Interview: Wavy Gravy : Saint Misbehavin’
by Richard Whittaker, Dec 21, 2010
One day I got a note from ServiceSpace founder, Nipun Mehta offering me tickets to a new documentary movie about Wavy Gravy. Would I like to go?
Although I was aware of Wavy Gravy as a cultural icon, I really knew very little about him. The film is a eye-opener. Michelle Esrick’s loving documentary, Saint Misbehavin’ - ten years in the making - is an intimate introduction to this remarkable man. Like so many others, I'd never heard about Hugh Romney, the man who later became famous as Wavy Gravy. And what a story.
I'll mention just one of its surprises: earlier in his life, Hugh Romney was Lenny Bruce's manager.
A few weeks after seeing the film, at Mehta’s urging, I got Wavy Gravy on the phone. Explaining my connection with Nipun, I asked if he'd be open to being interviewed.
"What would be a good time for you to do this?" I asked, thinking we'd find a suitable date.
"What about now?" he said. "Now is always a good time."
This, I knew, was vintage Wavy Gravy, but his response caught me entirely unprepared. I'd imagined we'd meet in person since he lived in Berkeley not far from me. And I was uneasy with the problem of capturing audio by telephone. Besides, I hadn't really done much homework.
On the other hand how could I not jump at the chance?
Stumbling in response, I asked if I might call back in twenty minutes and we'd talk. Wavy Gravy, I'm forever happy to say, agreed to the delay.
Richard Whittaker: How are you feeling about Saint Misbehavin’?
Wavy Gravy: Oh, it’s a swell movie. I’m honored to be so well-documented, and the review in the New York Times was embarrassing. I’m not that good.
RW: You said in the film that you’re an “intuitive clown.” Would you mind saying something about what that means?
WG: I’m trained in the art of acting improvisation. That means acting on the spur of the moment rather than doing, say, the focused slow burn and all the traditional clown moves. I don’t do any of that.
RW: So that would be about sensing the moment, what’s there, and taking in who you’re with.
WG: Absolutely—and sensing what’s going on. I was, for a number of years, with The Committee in San Francisco. I taught improvisation at Columbia Pictures. Harrison Ford was one of my students and I’ve taught improvisation at Camp Winnarainbow for over thirty years.
RW: I wanted to ask you about your history. For instance, in New York in Greenwich Village, you wrote poetry, right?
WG: Yes I did.
RW: Is any of it available? And is it something you’d want people to find?
WG: There are a couple of slender volumes out there. I think you’d have to go to Amazon or eBay to find them. I don’t even have copies myself. But other people do and will lend them to me when I need them.
RW: Do any titles stand out for you?
WG: Kaleidoscope and there’s Joe’s Song, which is taught in a poetry class at the University of California at Berkeley. Would you like to hear it?
WG: Okay. It goes like this: “Once upon and ever since I was a child in a child’s world. I have wept a child’s tears and built a child’s wall of clay and stone and colored years of poems in paint and virgin gold. I sought to build a wall so tall from lion eggs from Gallilee, a brick of song among the dregs of silver nails and lesser men a mile long to kiss the sun and climb again. Once ago and ever now I stood a man on a child’s wall. I stopped and prayed to spider webs and roses of the sea. I spoke as one with all the earth and knew the pain of birth and death to be the same without my wall. Once upon and ever furled I stand alone with all the world.”
RW: That’s beautiful.
WG: I wrote it in 1960 or about then. I don’t write lyric poems very often. These days I mainly write haiku, usually when friends pass away, which is happening more and more frequently from natural causes. Also I’ve been having the good fortune to have my art exhibited, and I do a haiku to go with each piece.
RW: I’m imagining that, as a younger man, you had certain visions and deep feelings that could have been a liability for living the conventional life.
WG: I don’t think I ever had to contend with that one [laughs]. I live in the land of one thing after another. [speaking with an east Indian accent] “The sand only goes through the hourglass one grain at a time,” as some Hindu sage proclaimed. I’ve discovered that to be true.
RW: Did you have mentors who supported you in Greenwich Village?
