Photo Courtesy of Marc Margolis
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By Richard William Guerra AKA Ranchsauce
“Columbiaaa! Comorosss! The Democratic Republic of Congo!” a raspy, albeit goofy voice boomed over the main stage at Gathering of the Vibes. It was my first World Peace Flag Ceremony. On the sun soaked stage, a septuagenarian candy colored clown was hollering out the name of every nation on Earth in alphabetical order. I couldn’t help but to crack up every few countries. It was my first encounter with Wavy Gravy. Friend to Bob Dylan and Albert Einstein, Gravy is the quintessential ambassador for peace. “Understand that I am totally, absolutely, to the death non-violent,” he emphatically stated as we became acquainted over the phone a few weeks into 2015.
It all started when Gravy found himself evicted from his quaint one-bedroom home after his landlord discovered that he had it packed full of Merry Pranksters, all of whom were stranded in Los Angeles after Ken Babbs hijacked the Further bus. Gravy reflected upon the unanticipated set of circumstances which followed.“And lo it came to pass in the land of kitchen synchronicity that a neighbor rode by and said, ‘Claude Doty up on the mountain had a stroke-they need somebody to slop them hogs!’And so we were given a mountaintop rent free if we were to tend to 50 hogs the size of davenports.” From mere coincidence, a movement was born, and Gravy and friends managed to hone this bizarre communal experiment into a productive component of the national live music industry. “We got on the road, we were doing the Hog Farm and Friends: An Open Celebration and it was like the acid tests but without the acid. In other words you came with your own head and we set up a pallet for you to expand your consciousness. We would have a hundred people painting together, there were tinker toys, microphones, projectors, and the band, and we set up giant dome and teepees.”
“One day, this guy Stan Goldstein comes in looking like Allen Ginsberg on a Dick Gregory diet. He was gaunt. He says, ‘Would you guys like to do this music festival in New York state?’ We said we were gonna be in New Mexico for the summer solstice. He said ‘That’s all right we will fly you in in an astro jet.’ We thought he was one toke over the line and paid him no heed until there we were in Aspen Meadow high above Santa Fe and the same dude shows up with an aluminum briefcase and indeed there was an American Airlines astrojet to take 85 of us and 15 native americans to the Woodstock music festival.” Gravy described his revolutionary tactics for maintaining order at the festival; a stark contrast from those enacted at many commercial festivals today. We formed a Please Force (‘Please don’t do that, please do this instead’). The password was ‘I forgot’ and we did a real good job of calming people down and aiming them to the bathrooms.” Gravy and this force, based in the values of respect and community, managed to feed the individuals who did not have the funds to do so. They served up to 10,000 people at one time, inspiring festival goers through a genuine act of kindness and brotherhood.
“I was spotted by the guy who built the stage, a gentleman named Chip Monck who invented concert lighting at The Village Gate in New York and was the road manager for the Stones. He had watched me get involved in Greenwich Village where I got my chops as poetry and entertainment director at The Gaslight, and he invited me to make live support announcements from the main stage.” Gravy has since been the Master of Ceremonies and the only person to be billed at three different Woodstocks. His passion for performance, it appeared, was compounded only by his passion for service. “In 1970, we drove two busses from London to the Himalayas to provide aid for the flood in Bangladesh. We set up and ran into the Indo-Pakistani War and distributed food and medical supplies to Tibetan refugee camps. I spent a lot of time on the roof. Kesey used to maintain that the roof was the Rivera of the bus. I’ve crossed the Rocky Mountains strapped to the roof of Further and I did that going over the Khyber Pass. It’s in the movie!” He was a little shocked that I had not yet done myself the favor and seeing the film, which he goes on to describe. “Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie directed by Michelle Esrick! D.A. Pennebaker (Monterey Pop) is the executive producer. This is an amazing film about our entire life.” The documentary even includes a song that Wavy wrote called “Basic Human Needs,” sung by his friends: Jackson Browne, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Bob Weir and Steve Earle.
“One breath at a time,” he suggests when I ask him for his secret for keeping it movin’. “It started out with, you know, the peace and love shit. The Vietnam War was going on and it was pretty horrific. So we put our bodies on the line to try and stop the war, and it involved being beat up and getting thrown in jail. It involved a lot of things. People don’t realize it was like 8 years in the trenches,” he says before pausing to reflect on what was amongst the most challenging times of his life. “For thousands of years, music has influenced and raised the consciousness of the people that enabled them to go back to their mundane 9 to 5 and be elevated by a spiritual buzz. The music was the ointment that made the machine run smoothly, it was our soundtrack. There are still a lot of people helping people out. Say that there’s a big flood on the Mississippi, people throwing sandbags, rich people and poor people and people of all ethnicities and they go shovel filling the sandbags. It was kind of like that at Woodstock and these festivals, except we had a better soundtrack!” he says with proud gusto.
