Berkeley concert to benefit Seva Foundation’s mission of vision
By Lou Fancher
At age 80 — also the miles per hour at which he appears to live — Wavy Gravy has done it all. But that doesn’t mean he’s done.
As if it wasn’t enough to be the best Berkeley-based proof that tie-dye and clowns are forever cool, the man otherwise known as Hugh Romney cofounded the Seva Foundation that has during its 38-year history restored eyesight to nearly four million people in some of the world’s poorest countries. In his “spare time,” he and his wife, Jahanara Romney, created and operate Camp Winnarainbow, a circus/performing arts summer camp in Laytonville at which he continues to cavort for nine weeks with children and for seven days with adults. That camp, he says in an interview, is “like a mad croquet rock band party for geezers.”
A discontinued, fondly remembered Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and a 2009 feature length documentary, “Saint Misbehaving,” were made to honor his humanitarian activities.
Harking back to 1969 and Woodstock, when Wavy as emcee made public a quest to make the world a better place, telling the audience, “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000,” a Dec. 17 concert at the UC Theatre promises good music and frolicking comedy. The event benefits Seva and features Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real (Neil Young’s 2015 backup band led by Willie Nelson’s son); California bluegrass/Southern rock band Poor Man’s Whiskey; songwriter Corinne West and of course, Wavy Gravy.
“It’s intuitive,” Wavy says, about the selected acts. “And it’s at the restored UC Theatre, Berkeley’s answer to Winterland.” The seemingly offhand reference has significance. The San Francisco ice skating rink was converted to a music hall and housed a plethora of top-tier concerts that included Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, a final, all-night Grateful Dead concert and so many more, before it was destroyed in 1985 and replaced by housing.
In some ways, Wavy’s entire life as a producer and peacemaker is a tribute to restoration through music, play or physical activity. His favorite part of being 80 years old is that “everybody is seeing I have a place to sit down or a cup of coffee.”
Creating “deep collage” artwork that involves cross sections cut from trees where the bark becomes the frame and leading Seva and Camp Winnarainbow fill him with boyish enthusiasm.
A recent “highest moment of my life” was suiting up as a doctor and standing next to a surgeon who performed cataract surgery that will vastly improve the patient’s life in a Third World country.
Supporting a charity, he says, is transformative. “There’s nothing that moves people more than seeing videos of people hobbling, nearly blind, on trails in the mountains, getting the surgery, taking off the bandages and seeing their grandchildren for the first time.”
Seva Communications Director Aaron Simon says partnerships with companies and clinics the nonprofit organization has founded, like Aurolab in India, are pivotal to its success in reducing blindness.
Aurolab produces high-quality replacement lenses used in cataract surgery at a fraction of the standard cost. “It’s like glasses are built right into the eye. It’s amazing,” says Wavy, giving credit to the “dedicated ophthalmologists” who donate their services.
Asked for his thoughts on decades of service devoted to humanitarian causes, Wavy has a lot to say.
“People ask me if they can get me anything and I say, ‘Sustenance for humankind.’ Ken Kesey taught me to always put my good where it will do the most. I call it survival in the 21st century: how to duck with humor. Sustenance means that everyone has just enough, but not too much. We need to share.”
Recalling the days when he kept a wet handkerchief in a plastic baggie to serve as a mask when tear gas was used to subdue Vietnam War protesters, he says, “I got clobbered many times.” People march digitally on social media now, a form of advanced technology that he applauds. But if he had “an astro projector that could zip-line” him up to join the Standing Rock Pipeline protesters in North Dakota, he’d be pleased.
Asked if there is a cause he’s not yet supported, but would like to, Wavy is stymied. “Environment? Social justice? I don’t know, you’ve got me. Come up with one and I’ll try it.”
The musicians at the upcoming show and at Seva’s prior benefit concerts perform without receiving fees. Wavy plans to appear as “Insanity Claus” and other characters. “I get my nose on and go nuts,” he says.