Pre-Wavy Gravy: Selected Stops Along Hugh Romney’s Road

Blair Jackson on July 7, 2011

Photo by Bob Minkin

To get the Full Wavy, you have to hear him tell some stories, so when I interviewed him for this month’s Relix feature, I prodded him on a few of the less-discussed aspects of his life, namely his formative early years. Want more? Just ask him! He’ll spin a yarn or two at the drop of a hat.

Let’s go back in time a lot farther. Because in Saint Misbheavin’, the exposition on your life begins in the Greenwich Village period, and I’d love to hear more about your childhood, to see how it might have shaped you into the person you became.

I was born May 15, 1936 in East Greenbush, New York [south of Albany]. My dad was
a brilliant architect, also named Hugh Romney. He was probably one of the most relieved people on the planet when I changed my name. [Laughs] My mom and dad divorced when I was 6. We lived in Princeton [NJ] for a while when I was young but I later moved [with my mom] to [West Hartford] Connecticut – that’s where I went to high school.

What were you like as a teenager?

Trouble. Some friends of mine and I were really into [hip comedians] Bob & Ray. We would stay up until three o’clock in the morning with our heads under the pillow listening to the late night Bob & Ray show, then discuss it the next day. I also ran a betting operation: I was a bookie for baseball. You picked a player and if he got three hits that day I would pay off 10-1. But very few people got three hits, so I made a lot of money that way.

But the big thing is that my friends and I were very enamored with jazz and nobody else in our school was. I was in West Harford, Connecticut, and it was all khakis and white bucks and rep ties [school colors], and we were there with the Mr. B collars [popularized by various bop musicians] and the wraparound shades and peg pants and suede shoes. We would gravitate to Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic [recordings and concerts] and from time to time we’d go to Birdland [in NYC] and see Charlie Parker. That utterly blew my mind – and to think that not that many years later I would be opening [as a poet and monologist] for John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk [in L.A.].

Since you were already kind of hip, I was surprised to learn you joined the military out of high school.

Well, I had no real way into college [for financial reasons], and my high school advisor said, “You know they’re going to cut off the Korean GI Bill [which financed college educations for servicemen] in two weeks.” The war was well over and I figured they wouldn’t have another one right away. My stepfather was an aide to [General] Omar Bradley and he suggested, “Don’t volunteer for anything but typing and sign making!” So I went into a new company for basic training at Fort Dix [NJ] and, lucky me, they wanted sign painters. I would paint these plaque signs: “Through these walls go the best damn infantrymen in the world: Catalano’s Killers!” And I would do that in old English script. I got really skilled at it. I did murals in the mess hall. I’m up there like Michelangelo. [Laughs] I had two guys be my assistants handing me paint, so everyone was kissing my ass hoping to be my assistants, because that meant they didn’t have to go out in the field that day. In fact, I only had to go out in the field once, which is when I had to shoot my gun. Everybody cheered: “Look, it’s the painter! Yeah!’”

Did any of your bohemian tendencies show through?

Well, I managed to clean my brush on this one particular uniform that became every color but khaki. In fact, I even soaked my belt buckle in saltwater so it took on a certain rainbow patina to match the uniform. One time I was walking across the base in this outfit and a general slowed down and shouted: “What army are you in, soldier?” " Yours, sir!" I actually ended up doing a portrait of his niece later. [Laughs]

Then I went to code school and learned to be a radio operator who could be dropped behind enemy lines to set up a combat radio station. And all the guys who were part of that were from Harvard! I was barely out of high school, so I’m finding out about James Joyce from these guys – that was my big hit. I think I picked up [Joyce’s] Ulysses from them. Then I went to Pomes Penyeach and The Dubliners and I worked my way up. I never made it through [Joyce’s famously impenetrable] Finnegan’s Wake.

But I learned a lot about poetry – in the military! – and when I got out of the service I went to Boston University, which at the time had one of the finest theater schools in the country, and I was also interested in that. There were all sorts of well-known people teaching there and they would bring in some the finest directors alive – Jose Quintero, Daniel Mann; people of that ilk. The whole school could read for a part and even freshmen could get a lead. We would do our performances at the Admiral Theater, which is one of the huge old-time theaters down by the Boston Symphony.

