Hugh Romney a.k.a. Wavy Gravy—the announcer at Woodstock who mounted that impotent chant of "No rain! No rain!" just before the vast and iconic event was overwhelmed by a hurricane-like storm—was the counterculture's gentle clown, and he still is if the deservedly affectionate valentine Saint Misbehavin' is to be believed. There's a hagiographic streak to Michelle Esrick's somewhat artless documentary that indicates its intended audience is basically a built-in one: people who feel nostalgic for a now very bygone era, or who share the politics of the shuffling corpse that is leftist American activism in the brutal mercantilism of our current social moment. Inevitably, that makes the audience for this film a rather small one, which will likely catch up with it as a download or a DVD.
But even as Saint Misbehavin' elides some fairly major questions about social responsibility and the law of unintended consequences (for example: does Romney/Gravy, who later founded a summer camp for children, have any regrets about the days he spent preaching the Gospel of Chemical Enlightenment to American kids?), it's impossible to watch this movie without feeling that you're in the presence of a good and decent man.
Romney is refreshingly self-effacing considering his counter-culture bona fides. As a spoken-word artist he was an early Beat club fixture, and Bob Dylan was rooming with him when he wrote "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"—a time in his life Dylan later flagged as a personal highlight in his song "Bob Dylan's Dream." Romney was also intermittently one of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, traveling across America on the iconic bus "Furthur," and he founded and still lives within one of the earliest (and, as of this writing, longest-surviving) hippie communes, the "Hog Farm," an extended family based on a collectivist lifestyle and activist politics. The name Wavy Gravy (adopted by Romney only after Woodstock) was given to him personally by Blues great B.B. King.
What makes Romney aka Gravy so appealing though isn't all that legacy stuff the boomer generation stuffed, mounted and bored the hell out of us with so long ago. It's the winning combination of his personal warmth and his generous social pragmatism. Despite his strong association with the Woodstock era, Gravy's largest and relatively unsung achievements were well in the future when those notorious "3 Days of Peace, Love and Music" were still bright in memory. And his very real battle scars—including severe back problems accrued through vicious police beatings back in the "peace and love" days—appear to be physical only. His demeanor and his lifestyle seem devoid of both bitterness and anything approaching the self-congratulatory nostalgia of '60s veterans that can be so wearing. That's a track record of patiently accrued good works only a few of his contemporaries have matched.
By way of example: some years ago I was invited to interview One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest author, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test icon and Hugh Romney compatriot Ken Kesey on the occasion of the publication of his first novel in close to 30 years, a futuristic mediocrity called Sailor Song. In true Merry Prankster style, Kesey (who presumably found the promotional imperative unsuitable to his hippie reputation) decided that our conversation should take place as part of the public event he was planning—a reading aimed at children held in LA's cozy public amphitheatre, the John Anson Ford. When I wondered how this would work, I was told only that I'd be able to figure it out. I was also informed that Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia would be on hand that day, accompanying Kesey on acoustic guitar.
Garcia didn't make it to Kesey's modest happening because he was having an attack of severe liver problems (the downward spiral from years of drug abuse that claimed him at age 53 had just begun). Kesey took to the stage solo, dressed in a Native American-style beak and feathers as some uniquely personal cross between a hawk and a shaman, and then gasped his way under an unseasonably hot Hollywood sun through some simple stories he was working on, in a style that mixed amateur theatrics and the Dustin Hoffman depiction of Captain Hook.
As I watched the sweat pour down Kesey's beet red face, I thought about what a perfect metaphor I was watching for the cul de sac so much '60s radicalism had run itself into. The counterculture herd had long ago been decimated by the simple passage of time, and the compromises life inevitably asks of us. Kesey's rock star pal was absent, laid out by the very forces of chemical liberation Kesey and his psychedelic circus had done so much to promulgate. And there, on the stage, stood a man alone, someone who could have been a literary giant if he hadn't been sidetracked by all that cant about "tuning in, turning on and dropping out," doing an act that might have wowed them in '69 but which was past its sell-by date by the grunge era.
Nobody—not even the kids who were present—seemed to get what was going on. But Kesey was so into his piebald shtick, and so certain of its inherent worthiness, that he might as well have been performing into a hall of mirrors. To himself, he was obviously a true believer still letting his freak flag fly. To everyone else, he looked like a man pushing 60 in a heavy bird suit who might have a heart attack if the sun didn't find a cloud to hide behind soon.
When Kesey pulled out his "Ask-It Ball"—a nerf basketball with a wireless microphone affixed to it—and heaved it into the audience as a way of soliciting questions, I knew it was my cue to participate. I used it instead as my cue to leave.
Kesey wasn't alone among his contemporaries in finding the adjustment to the passage of time a difficult one to navigate. Yippie Abbie Hoffman committed suicide. Yippie Jerry Rubens and Soul on Ice author Eldridge Cleaver both ended their days as conservative Republicans. Student activist Tom Hayden tried for national politics but never made it past the state level, and lived in the shadow of his actress-wife Jane Fonda and her exercise video empire until their union unraveled, squalidly and publicly.
There's nothing dishonorable in any of these trajectories—life is change, and every human story has its plot twists. But, thanks to their sweeping rhetoric of transformation, there is something about the luminaries of the '60s counterculture that frequently makes them easy marks for expressions of dismay and disappointment. Collectively, they preached soaring anti-materialist reinvention—new answers to the old questions—and so it seems especially disheartening to trace their life journeys and find so many of them glued to the ground by the same mundane flypaper that clings to us all.
During the same interval when his contemporaries were groping through changes, Wavy Gravy was continuing to mount little witticisms aimed against the familiar American social and political expectations, including an ongoing campaign for the candidate "Nobody" that seems especially contemporary with the Tea Party's minions on the march. Sample slogans: "Who should get to raise your taxes? Nobody!" "Who should have so much power? Nobody!" But characteristically, there was a sharpened point to the mirth: the actual campaign was to get a "none of the above" option built into American ballots, a technique that could force run-offs in the event that "Nobody" took the presidency or a congressional seat.
In 1978, Gravy co-founded the Seva Foundation with spiritual leader Ram Dass and Dr. Lawrence Brilliant, an organization created to bring medical assistance to the Third World. In the thirty years since, Seva has performed cataract surgery throughout Asia, Africa and South America, bringing sight back to almost three million blind people at a cost of about $50 per surgery.
That's so much more than a slogan can encompass. And if that doesn't make Wavy Gravy a saint—misbehavin' or otherwise—we need a new definition for the word.
Distributor: Argot Pictures
Cast: Hugh Romney aka Wavy Gravy, Dr. Larry Brilliant, Ram Dass and Jackson Browne
Director: Michelle Esrick
Producer: David Becker
Running time: 87 min
Rating: Unrated, but featuring extended discussions of drug use.
Release date: December 3 SF, December 8 NY