Wavy Gravy, bowed but unbroken, walks into a generic-seeming deli-café in New York’s SoHo, holding a fish on a leash, protesting that, despite recurring back troubles, he has no problem walking down stairs, as long as there aren’t a lot of them.
He’s making the rounds in Manhattan, doing interviews to publicize “Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie,” a documentary about his life directed by Michelle Esrick, who accompanies him, along with his wife, Jahanara (who he refers to as “Mrs. Wavy” – which is fitting since everyone addresses him as Wavy). The film opened Wednesday at the IFC Center in New York and will roll out slowly across the country.
So Wavy walks down the stairs to the café’s dining room – carefully – and settles into a chair that allows him to lean against a wall. He’s smiling, though he’s in pain. He’s had several surgeries to fuse his spine, which was injured through numerous encounters with police, who roughed him up at protests against the Vietnam war and other causes over the years. And he faces the prospect of another surgery, sometime before he turns 75 next May.
“I’m not too thrilled about that,” he admits, his crinkly smile fading for just a moment. “But if it gets me down the street a little slicker, it’ll be OK. Right now, I’m not walking so good. But everything else works good.”
He smiles broadly, displaying a row of teeth each a different color: “My rainbow bridge,” he jokes. Discussion of his back leads to mention of friends who have had artificial joints installed: “(Spiritual leader) Ram Dass got two new knees,” Wavy says. “He’s tap-dancing – and he’s older than me.”
Bald with a long snowy fringe of hair, a large belly wrapped in a tie-dyed t-shirt, Wavy Gravy looks like a mischievous grandfather. But as Esrick’s film shows, Wavy (who was born Hugh Romney, a name he lived with until 1969, when B.B. King christened him Wavy Gravy) has been working at making the world a better place – whether through large charitable acts or simple things like bringing a smile to the faces of passersby – for almost 50 years.
Esrick met him while helping to launch the marketing campaign for Grateful Dead apparel a few years back. Wavy had a flannel-pants design as part of the line and toured the country to help promote them, launching the clothes with appearances at department stores.
“At Marshall Field in Chicago, I had them take a big bed into the menswear department, one with black sheets,” Wavy says. “I’d get in bed wearing a nightcap and my fans would get in bed with me, one at a time, and I’d sign their memorabilia. And then I’d give them a free pint of Ben & Jerry’s.” (Ben & Jerry’s made a Wavy Gravy flavor, no longer available, with caramel, cashews, Brazil nuts, a chocolate hazelnut fudge swirl and roasted almonds; the proceeds went to charity.)
“At the end of spending a lot of time with Wavy, I just had this ‘Field of Dreams’ moment,” Esrick says. “I felt personally inspired by him. I wanted to share his commitment to make this a better world. The way he presents himself with humor, the way he doesn’t take himself too seriously, I just thought people would be inspired to help change the world.”
The name itself is funny – Wavy Gravy – and Romney has spent his life both getting laughs and getting things done. His life and career seem to touch every major countercultural moment of the past 50 or so years, dating to the Beats in Greenwich Village in the 1950s, where he started as a poet and came out the other end as a “third-stream” comic, inspired by acquaintances like Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan.
He moved to California’s Bay Area and became one of the first hippies, living at one of the first communes, the Hog Farm. He was friends with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, the Grateful Dead and just about everyone else of note in that era, protesting the Vietnam war and other causes while practicing an early form of environmentalism. (He and Jahanara still live communally, saying, “How many coffee grinders do you need?”)
Esrick’s film encapsulates that career, offering footage of Wavy onstage at Woodstock (“What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000”) and on an early 1970s bus trip that went from France to Nepal – where he was inspired to create a charity, the Seva Foundation, to raise money to provide cataract surgery for poor Nepalese villagers.
“Seeing that footage of the bus trip blew my mind,” Wavy says. “There I was, on the roof of the bus going across the Khyber Pass. It’s one thing to say you did it. But to actually see yourself doing it…”
The film details Wavy’s evolution from poet to comedian to jester to clown. The police frequently beat him when he showed up at protests in a jester’s hat – until he discovered that they’d leave him alone if he was dressed as a clown. He now runs an annual summer camp for kids to learn circus arts, Camp Winnarainbow, and carries a red foam-rubber nose that he’ll put on at the drop of a hat.
Seeing the finished film for the first time “cracked my brain,” Wavy says. “Hopefully it will inspire other people to do good stuff. There’s a buzz to it and if you do something, you feel that buzz.”
Over the years, his political protests more often took the form of satire, whether it was running a sow for president (“The first female black-and-white candidate – we broke a lot of ground!”) or his long-running campaign for Nobody for President (as candidate of the Birthday Party). He ran a campaign for what became known as Earth People’s Park, 700 acres of Vermont on the Canadian border (“The last left turn in America”) which he called “free land for free people”: “We wanted to buy back the Earth and give it away,” he says. It’s now a Vermont state forest.
Esrick couldn’t get every story and anecdote into the film, but there will be DVD extras. There were some stories Wavy wanted but the film couldn’t be eight hours long, he admits: “You win some and you lose some,” he says. “Werner Erhard said that to me one time and I said, ‘Werner, that’s so profound. Can I quote you?’”
Regrets? He has a few, but then again, too few to mention: “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself,” he shrugs. “But as Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, ‘History is a list of surprises.’ You never see that divine custard pie coming at you.”
If the universe is a cosmic joke, then Wavy Gravy is chuckling at it. As someone who didn’t think he’d live to see 40, Wavy now finds himself one of the last men standing of his generation, with many of his friends – everyone from Ken Kesey to Jerry Garcia to Allen Ginsberg – having passed on before him. But he shrugs at the thought.
“Death has bad press,” he says. “It was Patrick Henry’s second choice. But I read this book, ‘Life After Life’ by Raymond Moody, who interviewed people who had been clinically dead and came back. And they all liked it better. So maybe death is OK. Suffering sucks – but death is divine. This has been an amazing incarnation. I’ve loving it.”