But it came to pass that the university got wind of our lax ways [in the theater department] – “My god, they’re not even doing social studies!” – and they decided they wanted to pull the plug on all that. A lot of the teachers had been hired because of the McCarthy blackball [many people in the arts couldn’t work during the late ‘50s because they had been accused of being communist sympathizers]. They were not allowed to work on Broadway, but the university didn’t care about that and hired all these brilliant people. By this time, though, the blackball was over, so when they came to the teachers and complained about how they were running things, the teachers said, “Fuck you, we’re leaving!” and I went with them, and I ended up at the Neighborhood Playhouse [in Manhattan] under full scholarship

While I was Boston University, however, there were a couple of amazing things that transpired. I read in Time magazine about these Beatniks having these poetry readings. I read about [Allen Ginsberg’s epic] “Howl” and how people were having doing poetry readings to jazz and I said, “I know jazz musicians! I can write poetry!” And I actually – inadvertently, by accident – started jazz and poetry on the East Coast. On Huntington Avenue [in Boston] there was a bar called The Rock, and in the basement was the Pebble in the Rock, which was a pizza joint, and I talked to Pat the pizza maker, and I got the girls in from the museum school, and we put in mobiles [hanging sculptures popular in the ’50s] and black table cloths and totally freaked the place out. And we had poetry and music in there and attracted some pretty big crowds.

Then, on a trip back home to visit my mom in West Hartford, I went to this place called the Golden Lion – this big restaurant/club by the railroad station – and I talked the owner into having me come in and doing jazz and poetry there. I ended up with some of the finest jazz musicians around, like Jaki Byard, a killer piano player, Don Ellis, the trumpet player, and various other people that didn’t make it quite that big. For years after that, every Monday we would go to Hartford and people would line up four-deep around the block.

Like at The Gaslight [in Greenwich Village], where I ended up reading my poems, people would come by to look at the beatniks. It was like a geek show.

[Legendary actress] Marlene Dietrich came by the Gaslight when I was there – she turned me onto [the German poet] Rilke. The guy who ran the Gaslight was named John Mitchell – he was a crazy person, but divine. He practically designed the Village. He brought in the old ice cream chairs and that Revolutionary War look for the Figaro [café], the Gaslight and the Fat Black Pussycat across the street. One night when Dietrich was in there hanging out with me, she left this nice lipstick blot on a coffee cup and [Mitchell] was nuts for her – he took that cup and put it in this display case. But the dishwasher came in that night and looked at it – “This is dirty” – and washed it clean! John chased him down McDougal Street with a Revolutionary War sword, screaming, “Just let me at his eyes!” [Laughs]

Wavy Gravy with Allen Ginsburg in 1988 – photo by Bob Minkin

It sounds like it was clear to you early on that you would go the bohemian route. Did you ever entertain the notion of living a straight life?

No, I didn’t entertain anything; I just went. The winds just blew me and I let it happen. I didn’t think about what I was doing. I just went from one thing to the next.

Of course, it was easier to do back then, don’t you think? It was so much cheaper to live…

I was living in a $30-a-month ex-refrigerator repair shop on St. Mark’s place [in Greenwich Village] and I had to pretend it was an art gallery. I put some stuff up and the front room was all bogus, and the next room back was the tub with a cover over it, and a kitchen. The bathroom was in the hall with a pull chain [on the toilet] and the bedroom had a mirror on the ceiling… Oh, Lord! [Laughs] Right on Tompkins Square Park. I remember walking to my new digs and hearing wafting across the Lower East Side: “Rivvvver of shiiit!”

The Fugs!

Exactly! It was marvelous. We became really good friends. In fact [Fugs co-leader] Ed Sanders has a produced an epic song about my life that takes about 20 minutes to get through.

  • “The Ballad of Wavy Gravy” ?*

That’s right. It’s fucking endless! Somebody gave him some device that allows him to add tubas and French horns just by pushing buttons on this thing. Bob Fass played it once on his [radio] show. I used to do Bob’s show when it was called Radio Unnamable, from midnight to dawn.

Did pot influence your early scene?

At Boston University we took off in the summer – me and this other guy who was a vet – and we went to Kennebunkport, Maine, and opened a coffee house there. People said, “They can’t be just selling coffee for 25 cents a cup – they must be selling dope to the teenagers.” Actually, I think we got the dope from the teenagers!

At first I was horrified that the musicians in my jazz and poetry group were smoking pot. I’m saying to them, “Don’t you guys know what you’re doing with your lives?” “Yeah, yeah, right! Heh-heh-heh!” [Laughs]

So you were not an early convert.

