MONTREAL THEN (AND NOW): Send in the Clowns

Clown. Zombie Walk. Montreal. Photo Michael Bakouch. Clown. Zombie Walk. Montreal. Photo Michael Bakouch.

When we hear the term “hippie,” we think in terms of a cliché: members of the Peace/Love Generation who did a lot of drugs and protested against the Establishment yet ultimately caved and became those Baby Boomers whose Born-Again greed and avarice now control the purse strings of our economy. The old hippies of the ‘60s and ‘70s have been replaced by the New Millennial Hipster, too young to remember that many of their current views on the environment, women’s rights, sexual diversity, and political accountability stem from the Youth Movement that they so often cynically mock.

Wavy Gravy

So, Hugh Romney, aka Wavy Gravy, known as the “Clown Prince of Counter Culture,” perhaps THE quintessential hippie, turns 82 on May 15th, his durability itself no small achievement.  Some salient facts about this marvellous human being that may make us stop and ponder:

  • Worked at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village where he befriended the up-and-coming folk singer, Bob Dylan, who wrote the first draft of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” in Romney’s apartment.  Eventually, Romney became a travelling monologist, mentored by Lenny Bruce, and later came to be involved with The Living Theater.  He opened shows for the likes of John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and others, saying that instead of reciting his own poetry, “I decided to skip the poems and just talk about my weird day.”
  • Eventually, he moved to L.A. and met up with Ken Kesey who showed up at Romney’s cabin in his bus, Further, and joined Kesey and his Merry Pranksters on their memorable jaunt through the U.S., immortalized in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
  • Started the Hog Farm Commune that took its show on the road, eventually becoming The Diggers, most memorably at Woodstock in 1969 where he became MC of the festival while his followers gave out free food to the hungry and helped those freaking out from a bad acid trip.  As he said during an interview, “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000,” and promptly gave away free granola to all those who were hungry.
  • Was dubbed Wavy Gravy by B.B. King at a blues festival, a moniker that would stick with him for the rest of his days.
  • The comedian and political journalist, Paul Krassner of The Realist, called him “the illegitimate son of Harpo Marx and Mother Teresa,” and Richard Alpert, later known as Baba Ram Dass, said:  “everything Wavy says is true, although it’s all unbelievable.”
  • Engaging in many protests and political rallies (Vietnam, Civil Rights, etc.), Wavy was once so badly beaten by the police that he ended up in a full body cast, yet this did not deter him from working on a relief effort for the victims in Bangladesh in 1970, precipitating the first rock ‘n roll relief concert, “The Concert for Bangladesh.”
  • Wavy became famously known for wearing a clown outfit, claiming that: “Clowns are safe—the cops don’t want to be photographed clubbing a clown!”
  • In 1976 for the American Bicentennial, he launched the first of several Nobody for President campaigns standing for peace, love, honesty and humor (and no real leader).
  • He co-founded the SEVA Foundation with public health physicians and worked on a ground breaking smallpox eradication program, working with the poor in many developing countries, and also raising enough money to aid over 4 million with poor or failing vision.
  • A decade ago, High Times put him on their cover in full clown regalia, branding him “The Clown Prince of Pot,” and in 2009, a full length documentary film, Saint Misbehavin’:  The Wavy Gravy Movie was released, called by the New York Times “an unabashed love letter to our world that defies the cynicism of our age.”
  • Wavy Gravy even has a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor named in his honor.

So, what does all this have to do with Montreal today or in the past?  Back in the 1970s when I came to this city, the McGill Ghetto was filled with hippies of all stripes and convictions.  I lived on Aylmer, and across from my apartment lived Adrian and Gay, an ethereal hippie couple who roamed the neighborhood with their unleashed dog, dispensing Zen wisdom to anyone who cared to listen.  There was also David, the astrologer, who cast your horoscope for a few bucks and who more often than not was right.  The Word, run by two hippies from the West Coast, had just taken over the building on Milton where a Chinese laundry used to be, going on to becoming one of Montreal’s best and most iconic bookstores, there to this day.

On Parc Avenue, the Phantasmagoria Record Store sold the latest in psychedelic rock albums, right next to an occult bookshop whose manager, a dead ringer for Jimmy Page, claimed to be a warlock.

Pine’s Pizza on Prince Arthur was open at all hours to feed the student crowd, its owner’s laconic “PIE-n-EZ” when answering the phone was so hilarious that travellers would often call at all hours to hear his voice from as far away as India, just to get a taste of home. And Rosie’s, right across the street on Parc, whose owner, dressed in a nightgown at all hours of the day, sold candy of all varieties to stoners who had a bad case of the munchies at 3 a.m.

CHOM’s Doug Pringle would play after midnight hour-long segments from a Baba Ram Dass lecture guiding trippers on how to psychically enter their bodies through their genitalia in order to release the Kundalini energy.

Yes, McGill even had its first streaker, who ran from the McLennan Library to the Leacock Building, freezing and somewhat shrivelled, but game nonetheless.

So, as Wavy Gravy turns 82, let us fondly remember his legacy, his life lessons, and his edict that remains so relevant to this day:

“The whole earth is a jail and we’re plotting that incredible jail break.”

And let’s learn to laugh at ourselves a bit and to not take ourselves so damned seriously in these oh-so-politically-correct and troubled times.

1 Comment on MONTREAL THEN (AND NOW): Send in the Clowns

  1. What an excellent article Zsolt. Those days are gold to me with so many memories including Doug Pringle who I think wrote the music for the TV show here comes the ’70’s. It was a crazy, spiritual, invigorating time that will never happen again but I think left us better off in terms of books, poetry, film, art, and of course music.

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