WG: It was kind of amusing. I was going to theater school at Boston University, which was an amazing theater school. The finest directors in the world would come in and the whole college would read for a part. A freshman could get a lead. It was extraordinary. And if you weren’t cast in the production, you would be cast in the lighting crew or the costume crew or the stage crew. Then there was an upset about theater students not doing their social studies and the university attempted to move the campus of the theater school over to where the rest of the university was laid out. Just at that time, the teachers who had all been hired during the McCarthy blackball because they couldn’t work on Broadway, well, the blackball ended and they all quit. They went to work at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, and they took me with them.
But while I was at BU, I had read in Time Magazine about jazz and poetry in San Francisco. I thought, hey, I’ve written a couple of poems and I know some musicians. I can do that! So I got together with a bunch of artists from the museum school and we proceeded to take the basement of a bar called The Rock on Huntington Avenue. The place in the basement was called The Pebble in the Rock. We put in black tables and black clothes and mobiles and paintings and began doing jazz and poetry. It was the first jazz and poetry done on the East Coast. So I had the privilege of inaugurating the East Coast to jazz and poetry. I persisted in doing it for years in, of all places, Hartford Connecticut. On every Monday I would grab a bunch of musicians and go to Hartford and make substantial money. Otherwise I was going to the Neighborhood Playhouse and reading my poetry in the evenings at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village, as you saw in the movie.
RW: That’s an amazing story. There was another thing you said in the film, “put your good where it can do the most.”
WG: Which is the advice I gleaned from one of my mentors, the author and adventurer, Ken Kesey.
RW: Did that kind of focus something for you?
WG: Well, it lit up. It lit up. I had discovered that, somewhat. Whenever I would do a good thing, it made me feel good. I think I heard a preacher of color on television in the late fifties. He said, “It’s nice to be nice.” And that kind of hit a chord for me.
RW: Do you think there’s a mix in what artists do? That in your poetry, part of it was trying to give something?
WG: Hmmm, I don’t know. I was just trying to get out of the way and let whatever was inside of me come to the surface. In the early days, I was not all that consciously altruistic—although, in the early days of poetry, the poets were not paid. We used to pass a cornucopia around after an hour or so and people would put money in it. We made an embarrassing amount of money that way. Myself and Len Chandler, who was one of the first folk singers I brought into The Gaslight, he and I put on these capes with hoods—Len was an African-American and he had a motor scooter. And we would jump on the motor scooter at the end of the evening and drive down into the Bowery and find somebody passed out on the sidewalk. We’d stuff his pockets with money and drive off and find somebody else until we’d given away at least half of what we’d made in the course of the evening. It was a lot of fun.
RW: That’s incredible. What do you think led you to do that?
WG: I don’t know. It just seemed like a fun thing to do. We didn’t need all that money.
RW: Do you remember the moment when Ken Kesey said “Put your good where it will do the most good”?
WG: No. But he told me a lot of stuff—like, “You should honor your mother and your father.” This comes out of the Bible. As soon as I learned that Kesey had written that, I forget how he worded it, I immediately called my mother and my father and honored them verbally as best I could. And it was illuminating for them and for me. Afterwards, I called Ken up to thank him. He said, “Well, it’s just so darn simple.”
RW: I want to ask about giving and receiving. Do you have any thoughts in general, let’s say, about giving?
WG: Giving seems to be easy for me. Receiving is the thing I’m just beginning to learn how to do with grace. It’s a work in progress, like the rest of me. Over the last thirty years I’ve experienced considerable physical difficulty, having had to receive a series of spinal surgeries and spending amounts of time in body casts. You have no alternative, or you starve. So it was necessary. I tell people I learned patience in the hospital. [there’s a pause] That’s a pun.
RW: You’re right! [laughs]
WG: And as my infirmities persisted, I learned to acquiesce to the moment and accept, with as much graciousness as I could muster, the assistance of people who offered it.
RW: I bet this is true for lots of people, that it’s easier to give than to receive.
WG: Right, but as I pointed out, I didn’t have much choice, as with a lot of the stuff that has happened to me in my life. Life situations have presented themselves and it was either sink or swim.
RW: This reminds me of another part in the film. This is at Woodstock. You and the other members of The Hog Farm were brought there to be the police force for the whole event. You called yourselves “the please force.”
WG: We were the Please Force. And we had also set up what we called the Trip Tent.
RW: And there’s a part in the movie where you describe helping a young man who was having a bad acid trip.
