When your dad is Woody Guthrie, folk hero composer of “This Land Is Your Land” and your living room is filled every night with such stellar singer songwriters as Pete Seeger and Leadbelly, then you learn to play piano, guitar, and harmonica the way the rest of us pick up our ABCs. By the time you’re 20, you’re a performing star yourself. This is how Arlo Guthrie came to be.
I’m thrilled to say I caught Arlo’s first concert at the Hollywood Bowl in (I’m guessing 1968). What most captivated me about Arlo Guthrie, with his mop of dark brown hair, in addition to his sing-along tunes, was his chatterbox style. In contrast to Bob Dylan’s famous non-speak (as if to signal, “My songs are brilliant, I don’t have to say squat!”) this young energetic Arlo Guthrie was clearly delighted to hang out with us.
His fabled song, “Alice’s Restaurant” contains only a passing chorus, “You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant” with an extra lyric about railroad tracks, intersected by 18 minutes of Arlo softly strumming his guitar and capitulating a monologue about how his pal Alice one day asked him and a friend to take the cafe’s trash to the dump.
The dump was closed, being as it was Thanksgiving, so they ended up piling it on top of an older heap of refuse in a ravine. An envelope of Arlo’s was found in the pile, and the boy was jailed for a night, charged a fine, and made to pick up trash. Sometime later he found himself, like all hapless young lads at the time, at the draft center, being checked out by a team of military docs. Just when it looked as if they’d ship him to Vietnam, someone asked, “Hey, kid, you ever been arrested?” When he answered yes, he was sent to stand with a group of hard-bitten convicts who asked him, “What were you in for?” He replied, “Littering.” It’s a shaggy dog story about one individual’s appointment with the U.S. military in the 1960s.
Arlo Guthrie knows a good story when it comes his way. One night in a bar, an unknown man asked Arlo if he’d listen to a song he’d composed in exchange for a beer. The composer’s name was Steve Goodman and the song was “City of New Orleans.” When he finished playing it, and Guthrie had almost choked on his beer with admiration, Mr. Goodman said, “Can you offer it to Johnny Cash?” Mercifully for Arlo, Cash already had his share of train songs, so Arlo recorded it, and it topped the charts.
While Arlo hasn’t knocked out any more “Alice’s Restaurant”s or “City of New Orleans”s, he continues to perform in concerts all over the world. Younger generations have heard their parents tell tales about him, and the iconic movie “Alice’s Restaurant” was directed in 1969 by Arthur Penn. That, too, keeps the legend going strong.
On Tuesday, August 2, Arlo Guthrie appeared on the stage of the Tabernacle. It was just him, a baby grand piano, and four guitars — one of them a vivid royal blue 12-string from which the maestro pulled a rich set of chords and pickings.
Arlo Guthrie’s hair is still a bushy mop, but now it’s Santa Claus white, augmented by a white beard and dark-rimmed glasses. His voice is more graveled. But he still chatters like your favorite uncle at a holiday meal. His long but wonderful “Alice’s Restaurant” is an 18-minute miracle he only trots out every ten years or so on a special occasion. Turns out being with us at the Tabernacle was a special occasion, and we rose to our feet at the end in a grand homage.
Mr. Guthrie is clearly still pursuing his art and activism for nonviolence, unspooling this poignant verse: “Nobody seems to care no more when a soldier makes it home.” His last song, following the kind of sustained applause that begs for an encore, was a simple heartfelt tune, “My peace, my peace is all I’ve got that I can give to you.“
Thank you, Arlo Guthrie and R.I.P. Woody Guthrie: We need you both more than ever right now.