Wavy Gravy is no longer a young man, though he has remained young at heart. At 74 years old, this stout, bearded lover of life, born to the world as Hugh Nanton Romney and re-named by B.B. King at the 1969 International Pop Festival, continues to spread love and good cheer throughout his Northern California community and at festivals and concerts across the globe.
Wavy came of age in the anti-war, pro-pot movement of the mid to late 1960s. The clown costume was a stroke of genius on his part after receiving beatings from law enforcement officers at a series of protests. Wavy figured out that police were far less likely to beat a clown, particularly out of the fear that a picture would be taken that the papers might pick up. Wavy still suffers from spinal pain, but probably avoided the worst possible injuries through his beatific and clownish appearance.
With his face paint, his over-wide suspenders, his tie-dyed shirt and his big red nose, Wavy remains some sort of Pan-like deity, playing mischievous tunes on his flute and taking every opportunity possible to point out the absurdities of life in America, a country he still maintains is “the best place to live in this world – assuming you want to live in this world”. Wavy has participated in many of the most infamous protest goofs against the American establishment, including the attempt led by Abbie Hoffman to form a giant circle of human energy around the Pentagon and levitate it five feet into the air.
Wavy embodies the spirit of the trickster-samaritan, using gentle mockery and outright buffoonishness to awaken compassion in those who see him perform. He delights in revealing the central contradictions at work in modern Western society, such as the equation of wealth with happiness. “Happiness happens between your ears,” Wavy has said, “Not in your bank account.”
When Wavy got on the bus with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, they were all in for the trip of their lives. In addition to dropping massive amounts of LSD, the Pranksters’ “Magic Bus” was always stocked with a large supply of the latest strains of marijuana. Wavy once competed in a pot smoking contest in which he and Paul McCartney each smoked close to two ounces in less than a day.
Another classic Wavy anecdote concerns a night all of the Pranksters spent cooling their heels in a jail cell after ex-Beat poet and current Magic Bus driver Neil Cassady got pulled over and nailed for lighting up while at the wheel. The cops dragged everyone down to the station, with typical insults about hippies pouring out of them, but when they regarded Wavy, they didn’t know what to make of him.
“What’s a circus clown doing with these freaks?” one officer reportedly asked.
“Getting’ high, officer,” he replied, giggling. This time the laughter would not prove infectious.
Marijuana wasn’t just for recreational use in Wavy’s world, for he wanted to find a larger meaning to existence than what he perceived in a world where his own brand of comedy and entertainment could never offset massive stores of suffering and loss. Wavy never made any attempt to separate his clown identity from that of spiritual seeker.
The clown could help bring laughter and avoid pain – the spirituality is what would give it meaning, and Wavy saw marijuana as a key ingredient in the spiritual process, a “loosener” of the mind’s fixed perceptions that allowed one to view reality from a different angle. With pot, Wavy could come to appreciate the nature of the impermanent universe as an endlessly flowing rush of experience, rather than as some static, button-downed, fixed and unchanging “bummer” that offered nothing fresh or new.
Freshness and newness were what Wavy Gravy was all about when he first burst onto the cultural scene. Disillusioned with the self-seriousness of anti-war protesters, yet unwilling to abandon himself to the hedonistic culture of constant drug consumption, utterly casual sex, and a general disregard for self-realization, Wavy began migrating from using his persona in the service of the counterculture to using it in the service of children.
Wavy never mixed his pot-centric politics with his children’s performances, and with his name brand recognition he was soon performing at parties for the children of well-known celebrities and artists. He used those funds to help found Camp Winnarainbow, which teaches circus arts to children, and has dedicated his efforts to the Seva Foundation, which delivers medical treatment to the poor of Nepal.
The story of Wavy Gravy was brought to the world in the film “Saint Misbehavin’” released in December of last year, and in typical Wavy style, he used the documentary (which he neither produced nor directed) as a springboard to launch still more efforts to spread happiness and meaning to the children of the world. The classic photo taken of Wavy Gravy early into his persona, freaking out with his fellow hippies at Woodstock, shows the young clown toking on a big fat spliff. Wavy Gravy made an effort more and more as his career grew to avoid any of his clown imagery getting mixed up with marijuana.
“Hey, I love to toke,” Wavy Gravy said in a recent interview. “Anyone who loves life loves to toke. But my life isn’t all about that anymore. Of course pot should be legal. Of course adults should be free to do whatever their freak flag inspires them to do, as long as it’s not hurting anyone else. Give me a chance to vote for it (legalization), I’ll always vote for it. But I’m about the kids now, and the last thing kids need to see if yet another of their heroes mixed up with drugs – even a drug as harmless and healing as weed.”
At 74, Wavy shows no signs of slowing down. He continues to travel the world, “clowning it up” as he says, while also “farting around.” He is like some sort of figure out of Buddhist mythology, a constantly smiling benevolent presence whose sole aim in life is to bring humor and relief to those who need it the most.
The Art of MaryJane salutes Wavy Gravy for his contributions to the counter-culture, his place in the history of the legalization movement, and his admirable efforts to entertain, inspire and bring comfort to children the world over.