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Interview: Arlo Guthrie

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alice_posterThere have been certain songwriters and singers who have been supplying me with a window on the world for as long as I can remember. They’ve told stories and jokes, sung songs, and helped bring some things into perspective, making what seems truly overwhelming almost manageable.

A couple of days ago, I took my wife to a doctor’s appointment. When we got home she checked our phone messages. “Go check your email, it sounds like you’ve got an interview with Arlo Guthrie tomorrow morning,” she said.

I got to talk to one of the people who has been talking to me for more than 30 years. It was nominally supposed to be about the 40th anniversary of the song “Alice’s Restaurant”, but when I was preparing for the interview I had thought to myself, how often do you get to talk to a person who has sung about and lived through as much as he has?

As I’m about as subtle as a brick wall, I think he might have been a little taken aback at the suddenness of the conversation shift, but Guthrie was too nice to say anything about it. His answers to my stumbling questions about the mood of the world were thoughtful and as perceptive as any historian’s, for of course that’s what he is.

Folk singers are our cultural historians. The songs they sing are the stories of our society at a certain point in time. You may not agree with the opinion that some of the songs express, but that doesn’t stop them from being an accurate reflection of what was happening at the time.

I thought I was going to be nervous about this, but when the phone rang at 9:30 on Wednesday, April 5th, the familiar cheery voice at the other end of line put me right at my ease.

After a few comments about the weather, I asked him if he minded if we began with a few questions about “Alice’s Restaurant,” and he said, “I’m yours for 20 minutes, ask what you want.”

Richard: I’m a little confused about something (“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Arlo interjects laughing and I agree, saying I enjoy it immensely) — what exactly is this tour — the “Alice’s Restaurant Tour” — the 40th anniversary of?

Arlo: It’s the 40th anniversary of writing the song. I started writing the song at the time of the incident in 1965, and finished writing it in 1966. We started this tour in June of 2005 and will finish it in 2006, so that’s how it works out. (Laughs) Sorry about that, now you’re not confused any more.

Oh that’s okay, there’s lots of stuff that confuses me. Do you remember why you wrote “Alice”?

Nope, I can’t really remember any specific reason as to why. We would turn everything into songs in those days. I remember we must have just come back from Officer Obie, and were sitting around, just discussing the events of the day, and started to sing about it.

Then part two, the part about the draft must have been written at a separate time.

I was out at college in Billings in 1965, and came home for Thanksgiving, and we were visiting our friends, and I decided not to go back to college. Well, in those days, that lost me my deferment for the draft. It took them a few months to catch up to me, so it wasn’t until ’66 that I had to go. It was actually they who made the connection between the two, bringing up the criminal record when I was up there… so after that it was just a natural connection to make and add it in to the song.

When did it hit you that you might be stuck singing it for the rest of your life?

It was pretty soon after the song came out on record that I knew people were going to want to be hearing it all the time. When I first started performing — I’ve been performing since I was 13, you know — I was performing my dad’s songs, and stuff like that from that era. So when I first started playing [“Alice”] people would say why’s he talking, why isn’t he singing? Then after “Alice” became popular and all these people would show up wondering why I was singing and not talking…You’re just not going to be able to please all the people…

People would get angry that I wasn’t going to play it, and I’d say well go and get your money back…we’ll play it on an anniversary tour. I don’t mind playing “City of New Orleans” or “Coming into Los Angeles” because they’re only a few minutes long, and that leaves room in the set for other music, but …

“Alice” is 20 minutes long…

Right, and that eats up lots of time. I’m really glad that I don’t have a lot of hits. Willie Nelson, a friend of mine, has to do a medley of some 18 songs right off the top of his show so that he can get on with the stuff that he’s doing now.

Most of the time there’s songs playing in the background on the radio and we don’t really pay too much attention to them, but if it’s like a day when you’ve fallen in love, and the song becomes part of your personal soundtrack then you’re going to pay attention to it. That’s why I’m glad there are albums, ’cause you can’t expect someone to play the same songs in concert all the time… I’ll play it every 10 years now for the anniversary tour, but that’s it.

So no waiting for the 80th anniversary?

