Wavy Gravy's main claim to fame is being the head of the Hog Farm hippie commune that served free food to the masses at Woodstock some 43 years ago (and still survives to this day).
"What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000," he exclaimed on stage, as documented in the film Woodstock.
But that wasn't an isolated moment. The life force captured there is one that Gravy (born Hugh Romney) has always carried with him in everything he's done. His trail of good deeds has circled the globe many times and his list of accomplishments wouldn't be believable, if only it weren't so well documented. Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Story (which is currently available in streaming form on Netflix) was released in 2008, a documentary that clued many newfound fans in to what exactly it is that Wavy Gravy does. And he really is a most saintly person, much more than your average clown.
At the time of our interview, he's coming off two benefits, one raising money for the Seva Foundation, which provides cataract surgery to the blind in poor countries (so far they've restored sight to almost 3 million people), and the other for Camp Winnarainbow, a circus-and-performing-arts camp Gravy runs with his wife Jahanara. This weekend he'll be in Bridgeport, once again emceeing the Gathering of the Vibes.
"This camp is something that I've given my life to, and I only leave it if Michael Lang throws together another Woodstock or if I've decided to do, of all the offers I've had, one festival which warms the cockles of the old clown's heart, and that happens to be the Gathering of the Vibes," says Gravy. "So I do that every year, and the kids excuse me. I have a special note from the children to evacuate for a few days. The Vibes is my choice. It just feels so good."
Gravy's mission as emcee is to dissolve the line between the performers and the audience, to give a voice to the festival-goers and to tune everyone in to what he calls the "cosmic dial tone."
"So many people at the Vibes have been coming for year after year after year, and they get to see the people they saw in previous years and share stories and art and tunes," says Gravy. "Just like a bunch of trappers rolling out their new skins and crafts and artifacts. It's very similar to that. But instead of bear skins, it's tie-dyes."
Wavy Gravy's story is way too involved to tell in one short article, but to summarize, he always seems to be where the action is. He took walks around the block with Albert Einstein as a child. He would hang out with John Sinclair of the White Panther Party and the MC5 whenever he passed through Ann Arbor. He had a Ben & Jerry's flavor named after him. Back when he was still Hugh Romney, a young poet living in bustling Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, he shared a place with his friend Bob Dylan.
"We had a room up above the Gaslight. We also had other places that we lived at, slept at and stuff — this was a hang place. When he first came into the Gaslight, he was wearing Woodie Guthrie's underwear. Well of course you know that, you saw the movie. It was all true. 'A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall' was written on my typewriter there. Bruce Springsteen said, 'You still got that typewriter?' [imitated in his best, husky-sounding Bruce voice]. But it was actually burned up, along with Lenny Bruce's couch. Stuff comes, stuff goes. This is the way of stuff. You've got to roll with it."
When the Vietnam War came about, Romney was on the front lines of the protest battle at home. He's no stranger to body casts.
"Oh man," he says. "Back in the day, I used to get beat up by the police and the National Guard as a jester. When I turned into a clown, they stopped hitting me. Clowns are safe."
But there will be no beatings this weekend for the 76-year-old tie-dyed clown. It's all about the pleasures of live music, community and a peaceful summer in Connecticut. For the purest and truest musical experience, Gravy recommends camping out and becoming fully absorbed into the festival at its deepest level.
"The fact that it's people going to sleep together and waking up together, brushing their teeth, taking a crap… all those life things that you do in the Life Show that the music is the soundtrack for," he says. "That makes all the difference. It so transcends the one-day concert where you come rushing into a venue, you get blasted and you go home. This is: you get to sleep on it and live it. It's so much a richer experience."