Arlo Guthrie's Storied Career

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 12, 2005

HAD ARLO Guthrie known his "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" would be so popular and enduring, he surely would have made it shorter.

After all, it took 18 minutes and 20 seconds, and one full side, of his 1967 debut album for Guthrie to gleefully recount the saga of how two years earlier he and his buddy Rick Robbins tried to help his former teachers Alice and Ray Brock clean their Stockbridge, Mass., home -- a deconsecrated 17th-century church -- for Thanksgiving dinner by taking a half-ton of garbage to the local dump in their Volkswagen bus. Except the dump was closed, leading Guthrie and Robbins to toss everything down a residential hillside.

When Stockbridge police chief William Obanhein (forever after called Officer Obie) inspected the mess, he found a scrap of paper with the Brocks' address, and soon after their young guests (18 and 19 at the time) were arrested for littering -- literally "illegally disposing of rubbish." Alice bailed them out, and after pleading guilty before a blind judge, Guthrie and Robbins were fined $25 each, which left them with a criminal record; they also had to pick up the garbage in the snow.

That could have been the end of the story, except that it was the middle of the war in Vietnam, and when the draft board called, Guthrie's misdemeanor proved a far greater obstacle to his being inducted into the Army than his hilarious efforts to paint himself as a bloodthirsty psycho. In fact, Guthrie's littering rendered him unfit for military service.

Guthrie's tall-but-true, decidedly exaggerated monologue was told with sardonic charm, framed by a mini-chorus that gave the track its name despite having almost nothing to do with the story. Four years later, Guthrie found himself appearing, with Officer Obie, the blind judge (James Hannon) and Alice herself (in a cameo) in Arthur Penn's film version of "Alice's Restaurant," by which time Guthrie was well on his way to a successful music career that still finds him touring 10 months out of the year.

"Alice's Restaurant" would dip in and out of Guthrie's repertoire, first retired after the end of the war in Vietnam, briefly replaced by another fable in which Guthrie talked about Richard Nixon owning a copy of "Alice's Restaurant" and jokingly suggested that that might explain the famous 18 1/2 -minute gap in the Watergate tapes. Guthrie revived the original in 1995 when he recorded a "30th anniversary edition" of his debut album and "ran it around for a couple of years," he says. "But then we dropped it, and now, much sooner than I thought, we're here at the 40th anniversary" of the incident.

People, Guthrie explains, "were demanding it for everyday shows. But it was just too long and sometimes it didn't seem quite appropriate except as some kind of nostalgic piece, perhaps. And to spend a half-hour on that, I thought, was crazy! Had it been a three-minute song like 'The City of New Orleans' [the Steve Goodman train classic that is Guthrie's only charted hit] it wouldn't be a problem. What I did was promise everybody that really wanted to hear that on the occasion of these anniversaries, we would serve it up again, as it were."

Thus we have the Alice's Restaurant 40th Anniversary Massacree Tour, which stops at the Birchmere on Wednesday. Thankfully, Guthrie hasn't had to set up a teleprompter to guide the telling four decades on. "I thought about it," he admits. "After three nights, it came back."

It never really went away, even as Guthrie suggests that "nobody in their right mind would have expected an 18-minute monologue to have shelf life, especially in an era when radio refused to play anything that was over 2 1/2 minutes."

Yet Guthrie sensed something special, particularly in the two years before he recorded "Alice's Restaurant," when he was just starting to perform and his audience was made up of "a wide variety of political types, right and left, social types, people from all walks of life. To see the effect on people who hadn't heard it before, to see all those different kinds of Americans laughing together and singing together was so powerful for me. As the decades went by and as it became more and more popular, that faded, and it became even more of an inducement not to perform it."

"Alice's Restaurant" is sometimes construed as an antiwar song, though Guthrie has always said it's more about the ways in which government works -- or doesn't.

"Most people don't know we did as well at the PXs [commissaries on Army bases] and that it was hugely popular with the guys in Vietnam," Guthrie says. "I have photographs and letters from guys who set up little 'Alice's Restaurant' tents, who would get together and quote parts of the song that their superiors would have no knowledge of. I was obviously personally opposed to the war, but the song wasn't about that, but about the absurdity of the situation that I found myself in, which was not unique to me -- it was the same for hundreds of thousands of regular guys."

