We are walking through the vestry of the most famous church of all the 1960s-the deconsecrated place of worship in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where Arlo Guthrie, folk singer, son of Saint Woody Guthrie, took out the trash on a temperate Thanksgiving Day in 1965. As all who were conscious at that political moment recall, Guthrie deposited the remains of a dinner cooked by one Alice Brock outside a garbage dump on that historic day, found himself arrested by a phalanx of police, and thus, as a felony litterer, was excused from serving in the Vietnam war.
In a half-hour song about how illicit garbage-dumping saved him from official Asian peasant murder, Guthrie gave the world "Alice's Restaurant," the witty epic poem of the antiwar movement. For much of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the lines You can get anything you want/at Alice's restaurant" were synonymous with resistance to the Vietnam war.
Subsequent to "Alice's Restaurant" Arlo Guthrie had several hits - including the folk ballad, "City of New Orleans," an old-fashioned railroad song very much in the tradition of his father. But in the 1970s, with the rise of discomania and the decline of folk rock, Arlo Guthrie disappeared from the radio - except annually on Thanksgiving Day, when "Alice's Restaurant" would be played as an antique piece of 1960s nostalgia.
Undaunted, the folk singer kept on keeping on, spending nine months on the road each year, touring with Pete Seeger, living in the Berkshires between shows, and marrying and having four children. Two years ago, by a fluke, he managed to buy the very church that started it all, the church that once belonged to his friends Alice and Ray Brock.
With the exception of his long, flowing white hair, Arlo Guthrie looks today very much as he did in 1968 - bejeaned, slender, and intense. He still manifests that sweet absurdist humor that all America found so beguiling "way back when." As we talk, I search for a place to dump the wrappers from my audiotape. "It's okay," Guthrie smiles. "You can litter here." Q: You now own the famous church of "Alice's Restaurant." Why? Arlo Guthrie: It wasn't anything I planned on having. But when it happened, it seemed an opportunity to tie together the last twenty-five years we've all lived through. I felt like there had to be heart somewhere in all of the upheavals we've lived through so far. Q: Well, how exactly did you get to buy it? Guthrie: Strange story. About two years ago I was doing one of these "Whatever happened to...." TV shows. One of our stops in our "nostalgic" journey was this church. And I was walking around here telling on camera what had happened here on Thanksgiving Day in 1965, which was when we took out the garbage. Some people came out from the church and said, "Hi, we own this church and we're selling it." I said, "Really? I'll tell somebody who can afford to buy it, because I can't." And then I went home and thought about how much I'd always loved being here.
I have this newsletter, the Rolling Blunder Review, that I send out to about 6,000 people who follow my music [address: P.O. Box 6573, Housatonic, MA 10236]. So I wrote an article and said, "Don't send me any money - just ideas on how I can buy a church, the church, the one we all know and love and made a movie in." A lot of people came up with some interesting ideas about nonprofit status, and I took them to the attorney and the accountant, who said, "You could try."
So we started a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization for the purchase of the building and we moved our record company, Rising Son Records, in here to help pay the mortgage, and housed some projects for helping AIDS victims and the homeless. So here we are: in Alice's church all those years after we took out the garbage! Q: Are you involved in community issues at all here in Great Barrington? Guthrie: At times, yeah. We had a landfill developer come up to this part of the county and he wanted to put in the largest landfill in the Northeast, essentially right next door to me. I got active on that. Q: Well, considering that you're the world's most famous litterer, the issue must have had special resonance. Guthrie: Right. And that's why I hesitated to move out front on it at first. I didn't want people to think this was a "professional" concern of mine. I also wanted the local leadership to take hold - it's bad when celebrities take over grass-roots activities in a small town. Beyond trying to stop the landfill, I'm also involved in the Walden Pond Project with Don Henley ... to save Walden Pond from developers. Q: It's interesting that you have links with younger political rockers like Don Henley. Guthrie: Well, I represent a lot of things to some people, things beyond myself ... my father, you know. So people are very respectful and they tend to support the causes I'm involved with - and vice versa. I mean, I go to Farm Aid concerts not just for Willie Nelson, but because it's real important to me to be there.
Right now, I'm involved with a whole lot of environmental issues and also trying to help people with AIDS. Ten years ago, I heard this rumor about this new disease going around. At some point, probably around 1986 or 1987, 1 asked my [spiritual] teacher, whose name is Ma Jaya Bhagavati, to go with her as she visited hospitals and drug centers and hospices. Through her, I was introduced to an entire world of people in trouble. So I began studying and opening up my world to these disasters befalling people-AIDS, homelessness.
What I do is try to raise money. But really what I do is visit. Because it's one thing to show up at a concert or lend your name. It's a whole different thing to hold somebody's hand and sit by their side and take care of them when they need you. That's what I do. Q: The fact that your father and grandmother died of Huntington's chorea, a fatal genetic disease-did that push you to do AIDS work? Guthrie: Well, maybe it offered me a chance to think about it a little earlier than most people. But my spiritual involvement is really what led me to this. In the last few years, I've taken a lot of time to think about the meaning of life and death, to investigate Eastern philosophies. I have a teacher, as I mentioned to you. I had come to a place almost a decade ago where I asked myself, "What's going on here? I've always been to the right demonstrations. I'm the son of the right guy. My kids are all fine. And yet, there's more. The world still sucks. Things are worse than ever. My compassion is not deep enough."
In the end I had to empty myself of other people's knowledge and other people's religion and stop carrying around all the things that other people had told me I should carry around with me. I'm talking about ideologies, duties, feelings about fame. And I asked myself, "Who am I without all of this stuff?" So I threw out the garbage, the stuff that was useless to me. Q: It seems like "throwing out the garbage" is almost the main metaphor of your life. Guthrie: Yeah, I'm an example of someone who thought we could be happy throwing out the external stuff and learned I had to throw out the internal junk, too.
What we're talking about is very important, if you want to understand me. There are a lot of people who grew up in the kind of world I grew up in ... left-wing politics, New York ... for whom that has not been wholly fulfilling. There are a lot of people, Phil Ochs, for instance ... who did not ask themselves, "What does it further a man to gain the world and lose his own soul?" I came to a point where I really needed to ask myself that question - and I did.
The thing is, we in the Old Left and the New Left were taught to involve ourselves in the world - not just to make it better, but to wholly devote ourselves to the world till there was nothing left of the person. Strangely enough, all of the survivors of that scene, like Pete Seeger, have somewhere made a turn in the road and realized that the world was a small thing, not this huge thing. That the world was, for instance, the deck of a boat like the Clearwater, and that people could respect his philosophy more if he took care of his world. Pete has tremendous respect for his work on saving the Hudson River. And he should have.
As for Phil Ochs and other friends of mine from the 1960s, he gave his life over for the world. His life was over for the world. Now, don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that we shouldn't participate in the world and do everything we possibly can to make it better. But we have to do it in a way that we keep the sacredness of our own selves. We have to reserve a part of ourselves for ourselves. Q: I can see how someone who grew up in an Old Left family would come to that conclusion. The self-abnegation of the Old Left was soul-eating. Guthrie: When I see what some of the Old Left people did, it scares me. Interestingly, I see a lot of it in the fundamentalist Right-people abandoning themselves in order to form a union with something bigger. I made the same mistake to some extent. But those of us who were young in the 1960s were saved from a lot of it because the 1960s, oddly enough, were almost a spontaneous eruption, rather than one that was led by anyone. I mean, the press tried to declare some people leaders, but there really weren't any. I remember the newspapers promoting leaders. They were promoting Abbie Hoffman, who was nobody's leader. I remember the press calling me a leader, and I wasn't one, either. Q: There must have been temptations to accept the mantle? Guthrie: Well, I didn't need reservations in restaurants. That was okay But it couldn't get in the way of what I think of myself I mean, I knew that Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie never defined themselves as anything other than folk singers. Q: Speaking of those Old Left icons, how are the Old Left people you grew up around dealing with the death of Soviet Communism? Guthrie: For a lot of people there's a feeling of betrayal- not just by the world but by the Communist Party. One of the things I've talked to them about is people like Lyndon Johnson, and later Spiro Agnew, saying that the leaders of the Left were being paid substantial money by the Communist Party to make all kinds of trouble. I kept asking where my check was. If they were handing out money for doing the things I was doing, how come they weren't paying me? So I knew how fraudulent that claim was. Now, it turns out from newly opened KGB files that there were, indeed, millions of dollars coming into this country to fund all kinds of things.
There are a lot of people who feel betrayed - especially because of the persecution of the Left that was going on in this country in the 1950s and 1960s. Where was all that money to help those who were beat up and thrown in jail during those awful times? Where were all those millions of dollars to help those who stood up for their beliefs? Q: When you think about your parents' Old Left generation, I sense you're uncomfortable with the way those guys gave their lives over to "history." Guthrie: I don't know if they were trying to give themselves over to history as much as to truth. Every society that has given itself wholly to truth had to struggle with everybody's different version of truth. So we find ourselves struggling with each other, and the whole can't remain whole. What we didn't learn in the Old Left is that we have to be very, very tolerant of somebody else's truth. Q: Let's talk about the New Left. Twenty-five years after the New Left's decade, one can't help wondering if it isn't even more of a failure than the Old Left. The Old Lefties, for all their rigidities, created labor unions, summer camps, progressive schools. They left something for the next generation. Guthrie: Well, we made the concerns of the few the concerns of the many - and that is one practical result. The country is seriously talking about environmental stuff. That's another. You can't go into any small town anywhere in America without seeing people who are involved in grass-roots projects to save the land, the water, and the air. These were the concerns of a very few people twenty-five years ago. We succeeded in bringing an awareness to millions of people around the world. On the other hand, we lost 50,000 young Americans' lives trying to stop" communism in South Vietnam. We lost 50,000 of our generation there.
