By Steve Heilig
When Supreme Court Justice Scalia died in February, talk show host Bill Maher suggested that any new president should consider one logical replacement: Wavy Gravy. And why not? Other than the lack of a legal background, one could do much worse than the activist, poet, clown and icon of the ’60s counterculture movement. Gravy has just turned 80 years old—a milestone to be celebrated in a benefit concert this Sunday for the Seva Foundation, an organization that has restored the eyesight of more than 3.5 million people since 1978.
But if appointed, would Wavy Gravy serve? And if so, what might he do? “Well … ” he says with a pause, “That may be too abstract a concept even for me! But I guess I’d just follow my old pal Ken Kesey’s rule and ‘Always try to put my good where it would do the most.’”
As indeed he has done. Co-founding Seva in 1978, Gravy has relentlessly helped to keep the good work going. “Fun-raising” is so important to him that when asked what he wants to do with the rest of his life, he simply says, “I’d like to see more and more blind people not bump into shit.
“I was a teenage beatnik, and didn’t know what to do with my life,” Gravy says. “My high school counselor told me to volunteer for the draft, and I wound up in the military for two years. Then on the GI Bill, I got to theater school in Boston and then to New York, starting jazz and poetry shows after reading about what was happening in San Francisco with Allen Ginsberg and all that.”
Gravy has opened for the likes of Bob Dylan and Thelonious Monk. By the early ’60s, he was in California, met Kesey, co-founded the Hog Farm mobile commune and helped conduct the fabled “acid tests” featuring the fledgling Grateful Dead—where he began helping people on “bad trips.”
Beyond service, Gravy has ventured into politics. In the 1960s he ran a giant pig, Pigasus, for president (“He actually got lots of votes,”), and then in the 1970s his candidate was ‘Nobody,’ who might seem a logical option this year. But, Gravy says, “This time, I’m supporting ‘anything but Trump.’ We are so much bigger as humans than what he holds out.”
Thus, Gravy remains both a hippie icon and a man of today. “Doing service is a high not available from a pharmaceutical cabinet—I still get a buzz,” he maintains. “As the famous saying goes, ‘If you remember the sixties, you weren’t really there.’ Robin Williams said I said that first, but I think it was him. But hey, I’m 80, and forget lots of stuff. Old age is not for sissies, they say. The first 100 years are the hardest, and then it’s all downhill.”
WAVY GRAVY’S 80TH BIRTHDAY, Sunday, May 22; 2pm; SOMO Village Event Center, Rohnert Park; seva.org.