Born in 1947, Arlo was the son of Marjorie Guthrie, a dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company, and Woody Guthrie, whose songs of social justice helped spark the folk-music movement. After a 14-year battle with the debilitating Huntington's chorea, known for some time afterward as Woody Guthrie's disease, the folk icon died in 1967, a month before the release of "Alice's Restaurant." The song was at least partly influenced by Woody Guthrie and his circle of friends from the folk and blues worlds.

"It's not that far from a talking blues, and that style was something my dad was very comfortable with," Arlo Guthrie explains. "And there were other musicians like [bluesmen] Mississippi John Hurt or Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee who would tell stories between and in the middle of their songs. It was like sitting around a living room and not seeing a performance so much as sharing stories and songs. I incorporated that -- I mean, I just stole it."

Guthrie, however, quickly established his own identity and crafted his substantial song catalogue, while championing numerous causes, from the social and the spiritual to the environmental. An occasional actor in films and television, Guthrie's not overly fond of the 1969 "Alice's Restaurant" movie.

"Arthur Penn is a brilliant director who happened to live in Stockbridge, and he knew, unlike a lot of other people, that the events in the song were true," Guthrie explains. "He knew Officer Obie and Judge Hannon and knew from newspaper articles that I wasn't making this stuff up, and he thought, 'I've got to turn this into a film.' Well, he's got a 20-minute piece of truth and he's got to make a 90-minute movie, so that was his dilemma. To help get over that, they created another 70 minutes of stuff, all of which was fiction. The sad thing was it didn't have the same gentle sense of humor that the song had: Everything falls apart, and everyone goes their own way. It was in some way a film about how the idealism of my generation could not possibly succeed in the way that we thought it would."

Penn used the Brocks' church/home as a metaphor, including one scene in which a man stands up and says, "We're going to reconsecrate this church."

"And that's exactly the one thing we did," Guthrie says.

In fact, "Alice's church" is now the Guthrie Center and Guthrie Foundation. Named after Guthrie's parents, it's an interfaith church celebrating religious and cultural diversity, and a not-for-profit educational foundation. And the story of how that came about is so Arlo:

"In 1991, we were doing one of those 'whatever happened to him' TV shows, and we were filming outside the church and the people who owned it came out and said, 'That's Arlo Guthrie, let's get him to buy it!' I hadn't even been back to the church since 1970, and it never even occurred to me. This was like a friend's home -- you would never think of buying a friend's home, even if they had moved out. It was never in the farthest reaches of my imagination that we would wind up in this old building that meant so much to so many people, where not only the song had been written but where we had made the movie.

"It wasn't something I wanted for me or could even do financially, but I thought if enough people were willing to help, we could do it and create another little place in the world where people of different persuasions could learn to get along and cherish traditions."

And that's exactly what happened. The church provides weekly free lunches in the community and support for families living with HIV/AIDS as well as other life-threatening illnesses. It also hosts a summertime concert series and Guthrie does six or seven fundraising shows there every year. There are several annual events such as the Walk-A-Thon to Cure Huntington's Disease and a "Thanksgiving Dinner That Can't Be Beat" for families, friends, doctors and scientists who live and work with Huntington's disease. The walk-a-thon, also known as the Garbage Trail Walk to Massacree HD, includes stops at the Stockbridge Police Department and Theresa's Stockbridge Cafe, where a sign outside reads "formerly Alice's Restaurant."

"We go from the church to the station, where they saved the old door of the jail cell, and they bring it outside and the chief takes pictures of everybody behind the bars," Guthrie chuckles. "Then we go to Theresa's." Ironically, the name of that restaurant was never Alice's but the Back Door (it was in the back of a grocery store) and it lasted only a year. Alice broke up with Ray, sold the restaurant and left town. She went on to become a successful artist and now lives in Provincetown, R.I.

Since 1983, Guthrie has owned Rising Son Records, which releases his albums (including his classics for Reprise) as well those by son Abe (who plays in his father's band as well as fronting his own, Xavier) and daughter Sarah Lee (who is married to and performs with Johnny Irion). Daughters Cathy and Annie Guthrie run the business, though Guthrie says he never anticipated a continuing family dynasty.

"I grew up in an era when if you were playing folk songs, it was when you got home from a regular job," he says. "It wasn't a profession. I mean, there might have been a few professionals, but they were few and far between, so I never thought I would be a professional. But I love playing, and after it created a demand, I just kept going with it. And it ended up being the path of least resistance, and I think my kids did the same thing. I mean, they all tried to become normal, it just didn't work out for them."

ARLO GUTHRIE -- Appearing Wednesday at the Birchmere.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company