No every ten years is okay (laughs).

Arlo on StageOn the Live In Sydney disc, you dusted off another old song “Coming into Los Angeles.” But you used the intro to talk about the current situation in America regarding the Patriot Act, and other increased security measures throughout your country. Having lived through one involvement, Vietnam, before, how would you compare the feelings and mood of your country between those times and the events surrounding the War on Terror and Iraq, etc?

There’s a lot of questions in that…there are a lot of things that are familiar to people who lived through Vietnam, and what happened then and things today. In those days, from the president on down the line, the authorities were looking for leaders. The thing was there weren’t really leaders for the kids out on the street. It was more a natural groundswell against what was happening. Anybody who was claiming leadership was mainly being opportunistic, and looking to take advantage of the situation for their own gain.

That’s the same sort of situation right now, we’re looking to get rid of leaders like bin Laden and saying that will stop the unrest, but it won’t. What’s happening is a groundswell reaction based on the conditions these people are living in. Folk like bin Laden are just opportunists claiming leadership. Getting rid of them won’t stop what’s happening. The conditions won’t have changed that caused the groundswell in the first place.

Your dad’s song “Deportees” has always struck a chord for me; we were one of those families that never had grapes in the winter, my mom was very much into the boycotts, never shopping at the grocery stores that didn’t tell you where the produce was grown. From an outside observer’s point of view, it looks like things are actually getting worse, for people coming up from Mexico.

We live in an increasingly sophisticated world that makes it difficult to make simple comments on stuff. There are too many people on both sides of the border who are taking advantage of circumstances and the situation.

Kinky Friedman ran for governor of Texas and he had what I thought was a great solution to the problem. Get five generals and give them each a million dollars in a bank account. Then divide the border up into five equal parts and make each general responsible for that part. For each illegal that crosses the border in their area they would have $10,000 taken out of their bank account.

[ADBLOCKHERE]Make them personally responsible for the problem?

Yeah, the other thing is this is not just an American problem. There are people all over the world who are willing to exploit others. You can’t just point the finger at America. You’ve got people willing to exploit their fellow countrymen for cheap labour, sell them into slavery. I read about a container on a ship full of Chinese people dead off the coast of Britain, I think it was.

Yeah, that’s happened off the cost of Newfoundland as well.

Greed and globalization aren’t just America’s fault. You get people talking about being worried about their art, and dances… their culture being wiped out or taken over, and yet these same people are taking advantage of their people to use them as cheap labour.

You wouldn’t have companies moving their plants unless somebody was prepared to exploit the workers where they were going to move the plant to.

It’s like a groundswell of greed going on right now. You know we’ve proven we can do the opposite too, in times of disaster, like the tsunami and hurricanes and floods, and we need to try and maintain that. It’s got to come up naturally though. A groundswell doesn’t happen quickly and you hope that the people living through these times learn from them and don’t let them happen again. We need to have a groundswell to help, not to exploit.

Building walls isn’t going to work in the long run. Some people are happy with the wall in Israel, but somebody will get a weapon someday and knock it over or something. Walls aren’t the answer between countries, though.

Don’t you ever want to, or wish that you could point them in the right direction?

For those of us in the sixties, we had a couple of people who were examples we could look to, like Martin Luther King, Jr., as an alternative to what was around us. People in the Middle East don’t have anyone like that right now who they can emulate along those lines. It’s like they’ve never heard of him or (Me: “Gandhi.”), yeah, or Gandhi.

You bought Alice’s Church a while back and have made it a focal point for activities. What are some of the programs that are being run out of there?

There are a lot of crazy people in the world, and we spend billions of dollars a week, or whatever the figure is, on places where they can hang out, like battlefields and the like. And that’s okay I guess for them, but what about the rest of the people, the regular people who just want to have a place where they can go?

That’s what Alice’s church is all about, a place where regular people can hang out. Have some food, a drink, whatever. It’s one small building where people can just be, and maybe even one small step in the groundswell process.

That was it, all the time we had. In fact, he went overtime with me — I got an extra eight minutes, which meant he wasn’t going to get a break between his 10:00 interview and mine. As soon as I got off the phone, I set to work on transcribing the interview and what I quickly noticed happening was how flat it was sounding on the page. It’s the same words as had been spoken with only a little editing, but it’s missing Arlo’s distinctive voice.

When I read over what’s on these pages I can hear him in my head, because I was the one talking to him on the phone. I only hope I was able to capture some of the feeling and care that came through in his voice.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Richard, this was a terrific interview! Like most people my age, I have very fond memories attached to “Alice’s Restaurant”. I’m glad you veered off course with your questions — it’s a really compelling look at an interesting artist. Thanks.

  • I’m a little younger than Arlo’s first audiences, but Arlo to me stands out as one of the few lights of decency left in the world.

    And his live shows are not to be missed.

  • Great interview, Richard. I was lucky enough to see Arlo Guthrie a couple of years ago at the Ottawa Folk Festival; he is such a charismatic storyteller. His kids were playing in his band that weekend, and though “Alice” wasn’t part of the Arlo’s mainstage show, the kids did it with some other performers on a side stage the next day. Tons of fun, and a song that definitely revists a time and place for me (even if it isn’t 1965/6.)

  • It’s become a standing tradition to play the Alice’s Resturant CD after our Thanksgiving Meal.

    Thanks for the memories.

    Quick-what floor was the psychiatrist’s office on?

  • Excellent interview, Richard. I wonder if we’ll ever get one with Ignatieff, or if that opportunity and its relevence, have been overcome by events.

  • great interview! Jet, a lot classic rock stations play it every T’day…

  • Bliffle

    Good interview. I don’t think it’s flat on the page. I think the words speak clearly and well.

  • Fourth floor, damn I can’t remember. I think that’s cool that people have made that part of their holiday, does everyone go out and get busted for litering too? 🙂

    I saw Arlo play with Pete Seeger back in 1980 in Toronto, and I should be going to review this current tour when it comes around on the guitar up here in Kingston. We have thanksgiving on the wrong day up here( or you do in the States I don’t know which) but the song still means a lot.

    If any of you want to expand on what the song means to you, we’re going to be doing a special feature on it in mid May, which will be including my review and so far about six other B.C. writers writing about the song or the movie. It promises to be a blog meal that can’t be beat…

    Bonnie, on Live in Syndey Arlo talks about doing Alice with his kids one time, and he forgot the lyrics, and neither of them knew them to jog his memory enough to get him back on track. He said he went up to them after the show and said “Hey I knew my dad’s songs, why don’t you know mine” He went on to tell that over the course of the tour he would come across his daughter sitting off by herself in her spare time teaching herself the song… “It was like a great weight was lifted off my shoulders, I would never have to perform it again, it had passed on to the next generation…she’s going to be in Austrailla in a couple of months, why don’t you ask her to play I’m sure she be glad too…” The whole time he was telling this story of course he was doing that familliar refrain on the guitar.

    It sure does seem like Mr. Ignatieff has forgotten about us doesn’t it? Maybe now that he’s running for leader though he might take the time… of course I’d like to change some of my questions… I’d have to ask him about his thoughts on Alice’s Resaurant for one thing.

    cheers all and thanks for the comments, Arlo is nothing if not a unifier for bringing people of all ages and backgrounds together.

    Dave Naille if you read this post, I want to hear about Kinky Friedman running for Governor, that’s something that never got reported up here, and that would have been news….


    Richard Marcus

  • Terrific job, Richard. I’ve loved Guthrie’s songs for years. You really brought him to life as a thoughtful, intelligent, multi-dimensional person.

    In Jamesons Veritas

  • great piece. I am a big fan of Arlo. He is also the nicest musician I have ever met. I highly recommend his shows to anyone… it is more than a concert. It becomes an informal get together.

    anyone reading who is a fan of Alice’s Restuarant should also check out ‘the Pickle Song’. It is funnier, and has a better melody too.

  • Scott Butki

    Great interview. I am very jealous.

    I’d be mad if I saw Guthrie play and he didn’t sing Alices but I can understand why. Very cool about having his kids playing the song now.

    Did he say anything about the movie? I ordered it via Netflix and hope the song is on there.