As for any of you aspiring pranksters and community organizers, Wavy Gravy issues one warning. “Keep your sense of humor. Take turns, because without laughter there is going to be a lot of anger and people are gonna get uptight. Keep the energy moving and smooth. Laughter is, if not the best medicine, it’s certainly one of them.” After being arrested for protesting peacefully at numerous demonstrations, he began dressing as a clown so that he would be less likely to end up in cuffs. He founded The Phurst Church of Phun, a secret society of comics and clowns who used political theater as their means of fighting to end the Vietnam War. It was Wavy and the Youth International Party (Yippies) who nominated his 145-pound hog, Pigasus, for President of the United States at the ill-fated Democratic National Convention. “Very simple stuff- as simple as it gets. [Everyone] comes together around the kitchen table and fridge, it’s the dialogue finding something to do collectively that turns everybody on.”
Talk turns to the legacy left behind from the countercultural movement of the sixties. Wavy remains one of the last hippy generals (non-violent, of course) standing. “We hope that there is still a spark there. There are more communes now in the United States than there ever were in the sixties. Burning Man is part of it. Some of these big festivals are part of it. I go to one called Gathering of the Vibes and there is an amazing amount of communality around it. I’m sure wherever there is a subject there could be a commune to come around it. The other stuff is the nuts and bolts- who does the cooking and cleaning and keeps it alive. Even the big festivals like Bonnaroo work hard to instill that kind of an ethic. There is Burning Man and then there is The Rainbow Gathering. And they are both the same thing. Burning Man uses technology and makes technology sing, whereas at The Rainbow Gathering, they use crystals and the hippie shit, but it’s the same thing. After The Rainbow Gathering, people have to pick up every molecule. At Burning Man there is not a coffee ground left on that playa.”
I was not exactly sure if Wavy had any idea who Diplo or Dillon Francis were, but I was eager to have him weigh in on the commercial and authoritative nature of the contemporary EDM festival. It took a little explaining in order for me to get him hip to the kind of environment I was talking about. “There will be teenageers on drugs no matter where you’re at. It depends on the drugs and the teenagers. I think you need to change your festival,”he says with a note of frustration. “I think you choose the environment, and if that’s the environment you choose, you do what you can to improve it. It sounds so grisly to me that I wouldn’t be interested in what they are selling. The music we’re doing this year at The Kate Wolf Memorial Festival on our land is Smokey Robinson, a few years back we did K.D. Lang. Kate was one of my very best friends, and invented her own genre of Northern California folk music.”
Wavy Gravy will forever exist as a cultural icon, an infamous character of history living atop a Fort Knox of life experience and accomplishment. Despite such obvious successes, his activist spirit remains purely honest, with no sign of letting up. Gravy serves on the board of directors of Seva Foundation, an international health organization that he founded along with Ram Dass and Dr. Larry Brilliant. Seva works within some of the most underprivileged communities on Earth to build sustainable health projects, with particular interest in preventing the spread of blindness. Today, he spends much of his time spreading the good joke at Camp Winnarainbow in Laytonville, California. Forty years ago, Gravy and his wife Jahanara Romney co-founded the circus and performing arts camp which cultivates both a philosophy of performance and community building for children and adults alike.
“It gets me high man. I’m in it for the buzz,” he says, sounding an awful lot like The Dude. He lets me mull over his words for a minute before I ask him to describe what that buzz is like. “I don’t know if it’s in language is it? It feels really really REALLY good. It’s kind of tingly. I think it’s automatic now.” I suggest that it has become something like breathing, and he instantly transitions beautifully to a tangent dear to my heart. “Breathing is astonishing- have you ever gotten into that? Breathing in, Breathing out. I do that with the children at my camp. ‘Breathing in the supreme moment, breathing out I know it's a wonderful moment. Breathing in I calm my body, breathing out I smile.’ I learned that from a Vietnamese monk named Thich Nhat Hanh.” Of course, it makes sense that Wavy Gravy is a student of one of the kindest and most nourishing human beings on the planet. We went on to discuss our mutual interest in Nhat Hanh’s ongoing recovery from the brain hemorrhage he suffered in the fall of last year. Then I realize that despite the radical differences between the two men, there is a glimpse of enlightenment that bonds them. Gravy’s philosophy, however, differs in rhetoric. “When you get to the very bottom of the human soul, where the nit is slamming into the grit and you’re sinking, but you reach down to help somebody who’s sinking worse than you are, and everybody gets high.”
“Do you want to hear a Wavy Gravyism? Ready, set? Mind full of empty. That’s a deep motherfucker.” At times, speaking with Wavy can be as blissfully challenging as dissecting the advice of a zen master. Ram Dass put it best, "Taking his place in the great lineage of fools for God, Wavy Gravy through his improvisational irreverent rascality, keeps the Sixties dream alive in social actions that reflect his deep love of the earth and its inhabitants. This wise clown of compassion is a genuine Mahatma of the Cosmic Giggle."
Finally, I asked what Wavy Gravy thinks the world needs most today. He carefully replied, “Thinking gets in the way of thought. I think that I feel that people need to be kind to each other. If everybody did just that, it'd be a different world.” For those of us who are compelled to participate in shows, festivals and are out in our community, it is important to believe that we can maintain a vigilant resolve to be righteous and creative in all that we do. If you ever need a reminder, just put on a red clown nose and yell that Gravyism, “We must be in heaven man!”