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Music Review: Arlo Guthrie – Tales Of ’69

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Being the son of one of the most revered folk singers in the United States hasn't always been easy for Arlo Guthrie. It's not every child who has to come home from school and ask his dad to teach him the lyrics to a song he wrote because everybody else in his class knows the words to "This Land Is Your Land". It sounded funny at the time, hearing Arlo recount that story during a documentary television special about his famous father, Woody Guthrie. Some people never overcome the shadows cast on their lives by the deeds of their parents, and an incident like the one described above could have been a disaster. However, in this case it didn't take long for the son to establish himself as a singer and songwriter in his own right.

It was in 1966 that he wrote the song that would make him famous the world over, "Alice's Restaurant", and later released an album and starred in a movie of the same name. For those of you who somehow might have missed hearing about it, the song recounts – in detail – the story of how Arlo and some friends of his were arrested for littering on Thanksgiving Day and his subsequent visit to the draft board and how his criminal record from the incident impacted on that visit. Of course "Alice's Restaurant" was only one song in Arlo's arsenal, and by 1969 songs like "Coming Into Los Angeles" and "The Motorcycle Song" had further cemented his reputation by the time he appeared at the Woodstock Music Festival in Bethel, New York in 1969.

Now that big concert in 1969 wasn't the only gig Arlo had that year, and the folk at Rising Son Records, the label Arlo put together for his family and friends, have uncovered some old tapes in the basement from another concert he gave just before he went down to Woodstock. They've done all the usual magical stuff that can be done with digital re-mastering, and the result is Tales Of '69 which is scheduled for an August 18 release, pretty much forty years to the day that Arlo would have been saying "New York State Freeway is closed, man" before singing "Coming Into Los Angeles" for 500,000 people.

As anybody who has ever seen Arlo in concert knows, half the fun is the stories he uses to introduce the songs. So aside from the fact that three tracks on this disc are songs that have never been released before, if you were wondering about the attraction of buying a 40-year-old collection of live songs, it's for the way Arlo performs them and introduces them. Sure we've all heard "Coming Into Los Angles", his cautionary tale of trying to bring controlled substances through LAX, but you've never heard it introduced with Arlo giving the audience real estate advice in advance of the quake that's supposed to move the West Coast further east. Suffice to say he's talking about buying beach front property somewhere in the midwest.

The disc kicks off with "The Unbelievable Motorcycle Tale", probably better known to most as simply "The Motorcycle Song", and it's presented in all its gory original details here — including the audience cheering when he and his bass player (who was in the sidecar) go off the cliff and are saved from certain death because they land on a cop car whose occupant doesn't survive. This version also includes the startling story of the undercover pickle who is working as a police informer. Something that you'll notice quite quickly when listening to this disc is that this younger version of Arlo Guthrie is one heck of a lot more militant then the current model, and a lot more frank in his talk about drug use then what you'll hear from folk nowadays.

The little asides that he gives out during some of introductions, and the content of a couple of the previously unreleased tracks, makes this pretty obvious, but it's the version of "Alice's Restaurant" he performs on this night that really brings it home. Having just seen Arlo performing the song during its fortieth anniversary tour I had assumed I knew the song intimately — heck, I even used to have the whole damn thing memorized. However, aside from the tune and the chorus, I didn't recognize a thing about the version of the song he sang on this night back in 1969. First of all there was no mention of any garbage, officer Obie, or of the boys sitting on the Group "W" bench at the draft board. The story he spun on this night was all about the intrigue involving a new secret weapon — a rainbow-coloured roach. (For those unfamiliar with drug parlance, roach is the term given to the butt end of a marijuana cigarette, or joint as they say).

It's a hilarious story involving spies from Russia and China discovering the secret rainbow-coloured roach in Alice's Restaurant and sneaking off with it back to their countries in the hopes of creating the ultimate secret weapon — a bomb that will get the populace of the United States "bombed". Of course when American security services find out about this they send a group of agents down to the restaurant to see if they too can get their own roach — they need to devise a means of defending the red, white, and blue from this horrible threat. They not only discover their own roach, but one that's the biggest roach ever seen, some four foot long and a foot around.

Well, the story goes on from there to include both the Russians and Chinese making use of tape to adhere roaches to missiles, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, (President and Vice President respectively of the United States as the incident took place prior to the 1968 election of Nixon) and everybody else running the government licking and sucking on that giant roach and getting high and devising literally blanket protection for the continental United States. That image alone, of LBJ and Hubert Humphrey getting stoned, makes this song worth listening to, but for those of you like me who have heard the "traditional" version countless times, it's a treat to hear a version unlike any I've ever heard before.

Tales Of '69 is not only great because of the different versions of old favourites it includes alongside songs that have never been released before, it's also a chance to take a glimpse back in time to when things were a whole lot different then they are now. Hearing a young Arlo Guthrie singing some of the songs that we've all come to identify with him when they were newly written makes you appreciate even more how he's able to still keep them sounding fresh 40 years later. Young or old, Arlo is a delight to listen to and this disc is no exception.

You can pre-order your copy of Tales Of '69 from Rising Son Records.

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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.
  • http://neotomicaliviac.com Cody Conard

    sweet review, I was just thinking about him lately, with Woodstock coming up and everything.

  • http://blogs.epicindia.com/leapinthedark Richard Marcus

    Funny thing is this disc is slated for release exactly forty days to the day when he performed at Woodstock – 18th of August.

  • Bliffle

    I used to sit around listening to “Alices restaurant” with my kids at Thanksgiving. It was a big favorite of theirs. Another favorite was Hoyt Axton: “work your fingers to the bone and whatdya get…bony fingers, bony fingers”. Now they’re much too mature and adult for such nonsense. Maybe I should try “Dead skunk in the middle of the road”.

  • http://thingsalongtheway.blogspot.com/ Cindy

    Great review Richard. I think I’ll get it. I loved Alice’s Restaurant. My uncle used to play it and sing it for us. It would be interesting to hear another version.