Arlo Guthrie: 18 minutes, 20 seconds and 50 years later
Folk music icon Arlo Guthrie has reached a milestone, namely the 50th anniversary of the event that inspired “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” his rambling folk ditty about how dumping some garbage got him in a heap of trouble. The song has become a Thanksgiving holiday anthem. On the current tour, he performs that song in its entirety with some help from his backing band, which includes Terry Hall (drums), Bobby Sweet (guitar, vocals), Darren Todd (bass), and his son, Abe Guthrie (keyboards). His daughter Sarah Lee Guthrie, a singer-songwriter who has a career of her own, is opening the October and November shows. The concerts also feature an “awe-inspiring” light show created specifically for the tour by 44 Designs, Inc., along with previously unseen images from the Guthrie archives. More than 75,000 photos have recently been digitized, and selections are projected during the evening. Guthrie spoke to us via phone from a Nashville tour stop.
I have fond memories of hearing “Alice’s Restaurant.” When did radio stations start playing the song on Thanksgiving Day?
I don’t really know. It was not something that began from my intent. Somewhere at the end of the ’70s and beginning of the ‘80s, there were some stations that began getting requests. It was too long of a song to play at other times. It just grew. Who woulda thunk?
Talk about the original incident that inspired the song.
About 98 percent of what it is in the song is absolutely true. I took a little bit of literary license with very few things. The photos were in black-and-white and not in color, things like that. The story itself is totally true.
Did you write the song immediately after the incident took place?
It’s kind of convoluted. I was in college in the fall of 1965 in Billings, Montana when I returned to New England to visit some friends on Thanksgiving holiday. In those days, pre-lottery, if you were not in school and you were a guy, you were pretty much going to Vietnam. Even with that threat hanging over me, I decided I wasn’t going back to college. I wanted to become a musician. It took the next six or seven months for the draft board to contact me and set up all the meetings. Even though I started the song in 1965, I didn’t finish it until 1966. It took that long for everything to happen.
You’ve said it’s not an anti-war song but an anti-stupid song. Can you explain?
I think that’s what makes the song funny. It’s difficult in times of stress to find a sense of humor. It becomes all the more important during those times. It sold more records through the military stores than it did through the regular record stores. Those guys really needed to laugh at something. Those are the folks who will be coming. The guys who are still around and their families have kept me working for the past 50 years.
You’ve also pointed out that it’s the exact length of one of the famous gaps in Richard Nixon‘s Watergate tapes. Was that intentional or just a happy accident?
You couldn’t make that up. It’s obviously a coincidence. More than that, we’ll never know. One can speculate. I often ask the audience how many things in the world are 18 minutes and 20 seconds long?
What’s the longest version of the song you’ve ever performed?
That’s one of those stories that keeps building over time. It hasn’t gone much over the original 20 minutes unless I was under the influence of something decades ago. During the anniversary tours I try to stay true to the original song for the most part. First of all, I could mention the Watergate tapes but half of the audience, anyone under 50, won’t know what that is. You can’t put everything into it that had been in it over the years. There are other things that have happened in the meanwhile that I can add to it but it doesn’t go over 20 minutes.
The song captures a certain time period in American history. Why do you think it’s remained so popular?
I have no idea really. If I was to hazard a guess, I would say that there’s always room to laugh. Sometimes, taking a funny poke at people in positions of authority is more than humorous; it’s actually healing. It’s difficult in times of stress to get by anyhow. When you can laugh at yourself or take a poke at others I think it’s not only healthy, especially in a democracy, it’s also needed. I’m not alone. If I was, I wouldn’t be doing a tour like this.
How does it play in other countries?
I’ve done it in Europe and Canada, English-speaking countries. I did a recorded version with a guy in French. I wasn’t singing it in French myself. It’s gone to other places. Because I don’t speak other languages aside from Brooklyn, I can’t tell you where it’s been or what it’s done or what I’ve done but Warner Bros. has never discounted it. They’re still getting the bucks for it that they were all of 48 years ago when as when it came out. It’s doing well.
Talk about the visuals that you have put together for the current tour.
We did the 30th and 40th and they were all special. For the 50th, it has to be extra special. We added something which I never really did before which is the whole light show. There’s animated film that we made decades ago. We’re incorporating it all into something that will be memorable, not only for us but for lots of people.
What keeps you touring and recording after all these years?
At this point, I don’t know how to do anything else. The choice is to sit around the pool. I don’t golf. I do take photographs. I’m just an amateur photographer. There’s not much else to do. This is all I know how to do. I love it. It’s not necessarily the shows. It’s the going places I still love. The country is so big and so vast and for the most part empty. You get people in big cities complaining about the world situations. For the most part, the world is pretty empty. It’s stunningly beautiful. I love getting out into it. It just puts things in the proper perspective.
Is protest music a lost art form?
When I first began singing, I wasn’t singing what we now call protest song. I was singing traditional songs. Cowboy songs, trail ballads and old chain gang stuff that I grew up listening to. That’s the stuff I loved. Then, “Alice’s Restaurant” happened. I wasn’t looking to be a protest singer so much but all of a sudden, there I was. I know people who are professional protestors. I love them dearly. They’re looking for something wrong. I’m not that guy. I like hanging out and looking for friends. That doesn’t mean that I should shut my mouth and not deal with things who are in front of my face. I’m not that kind of guy either. Occasionally, I find something to write about. Other people say it’s a protest song. I don’t mind that title. I think it means you’re engaged in the world and you have something to say about it. I think when everybody has their say, it’s a better world.
I think your storytelling abilities are unique.
I’ve done that with a whole lot of songs. “Alice” is the most well-known. I love telling stories and I love listening to stories. For me, the best songs and the best TV and the best theatre have great stories. I love Lord of the Rings because the stories are great. People add technology thinking it will be better if there’s great CGI but if the story sucks, it doesn’t help. I’m an admirer and a devotee of the art of telling stories. They’re our stories. They’re not just mine. Stories of the people you’ve met and the places you’ve been. That’s us. I like telling our stories. That’s me.
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