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Posted on Jun 9, 2011
By Mr. Fish
“Should I introduce you as Dwayne Booth or Mr. Fish?” whispered the publicist once we were about 10 feet away from Wavy Gravy’s dressing room, which would’ve been a storage closet had it contained a mop, a bucket and a 40-gallon drum of bleach instead of a Wavy Gravy in grubby Crocs and a clown nose. “Maybe I should introduce you as Mr. Fish,” she said, mentally high-fiving herself like a cheerleader suddenly overcome with the golly-gee neatness of her own cheer. “Because he has that fish on a leash, right? You know, the one he always walks around with?!”
“All right,” I said, “I’ll be Mr. Fish.”
“You don’t have a lot of time,” she said, her face quickly becoming as serious as a heart attack. “He’s trying to gather his wa before the show starts in about 15 minutes.” His wa? “Sorry about that,” she said. “I wish you had more time.” Leaning into his dressing room and spotting Gravy sitting all alone and plucking at an ektar before a large cellophaned tray of cloudy cheese and deflated fruit, his white hair exploding from beneath a filthy white bowler sporting a black propeller, I wondered if gathering one’s wa might be Japanese for coming to a quiet and dignified acceptance of one’s questionable headwear.
Of course, having been hurled like a halved mackerel into the soft purple brain bath of Wavy’s preshow meditation, it became immediately obvious to me as I closed the door and stood, struggling with my backpack to retrieve my notebook and tape recorder, my elbows pressed in close to my body as if I were undressing inside a sleeping bag, that I was an unwelcome guest. “I’m gathering my wa,” he said, his eyes closed like he was Charlie Parker listening to the bebop rhythms of the universe, his mind awash in Gravy.
“Yes,” I said, “I heard.” Eight minutes later I was back in my theater seat, having gathered my wa-the-fuck-was-that? in less time than it took me to gather, just a week earlier, all my false hopes about the political and cultural viability of a man and a movement 40 years past their prime. Rather than prompting any new conversation out of my subject, my questions merely acted as non sequiturs signaling when he should begin his rote recitation of previously published quips and poorly reasoned declarations of victory against the status quo, the singular exception being when he interrupted my last question by sighing the words “blah blah blah,” the exhaustion in his voice making me recognize him as a 300-pound Jack wanting to be returned to his box.
Then, packing up my crap and transplanting myself back into the audience and beginning what, over the next three hours, would be a series of fruitless texts with the backstage publicist for me to interview anybody else, I began focusing on the concertgoers now filing in through the gaudy and ornate archways at the back of the room. White beards and slow, shuffling steps and large wide bottoms. I watched them lowering themselves as gingerly as Easter eggs into their seats, tie-dyed and bifocaled, and I wondered, perhaps for the first time in my life, why I so constantly tried to convince myself that the Woodstock Generation was not only still an active and viable force for social and political change in America, but that it was also forever young and constantly regenerating its membership and expanding exponentially through bloodlines, like alcoholism or diabetes. Scanning the crowd and trying to find anybody under 50, I suddenly started to worry that the only threat hippies might pose to the dominant culture nowadays was the personal-injury lawsuits they were likely to file from accidental falls due to uneven pavement.
After all, here were people dressed in the universally accepted uniform of the beloved peacenik, nearly all of them, yet none of them seemed so much peaceful as sleepy. It seemed as if their uniforms, after decades of insular overuse, had become mere costumes designed to reflect the quaint nostalgia of an earlier era that was no more relevant to the present day than winklepickers, culottes or powdered wigs. Had not the peace sign itself finally become as trite and ineffective as the Live long and prosper hand sign popular at “Star Trek” conventions? With the same scant knowledge possessed by the average Trekker as to what it might mean to engineer and then pilot a vehicle capable of intergalactic travel, I imagined that there was nobody around me who might have the slightest idea as to what it meant to engineer a social movement and then to pilot it in the direction of Donovan’s “Atlantis.”
Sure, I thought, tonight’s performance was guaranteed to provide the Seva Foundation, particularly the organization’s Sight Programs, with a sizable chunk of change, thereby helping to bring the gift of sight to millions living in Tibet, Nepal, Cambodia and Bangladesh and throughout Africa, but—and here’s the point—what else? It was as if I were surrounded by enthusiasts for alternative fuel who had convinced themselves that they were good guys because they knew that if everybody in the country went green starting tomorrow, in 20 years’ time the United States would be a brutally fascistic plutocracy capable of sustaining itself exclusively on corn oil and windmills. In other words, by hijacking the music and the imagery of 1960s anti-establishmentarianism and forcing it to mellow along with its creators, the originators of flower power and free love had, I feared, unwittingly become the antithesis of the struggle itself, and by defanging the snake of radicalism so that everybody could safely hold it, the rats who used to constitute the predator’s main diet were now running rampant. After all, here was Wavy Gravy—a man who at one time was such a threat to state power and straight society that he had to endure frequent beatings by riot police and who had been continuously praised by real revolutionaries—now voting for Barack Obama and rejoicing in the greater celebrity that he enjoyed as the namesake of a discontinued ice cream.
Leaving the Beacon Theatre that night and heading up Broadway with my “All access” press pass still strung around my neck, I figured that the news of my solitary bug-eyed schlep along the periphery of everybody else’s communal optimism during the show would be reported back to my editor, most likely by the column that I planned to file, and that the assumption would be made that I was afraid of harmless do-gooders who believed that compassion and joy and togetherness was enough to save us all from self-annihilation.
Sadly, the assumption would be true.
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