America's favorite clown philanthropist throws a benefit starring Steve Earle and John Trudell May 20 at the Rio.
When the Seva Foundation teamed up with Wavy Gravy in 1978, organizers found themselves with a steady supply of funding and musicians. Gravy is knee-deep in famous names and has the personality of an entire circus, hauling everybody he knows into his philanthro-activism. A few phone calls from Gravy and Seva’s latest benefit concert comes together, and it turns out that when the hippie clown blows the horn, water turns into wine and the Avengers assemble: the Sunday, May 20 show at the Rio Theatre features Steve Earle, John Trudell, Dave Alvin, Peter Rowan, Nina Gerber and other roots rock luminaries in a benefit for Native American health care.
“I’m very, very blown away by my ability to raise money,” Gravy admits. Born Hugh Romney and raised in New Jersey, he’s made a lot of the right friends since the 1960s, among them Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, Phil Lesh, Ani DiFranco and B.B. King.
“Basically I was a teen beatnik who ran poetry readings at Gaslight,” Gravy says, waxing nostalgic about the New York café in the days when they were all still kids in the first frenzy of drugs and art. “I persuaded the owner to put on some folk music nights, and when I first introduced Bob Dylan he was wearing Woody Guthrie’s underwear—he really was, I’m not making this up—and his guitar read ‘this machine kills Fascists.’”
He ended up sharing a studio over the Gaslight with Dylan and running with Ken Kesey’s wolves, working as an entertainer/activist at Woodstock alongside the performers and setting up big-name stages and communes across the country.
And he’s still at it, while the other flower children stir their tea in corporate lunchrooms and shed a single tear for the past. The eternal emcee works closely with Seva, best known for reversing blindness in nearly 3 million people by growing sustainable global eye-care programs throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The May 20 show, a project to set up Native American reservations with preventative health care services, benefits a domestic agenda some longtime fans might not know about.
“If we were going to help anyone [in the U.S], it should be the people who have been the most abused,” Gravy says. Seva has funded Native American–run clinics on reservation land and has begun to look at poor diets as a leading cause of type II diabetes among native populations.
According to the 2011 National Diabetes Fact Sheet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2010, 546,400 cases of diabetes were found among Native Americans living in the U.S. Another 1,027,000 had pre-diabetes, a condition in which the blood sugar level is higher than normal but hasn’t yet reached the range of diabetes.
“We’re now getting deeper into traditional foods,” Gravy says. “The spread of diabetes on reservations is caused by the commodities they’re given, and we’re setting up programs helping them eat better. It used to be that if you saw a vegetable on a reservation, you’d want to take a picture of it. They were that rare.”
So don’t eat the food the government hands out, and don’t use their blankets either. Indigenous reliance on the U.S. government has been a traditionally bad idea, and Wavy Gravy stresses the importance of helping Native American groups to help themselves.
“We’re even working on bringing back the buffalo,” Gravy says. “It’s an excellent source of lean meat, and socially excellent for Native Americans to eat.”
But it isn’t subsidized and is expensive to raise, which is where Wavy Gravy and his roster of X-men come in. A variety of scientific studies have shown that simple lifestyle changes such as better diet, regular physical activity and mild weight loss can significantly delay the onset of type II diabetes, but preventative care isn’t very high on the to-do lists of multi-billion-dollar pharmaceutical companies.
Good thing Gravy isn’t in anything for the money—he’ll settle for a lifetime supply of “Wavy Gravy” flavored Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and a South Dakota buffalo.
“They’ve named a bison stud after me,” Gravy says of the Winnebago reservation, but the Wavy Gravy that’s roaming the grasslands has been getting picked on by another bison named Mike.
Wavy instructs anyone getting picked on by a buffalo to stand on his or her head. “Gravity will eventually turn that frown into a smile!”
SING OUT FOR SEVA with Steve Earle, John Trudell and friends
Sunday at 8pm
Tickets $45 genera/$150 VIP at www.inticketing.com