Lunch with lydia

Lunch with Lydia: A chat with Wavy Gravy, court jester of the counterculture

 

lydia@lydiamartin.com

Wavy Gravy, who was a figure of the peace, love and mud blowout that was Woodstock, who hung out with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, was a homey of the Grateful Dead and continues to be head of the famed Hog Farm commune where he lives with his wife and a gang of other aged hippies, is eating beef sliders at Wynwood Kitchen & Bar and reminiscing with his old pal, Miami publicist Susan Brustman.

“We always talk about how we’re among the very few of our friends from that time who actually survived,” says Wavy, 76.

They met in 1964, when Brustman, 19 and heartbroken after having to give a baby up for adoption, moved to the west coast to help start the underground newspaper Los Angeles Free Press. She lucked into a big house in North Hollywood that she shared with a friend. They had a couple of extra bedrooms and rented one to a collage artist named Hugh Romney, later christened Wavy Gravy by B.B. King. The other room went to singer-songwriter Tim Hardin, who composed hits such as If I Were a Carpenter.

One day, a few Pranksters went to visit the Free Press and Brustman invited them back to her house, which was something of a party central.

“After that they came and took her away to their farm. And later they took me away to their farm,”’ says Wavy, who shows up for lunch in a tie-dyed T-shirt and matching drawstring pants.

One minute he’s wearing a big red clown nose, the next he’s shooting his soap bubble gun or grinning through fake rainbow teeth. Dubbed the court jester of the counterculture, Wavy long ago discovered that dressing as a clown was a better weapon than his arsenal of one-liners. He was a natural comic from the start, and at one point was managed by his buddy Lenny Bruce as he performed as a monologist, opening for the likes of Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Peter, Paul & Mary. But before that, he was director of poetry at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village. He shared a room above the joint with a fledgling musician named Bob Dylan, who wrote A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall on Wavy’s manual typewriter.

Living in a cabin

By 1965, he was devoting more time to peace activism and living in a tiny cabin outside Los Angeles with his wife and friends. About 40 of the cabin crashers, including Pranksters and members of the Dead, posed for Life magazine. Wavy’s landlord saw the photo and evicted the mob on the spot. But a couple of hours later they heard through a friend about free land nearby that they could live on in exchange for tending to hogs.

“The Grateful Dead became our house band,” Wavy says. “We later ran one of the pigs for president. She was the first female black and white candidate. We broke a lot of ground with that pig.’’

The Hog Farm commune is now on the 700-acre Black Oak Ranch in northern California, owned collectively along with a sprawling urban outpost in Berkeley that Wavy calls Hippie Hyannis Port.

But not all was peace and love back in the day. Brustman says she was intrigued by Kesey and the Pranksters and told them she wanted to hang around to write a book about their movement. But while she was sitting at their place one day with a notepad in hand, somebody slipped LSD into her beer.

“I started to hallucinate. Until then the only thing I had tried was pot. I thought I was going crazy. It was a really bad trip and I couldn’t come down from it.”

Brustman went to stay with the mother of a friend, who helped her through the experience. The mother’s boyfriend at the time was writer Tom Wolfe.

“I told him about the Merry Pranksters. He had never heard of them. I told him I had these notes for a book but that I wasn’t going to write it anymore because I had lost my objectivity. I was very angry about what they did to me.”

Brustman says she handed over her notes to Wolfe, who used them as his jumping-off point for The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

“He mentioned me in the book. That was the deal we struck, that he would only mention my name, not even use adjectives to describe me. I’m happy it worked out for him. And I could have never written the book he wrote.”

‘Not cool’

Wavy ultimately became estranged from Kesey because he, too, objected to the Pranksters’ dosing people without their knowledge. “It was just not cool,” he says.

In 1969, Woodstock organizers asked the Hog Farm to help out at the huge music festival they were planning for upstate New York.

Wavy was in charge of security. He dubbed his crew the “Please Force,” because he didn’t want to come off like a cop. Instead he instructed his people to go around saying, “Please do this.” Or, “Please don’t do that.”

Wavy, still Hugh Romney then, also offered to set up a free kitchen, and along with everything else, he wound up emceeing the festival. He is famous for announcing to the hungry, wet crowd, “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000!” And the Hog Farm delivered.

The clown persona came later, when Wavy, undergoing a series of spinal surgeries, started visiting a children’s hospital in Oakland to entertain kids and take his mind off his own painful recovery. He went regularly for seven years, along the way refining his clown act.

One day, he went from the hospital to a demonstration at a park in Berkeley without changing his getup. Cops all of a sudden had no interest in roughing him up. “Clowns are safe,” he understood immediately.

Wavy, who likes to say that he’s a “former frozen dessert” because for years there was a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor named after him, continues to clown around with a purpose. For more than 30 years on the Hog Farm, he and his wife have run Camp Winnarainbow, a circus and performing arts camp for kids. They live in teepees and get lessons in trapeze, unicycle, tightrope, stilt-walking, acting and more. There is a separate component for adults who get to do pretty much the same things.

Wavy occasionally travels to Miami Beach to crash at Brustman’s beachfront condo, where he swims and yaks about the old days. After her hippie period in Los Angeles, and the decade after when she lived at the infamous Chelsea Hotel, Brustman moved to Miami in the late 1970s and reinvented herself as a successful public relations professional with a specialty in promoting major restaurants. She may have given up the trappings of the counterculture, but she has retained its ideals. Wavy simply never wavered from the tie-dyed way of life.

So is there still some modicum of that peace, love and understanding vibe left in the world, or did it die with the last flower child?

“I was very encouraged by the last State of the Union,” Wavy says. “Global warming came up as a huge issue and so did trying to deal with the guns.”

A discovery

Brustman, now semi-retired from her firm, is suddenly living yet another life. Four years ago, the son she had given up for adoption found her. It turned out, remarkably, that Brustman lived a couple of blocks from Matt Bohm.

“All those years, I just wanted to know that my son was OK. There was such a big black hole for me,” says Brustman, 69, who now spends a good amount of time with her son, his wife and their two children.

“We go on cruises together, we spend holidays together, I got to light a candle at my granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. I’m living a ridiculously happy scenario I never dreamed of.”

And her son?

“He is the most gentle, beautiful, thoughtful human being.”

He’s also a successful advertising executive, and a longtime Deadhead who totally gets his birth mom’s past. When Wavy was last in Miami, Matt and his wife Jill took him to a concert by Dark Star, a Grateful Dead tribute band.

“When Wavy came back from that show he said to me, ‘Boy, did you luck out.’ Brustman said. “And I really did.”

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