Wavy Gravy’s Road to Woodstock

  • 08/22/2019
  • Reporters Desk

By Stephanie Serna, Contributor

It was his famous line from Woodstock that Entertainment Weekly crowned one of the top 10 lines of the 20th century:    “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000!”

That line remains in the hippie history books forever linked with Woodstock and forever linked with Hugh Romney — who was renamed “Wavy Gravy” only weeks later by B.B. King at the ‘69 Texas International Pop festival.

Hugh Romney was the soothsayer, the merry-jester guardian and the intermittent announcer at Woodstock— turning situations of seeming panic into childlike fun and wonderment.  He recalls, in Michael Lang’s book The Road to Woodstock:

… the only times I ever went up there (on stage) were when I had something to say to the collective consciousness.  Later when the rains came and they were announcing it was a disaster area, I said, There’s a little bit of heaven in every disaster area.

Romney was at Woodstock with his hippie entourage, The Hog Farm, on the recommendation of co-organizer Stan Goldstein. He was hired by Lang to run the free kitchens, the free campgrounds, the free stage and be part of the first-aid area which included talking down drug-blown hippies — And in addition, he was to implement… security?   Hugh recalls:

We had no concept of the magnitude of things until we got to the airport and there was just all this world press — a wall of it. They’re asking me if we’re doing security and I thought, Oh my god—we’re the cops! I can’t believe it! And off the top of my head I said, “Well do you feel secure?” And he said, “Well, sure.” And I said, “Well, it’s working then!”

Lang talks about their initial “job interview” in his book,  “I asked, ‘How would you deal with a fight breaking out in the campgrounds?’  When Hugh answered, ‘With (cream) pies in faces!’ —  I was sold!”

Although already well-known at the time, Romney’s popularity was gaining momentum from  a few years earlier as the co-schemer at one of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests in Watts, Los Angeles. As recounted, in Tom Wolfe’s book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, it was Hugh’s idea to serve up the goods in two separate barrel trash cans full of Kool-Aid.  Upon presentation to the crowd, he lyrically veiled the full ingredients of the one “spiked” with LSD by announcing, “This one is for kittens — and THIS one is for lions!” And he named it “The Electric Kool-Aid.” It was Romney’s spontaneous moniker that inspired the title of Wolfe’s book, which paints in detail the story of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ psychedelic experiments on the Further Bus.

When Woodstock 50 was in the works, I asked  Wavy G if he would attend the show and he said that if Michael Lang were producing it and asked him, then he would.  But as production efforts kept hitting roadblocks, Lang had to call code blue — which has left many people asking: Can Woodstock ever really be re-created?  It was a different time… an explosive age of enchanted mischief and innocent dripping-crackling-fried idealism. Very few people still embody that completely anymore without appearing contrived — except Wavy Gravy.  He’s the real deal.

In this short feature, I hope to convey that continuous magic thread that has been woven through the life of Hugh Romney on his “Road to Woodstock” and his transformation into Wavy Gravy. These are highlights of an interview with Wavy G taken at his home in Northern California — known as the Berkeley Hog Farm.

He invited me into his whimsical art-filled room where he was working on collage art pieces mounted onto 1 -10 inch thick sliced tree trunk sections taken from fallen trees from the Hog Farm Ranch in Laytonville, CA.  It’s where he and wife Jahanara (formerly Bonnie Beecher) conduct a children’s circus and performing arts camp for nine weeks during the summer with their skilled staff comprised of professional performers, artists and camp veterans.

We sat for an hour and a half and talked amidst the explosion of memorabilia and chachka artifacts — Native American meets Eastern spirituality, hippie meets modern-pop culture — a whole encapsulated museum of remnants from decades of tuning-in, turning-on, dropping-out and being-here-now within the psychedelic OM. He graciously told me many of his stories that contributed to the construction of “The Temple of Accumulated Error” (as he calls himself). At 83, Wavy recalls with neon sepia tone clarity all the comical nuances of events, and his co-conspirators’ names — except in parts where he claims his “chromosomes have amnesia”

HUGH ROMNEY – performer and poet: Greenwich Village and the Gaslight years

Stephanie Serna: You’re a collage artist originally, is that right?

