Wednesday, February 20, 2019

A Conversation With An American Music Icon.... Arlo Guthrie


Forty years after "Alice's Restaurant" and his appearance at the Woodstock festival, folk singer, Arlo Guthrie's popularity continues to grow and grow.

After about three minutes, I became very aware that this wasn't going to be a typical "interview." No, without a doubt, I was having a "conversation." True, I was on the phone, but within that short time span, I quickly began to feel like I was just sitting in some highway diner, having breakfast and talking to an old friend. Arlo Guthrie is an engaging man with a great sense of humor and and more than a good portion of humility.

Arlo, first let me thank you for taking the time to talk with me. I know you are in the midst of a tour and free time is precious. How long are you on the road for?

Well, the tours last about a year, starting in June and ending in May. We are on the "Solo Reunion, Together at Last" tour. The next one is the "Lost World Tour". These days, the tours are a new feature on the Arlo used to be the "Here He Comes Again" tour but over about the last five years, the venues want to know what's going to be new this year. So we started naming them. I'm having a lot of fun just making up names for tours.

So, what's a typical day of a working musician on the road?

There are three kinds of day....there's showday, where you actually have to work, then there's travel days and then there's days off and that's the only kinda days there are. We are either working or we are going somewhere or we aren't going.

So, what do you like best...going, working or days off?

I like em all, I just don't like them all at once. I don't like the agent giving you 2000 miles to drive and say....."You have four days off."

So you do all your traveling by bus?

Yeah, all across the country....Yeah, you are calling me in Tucson at the moment and that's because there is a good repair shop here....You find places all over the country where people actually know what they are doing. This is one.

That's got to be a lot of fun, I mean there's nothing better in life than a road trip.

Well, you know, if you do it long enough, you find out that this country is really big and for the most part it's empty....You wouldn't know that living in New York or Los Angeles, but there is a lot of beauty and natural wonders to be seen. There are a lot of wonderful people, lot of great little places, fabulous restaurants and, of course, great bus repair shops.

You're not just a musician, you are an actor and an author of children's books. You have a pretty big family business, your own record label, Rising Sun Recorords. How did this evolve, where do you find the time for this stuff?

One day, I'm going to write a book on how to do nothing.....maybe teach retreats....So finding things to do that qualify as something was never an interest of mine.....I never set out to be a professional musician, I wanted to be a forest ranger, I went to school for that. I did that because I don't like being around large crowds of people.

Well, you picked the wrong......

Yeah, this life has been a freeking karmic disaster, but eventually you make do with what you got. I spent 15 years with Warner Bros....but, at some point, around the early 80's....Disco had come and gone, people were into Bon Jovi or something at the time....a lot of guys with big hair....and the kind of music we were making was off the radar. So, we parted with Warner's and decided to do it ourselves. It took about ten years to do that and all of a sudden I was an entrepreneur. We got our whole collection back from Warner's and we started making our own stuff....But after 10 years, I realized that we had done this all successfully....but I hadn't written a frigging song in 10 years and I said..."What is wrong with this picture?" And I had to learn that there were more ways to do it right than my way. So, my kids were old enough, so I told them, "You guys start doing this stuff", because I didn't want to be a record company....I just wanted to play music....So, I backed myself out and my kids took over.

Now, they don't even give me the money, I have to go overseas, where they can't catch me. I'm going to Australia so I can get some pocket change. So, that's how it operates, it's all organic and based on the idea that I want to play music....I don't want to be a business person....But we did make better records, with no one looking over our shoulders and then iTunes came along and all of a sudden, all of the stuff in the catalog, that stuff we had created was available....and the picture at the iTunes store was not any smaller than the one for Warner Bros, it was a level playing field.

Do they give you any of that money?

The kids?....No, but I know it's there.

We shared a milestone last year, we both turned sixty. I know how I felt, how about yourself, away from your career, any refelctions on the march of time?

I am actually having more fun now than I ever thought I any age. I am enjoying this, I mean I've got the greatest family in the world. I've been married to the same gal for 40 years, or just about. I have great kids and grand kids....The family is blessed, that's all I can say. I'm having a lot of fun and these days, as far as the work goes, we're getting letters on all the My Space kinda things, you know, or at our website, I'm getting letters from people all over the world and I would say the vast majority are from 16 year olds that say, "I just discovered you last week."

I have a whole new generation of victims, and I am just thrilled with that because I remember going to hear guys that were my age now when I was 16, going to hear guys like Mississippi John Hurt or Sonny Terry or people like that. I have learned so much watching those guys and eventually, when I got a little older, I got to play with them.

With that in mind, last week I checked your official web site. You have had about 1.8 million hits, your MySpace page has over 15,000 friends and over 1/4 million hits.Every performance on this tour, so far, has been sold out. Your popularity continues to grow and grow. Obviously it's being passed over from generation to generation. I mean, we are talking a forty year career here.

Amazing, I don't know what's happening but I'll tell you one's fun, I'm getting letters from soldiers in Iraq, letter from places I would have never thought about.

Alice's Restaurant turned forty last year, four decades. The song was released in 1967 and, today there isn't a town or a berg in this whole country that, on Thanksgiving Day, you aren't going to hear that song. To give you an idea, last week I went to rent the movie Alice's Restaurant" the local video store had one copy of "Citizen Kane" and three copies of Alice's Resturant.

That's pretty scary, I didn't even like the movie that much. I thought it was kinda depressing. I thought the part where they made the movie out of the song was great. But where they injected "This kind of idealism can't succeed attitude," that ticked me off and still does. I don't enjoy it.

I think Arthur Penn made much better films than "Alice's Restaurant." He was a great guy, I loved working with him, and I made some, well, it was like playing with your friends. Everybody in that movie, all the actors, in the most part, were friends....actual friends of mine. And, a lot of people don't know, Officer Obie in the movie was the real Officer Obie, the judge was the real judge....I love that.I think his famous quote was when he was asked why he played himself in the movie, he said, "If anyone is going to make a fool out of me, it might as well be me." He became a good friend, as a matter of fact, last week, the Chief of Police in Stockbridge and said they were finally retiring Officer Obie's desk and they were donating it to the church. Now, I've got his chair, so we are going to have a little "Officer Obie Room" set up at the church (the original church of "Alice's Restaurant fame") one of these years.

Speaking aobut the church, your foundation bought the original church and turned it into the Guthrie Center. I understand that you kinda have a soft spot in your heart for that place. What exactly goes on down there?

Well, we know where the idiots in the world meet, we know where the crazy people are. They're on the battlefields in the Middle East and other places and we spend billions and billions of dollars a week, or whatever it is, these days dealing with idiots and crazy people. But where do the regular people meet, where do the regular, everyday, the "just want to get along", people go? We don't spend anything on them. I thought the world needed another little place, not a big organization, not a national foundation, just a place where everyday people have a place to go, something to do. So we bought the old church and created one more little space like that.

We do puppet shows for kids in the summer, and a music program, yoga classes for older people, a community lunch program that is free. The normal everyday good stuff that people do.

A few months back, Pete Seeger was talking to me, he said, "You know, if the world is going to survive, it's not gonna to be because of the big organizations, and the big groups of people. It's too easy to stop them, we are seeing that in China now. No one can stop the little guy, there is too many of them and there is not enough resources to stop that from happening. So, if the world is going to survive, it's gonna to depend on people not waiting to see who the president is going to be, or what they are going to do, but go ahead and do their own thing and create little spaces in more places." And I think he was dead right. So, that's what the church is, it's one more little space.

We have some big plans for it one of these years. I would love to spend a little less time on the road. Maybe do some kind of things like you guys (BrooWaha) are doing except do some live Internet.

I would love to see me reading the news. I would love to get up in the morning with a cup of coffee, not having got dressed or washed, and sit down with some friends and neighbors and go over the news in a real way. That's what I would love to do at the church.

I could so totally see you doing that....

I'm getting tired of the regular TV guys, it's mostly a lot of BS. It would be nice to see the news, I think, either written by or delivered by someone with no one looking over their shoulder. The same thing happened in the music industry, when the music industry started, there were guys that loved music and knew how to make it and now it's run by guys who love money and know how to make it, but the music has suffered.

That brings me to the question about our newspaper, Broowaha, and what is going on in the citizen journalism area.

I forgot how I got involved. I was surfing the net one day and was just reading something and got to your thing (BrooWaha) and there was something I felt compelled to respond to, and in order to do that I had to actually sign up. So, I went ahead and did that....Truthfully, I don't have a lot of time to do that except on days off, which are few and far between, most of the time we are in a bus going down the highway....But I think the decimation of information by people free to do so is the best thing. It's really the last bastion of freedom in the world....And to see people use it in positive ways, to have real discussion, to write what they think, say what they think, to argue with somebody, it's the best thing to come along at this time.

