Last Saturday, Wavy Gravy presided over a star-studded benefit concert marking the 40th anniversary of the Seva Foundation — which aims to eliminate avoidable blindness

By Jordan Runtagh
January 18, 2019 01:05 PM
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Jay Blakesberg

In conversation, Wavy Gravy introduces himself with a self-deprecating giggle as “hippie icon, flower geezer, temple of accumulated error.” It’s a formidable way to sum up the legacy the man born Hugh Romney, whose offbeat peaceful political activism, groundbreaking work with the Hog Farm commune, and unforgettable showing at the Woodstock festival made him a counterculture legend. But, true to his charming humility, this self-proclaimed honorific neglects to mention his monumental charitable work, which has transformed him into something approaching Mother Theresa with a clown nose. A 2009 documentary dubbed him “Saint Misbehavin’,” and that’s as good a title as any.

Last Saturday, the 82-year-old presided over a star-studded benefit concert at Oakland, California’s historic Fox Theater marking the 40th anniversary of the Seva Foundation, an organization he helped create. Friends like Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Osborne, and longtime Grateful Dead mates Mickey Hart and Bob Weir were among the many who lent their services and saluted the organization dedicated to expanding access to eye care in developing nations and eliminating avoidable blindness within our lifetime. To date, they have restored sight to more than five million people and has provided eye-care services to at least 40 million people.

Mickey Hart, Jackson Browne, Joan Osborne, Bob Weir, Wavy Gravy and Bonnie Raitt backstage at the Sing Out for Seva 40th anniversary benefit concert on Jan. 12
Jay Blakesberg

“Seva is a Sanskrit word that means service to humankind,” he explains. “We first gathered 40 years ago in a circle in Hartland, Michigan.” In addition to himself and wife Jahanara Romney, this initial group included renowned epidemiologist Dr. Larry Brilliant, spiritual teacher Ram Dass, Indian ophthalmologist Govindappa “Dr. V” Venkataswamy and Nicole Grasset, the senior adviser for the World Health Organization smallpox eradication campaign. Even a young Steve Jobs got involved as an early financier. “It was a mixed bag, but I was the only clown,” says Wavy. (“Clown,” defined by Mr. Gravy, as “A clown is a poet who is also an orangutan.”)

Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt perform at the Sing Out for Seva concert on Jan. 12.
Jay Blakesberg

Despite their different backgrounds, they were drawn together by a common mission. “We were looking for something to do to help alleviate some of human suffering. We all wanted to do that,” he tells PEOPLE. “Eighty percent of the people in the world that are blind do not need to be blind and can get their sight back with a simple cataract surgery that takes 15 minutes. We also sew little intraocular lenses into the eye. So, let’s say you’re a Tibetan farmer and you break your glasses — it would take you like three days to get the new glasses on a mountain trail, whereas with intraocular lenses, they live inside your eye.”

Bob Weir and Joan Osborne perform at the Sing Out for Seva concert on Jan. 12.
Jay Blakesberg

In the early days of the organization, Wavy was tasked with securing musical acts for their first benefit shows. “It’s my particular gift because of my experience at Woodstock (and what have you) that I do have access to musicians that other organizations don’t.” While the cause was obviously worthwhile, it wasn’t exactly an easy sell. “I was assigned to try and get the Grateful Dead — good luck with that! — to do our first concert. Everybody always dreams that if they have a great cause, they can just call up the Rolling Stones. But it’s very, very difficult to get artists to play for free. I went to the airport in Detroit and who was on the airplane but the Grateful Dead — and they did not have parachutes. So I started in on the drummers. And by the time the plane landed in San Francisco I had the Grateful Dead agreed to do our first show.”

In addition to four decades of Seva, Wavy is preparing for another milestone: the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. Last week, the festival’s co-creator Michael Lang announced that he would be holding another three days of peace, love and music this August in Watkins Glen, New York. Though the lineup has yet to be announced, many hope that Wavy will make yet another appearance. “I would not be surprised if I did,” he says. “I’m there for Michael and he knows that. Whatever he wants to do I’m there for him.”

Half a century on, Wavy still recalls the original gathering as “absolutely, jaw-droppingly amazing” — and not just because of the lineup that included Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, the Who, Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and so many more. “It wasn’t just the music. It was all these different people from all over the country who thought they were the odd kid in town, who suddenly came together. Then there were half a million of us to work on the environment, or stop the war. Music brought us together.”

And Wavy, along with his cohorts in the Hog Farm, famously kept everyone fed. “When I made the announcement I said, ‘Good morning, what we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000,’ which Entertainment Weekly picked as one of the top entertainment lines of the 20th century. And it just popped out of the top of my head without thinking, which is the best way to do things. It’s the intuitive clown way.”

Befitting his status as a modern street philosopher, Wavy brims with words of wisdom that he’s quick to share.

“There’s a line that guides me that I got from Ken Kesey: ‘Always put your good where it’ll do the most.’ Seva has become my guiding thing. But other people, you just open up yourself like a sail to the wind and some breeze will lead you somewhere. Like you might get involved with the Heifer Project, or the various anti-war things in Berkeley. There’s a lot to do.”

He adds another bon mot from William Butler Yeats: “In dreams begin responsibility. So if you dream it, you can be it.”

And finally, one from himself: “If you don’t have a sense of humor it just isn’t funny anymore. I maintain laughter is the valve on the pressure cooker of life. If you don’t laugh at stuff you end up with your brains on the ceiling.”