Ask Wavy Gravy how he got to stand on stage in front of 400,000 rock fans as an emcee at the legendary Woodstock music festival, and the iconic hippie prankster launches into an amusing, convoluted narrative that begins with his formative days as a beat poet in New York's Greenwich Village.
"We have to go back to the late '50s when I studied at Boston University," Wavy explains. "I was a teenage beatnik and studied jazz and poetry. People used to line up around the block to look at beatniks, it was like a geek show, and I was at the best place called the Gaslight (Cafe). I eventually talked the owner into allowing folk musicians to play in between the poems, and as I got tired of reading my poems I started talking about the weird stuff that happened during the day. The next thing you know I'm opening for Peter, Paul and Mary, and Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane, doing this stand-up philosophy.
"When Woodstock time rolled along Chip Monk, who built the stage at Woodstock, and used to do lights at The Village Gate where I performed with Monk, he knew I could get on a microphone. What I did was life support announcements and came on between bands, and told people where the medical stuff was, that the acid wasn't going to kill them, and I had some great lines in the film. The one that was picked by Entertainment Weekly as one of the top entertainment lines of the 20th century was - Good morning, what we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000 - which was when we introduced hippies to granola."
hippie icon says his peace
Led Zeppelin arrive in Honolulu in 1969 holding their master tapes to Led Zeppelin II, captured by rock photographer Robert Knight.
Documented in the wonderful new film "Saint Misbehavin' " by Michelle Esrick, screening at the Maui Film Festival on Wednesday, the remarkable life of a fun-loving, humanitarian, peace activist known as Wavy Gravy embraces numerous, pivotal cultural events, official honoring as the clown of the Grateful Dead, and eventual immortalization as a Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor.
"The film is a celebration of service," says director Esrick. "It's bigger than Wavy."
Among those interviewed Ram Dass hails him as a "holy man," and musicians like Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and Odetta provide insight into a larger than life character that satirist Paul Krasner described as the "illegitimate son of Harpo Marx and Mother Theresa, conceived one starry night on a spiritual whoopie cushion."
* "Saint Misbehavin' " will screen at the Maui Film Festival on Wednesday at 8 p.m. at the McCoy Theater. Wavy Gravy and Michelle Esrick will attend.
* "Rock Prophecies" will screen on June 18 at the Celestial Cinema. Robert Knight will attend. He will also sign his book "Rock Gods" at Borders Books Music Movies and Cafe in Kahului at 4:30 p.m. June 20.
After performing in clubs and theaters in New York and Boston, Wavy (born Hugh Romney) journeyed to California, spent time on Hopi land in the southwest, and was then, "scooped up by Ken Kesey," the celebrated author of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Wavy became part of a group known as the Merry Pranksters that traveled across the country in a psychedelic painted school bus, chronicled by Tom Wolfe in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."
Metamorphosing from beat poet to psychedelic jester, Wavy began devoting his life to helping others, in time adopting a clown persona partly because "the police did not want to hit me anymore."
So the story goes, blues legend B.B. King provided his name change at the 1969 Texas Pop Festival, held two weeks after Woodstock. "I was lying on stage, it was before one of my multiple back surgeries," he recalls. "I started to get up and I felt this hand on my shoulder and it was B.B. King. He said, 'you Wavy Gravy?' Yes sir. 'Well Wavy Gravy I can work around you.' He picked up Lucille and played until sunrise."
From assisting at major rock festivals Wavy and members of his commune known as the Hog Farm ended up journeying by bus from England to India and Nepal providing medical supplies to help victims of flooding. This amazing trek is captured in archival footage included in "Saint Misbehavin'."
Inspired by the journey, Wavy subsequently helped launch the Seva foundation, an international medical aid organization that has assisted in providing sight-saving surgery for around 2 million blind people in the Third World. Funds are routinely raised from rock concerts ("When Wavy Gravy calls, you don't say no," David Crosby noted in an interview).
"Flying back to the Bay Area after our first meeting, who should be on the aircraft but the Grateful Dead," Wavy recalls. "I started talking with the drummers and Jerry Garcia always said yes, and they became our house band. Our first show is now a Dick's Picks' (Grateful Dead live series) album."
About seven years ago Wavy and his wife decided to visit one of the Seva projects in Nepal. "We had built an eye hospital in Nepal," he explains. "I got to put on a doctor's suit and stand next to someone having a cataract removed. It was maybe the highest moment of my life, a high that is not available in the pharmaceutical cabinet."
