Mad River Union
ARCATA – Vinny DeVaney’s mother grew up along the highways of California in the 1920s because her father was one of those wonder workers, the men who built the Golden State’s roads. DeVaney, whose given name is Gregg, took the name Vinny in memory of his ancestor. “Vinny was my grandfather’s name,” he explained. “He died when a bridge collapsed on him in Willits. I liked the name Vincent.” DeVaney never knew his grandfather except through his writing. “He wrote a lot of letters when he was a civil engineer.”
That wanderlust and storytelling has pervaded DeVaney’s whole life. He grew up in Cathedral City, near Rancho Mirage, but after graduating from high school, he headed north. “I wanted to go to college as far away as I could,” he said, “And Humboldt State was also really cheap, only $63 a quarter. And rooms were $65,” he said.
After graduating in 1978, it was time to hit the road again. “I didn’t go through graduation,” he said. “I went to south Eureka with a sign that said ‘Rio’ and made it to Bolivia by land. I’ve always enjoyed traveling.” It took 10 months of hitchhiking, and when he got there, he turned around and came back “for undisclosed reasons.”
Such dry humor and understatements are ubiquitous when talking with DeVaney.
He came back to Humboldt and got a job with the Center for Community Development on Humboldt State’s campus, where he worked for five years, starting 18 summer recreation programs in rural Humboldt County. “I got to know a bunch of people in Southern Humboldt,” he said. “I was the camp director at Ruth Lake where we had no electricity or phones. Every decision I made could not be checked or verified, so when a bus broke down, I had to transport 20 kids on top of the other bus,” he said with a grin. “I still know a lot of those kids.”
He soon got the travel itch again. “I went around the world, but piecemeal, on boats and planes and trains.” DeVaney spent six months in India and took a train trip from the top of India to the bottom.
“After that, I took a flight to Azerbaijan,” he said. “I had to bribe the pilot to fly me to Poland.” The pilot put him up in a many-starred hotel where he ate gourmet meals. The food inspired his next adventure.
“I decided I wanted to learn how to cook by being an apprentice. I apprenticed under Chef Eric Villard at the Benbow Inn. I worked from dawn until well into the night, starting at the bottom.” One and a half years into the program, another one of those undisclosed reasons prompted DeVaney to move along or, as he put it, “I had to leave for my life.”
DeVaney’s travels continued. “I moved back up to Normal Humboldt and cooked in four restaurants in any given week, a lunch shift in Arcata, three nights a week at Larrupin’, two other restaurants.”
Wanderlust hit again. “I went on another trip to Europe and when I came back, I didn’t know what to do. Someone said, ‘you can always get a job at the Co-op’ so I did.”
He worked in the kitchen of the Co-op with “a head chef who liked to throw 30-gallon pots.” He ended up liking the Co-op and stayed, becoming the manager of the deli in both Eureka and Arcata. His wanderlust seemingly abated and he worked for the Co-op for 25 years, retiring in July. “I enjoyed the whole cooperative ethic,” he said. “They gave me a nice party and that was it.”
What he has not retired from is his unusual and enticing radio show on KHSU 90.5 FM. “I started my full time show in 1987, late at night. Then in 1989 it switched to daytime, Wednesdays from 2 to 4 p.m., and that’s when it still is on.”
The show is called “Fogou,” a word he picked “because it was not in any American dictionary.” He found it in an English archaeological dictionary, where it is defined as “an underground dry-stone structure from the Iron Age, found in Cornwall.”
The word is also a bit of a pun, since “fou” is also the French word for mad or insane. DeVaney’s radio style could qualify as he sometimes plays two cuts at the same time or “sometimes four!” He’s not your typical radio announcer who lists the name of the song and the name of the artist and that’s it. “I’m used to telling stories,” he said, “and I didn’t think the announcer should say just what was played. They are true stories,” he added. “Fogou” is archived on KHSU and can also be heard through live streaming.
DeVaney took a little break when his daughter, Nila was born in 1995 “because I thought I should be a good dad. I learned to be myself and came back to the radio and I’ve been happy ever since.” He’s especially proud that his other daughter, Neroli, has her own show on her college radio station, KZSC.
He also plays in various incarnations of the Fougoo Collective, which is spelled somewhat differently than his radio show but still incorporates the random and eclectic aspects of the show. His fellow KHSU host Halimah Collingwood participated in such a show at the Morris Graves Museum. “We sang from the balcony and as we walked down the stairs,” she said. “It was an open and free kind of event and that’s the way he is.”
DeVaney also plays in another group, The Starving Weirdos. “My favorite instrument when I play with them is the hurdy-gurdy and the harmonium,” he said. “There are always different members and we never rehearse,” he said, describing yet another band, Medicine Baul. Watch for a show of one of these groups early in October at The Siren Song in Eureka.
What’s next for DeVaney? “I haven’t had time yet to figure that out,” he said. “It’s too soon to know.”