On May 15, 2005, I'll be in the Berkeley (California) Community Theatre celebrating Wavy Gravy's 69th birthday. For readers who have never heard of Wavy Gravy, I can only suggest that their education in America's culture, spirit and creative heart is incomplete. For those who know him, I can report that he's still rockin' in the free world. I can't wait to see him, to be part of the celebration, to hear some good music, to review what we've learned in the past 40 years, to pre-review what we need to learn (and do) today.
Wavy Gravy rocks.
He always has.
The voice of Woodstock who famously said at that seminal event, "What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000," Wavy Gravy exemplifies the very best of the spirit and the vision of what is called the 60s and 70s in America, but which is older, deeper and enduring than that particular era. Wavy Gravy is to the era's humanism and humanitarianism what Mick Jagger is to rock 'n' roll. Because of his abiding role as clown for the Grateful Dead, it is obvious and tempting to replace Jagger with Jerry Garcia in that last sentence, but while Garcia's work survived he did not. Wavy Gravy, like Jagger, has made it a bit longer, as has (and will) his work.
Born Hugh Romney and raised in Connecticut, he followed a somewhat classic, circuitous path from high school to military service to theatre school to beatnik performance artist in Boston and New York to the counter-culture movements of 1960s California. There he turned his skills of performer, comedian, clown, organizer, humanitarian and hipster into being "a clown for our time" and a spokesman for an era. There are those, some of them sincerely ignorant and others insincerely venal, who have demonized that era; but, in this time when our nation is being led into the Middle Ages by a faith-based compassionate conservatism that has the same relationship to humanitarianism as, say, The Healthy Forests Initiative has to healthy forests or John Bolton has to statesmanship, it is worthwhile to check in with the best accomplishments of a richer era and more humane culture. It was a time personified by Romney/Gravy and perhaps best described by Abbie Hoffman who said, "We are here to make a better world. No amount of rationalization or blaming can pre-empt the moment of choice each of us brings to our situation here on this planet. The lesson of the '60s is that people who cared enough to do right could change history. We didn't end racism but we ended legal segregation. We ended the idea that you could send half-a-million soldiers around the world to fight a war that people do not support. We ended the idea that women are second-class citizens. We made the environment an issue that couldn't be avoided. We were young, self-righteous, reckless, hypocritical, brave, silly, headstrong, and scared half to death. And we were right."
And we were right. Even if Hoffman was premature in declaring an end to brain-dead, unethical ideas that persist and issues that are presently being avoided for short-term gain at the cost of long-term pain and disaster, he was spot on about the lessons of the '60s and the significance of each person's moment of choice. The choices each individual makes about how to live and how to care and for what matter, and they have consequences. "Make love, not war" is a slogan far more encompassing than sex and soldiers, and Wavy Gravy's birthday is a fitting day to rejoice in that truth.
Wavy Gravy (he was given that name by the great blues man B.B. King shortly after Woodstock) was a galvanizing force in the anti-war movement that eventually shut down the Iraq debacle of the time. I refer, of course, to the senseless Vietnam War that required 50,000 dead American soldiers and countless dead Vietnamese before America woke up and realized it was ... senseless. At this writing, only 1,558 American soldiers (and an unknown number of "contract workers," i.e. mercenaries) have died in this era's Vietnam. I refer, of course, to the senseless Iraq War, in which an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 American soldiers have been wounded, many of them horribly. So, we have a way to go, but we can hope something has been learned and it doesn't take 50,000. But I digress ...
Wavy Gravy's other legacies to the world include but are far from limited to the founding of Seva (check it out), which originally set out to fight curable and preventable blindness in the Third World (and provides some 80,000 eye surgeries a year to people who could never afford them, and now has expanded its humanitarian goals), and Camp Winnarainbow (ditto) which started out as "this little circus arts day care" and, with help from the royalties of Ben & Jerry's Wavy Gravy ice cream (until 2002), has expanded into a summer camp for American kids to learn things like juggling, tightrope walking, trapeze and music and art. "We're not trying to turn out little professional actors or circus stars, although it does happen," he says. "What we're really into is producing universal human beings who can deal with anything that comes down the pike with some style and grace."
Style and grace sounds good to me.
Paul Krassner called him "the illegitimate son of Harpo Marx and Mother Teresa."
Wavy Gravy says, "Some people tell me I'm a saint, I tell them I'm Saint Misbehavin'."
It should be a good birthday party.