If you’re in the northern California area this weekend, be prepared. Most of the state is going to smell like patchouli and Baby Boomer tears. Wavy Gravy is turning 75, and he’s celebrating with a “Birthday Boogie” on Saturday at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond, California, just across the bridge from San Francisco. There’ll be performances by surviving members of the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, and more aging hippies than you’ve probably seen outside of a History Channel documentary. If you can’t make it, there’s a second celebration on May 27th at New York’s Beacon Theatre, with guests like Dr. John, Jackson Browne, Steve Earle, and David Crosby. Two bicoastal all-star jams may seem a little excessive for a guy that most people remember, if they remember him at all, as a former Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor. But Gravy’s made plenty of contributions to popular culture that don’t involve caramel or cashews. Among other things, he traveled the country with the Merry Pranksters, mentored Lenny Bruce, emceed all three Woodstock music festivals, and loaned a typewriter to Bob Dylan to write “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” And that barely scratches the surface of his remarkable life. I called Gravy at his home in Berkeley, an 11-bedroom “hippie Hyannispor” (his words) that he shares with a dog and whoever knocks.
Eric Spitznagel: You’ll be 75 on Sunday. Did you think you’d make it this long?
Wavy Gravy: I didn’t think I’d make 30.
Most of the legends of 60s activism — guys like Jerry Rubin, Huey P. Newton, Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg — have died off. Does it get lonely being the last hippie standing?
Well, I always think of what Hunter S. Thompson said. “When the going gets weird, the weird turns pro.”
Meaning what? If you make it to 75, you’re a professional?
I think so. Wiser people than I have said that if knew they were going to last this long, they would’ve taken better care of themselves. I just finished another spinal surgery, but I can still hobble from place to place.
What’s the secret to your longevity?
I’ve been married to the same woman for forty years, and whenever people ask us how we managed to stay married for so long, we usually say as one voice, “What’s the secret? Don’t get divorced!”
So the secret to a long life is don’t die?
Right, right. Just keep fogging mirrors. That’s the best advice I can give you.
You’ve got two birthday bashes coming up, one of them this weekend. For a guy who hobbles everywhere, that seems like an awful lot.
Well the second one, in New York, is a sit-down show. The one this weekend is more of a dance. It’s at the Craneway Pavilion, where they used to make jeeps and tanks during World War II. We’re going to bring a different vibe to it. Nothing at my party is going to be about war. And all the money we raise is gonna be used to help blind people not bump into stuff.
And how does that work exactly?
It’s my foundation, which I helped start back in 1978. We’re going to help orchestrate over three million sight-seeing operations in Asia and Africa.
Is this foundation called Helping Blind People Not Bump Into Stuff?
No, no, it’s the Seva Foundation. But I like your name better.
If we’re only able to attend one of your birthday parties, which should it be? The New York party or the San Francisco party?
They’re both totally different. They’re like apples and oranges.
Or hash brownies and bongs?
Sure, that too. The bigger stars are at the New York show.
Which show has the brown acid?
The acid’s in the oranges. Ascorbic acid, that it.
What’s the story behind the brown acid at Woodstock? You were there, you were helping out at the medical tents. Was the brown acid really that bad?
As soon as word got out that the brown acid was no good, people came running up to me saying, “I have some, I have some!” They’d give it to me and my pockets were filled with the stuff. I almost got a contact high just from carrying it around. I remember when the first freakout came into the trip tent, he was screaming, “Joyce! Joyce! Miami Beach! Miami Beach!” This three hundred pound Australian doctor laid down on top of this poor guy, saying “Body contact. He needs body contact.” And this psychiatrist is leaning in, “Just open your third eye!” I figured it was time for me to make my move. I looked at him and said, “What’s your name, man?” He says, “Joyce!” I said, “No, what’s your name?” And he said, “Bob.” And I said, really slowly, “Your name… is Bob.” And you could see how much he really liked that. I said to him, “Guess what, Bob? You’ve taken a little acid and it’s going to wear off.” And right away, he was perfectly calm. He didn’t want to know about his third eye or get crushed by a three hundred pound doctor. He just wanted to know that he was going to come down and feel better.
You were at all three Woodstocks.
That’s right. The first one made me famous and the second two got me paid. I also do a show every year called the Gathering of the Vibes, where I try to get the audience as involved as I can. In the breaks between bands, I’ll take a microphone and I move it down into where the people are, dissolving the line between the stage and the audience. I give them the opportunity to share their feelings, their opinions, their stories. Maybe they’ve got a harmonica or a flute or something like that. Whatever they want to do.
Are you sure it’s a good idea to give a microphone to anybody with a flute?
Why not? It’s a beautiful instrument.
But the next time this guy’s out in public, he’s like, “I should bring my flute. Wavy Gravy thought it was cool.”
