Those of us of a certain age have fond memories of the film Alice’s Restaurant, released the week after the Woodstock festival in August, 1969. It made an indelible impression at the time, a flower-powered counterweight to the heavier Easy Rider that also came out that summer.
Memory is selective, however. What we remember about Alice’s Restaurant is the happy hippie ethic embodied by Arlo Guthrie, who starred in the movie that was based on his own story-song. Watching the film forty five years later brings the surprise that there was a dark, somewhat disturbing side as well. But that eighteen-and-a-half minute song, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” was such an upbeat, humorous anthem that it informs a generation’s remembrance of the singer, the song, the film and that moment in time.
Arlo comes to the American Theatre for a two night stand February 10-11 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the events that inspired that song in the first place. He’s been performing at the Phoebus landmark every year since its renovation was completed in 2000. But the word is that this will be his last appearance there, at least on the annual basis local fans have come to expect.
He and I have spoken several times during that time span. He has had a fascinating life, the son of America’s greatest folk song writer, Woody Guthrie, who has carried on the family tradition for his entire adult life.
“It wasn’t just my dad,” he told me. “I think it was my dad’s world that I was born into. You get born into not just a family, but a circle of people—family, friends, relatives. The family of friends that my dad and mom had created was fairly impressive—everybody from Martha Graham, who was my mom’s mentor, to Pete Seeger, who was my dad’s buddy. There was a wide range of people, from the old bluesmen like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGehee to the Lomaxes, who created the first treasury of songs about people who worked for a living and their history.
“I grew up in a world that was listening to all that stuff and getting out to see those people when they were coming to town. So it wasn’t just my father himself, it was a whole world of people that surrounded him. I loved it; I felt like I was on a pirate ship and we were sailing around meeting all these weird characters and having some fun with them.”
Now in his 68th year, Arlo Guthrie has literally spent a lifetime singing folk songs in front of an audience. He first performed in public at the age of thirteen when Woody’s pal Cisco Houston brought him onstage at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village.
“It scared the hell out of me,” he remembered. “It seemed like it took an hour just to stand up. When I got to the stage, I stopped breathing for about ten minutes and did three songs, and vowed I was never gonna do that again! Of course, that didn’t work out.”
But it worked out well for music lovers. With four grown kids and a passel of grandchildren himself, he continues to entertain and enlighten a multi-generational fan base. And he’s maintained his happy-go-lucky image winding through the country year after year.
“You know when people come to visit you,” he laughed during one of our conversations, “if they stay too long you’re as happy to see ‘em goin’ as comin’? Well, with me, it’s like that. I’m there for one day, one night, and then I’m outta there. A lot of people have fond memories of me because I haven’t been around!
“I’m comfortable in my bus. It’s really my home—actually I’ve got more stuff in the bus than I have in the home!”
As for Alice and her restaurant…well, as the song says, “Alice doesn’t live in the restaurant; she lives in the church nearby the restaurant in the bell tower…”
He purchased that church, Trinity Church in the mountains of western Massachusetts, in 1991. The site where the “Alice’s Restaurant” saga originally unfolded and where the movie was filmed, it now houses the Guthrie Center and the Guthrie Foundation. The Center’s website says it is “dedicated to all those around the world who believe that there is one truth and infinite ways to approach it.”
It may surprise those who know Arlo Guthrie only tangentially or through his best known songs, but the spiritual journey has been an important aspect of Arlo’s life for many years. His 1979 album, Outlasting the Blues, was a sort of personal testimony with lyrics like “me, myself, I’m satisfied to sing for God’s own son.”
“I’m not a big fan of overly happy spirituality,” he told me ten years ago. “Life ain’t happy all the time. For me, spirituality is not about being happy. It’s about what to do when times are tough, not just for you personally but for everybody. There are times when disasters strike. It’s no coincidence that history is made up of wars, floods, famines, earthquakes, diseases and disasters. So, for me, spirituality is what to do about that and then what to do in your own personal life when you’re confronting things that hurt, things that ain’t fun.
“Outlasting the Blues was about that. It was not about preachin’, it was not about telling people what’s right, although there’s a little bit about what I found was right. I’ve tried to continue that in the work we do at the church.”
Arlo Guthrie: 50th Anniversary Celebration of Alice's Restaurant
The American Theatre
February 10 &11 – 7:30 pm
Tickets: $40.00 – 45.00
www.hamptonarts.net; (757) 722-2787
copyright © 2015 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.