Hugh Romney:  “I’m art school trained among other things. I was doing collage in the 60’s when everybody did… I started at Boston University School of Theatre but when some of my teachers quit (after campus changes) they took me with them to New York… so that’s how I ended up on 54th St at Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre — which was the finest theatre school in the world. And Martha Graham also taught dance there” (as did Sanford Meisner and Daniel Mann)

SS: Wow! So what was Martha Graham like?

HR: She was amazing! She had feet like cypress trees — I wanted to lick them! Oh I was hot for Martha Graham!

[ It was in 1957 in Boston, after reading the Time magazine article “Poetry and Jazz” that Hugh Romney began his magical riff-tery tour—]

HR: I said, I know some musicians — I can write poems — Let’s do that! So I actually started “poetry and jazz” on the east coast… (And then later) As I went to the Neighborhood Playhouse, I began reading my poetry in all these different coffeehouses, eventually ending up at Gaslight Café. I did my poetry there and, along with John Brent, became the poetry director of the Gaslight.

[ After establishing position, he began yearning again to dose his audience with that transcendent euphonic combo of music and poetry ]

HR: I said, ‘John, this is getting tedious, all these poets and stuff — how about having poetry and folk musicians…?’

[ It was around that time a young Bob Dylan walked into the Gaslight for the first time. ]

HR: We were doing a hootenanny which means anyone can come in and perform, and he asked me if he could go on stage and I just grabbed the mic and I said, ‘Here he is — the legend in his lifetime — (whispering as if to Dylan) — what’s your name kid?’” (laughter)

And we ended up sharing a room up over the Gaslight where many of us gathered and did everything from play cards to smoke dope — in fact Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall was written on my typewriter in that very room…. Bruce Springsteen once asked me (in a mimicked gruff voice)

“Hey you still got that typewriter?”… It was actually burned up in a fire along with the first draft of Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall — and Lenny Bruce’s couch — Lenny Bruce was my manager and friend at the time… We had many adventures together…

As I hosted at the Gaslight) my poems got shorter and shorter and disappeared into haikus. And I started talking about all the weird stuff that happened to me on whatever day it was and finally this guy came up to me and said,  “Look, skip the poetry — just talk about the weird stuff!” And he put me in a suit and mailed me around the country opening for rising stars in folk music like Ian & Sylvia.  I opened at The Bitter End with Peter Paul & Mary… I put out a couple of albums and did a lot of stand-up — and then went out to California and joined up with Thelonius Monk at the Renaissance in Hollywood— that was a big thrill!”

[ After leaving the touring scene, Hugh Romney decided to take a hiatus — some might call it a vision quest ]

Into the Labyrinth of EmergenceTHE HOG FARM – from Hugh Romney to Wavy Gravy

Wavy Gravy:  I gave away all my stuff to go live with the Hopi Indians.  We went out there looking for Oswald Whitebear Fredericks who we read about in the Book of the Hopi — Frank Waters’ amazing book which alerted us to that particular spirituality… It was written in the Book of the Hopi that in the time of planetary emergency, people of all different races would gather on this mesa and await instructions from the spirit world… But when we arrived, they said, “Well, you’re pretty early!” But they had pity on us… and we got to stay there and I hung out a bunch…. We went with a woman clan leader, Mina Lanska to the sun temple in Mesa Verde and it was there that I first saw the Symbol of Emergence — it just lit up for me and I said, ‘What’s that?!” And she said – ‘Oh, that’s just the plan of the Universe!’ … I said, ‘Could I have a pencil and paper please?’… I drew it and I’ve been doing it everywhere since..

