Ardmore Music Hall – home to all things Grateful Dead-related and jam band-y – will host a two-night fund-raising concert this weekend celebrating the Dead, with Wavy Gravy, the 81-year-old activist/absurdist/artist/poet/clown, as guest of honor. A screening of the Martin Scorsese-produced Long Strange Trip documentary will be among the highlights, with performances from saxophonist Karl Denson, keyboardist Aron Magner, and others who will be known as the Wavy All-Stars one night and the Gravy All-Stars the other. The event is expected to raise more than $30,000 for the Rex Foundation + Camp Winnarainbow for children of underprivileged parents.
"Let's go find the weasel," Gravy says from his communal Hog Farm compound in Laytonville, Calif., before commencing to recall highlights of his provocative and pro-active life. "There's a lot of work to be done, especially when you consider Trump," he says, laughing. "If you find anything left to be active about after you're done with Trump, good luck and have at it. He's the flash point of so many things to be active about."
After talking about the etymology of the word hello, ("I prefer whazzzup") and the concept of electricity before Philly's Ben Franklin ("'Electra,' said the Greeks … I love the beginnings of things"), we pinpoint the moment Hugh Romney became who he is today while lying on the floor of the free stage at the Texas International Pop Festival in 1969. "B.B. King came up to me and said, `You wavy gravy,' to which I answered, `I believe that I am, sir.' He put his hand on my shoulder, leaned against an amp, pulled out Lucille [King's guitar], while Johnny Winter entered from the wings and began to play until sunrise – but only if I could convince all the hippies to stop skinny-dipping, as they were offending the daughters of Texas."
When he assumed the clown persona that has defined his existence, Gravy says, he and fellow commune-ites/"hippie social workers" formed a telephone-answering service to make cash when he was asked by the Oakland Children's Hospital to help cheer up kids. "I liked that idea: Someone gave me a red nose, a retiring Ringling Bros. clown gave me his big shoes, and I was set. Plus, I found that, suddenly, the police didn't want to hit me anymore during protests if I was dressed that way. Clowns are safe."
Sensational Gravy life moments abound — like being managed briefly by Lenny Bruce, who was set to "mail me to London to tour with Peter Cook" when the beleaguered comedian was arrested for the last time in 1966. "He enlisted me – for what seemed like the rest of my life – to go up to people on the street and see if they would type for us, transcribe his legal briefs. I would take them to 8825 Hollywood Blvd. – a house surrounded by barbed wire with the gate wide open. It was a trip."
So, too, was befriending Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary, the Merry Pranksters, and the Grateful Dead through the LSD-laced acid tests of 1965, a lysergic treat that opened the door to revering author Kesey ("His motto is my motto: Always put your good where it will do the most good") and a continued friendship with the Dead, whose backing of the Rex Foundation is crucial to its existence. "Those guys are totally behind it." Grateful Dead percussionist "Mickey Hart's even taught there, but kept kidnapping members to work on his live stage projects – mystical productions about shamans at Berkeley Community Center with live bunnies, trees, and snakes." Ask him whether he likes the new four-hour Dead documentary that he will present in Ardmore, and Gravy says it's brilliant, "amazing that they could fit so much into four hours. I know [Dead bassist] Phil Lesh doesn't care for it, But he's a fussy guy about such things."
As far as Wavy's own aesthetics as a college artist and haiku poet go, he has been making new work recently from the slices of trees struck by lightning near his Berkeley compound, with their bark forming natural frames. "I want to have a one-man exhibition, but they keep selling out, and my manager keeps getting his 15 percent," he says, laughing.
And activism? "I have found that the yuuuute protest brilliantly and electronically. They don't just put their bodies in the street, which they also do with great vigor. This generation is creative in their protest. … They are a delight, and I'm thrilled to witness this."
Ardmore Music Hall
23 E. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore