Rebel singer Arlo Guthrie turns "Alice's Restaurant" into a gentle new symbol of youthful protest.
TEXT BY WILLIAM HEDGEPETH
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MARY ELLEN MARK AND VINCENT NANFRA
Bathed in saintly, stained glass, psychedelic luminescence, Arlo mock-meditates on the floor of his friends’ one-time church and later residence near Stockbridge, Mass.
HERE SHE COMES, all brassy and bitchy-looking, strutting up to the counter where we are sitting and taking the pencil from where she has it stuck under that paper tiara waitresses wear. She snakes a quick glance to the side to make sure the pair of hundred-year-old ladies seated nearby are prepared to appreciate her performance. So first, she says to the hippie-type girl beside me, "What'll you have, dear?" And the girl orders a hamburger. Next, she turns to me and takes my order. And then, beaming like an eel, she looks at America's most up‑-and-coming young anarchist, Arlo Guthrie, sitting on the next stool, and asks very loudly, "And what for you, MISS? "--momentary pause for effect--"Oh"--briefer pause to emphasize mock horror and embarrassment--"You're not a girl. I thought you were a girl. Well, just goes to show, you sure can't tell the difference nowadays." (Laugh. Laugh. Laugh. Hundred-year-old ladies nod and look faintly ill.) Arlo just shrugs a little and smiles, "Yeh, you can never tell." But Carol, Arlo's British-born girlfriend-road manager is astounded and explodes at the waitress in a one-minute lecture on gratuitous rudeness and stupidity.
Meanwhile, random collections of high school and college kids are still shuffling back and forth on the street past the drugstore window, many of them wearing big orange "Alice's Restaurant" buttons, and some of them, now and then, spotting Arlo inside and pointing and smiling and nudging one another.
Twenty-one-year-old Arlo Guthrie, Woody's boy, has just given a concert here in Providence, R.I., where his near-thirty-minute talking-song thing called Alice's Restaurant Massacree has excited the younger folk at the same time that his appearance and/or reputation has obviously had bad effects on middle-aged waitresses and the like. (Alice's Restaurant is a satincal, anti-Establishment mild howl about Arlo's reallife arrest in Stockhnidge, Mass., on a charge of littering and his later appearance in New York City for his draft-induction physical.)
Teeny-hoppers, turtlenecks, beards, bell-bottoms, long hair and leather thighs pass back and forth admiringly beyond the big window. Inside, Arlo and the rest of us all wait at the counter for the food that never arrives. OK, so we all get up and move on.
"I want to bring people along with me on my trip. "
On the Alice set, with a neck-braced clown, Arlo is king of cups from a pack of tarot cards.
William Obanhein, who arrested Arlo, is playing himself in the movie.
Much of Alice's action centers on an old church where Arlo's friends, Ray and Alice, lived. Arlo sits here with the two who play them in the movie.
The real Ray and Alice, left, worked on Arlo's movie as advisers and extras. Ray is an architect and continues to live in the bell tower of his revamped church.
"I want to be the kind of artist," says Arlo, in his combination Oklahoma-Coney Island-New England prep-school accent (all of which comes out as something slightly nasal), "that changes with people-that will be able to bring people along with me on my trip. Right now, I'm in the part of the scene where people I do take with me are people who are most like me, or who have shared the experience of the particular song." He has managed thus far to take a surprising collection of people along--among them, director Arthur (Bonnie and Clyde) Penn, who has somehow parlayed Alice into a full-length film to be released this summer.
Others he is carrying along in his wake are among the vast mass of disaffected kids who read into Alice and its account of absurdities with the police and military all the same vague vexations they themselves feel toward the Established world. Arlo, too, is able to be viewed as any young person's answer to his own particular malaise:
It's a cold day in Stockbridge, and Arlo is walking with a turned-on Yippie who has made the pilgrimage from New York. Yippie: "When did you know you were going to be doing what you're doing?" Arlo: "Oh, 'bout three-four years ago." Yippie : "Yeh ! Hey! It's like with Christ! Just like Christ! He knew he would be the Messiah! " Arlo glances over quickly and declares with some firmness, "No, man, I'm no Messiah!" and he continues walking, hands in pockets, looking down and seeming slightly shaken.
