Pre-Wavy Gravy: Selected Stops Along Hugh Romney’s Road
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]
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
Dame shares a song from her new EP Preventions of Heartbreak.
Golden Bloom stopped by Relix to perform a tune from their latest EP No Day Like Today.
The Chapin Sisters share an tune from their new album A Date With the Everly Brothers.
Minneapolis-based Night Moves share a song from their record, Colored Emotions, live at Relix.
Cloud Cult share a song from their latest album live at Relix.
The Giving Tree Band enjoy a spring day on the Relix rooftop, while performing a classic Grateful Dead tune.
Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden performs a duet with his sister-in-law Lou Canon. The song appears on Us Alone his first record on Broken Social Scene’s Arts & Crafts Productions.
The Milk Carton Kids share the first song from their new album, The Ash & Clay.
Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
- Grace Potter & The Nocturnals "The Lion The Beast The Beat" (Official Video)
- Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger "The Pequod"
- Trey Anastasio with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center
- More Visions of the Hangout Music Festival 2013 (A Gallery)
- A Blowout for the So So Glos
- Portugal. The Man "Atomic Man" (Official Video)
- Prince "Fixurlifeup" (Official Video)
- Interlocken Festival to Feature Neil Young, Furthur, String Cheese Incident, Black Crowes, Zac Brown and More
- Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers "Friend of The Devil" at the Beacon
- The Salvation of Page McConnell (Relix Revisited)
- Interlocken Adds Widespread Panic and John Fogerty, Furthur to Play Workingman’s Dead
- Warren Haynes and Joe Bonamassa "If Heartaches Were Nickels"
- The Final Ingredient in Dogfish Head’s Grateful Dead Tribute Ale Is…
- Stone Gossard Readies His Moonlander
- Trey Anastasio Band at The Hangout (Video Stream)
- Doctor’s Orders: So what should we call the Super Ball IX Newspaper?
- John Kadlecik Posts Statement on Bob Weir’s Collapse
- "I Wanne Be In moe.": The Latest Volunteers
- Bob Weir Escorted Off Stage During Furthur Show
- Furthur Cancels BottleRock Show as Bob Weir Is Out Of Commision
- Vote for Your Favorite "I Wanne Be In moe." Contestant
- Doctor’s Orders: What’s Your Favorite Furthur Song? (Win Copy of Relix Signed by Phil and Bobby)
- On The Verge Poll