[ It was that symbol of the labyrinth that would later become the spiritual heart of his kids camp — Camp Winnarainbow — it’s the connection to Mother Earth and the symbol of renewal. ]

It was around that time that Wavy was going through his own emergence… The beatnik was beginning to transform into the hippie — in fact he was one of the “shamans” channeling the hippie movement’s creation. He went back to L.A. and started hanging out at Fred C Dobbs on Sunset Blvd and met his life partner, Bonnie Beecher (Dylan’s Girl from the North Country). He was living with Tim Harden (who would later perform at Woodstock) and the two started performing at the Troubadour. He also met Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Neal Cassidy, Del Close, the Grateful Dead…

[It was after following Kesey around doing acid tests that the Hog Farm was fatefully formed. ]

WG: Jah (Bonnie) and I took a little farmhouse in Sunland, CA to get out of it. But we got a call from the Pranksters that there was a shoot for the cover of Life magazine on psychedelia — They were gonna shoot the Further bus and everybody at this gas station… So we drove there… and while we were posing for the cover, Ken Babbs stole the bus to join Kesey who was on the lam in New Mexico — leaving us with house guests! …Later, the landlord came by and said ‘You cannot have 42 people living in a 1-bedroom cabin—You are evicted!’ …And only about a half-hour later our neighbor Bud came down the road and said, ‘Ol’ Sol on the mountain just had a stroke and they need someone to slop them hogs!’.. So — we were given a mountain top rent free if we would take care of 50 hogs the size of a large davenport!

[ And so the productions began…]

WG:  Saturday nights we had a light show called “The Single Wing Turquoise Bird” and I would do energy games at The Shrine Auditorium where bands like The Rolling Stones, The Airplane and The Dead would play… Sundays were theme days on the mountain, like: Dress Like Kids Day, Mud Sunday…

It was around this time, just before Woodstock around 1968, that the Hog Farmers were asked to be extras in the movie, Skidoo directed by Otto Preminger — It was one of Groucho Marx’s last films where he plays the character named “God” and smokes a joint with some of the Hog Farm hippies in the last scene. Jackie Gleason’s character also unknowingly drops acid for the first time in a prison scene.  But despite all the fun, Wavy was unable to be in the film because he was undergoing the first of three back surgeries…

WAVY GRAVY the Social Activist — the illuminated broken clown

Wavy G’s career of social activism spans decades — too much to cover in this limited word article. It dates all the way back to Vietnam War protest… And it was because Wavy was so active and so passionate that he got beaten down by the police and National Guard, breaking his back — several times.  It was only after volunteering at a children’s hospital as a clown to cheer-up kids, and then heading straight over to — yet another protest — still dressed in his regalia that he discovered that the cops were leaving him alone.  “No one wants to beat up a clown!” he discovered.  And the clown archetype became his power-puer, his child-god… It’s that persona of “Wavy Gravy” that he’s adorned with honor as he’s fed people across the globe; launched brilliant political mock campaigns, like “Nobody for President” — and helped restore eyesight to over 4 million blind people by co-founding, the Seva Foundation (1978), with Ram Dass, Dr. Larry Brilliant and Dr. Nicole Grasset.

But when I asked him what he considers his greatest legacy, he said it was Camp Winnarainbow — 44 years of touching the lives of tens-of-thousands of children who are now out in the world, loving and playing and standing for peace and social justice in creating a better world.

WOODSTOCK & WAVY — the need to continue

It’s obvious that the ripple of those 3 days of peace and music still reverberate through the subsequent generations.  But to anyone listening to the archival recordings of Woodstock we hear— yes — it was an event that included some of the most incredible music performances in history by rock icons — but also— again and again we hear the heroes of the weekend, like Wavy G telling the crowd in the midst of seeming chaos that they all need to take care of each other… And in the aftermath — when the participants tell its incredible tale, they cite that that’s why it was successful. Could Woodstock 50’s failure to launch be a message to us all that — now, more than ever — We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden…before we lose ground?

To Wavy Gravy, taking care of each other should be as basic and natural as breathing.

He beautifully expresses this sentiment in his recorded song, Basic Human Needs:

Basic human needs, basic human deeds, doing what comes naturally

Down in the garden, where no one is apart

Deep down in the garden of your heart…

Not just churches, not just steeples, give me peoples helping peoples…

To find out more about Wavy Gravy check out:

documentary: Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie

Wavy’s book: Something Good for a Change: Random Notes on Peace Thru Living

Camp Winnarainbow: www.campwinnarainbow.org/

Seva Foundation: www.seva.org

Basic Human Needs music video:

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