Director Arthur Penn (wearing glasses) handles a banquet scene featuring Alice and a clump of her wild pals.
It is late in the evening of a day filled, for Arlo, with work on the Alice movie and miscellaneous public chores and a few interviews with nervous student reporters for local school newspapers ("Mr. Guthrie, ah, where, where was it you went to coll ... you did go to college, didn't you?").
We are in a hotel room, and Arlo is sitting on the floor, thumbing away on his specially built 37-string Appalachian autochord, putting the finishing touches on an exotic instrumental composition he calls the Nebraskan Fandango. Besides Arlo, Carol is here, plus three friends, and everyone is giddy with weariness, and feeling talkative. In response to something or other, Arlo stops, cocks his head, squints one eye and says of his professional future, "I think I'm getting into some really beautiful musical revelations--I mean, of what music really is in relation to what the scene is." He cocks his head to the other side, "It's the whole yin and yang [good and evil] of music. It's almost too fantastic to explain. The object of music has to be as an equalizer of yin and yang things that produce a feeling of balance and harmony in the audience. It could take 100 years to do it right."
This tinge of Orientalism isn't exactly standard equipment among American folk singers; but actually, in spite of the aura of his father that he inevitably carries, and in spite of the way he is usually billed, Arlo isn't really a folk singer. He is in a newer, yet unnamed category of a contemporary, largely satincal pop-folk-guitar-strumming singer of stories that carry faint anti-Establishment overtones. He uses generation-gap jargon so deftly that, for instance, in one song, The All-American Multi-Colored Rainbow Roach, he can sing about grass and drugs and the "heads of government" without so much as raising an adult eyebrow in the audience.
Arlo is still playing his autochord. From outside, there comes the sound of a siren. Arlo says in a stage shout, "The bust is on!" and then laughs and calmly picks up the discussion. "The idea of the Establishment is a lot more dangerous than the Establishment itself. This is the thing people are revolting against: the idea. I think when you can laugh at the Establishment, then it has no power. That's what we're trying to do here." He plucks some more, then cocks his head again: "Of course, there are a lot of good things the Establishment has established, you know." A girl sitting cross-legged on a coffee table nods and solemnly observes that yes, indeed, cigarettes, for exampie, are good things.
"This particular Establishment has got some pretty good ideas," Arlo continues. "I mean the idea of the Constitution is a gas as far as I'm concerned. Of course, I'm not a politician, and I'm not really into the thing that much, but the idea of a Constitution, where people get together and say 'you do this and you do that' is groovy.' There is a general murmuration around the room agreeing that the Constitution is, in fact, groovy. "We're gonna get back to that," exults Arlo. "That's the next part of the scene--to get back to constitutional ideas; not the laws, but the ideas." The girl on the coffee table says that this sounds just like anarchy and that anarchy is not a successful way to do things. Anlo smiles and tosses back his head and says that no, that's not true, there are a lot of successful anarchies. He strums a few chords and smiles again, "I'm a successful anarchist." Everyone nods.
It is around midnight, and someone suggests that it would be a nice time to share a bottle of wine. I pick up the phone and ask the hotel bell captain if he will deliver us a bottle of wine. He pauses a second and asks me if this is Arlo Guthrie's room, and I say yes, and he says if anyone wants wine, they'll have to come get it themselves. So I go down through the lobby and into the bar and ask the bartender for one of his bottles of wine. He asks me whose room this is for, and I tell him, and he snaps, no, he doesn't like Arlo's looks, and he won't sell me the wine. The bartender looks over at the bell captain, who has just come in, and says to him, "You can run out and buy some wine for that _______ Guthrie kid's room if you want to, but you're not gonna get it here." And the bell captain snaps back that if the bartender wants to wait on punk Communists, he can go do it himself. In the next second or two, the situation goes from mild lunacy to mayhem, for first the bartender growls something about Arlo and pushes the bell captain, and then the bell captain mutters about Arlo and pushes him back; and suddenly, the two start fighting and puffing in the darkened barroom, as the dozen or so people seated at small tables around the room watch quietly and smile at each other in the glow of the dim candles.