Filmmaker Esrick devoted 10 years to creating her new documentary. "I was completely moved by him and couldn't believe there wasn't a film about him," she says. "He's been in so many major, seminal moments, and he inspires people to want to help the world. I wanted to truly introduce the real Wavy Gravy to people, not just the guy from Woodstock or the Ben & Jerry's ice cream favor. I wanted to make this film to inspire people. We've done four film festivals so far and people rise to their feet, they're really moved."
"She's done the most incredible job, she's got footage we didn't know existed," says Wavy about the filmmaker.
An impressive soundtrack drives "Saint Misbehavin' " with songs by Bonnie Raitt, the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Santana, Joni Mitchell and Willie Nelson. And an all-star cast gathered to help close the film with a powerful cover of Wavy's song "Basic Human Needs."
"It's a great gospel-blues version with Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Bob Weir, Dr. John, Steve Earle, Taj Mahal, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Maria Muldaur," notes Esrick. "As Bonnie Raitt said, 'it's righteous to the bone.' "
* * *
When Led Zeppelin landed in Honolulu in 1969 for their first concert performance in Hawaii, they only knew one person living on Oahu - aspiring rock photographer Robert Knight.
It was Knight, featured in the fascinating new documentary "Rock Prophecies," screening at the Maui Film Festival on June 18, who had persuaded promoter Tom Moffatt to bring the English rockers to Hawaii.
"I called up Tom Moffatt and said you've got to bring this band to Hawaii," explains Knight, who grew up in Palolo Valley. "They sent me to the airport to meet them, I was the only one they knew. I put Robert (Plant) and Jimmy (Page) in my VW Bug and took them to KPOI for an interview. Then Moffat would be, 'I've got Alice Cooper in town for a week, would you look after him. And around 1970, Tom called and said, 'there's this guy Elton John, I want you to photograph him,' and we became really good friends. On one trip he stayed at my house and I slept on the couch. I saw him recently in Vegas and we were laughing about those days."
Best known for his "Guitar Legend" archive of musicians including Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Rolling Stones, Carlos Santana and Eric Clapton, Knight has received an offer of $3.5 million to purchase his collection of around 200,000 rock images.
Before he began capturing the rock gods, Knight began his career shooting local stars like Gabby Pahinui, C&K, the Caz and Olomana. "I wanted to be a music photographer so I did a lot of early album covers," he reports. "I pretty much worked with everybody in the Hawaiian music scene back then."
After moving to San Francisco to study photography, Knight captured shows by Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix at the Fillmore Auditorium. We find out in one of the moving segments of the film that these early Hendrix shots would end up playing a pivotal role in helping Knight care for his ailing mother.
"Jeff Beck in 1968 was my first time to shoot a major rocker," he says. "And 40 years later EMI calls me from England and licenses 14 of those photos for the re-release of 'Beck-Ola.'
"Jeff had told me about a band that Jimmy Page was putting together called the New Yardbirds. So I nagged Jan Wenner (of Rolling Stone magazine) to shoot them. I was a teenager and they wouldn't let me in at the Whisky A Go Go (in L.A.), so they called Jimmy Page and I ended up hanging out with the band all day, and I shot their first show in America."
Winner of the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 2009 AFI Dallas Film Festival, "Rock Prophecies" explores Knight's passion for rock 'n' roll featuring interviews and performances from Jeff Beck, ZZ Top, Carlos Santana, Slash, Steve Vai, Def Leppard and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. He's lately translated this passion into helping promote Panic at the Disco before most had heard of them, convincing Australian rock band Sick Puppies to move to the U.S., and helping launch the career of a phenomenal 16-year old guitar prodigy from Texas, Tyler Dow Bryant.
"The very thing I did with Led Zeppelin and Jeff Beck in those early days I'm doing now, finding new, young artists," he explains. "Tyler is probably the next Jeff Beck or Jimi Hendrix. I was the only person the Sick Puppies knew (in America) and within a year they were on Jay Leno and had a Top-10 record. The Irish band The Answer is now opening for AC/DC and we filmed their first show in America. The young music drives me and I'm still finding young talent and helping them. I call up my old buddies like Jeff Beck and Robert Plant and Slash to get them to mentor them. Robert Plant just met for three hours with Tyler Bryant in Nashville. It's pretty astonishing."
* Contact Jon Woodhouse at email@example.com.