WG: As he came in ranting, this three-hundred pound Australian doctor laid on top of him and said, “Body contact. You need body contact” [said with an accent] and then a psychiatrist leaned in and said, [using another funny voice] “Just think of your third eye, man.”
Then I figured it was time for me to make my move. I said, “Excuse me. I’d like to try something here.” And they all backed up. What’s this hippie going to do? That’s when I said, “What’s your name, man?”
RW: And he mumbled something…
WG: I said, “No, your name.” He told me his name and I said it back to him. In fact, I said it back to him several times.
RW: I noticed how very clear and emphatic you were when you got his name. “Okay, Bob. Bob, that’s your name.”
WG: Your name is Bob.
RW: Where did you get the knowledge of using that simple directness?
WG: We’d spent some time on the psychotropic frontiers through the prankster days and beyond. It was not unfamiliar territory.
RW: You knew something about being really concrete, and focused.
WG: And through the greatest professor of them all, professor experience; and from courses at hard knocks university.
RW: You’ve had a lot of hard knocks university experience, I think.
WG: Yes. Well, that’s how you learn things.
RW: You said in the film how you’d found you could get high without the psychotropic assistance. Could you say something about that again?
WG: There are many ways to alter space. I do lots of breathing exercises, and I do mantras. Different people have different recipes to get to a space of consciousness and then to dwell in it for as long as you can, I guess. My own way is an amalgam of many different practices from many different lineages.
RW: You evolved from Hugh Romney doing the poetry to where you were wearing a jester’s hat.
WG: Between poems I used to talk about the bizarre things that happened to me during the day because it was really tedious just reading all these poems night after night after night. Then a guy came along and said, look, skip the poetry. Just talk about your bizarre experiences. That’s how I got into doing stand-up.
Lenny Bruce became my manager. I put out a couple of albums and toured the U.S. —and in fact, something of the world—doing stand-up before these other things came along.
RW: Somewhere you left the jester’s hat and started dressing as a clown.
WG: I was asked, when we had moved to Berkeley in the mid-seventies, to go the Children’s Hospital in Oakland and cheer up kids. On the way out the door of my house, someone handed me a red, rubber nose. I discovered it enabled me to get out of myself and be entertaining to the kids. After awhile, I began to paint my face up as a clown. Somebody gave me a costume, and a clown who was retiring from Ringling Brothers gave me his giant shoes. I worked with kids, with kids who were terminal, even, and did this almost every day for about seven years.
At one point I had to go to a political rally at Peoples’ Park and I didn’t have time to take off my clown stuff. I discovered that the police didn’t want to hit me anymore. Clowns are safe.
RW: Can you say more about what your experience at Children’s Hospital working with kids was like?
WG: I discovered that not only was I helping the kids, I was helping myself. As I began to do this work, I’d gone through three major back surgeries and was in quite a bit of pain. But working with the kids I discovered that as I focused on the children and the pain they were in, I lost track of my own pain.
RW: Is the clown an archetype you can inhabit?
RW: Do you think, “I’m a clown?”
WG: I don’t know. I can’t see you.
RW: [laughs] No. I have a long way to go. If I evolved, I might become a clown.
WG: Well, you need to go to camp Winnarainbow. They’ll teach you to clown. It’d be good for you. I think John Townsend said it most brilliantly in The Book of the Clown, “A clown is a poet who is also an orangutan.” But clown comes from the word “clod” or bumpkin, and the red nose indicates they were drunk. But I found all this out later. Suddenly I have these big shoes on and [laughs] a nose and I’m painting my face up, and where does it all come from? I began to study it, and it’s very fascinating, the path of the clown and the jester.
RW: What have you found out about being a clown? What has been revealed?
WG: It enables me to go places I couldn’t go as a regular kind of guy. People feel challenged by people going where I go. But when I put on the patina of a clown I’m no challenge to them in any way.
RW: What do you wish for people when you become a clown?
WG: I wish that they would find joy in the moment. It’s like I expressed in the film, laughter is the valve on the pressure cooker of life. Either you laugh at stuff or you’re going to end up with your beans on the ceiling.
