,
a benefit talk for the camp featuring Patch Adams, a Ben & Jerry’s-sponsored
rock tour to urge re-investment of military funding into basic needs
programs. He has been offered the emcee job for Woodstock III scheduled
for this year, and is considering an offer to participate in a similar
event being planned for Vienna, Austria. The Hog Farm is raising special
long-haired sheep to be released, by request of the tribe, onto Navaho
He appreciates his colorful, mind-expanding experiences from the ’50s,
’60s, and ’70s, but life never stopped being exciting for him.
"Hey, the ’90s are just the ’60s turned on their head. I’m seeing
a big move back to service, to volunteering. A lot of ’60s people
have worked their way up — they’ve gotten their BMWs and what-have-you
— and now they’re realizing that there’s something missing that
they can’t find in their medicine cabinet."
Ram Dass once described Gravy as a wise clown of compassion, "a
genuine Mahatma of the cosmic giggle." Not bad qualities for a
guide into the next millennium. At the very least, he’ll make a heck
of an entertaining traveling companion.
— Tricia Fagan
Bordentown, 609-298-3742. Opening reception for the show that runs
to April 30. Free. Saturday, April 3, 1 to 4 p.m.
11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Wednesday to 9 p.m.; and Saturday from noon to
4 p.m. Website: www.firehousegallery.com.
Corrections or additions?
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— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.