  • No, sorry Richard, the line is “…go see the psychiatrist, room 604

    You were close! 🙁

  • Well I’ll try this again, I tried to post earlier this morning and it didn’t happen, lets see what happens now. Jet Hey for a dyslexic that means I got it right, just got it backwards he, he.

    Sorry Scott we didn’t even touch on the movie, at all

    The Motorcycle song: He’s actually expanded on the story line now for it as well, he now talks about how he used to be embaressed about being a collage drop out, and going into coffed houses and getting up and singing stuff like “I don’t want a tickle, I just want to ride my motorcycle, I don’t want a pickle i just want to ride my motorcycle, I don’t want to die, I just want to ride my mortor cy cle. But he’s found out that they do graduate seminars on that song now, so he doesn’t feel so stupid after all. Then he continues on with how the string of his guitar breaking and wrapping around the sign post saved his life…

    Richard Marcus

  • The perfect interview for Richard to do, perhaps. Very enjoyable. Arlo seems as genuinely nice and non-judgemental as one would expect.


  • i’m so glad its still open, the restaurant that is, you know the one that belongs to Alice.

  • Gazelle, the restaurant has been long closed, its the church that’s being used. Remember “Alice didn’t live in the restaurant, she and her husband lived in the church, a few blocks away from the restaurant…

    Dave, I think you’re right about that, he probably is the perfect interveiw for me, I was really impressed with his answers about issues dealing with America and how quick he was to defend it. None of that kneejerk automaticaly blaming the sins of the world on western society. Even lefties like me get tired of that line fast…it’s too much of a cop out.

    I wanted to ask you, so I hope you check back in, Dave, about Kinky’s run for governor in Texas. There’s another one of my idols, Mr. Friedman, I was wondering if you had followed his campaign at all…I think his ideas on border securtity were pretty solid…


  • Dave Nalle

    Dave Naille if you read this post, I want to hear about Kinky Friedman running for Governor, that’s something that never got reported up here, and that would have been news….

    I already wrote one article on it a couple of weeks ago. I’m now trying to line up an interview. After hearing him on the radio a couple of times and after having had a brief issues chat with Carole Strayhorn which was less than satisfactory, I’m leaning in his direction more and more.


  • Scott Butki

    Richard, I sent you an email a few days ago but didn’t hear about. It was whether you want me to review the film and its relationship to the song.
    Incindentally I realized that I saw Arlo play a show about three years ago and took a few photos of him.
    He didn’t play Alice’s R. but was still pretty good. He was on the same bill with Rambling Jack Elliot.

  • Scott, I just sent you an email, checked our correspondance and all I saw was a request for the lyrics or a copy of the song, no matter. If you don’t get the letter, to your gmail account, the ansewr is most definately yes.


  • Scott Butki

    Ok, cool. Will do.
    Incidentally, tt would be cool to have a link to the lyrics of the song.

  • George C. Koller

    Have you heard Woody singing “Goodnight, little Arlo, goodnight?” It’s amazing how within three generations the Guthrie family embraces what is best about America! I mean the America of Arlo and Woody and Leadbelly and Dylan and Baez and Seeger and Cisco Houston and Phil Ochs, not the America of George W. Bush and company.

    I remember living in New York in the mid-sixties and hearing Arlo sing Alice’s Restaurant for the first time on WBAI, which is the listener-sponsored Pacifica radio station there. I was knocked out by it then, as well as through the years. I love the movie, also. I saw Arlo live years later in Toronto, he was playing with the McGarrickle (sp?)sisters. Great show! Great interview, thanks!

  • niels hee andersen

    nice to hear from this white haired survivor of long gone times.
    We have had him visiting over here many times and once in our humble folk club to 39 paying guests , in spite of a sore throat, he retold the massacree to everyone´s delight.
    but that was the 30th anniversary version, what is he up to this time!!
    Also good memories of the Tonder Festival together with Pete Seeger,
    thanx for the interview

  • Scott Butki

    Richard, I was thinking of this piece yesterday as a I read a WAshington Post travel piece about the town where the song is set. Email me your snail mail address and I’ll send you a copy.