Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Story

Michelle Esrick has directed a documentary about Hugh Romney, better known as Wavy Gravy, the peace activist, clown and archetypal hippy. Romney’s early career is in many ways highly representative of how hipsterism evolved from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. In the fifties, he was reciting poetry at the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village. Inspired by Lenny Bruce, he began doing stand-up comedy, and he released a comedy album. In the early sixties, he moved to California. There he met Ken Kesey. He joined the Merry Pranksters and experimented with LSD. (He gives good advice on how to deal with someone who’s having a bad trip: keep telling the person that what he’s seeing isn’t real and that it will soon end.) He then founded a commune outside of Los Angeles called the Hog Farm. While touring with fellow members of the Hog Farm, he was asked to help organize the Woodstock music festival, and he became the MC. It was shortly after this that B.B. KIng gave him the name “Wavy Gravy”. He took part in numerous anti-war demonstrations. On at least one occasion he was severely beaten by the police, with the result that he suffers back problems to this day. W.G. found that if he dressed as a clown, the police would not hurt him. So that is the public persona he has adopted to this day.

Wavy Gravy comes across as a likable person in this film, but for all his supposed zaniness and irreverence, he seems strangely bland and – dare I say it? – even a bit dull at times. The problem is that, aside from the Vietnam War (which he rightly calls genocide), he never expresses any really strong opinions about anything. There is, strange to say, no discussion in this film of any of the U.S.’s military interventions since Vietnam. An extraterrestrial watching this film might well get the impression that human history came to an end during the 1960’s. (I’ve met some elderly hippies who seemed to believe this.)

A lot of this has to do with Wavy Gravy’s concept of spirituality. The film begins with W.G. entering a room that is filled all sorts of religious icons – Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, with toys mixed in. (There is a multi-armed Donald Duck figurine. No doubt this represents the multiple aspects of Donald’s powers.) W.G. then recites a prayer in which he names all sorts of famous religious figures (including Lenny Bruce). It’s a spirituality in which various religious traditions are mixed together in a sort of feel good froth. W.G. emphasizes the importance of providing food and shelter to the poor and unfortunate. He argues that if we are kind and decent to people, it will create a ripple effect that will eventually spread through the whole world.

Wavy Gravy does some good things. He helped found a charity that provides eye care to poor people. He runs a children’s summer camp called Camp Winnarainbow that, judging from this film, looks as though it’s a hell of a lot more fun than the fascistic summer camp I went to as a kid. Still, we live in a world that’s being destroyed by capitalism, in which imperialist wars are being fought. Just being nice to people is not enough.

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