He came on stage at the City Winery walking his rubber fish. Not at all unusual for Wavy Gravy, of course, who has been walking that fish on a leash since the Grateful Dead asked him to lead a Mardi Gras parade decades ago--and, as Wavy explained to his audience, "I didn't want to go first!" This audience duly laughed because they get the humor--even the logic--of Wavy walking a rubber fish on a leash, but I've seen him walk that fish clear across the United States, and the expressions of complete befuddlement on the faces of people who don't know anything about Wavy and his humor. People who just see this old tie-dyed clown walking a rubber fish on a leash down Fifth Avenue...
Once I was with him in a Seattle TV station where he was going to be interviewed on an early morning talk show, and some very straight-laced elderly ladies from a local gardening club also waiting to go on in the green room were puzzling over just what the hell this guy thought he was doing with that fish anyway when all of a sudden the fish went bolting across the room to the TV screen, dragging Wavy right along with it. See, it was raining that morning, and the local weatherman was doing his broadcast in rain gear on a dinghy in a lake...and yes, the guy next to the weatherman was fishing.
Do I have to explain that the fish Wavy was walking just suddenly went berserk after the bait on that hook? It's hard to even describe the expressions on the faces of these ladies when he did this. That was when I truly realized that Wavy Gravy isn't just doing the character of a man who would walk a rubber fish everywhere he goes. He IS that character. That's what makes him so special, so funny, so touching. This 78-year old "Hippie Icon, Flower Geezer, and Temple of Accumulated Error" is like hearing about Santa Claus and then having to face the startling realization that Mr Claus is very real indeed, so what next?
I hadn't seen Wavy since the Woodstock Festival of 1999--the one that was set on fire. Of course he's gotten old but he's lucid as hell and was in great form. His show was a joy, There was no particular order to the material though his wife, Jahanara--"Mrs. Gravy" as he calls her-- did make him write themes and subjects down in a book he had with him onstage. His style has always been freeform with segues that cut up his life into bite sized nuggets of memory. Call them what you will--anecdotes, routines, stories he's been telling for years--and what gradually emerges over the course of a performance is a hologram of his life and times. And what a life and times it was that transformed Hugh Nanton Romney into the person that BB King would call "Wavy Gravy"...
It was all there in the performance in one form or another: his boyhood walk with Albert Einstein (and the smell of the great physicist that he would never forget), the early years as a poet and stand-up in the Village, the folkie days at the Gaslight, the Pranksters and the Acid Tests, the Hog Farm and the era of the great bus caravans, the anti-war movement, Woodstock, the trek to India, the Nobody For President Campaign, the anti-nuke demonstrations, becoming a clown, all indelibly rendered with figures like Dylan and Bill Graham making cameo appearances.
There were bits that were new even to old hands like the time Marlene Dietrich came to see him at the Gaslight and left a perfect red ring of lipstick around a coffee cup, which Gaslight owner John Mitchell then carefully put up on the shelf. A Dietrich worshipper, Mitchell was going to preserve the cup forever as a treasured souvenir, never in a million years imagining that the guy who cleans up would just, well, clean it up. The story ends with Mitchell chasing the janitor down MacDougal Street with a scimitar. As Wavy likes to say in conclusion to some of these bits, "You had to be there," And now we were.
Almost as an aside, Wavy mentioned his work with the Seva Foundation, which he founded with Ram Dass and Dr. Larry Brilliant to combat preventable blindness in the third world. He does this never to blow his own horn but merely to illustrate what people can do when they put their minds to it--"putting their good where it will do the best," as Ken Kesey described it. To date Seva has saved the sight of three and a half million people, and I found myself thinking, not many people can say something like that. We're very fortunate indeed that he's still alive because so are his good deeds. That's what he's always been about.
Savor that Gravy while you can. I hate to think of a world without him.