There is a certain faction of society -- I think it's pretty large, if you judge by NorCal standards -- that regards Wavy Gravy as some sort of mystical deity from their parents' generation. We're not sure what he did, but you should probably address him as Mr. Gravy 'til he tells you not to.
This is a perception that is left unquibbled-with by director Michelle Esrick's ten year labor of docu-love, Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie (opening Fri/3 in Bay Area theaters), and further untouched by my interview with Esrick and the man himself.
Saint Misbehavin' opening scenes are an iteration of a tie-died holy man's daily routine. We start out in Wavy's corner bedroom, awash in sitting Buddha figurines, plastic Disney toys, beads, books, and other sacred objects. Wavy enters, and says a pray and a brief recitation of his heroes.
This spoken list serves as a blueprint for the bio-pic to come: Jesus, Mohammed, Ghandi, MLK Jr., Jerry Garcia are among those name-dropped. They serve as a background compass for the movie's neatly plotted trajectory of Wavy's life: Gravy is born in New York, goes from folk-beatnik Greenwich Village, to acid be-ins with Kesey in California, to the Further Bus.
And then: a stint with the Hopi tribe, and later, off to the East: to Nepal to heal blindness (with the aide of his international medical non-profit Seva). Of course, his creation of Camp Winnarainbow, a summer camp that has been teaching West Coast flower children how to play for three generations now. Today, Wavy is an elder statesman of hippies and their descendents as well as a frozen dessert. His sold-out birthday spectaculars attract crowds like a Phish concert.
A more recognizable Gravy. Photo Courtesy of Ripple Effect Films
But for our movie-viewing purposes those names at the start also essential because we don't get to hear a whole lot about Wavy's inner monolouge in the flick – he's onstage here, clowning away as he does, well everywhere, not really dishing per se. Saint Misbehavin' is no E! True Hollywood Story.
So when I got the chance to sit face to face with the man (I wore a Ringling Brothers clown hat, he had on a blue bowler and carried his familiar fish on a leash), I thought maybe we'd talk a little about how he got so Gravy. “It's not too many kids that grow up to be a seminal member of so many artistic scenes,” I say. “Washington Park in the early '60s, SF during the '60s, Woodstock... but what was special about Hugh Romney (that was his square name from before he was Wavy -- even before his first nom de nonsense Al Dente), how'd you get to where you are today?”
Gravy, just a little sleepy-looking in the warm office building where our interview takes place, tells me “one thing just followed from another, listing off his general path across the world.” Such is the role of a tribe elder talking to a youngster: there are things that we are not to know. What more do we need to know, really? He quotes Thelonius Monk, a friend who stand-up comedian Hugh Romney opened for. “Everyone is a genius by just being themselves.”
That's his deal: the rainbow he travels on is available to us all, if we can only see it and trust to it's pretty suspended bands of color. Luckily, we do have Saint Misbehavin' to get literal with. Esrick has put together a wild ride and the information it contains teaches about Wavy's contributions to the hippie and anti-Vietnam war movement. He was on the front lines back then – Esrick tells me that the way he deals with the chronic pain he sustains from police beatings from those days is one of the most impressive things she learned about Wavy in the 10 years she spent researching for the film with him.
I ask Wavy his reaction to seeing his epic life laid out on celluloid for thousands of strangers' viewing pleasure. He refused to see early versions of the film when Esrick was still editing: what was it like to finally view the real thing? “You realize what a long strange trip it was – and continues to be,” he says after a moment's pause. “It was the only time I've ever seen Wavy speechless,” Esrick smiles.
And so I leave our interview without really having gained any insider info on the life of Gravy. But I haven't departed without a few gems, the primos being the story of meeting his wife (“she put peanuts in my hamburger and I fell in love,”) tips for graceful protests: “I always gave the best cop my rose. They were always very touched,” vegetarianism: “remember you are not what you eat, you are what you don't shit,”and the truth about relations with the Middle East, spoken by a man who traveled through Iraq and Afghanistan on a rainbow bus in the 1970s: “They know the difference – there are ugly Americans that you see, and there are fellow travelers on the path of life. They recognized us as the latter.”
This from Michelle: “A full biography of Wavy's would be 10 movies. I was interested in stringing a necklace of pearls together.” Maybe there are things we're not supposed to know about those on high, or rather, that we don't have to in order to know that they're up there.
Epilogue: To gauge what maybe I am missing from the story of Wavy by virtue of not having been there in the glory days, I texted my mom today. “What did Wavy Gravy mean to you back in the day? Was he cool?” She wrote back “I don't remember him!” Which of course, means she was really there.
Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie opens Fri/3 in Bay Area theaters.