I love it, I love it, because it's not professional, it's "real" people. These days neighbors don't know who their neighbors are but they might know know somebody who is half way around the world because they've made friends of like interests. That's what's happened, we're forming communities on the Internet and they are not geographic....I think that's great.

On the weekends, I work at the beach and we have our share of street musicians there. So, I kinda took a poll, I asked them the following question. "If you could ask Arlo Guthrie one question, here and now, what would it be." The winner was "What was it like to play at Woodstock."

Well, the answer is inherent to the question. Obvisouly, the fact that someone is asking that forty years later....Ah, well, here's my standard response, but it's absolutely true.

The moments you are aware of you being in a historic event are fairly rare, most history is determined from hindsight, but we knew at that time we were in a historic moment. Most historic moments, whether they are viewed from inside or from hindsight are diasters.... diseases, floods, famines, earthquakes, wars. The chances of you finding yourself in a historic moment that is not a diaster is also fairly rare. So, the odds of finding yourself in a historic moment that is not a diaster, where you know it's a historic moment, the odds against it are astronomical....That's what it was like.

It was a wonderful and breathtakingly exhilarating....Scary....To play for that many people....I knew, at that time, that I would never, ever again perform before that many people again....Yeah, and it's true, I never have.

Well, it would be pretty hard to ever find that many people today.

But, we knew it at the time. Unfortunately, I didn't know I was supposed to play that day, so I was doing what everybody else was doing, so I had no business actually performing. So, you know, this was one of those moments you wished you could have done it again. But it is still one of the fonder memories of my entire life. I will never forget it and I wish I had more sense years ago....I mean, if you are going to have one good shot, you know....I mean it's the same as"Alice's Restaurant", my thought is if they are only going to play one song of mine for one day a year, it might as well be the longest one yet.

That's a great point, you keep the people riveted for almost twenty minutes.

So, in the same light, if I knew I was going to play in one event, I mean, the biggest single event in the history of the music world, I probably would have done it under better circumstances had I had some foresight. But, at eighteen, you don't have a lot of foresight....I think I was 18 or 20.

Well, Arlo, I want to than you for this amazing conversation and taking the time for us. It was really appreciated.

I am happy to talk to you guys....because I really like what you do.

Well, thanks again and I guess it's time for you to go to 'get back to the dust bowl.'

Exactly right, time to get back to work.

Official Arlo Guthrie Web Site....

"Alices Restaurant"

About the Writer

Steven Lane is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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8 comments on A Conversation With An American Music Icon.... Arlo Guthrie

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By L DeSilva-Johnson on March 31, 2008 at 04:31 pm

I think it's great to hear from people like Arlo, who've been around the scene for so long and who still clearly have a sense of humor about business, people, and "the way things are." I'm particularly fond of his "karmic distaster" description. Helps us have a little perspective. Thanks, Steven.

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By aussiekeith on March 31, 2008 at 05:22 pm

Great share about  Arlo Guthrey and I am certainly a fan as he wrote great songs in his heyday and off course so did his father. Songs with meaning and a message.

Thank you for sharing this article.


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By Digidave on March 31, 2008 at 07:13 pm

Great job on this inteview Steven - you knocked it outta the park.

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By Lady D on March 31, 2008 at 07:30 pm

Sooo cool! Good Interview. Takes me back to "What if they through a war and nobody came?" We individuals are what make things happen or not, no gogs no gears.

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By Lila M. on March 31, 2008 at 10:00 pm

I think what I love most about this article was how organic his answers are.  Even though he is an Icon, there's no fluff, just "real" answers/thoughts.  I especially like his response to the Broowaha question which was incredibly inspiring....

"But I think the decimation of information by people free to do so is the best thing. It's really the last bastion of freedom in the world....And to see people use it in positive ways, to have real discussion, to write what they think, say what they think, to argue with somebody, it's the best thing to come along at this time.


I love it, I love it, because it's not professional, it's "real" people. These days neighbors don't know who their neighbors are but they might know know somebody who is half way around the world because they've made friends of like interests. That's what's happened, we're forming communities on the Internet and they are not geographic....I think that's great."

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By V on April 01, 2008 at 05:22 pm

GREAT interview Steve. You really worked that so very well and with such an easily responsive and eloquent subject. Excellent work. I like this guy very much.

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By 'Mean' Mike Duffau on April 01, 2008 at 08:46 pm

i really dig his woodstock performance! great work here, champ.

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By m.zeno on April 04, 2008 at 11:27 am

Well done & thank you!!! Arlo for president!!!

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