Nope. Let’s see: I got out of the service at 19. I was probably 20. I think it was around 1957. So I finally succumbed one night in Maine and I proceeded to take some shaving cream and cover an automobile with it and I’m starting to tap on the automobile, maintaining that I’m sending messages around the world through the Northern Lights, which were happening then. It all made perfect sense at that moment. [Laughs]

You came out to the Bay Area in the early ’60s with Lenny Bruce, who was sort of managing you…

I went to San Francisco from New York to bring the Phantom Cabaret [show, which the Living Theater put on at the Fat Black Pussycat in Greenwich Village] to the West Coast, with Tiny Tim and Sandy Bull and the whole thing. I convinced Leo Riegler, who was running the Coffee Gallery on Grant Avenue to book us and then he built a whole theater for Tiny Tim. Everybody buzzing about Tiny Tim. I was all set to pick him up at the Oakland train station with a Roll’s Royce full of daffodils when the telegram came: “Sorry I can’t come. My mother won’t let me.” So I was doomed.! Lenny had taken me to meet Ralph Gleason [the SF Chronicle’s esteemed jazz critic] and he suggested I hire Elmer Snowdon, who was a banjo player that used to play with Bessie Smith. He came in and rolled up his sleeves, he played banjo tunes, and told me Bessie Smith stories. I thought, “This guy’s perfect!” Come show time, he shows up with two other dudes, they’re wearing band uniforms, he’s got no stories. Plinka, plinka, plinka, not good. The other act was Spontaneous Sound, a guy named Christopher Tree, who was the gong guy – he has all these gongs he would play; pretty cool. It was not a great success, but while I was in San Francisco I hooked up with The Committee [comedy troupe] and did that for a while.

Wavy and friends at the Fillmore in 1994 – photo by Bob Minkin

But you ended up down in L.A….

That’s right. We tried the Phantom Cabaret down there, and I got a job at the Ash Grove opening for Jack Elliot and Lightnin’ Hopkins – we were a bill. And [Ash Grove owner] Ed Pearl was convinced I could get Jack to the gig and that was true. We moved into the old Tom and John Law house, were Odetta later lived and Tim Hardin later lived, and I also closed the Renaissance and made my World Pacific album with Jim Dickson [Third Stream Humor]. He put together the Byrds and the Burrito Brothers and recorded all of Lord Buckley…

Was Lord Buckley an influence on your spoken word stuff?

Here’s the deal. Did you read [Bob Dylan’s] Chronicles? Well, Bob was very kind to me, but he did suggest that I lifted my dynamics from Lord Buckley. That deeply hurt, because after I had put Third Stream Humor in the can, Jim sat me down in the middle of the studio and said, “I want to play you something,” and he proceeded to play one Lord Buckley album after another. And that was when I was introduced to Lord Buckely – after I had done that album that Dylan suggested I lifted Lord Buckley stuff from.

You know, I almost broke up The Byrds. They did their first album with Terry Melcher and Jim Dickson and I came in at the end and I said: “We’ve got to get out of here! We’ve got to go to Arizona!” This is in the recording studio. A few of us were convinced California was about to fall into the ocean. Gene Clark was halfway in the car! But when they didn’t want to go with me, I said, “OK, guys, don’t say I didn’t warn you!” I took off with Tony Price, who later became a great atomic artist – taking great atomic junk parts from Los Alamos and constructing amazing sculpture.

At the Ash Grove, I would sometimes cut up cartoon bubbles from thousands of comics and put them in a bag. I would grab weird pictures from yesterday, or a hundred years ago, in another bag, and I had some rubber cement and an opaque projector, and I’d ask for volunteers and we would stick [what they pulled out of the bag] up there and see what it said. And if people cried “Cream!” – which was good – we’d put it on the wall. For a while, I had a column for the L.A. Free Press called “Cream” and they’d publish it every week.

I think Bay Area people are always a little surprised to hear how much hip stuff was happening in L.A. from ‘64-’67
Oh, there was a lot going on. When I first drove out to California with Eric Loeb – the conga drummer who synthesized mescaline out of peyote in New York – and [folk singer] Bob Camp, who later became Hamilton Camp and had one of the most gorgeous voices in the entire world, we pulled up on Sunset Boulevard to the Old Renaissance, went downstairs and there’s Christopher Tree beating on gongs, Elias Romero doing a light show and eating peyote and I thought, “This is the club scene in California? These guys are really advanced !” [Laughs]

And of course you were heavily involved with the Pranksters when they made their little L.A. jaunt in early ’66.

That’s right. And it was directly because of that that we got the Hog Farm.

How so?

Well, my wife and I had moved to this little cabin in Sunland and we’d been doing all this stuff with Babbs and the other [Merry] Pranksters [Ken Kesey was on the lam in Mexico] and suddenly we had 45 house guests in a cabin! The landlord came by and said, “You can’t have 45 people living in one room – you’re evicted!” But Babbs stole the bus [Furthur, the famous Pranksters bus] with some of his crowd and left. So we’re evicted and then a neighbor comes by and says, “Ol’ Saul up on the mountain had a stroke. They need someone to slop them hogs up there!” So we were given that mountaintop rent-free if we would take care of the hogs, and that’s how the Hog Farm began. Then we made a movie for Otto Preminger where we were extras [ Skidoo ] and that’s how we eventually got our buses on the road. We had all this money from the movie to start putting on these free celebrations – showing people that they were the star of the show.