I think that’s great!
Do you know how many dinner parties and summer barbecues you just ruined?
You don’t want to discourage creativity.
Let’s talk about your name. It was given to you by B.B. King, right?
That’s right. It was at the Texas Pop Festival. We had just come off a collectively amazing experience at Woodstock. I’d spent all day driving around Lake Dallas, trying to get people to put on their pants.
And how does one convince a lake full of stoned, naked hippies to do something like that?
I just told them they had to stop skinny-dipping or somebody was gonna call the National Guard. That pretty much convinced them. If they wanted to stay, they had to keep their pants on. This was after one of my multitudes of spinal surgeries, so I was moving kind of slow. After I’d been around the lake a few time, I laid down on the stage to rest. I felt this hand on my shoulder, and a deep voice said, “You Wavy Gravy?” I looked up and it’s B.B. King! I said, “Yes, sir. Yes, sir.” I was getting ready to get up, but then he said “Well Wavy Gravy, I can work around you.” And he actually leaned me up against this amplifier. Then Johnny Winter came out of the other wing, and they played until sunrise. It was the crowd’s reward for picking up their trash and putting on their pants.
Have you talked to B.B. about it since?
I have, and he doesn’t remember any of it. I don’t think he had any idea what it meant or what he was saying.
What does it mean to you? What’s your definition of “Wavy Gravy”?
Well, it’s kinda like that cartoon strip Smokey Stover. He had a sign on his wall that said “Scram Gravy Ain’t Wavy.”
I’m actually more confused than before I asked the question.
I think you had to be there. [Laughs.]
I heard somewhere that you started going to war protests dressed like a clown because you were less likely to get beaten up by the cops. Is that true?
Well, not exactly. I became a clown when these docs came to the house in Berkeley and asked me to come cheer up kids. I’d just had my third spinal fusion and I was looking for something to take my mind off the pain I was in.
This is the third time you’ve mentioned spinal surgeries. Just how often has your spine been operated on?
I believe it’s six at this point. I’ll probably have another one before the end of this interview. So anyway, I’m on my way to the children’s hospital, and as I’m heading out the door somebody gives me a red rubber nose. After several months, I just began collecting more clown things. A clown I knew who was retiring from Ringling Brothers gave me his giant shoes, and somebody else made me a clown suit. Then one day I had to go to the People’s Park (in Berkeley) for a political demonstration, and that’s when I discovered that the police didn’t want to hit me anymore. Clowns are safe. They’re not threatening in any way.
Maybe not to you, but clowns scare the shit out of me.
What’s scary about a clown?
I’m from Chicago. I’ve got John Wayne Gacy anxiety.
[Laughs.] Right, right! He ruined it for all of us.
You’ve been arrested probably more than any other living activist. Do you have a favorite arrest memory? One special encounter with the cops that made it all worth it?
Well, let me see. I was at the 1976 Republican Convention in Kansas City. I was running “Nobody for President” at the time. I printed up these press releases and handed them out to the crowd at the Kemper Arena. “Nobody keeps campaign promises.” “Nobody lowers your taxes.” “Nobody should have that much power.” “Nobody is in Washington working for you.” The crowd is digging it, but then I’m spotted by a plain-clothed Kansas City cop, who calls the FBI and the Secret Service. All of a sudden, I’m surrounded by a bevy of cops who start patting me down. And one of the cops feels this bulge in my pocket. And he says, “Is that a gun?”
Please tell me you said, “Nope, just happy to see you.”
Ha! That’s good, I should have said that. He puts his hands in my pockets and pulls out these wind-up clicking teeth. Whenever we had a political rally, we’d use those teeth for speeches. We’d just put it on the stage and the TV guys would always be pushing each other out of the way to get better shots of the teeth. So the cop’s holding these teeth and they start clicking in his hand. And I say, “Quiet, our leader is speaking.” He rolls his eyes and gives me back the teeth and he says, “Get the hell out of here, you’re too weird to arrest.”
You used to have your own Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor, but I haven’t seen it in stores for almost a decade. What happened?
I got dumped. Poor Ben and Jerry were mortified. They were purchased by this big Dutch corporation called Unilever. And I was dumped for not being cost effective. Mrs. Gravy said, “I knew you weren’t cost effective all along.”
What was so costly about it? The ingredients weren’t especially exotic, were they?
I never thought so. It was a chocolate fudge hazelnut swirl with roasted almonds and a brazil nut cashew base.
And what was the TCH content?
Ha! No, no, I run a children’s camp. And actually, that’s where all the royalties went for my ice cream. We used the money to send homeless kids to camp.
Ah, okay, I get you. It wasn’t necessarily too expensive to make, it’s just that all the profits were going to your damn hippie causes.
That’s right. It was the most politically correct ice cream known to humankind.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)