RW: At camp Winnarainbow in the film it showed the labyrinth you have on the grounds…
WG: It’s a unicursal Cretan labyrinth. The oldest one is 3000 years old and was found on the island of Sardinia. The more common labyrinth, like the one you see at Grace Cathedral came about during the 11th or 12th century when Europeans could not go to Jerusalem on pilgrimage. So they developed this other labyrinth, which is different from the Pagan labyrinth, which made it to Scandanavia, to India and somehow to Peru and to the sun temple at Mesa Verde. That’s where I first encountered it when I spent time living with the Hopi Indians for a few months.
RW: How did that happen?
WG: I was enamored of the Book of the Hopi by Frank Waters. And that’s where I first saw the labyrinth. According to the Hopi if there was a condition of planetary emergency the different races would gather on this mesa for instruction from the spirit world. So I showed up. They said, “You’re pretty early.” But they took pity on me and I got to hang out with them for a while.
RW: Was anything given to you?
WG: Not something that I would feel comfortable talking about, but yes—not so much from the people as from the geography.
RW: So you brought this labyrinth to camp Winnarainbow, then?
WG: Yes. I asked Minalanska, who was an elder, what that was. She said, “Oh Wavy Gravy, that’s just the master plan of the universe.” So I borrowed a pencil and wrote it down, and I’ve brought it everywhere I’ve gone ever since. I learned to draw it. Even with my first book, I’d sign it and draw that labyrinth.
RW: Now how do you make use of the labyrinth at camp for the kids?
WG: A teepee at a time, in the evening, the campers get to walk the labyrinth to beautiful music under the stars. If they do good things, they get strokes. If they do bad things they get strikes. Three strikes and you’re out. You can always work off strikes, but you can get enough strikes to be sent home, too. By doing things above and beyond the ordinary camper—for instance, if you get eight stokes in a two-week session, you get to walk into the center of the labyrinth. In the center, there’s also these crystals. You get to take a crystal out of the labyrinth and take it home.
RW: Do you talk to the kids about the labyrinth?
WG: Oh, sure.
RW: What do you tell them?
WG: I tell them that the labyrinth is not a maze. Mazes are designed to get you lost. Labyrinths are designed to get you found. And I ask them to think of each step as a prayer for peace. I tell them you go into the labyrinth and that there’s an energy in the center that I call the spirit of Gaia, the earth mother. I say that if you have cares or problems you can leave them in the labyrinth and come out perhaps lighter than when you went in. And that is sometimes helpful to young people.
RW: In the film you made a comment to one kid that the labyrinth is inside of you.
WG: Oh, I tell all the kids that. The true labyrinth is inside you.
RW: That’s powerful. From the film, I see that your life has been a journey. Do you feel it that way?
WG: Absolutely. It’s been a great adventure.
RW: What are some of the changes from where you were and where you are today?
WG: The things that are the most significant for me in my life are the circus and performing arts camp that I’ve run with my wife Jahanara for over thirty years. We do nine weeks for kids and one week for grown-ups. And the Seva Foundation is another. Through it I’m able to raise funds to help the blind regain their sight. Eighty percent of the blind people in the world don’t need to be—they can get their sight back.
When we first started doing the work it was about five dollars for a cataract operation. Now it’s close to fifty dollars for the operation in third world countries. If you go to SEVA.org you can find out all about us. We’ve helped to orchestrate—it’s going on three million sight-saving operations. I get to put on concerts to raise funds to do that. I’m going to be seventy-five years old in May and I’m looking forward to doing a concert in the Bay Area at the Craneway Pavillion in Richmond and in New York City at the Beacon Theater. And also I’m facing another basic spinal surgery in January. So I’ve got a lot of stuff on my plate.
RW: I know we don’t have much more time, but …
WG: Eternity now, I always say. That’s one of my favorite quotes. And we’re all the same person trying to shakes hands with our self. I think that’s a good one, too.
RW: I like those quotes. It’s clear that you’ve spent a lot of time doing forms of service. Camp Winnarainbow seems to be a service.
WG: Well, my greatest legacy is the children that have come out of camp over the last thirty years. Lots of the kids who started camp when they were seven are now running the camp. And I’m sure it will go on long after I’m gone.
RW: Is that something one begins to learn, that the deepest gifts come when one can look beyond personal wants to take in the needs of others?
WG: That is my want! [laughs] Put your good where it will do the most. I can’t say it any better.
A shorter version of this interview appeared in Parabola Magazine in their Summer 2011 issue