But to your question, I think around the world the 1960s aren't over yet. Interestingly enough, many of the issues are still with us: free expression, truth in government, an end to corruption, an end for a myopic political point of view that allowed for only one way to be a citizen. Those same concerns were demonstrated in Tiananmen Square and Eastern Europe and Central and South America, mostly by young people dressed the same as we were in the 1960s. Q: "Alice's Restaurant," the piece that gave you a separate identity from your father, is a very political story. Nowadays, you're much more concerned with spirituality than you are with politics. Would you write the same story in the 1990s? Guthrie: I didn't write the story. The story was true. It was told to me by life. Q: Well, true or fictional, you told a story that typified the experiences of a whole generation. In those days, everyone went through their own experiences with the Officer Obie's of the world, rigid rule keepers who were going to make the Hipsters toe the line. Guthrie: Listen, "Alice's Restaurant" is really an old saga. It's the same old thing: the little guy against the big world. I told it in my way, and it happened in my way. There was nothing in "Alice's Restaurant" that suggested that through my own wisdom or knowledge I had saved myself. It was that fate had intervened on my behalf. It was the foolishness and the irrelevance of the adversary that made them do themselves in. And I loved that. Even if it happened to be my own story. Q: I've been buying a lot of 1960s records and books at yard sales lately - research material for a book I'm doing. When I listen to 1960s music now, I'm struck by how overtly political mass popular culture was then. Crosby, Stills, and Nash were on the radio singing lyrics like, "We can change the world." And they were not some fringe group. Guthrie: Well, that was the wonder of the 1960s, wasn't it? Q: Why is that not true now? Has the culture been washed of all political content? Guthrie: Well, there is a lot of politics in rap music. I think it's just that civilization can't stay awake forever. That was a time when our generation was awake - maybe because of the struggles we were all going through. When you go to a bar and you sit around with a bunch of old men, they're still talking about World War II because that's when they were awake. And when you talk to people my age, they talk about the 1960s, because they were awake. The Vietnam vets are a big exception. They were definitely awake, but they don't remember it all with fondness. They can't forget what happened because there was no support, no love for them. No question about that. The whole country was in an uproar about what was happening, and it cost them. They could never be forgiven by the rest of us for Vietnam, and it wasn't their fault. The great dilemma of the Vietnam war was it was for nothing, and they know that. Q: Have you ever wondered about who you'd be now if you hadn't become the world's most famous litterer, and you'd been classified 1-A? Guthrie: Sure, I'd be one of those guys. I see that every time I meet a Vietnam vet. I know it could have been me. Q: Would you have gone to jail, if you'd been classified 1-A? Guthrie: Oh yeah, definitely. Q: Phil Ochs - what do you think he'd be doing now, if he'd made it past the death of the 1960s and Allende and Victor Jara, the deaths that killed him? Guthrie: Hard question. Being Phil Ochs, he couldn't make it past all that. Q: Do you ever see videos of the movie that was made of "Alice's Restaurant"? Guthrie: No, not really. I mean, I saw it years ago. Q: You don't like it? Guthrie: It's not that I don't like it. It's that I'm always embarrassed by it. Q: Well, most of the attempts at the time to popularize 1960s culture were incredibly bad. With the exception of Medium Cool, I don't think there was one really good contemporaneous movie about the antiwar movement. Guthrie: Yes. I know what you're getting at. The interesting thing is that the song "Alice's Restaurant" holds up much better, over time, than the movie. The movie looks kind of trivial now. The song holds up in that it's true. Q: Well, the song is kind of the epic poem of the 1960s. Guthrie: And it holds up, no matter who tells it, not only because it's true but also because the quantity of truth makes it hold up. Whereas, there was a huge portion of the movie that was out-and-out fiction. It was a story about commies and hippies in America or something. It was about Alice, garbage, and the draft. That was the vehicle for this other commentary that was going on. And that commentary has fallen short, whereas the thing that was the vehicle has held its ground. I just find that interesting. Q: Any insights on why we didn't get a good movie about the antiwar movement until John Sayles broke the ice with The Return of the Secaucus Seven? Guthrie: Because the movies were made by people of another generation who were trying to understand, sincerely, what was going on - as opposed to being involved. This was their attempt to think about it. Alice's Restaurant was Arthur Penn's and United Artists' attempt to think about it, to get their slant on reality then. In the end, it didn't hold. Q: You have your own record company. Why aren't you with a big label any more? Guthrie: We started our own record company because we realized that we wanted to make the kind of records that big companies didn't want to make. I was with Warner's until the Purge of 1982. That's when Bonnie Raitt and Gordon Lightfoot and a number of people of that group were just let go. At the time, I was doing this record for Warner's and we were $70,000 into it. When we presented it to them, they said, "We don't like it, but we'll put it out." So I said, "Well, considering what you did with records you did like, this doesn't sound very good." I wanted them to give me another $70,000 to make it better. They said, "We're not going to put $70,000 more into a record we don't like." So I said, "Why don't you give me the record?" So they did. I went back to them and said, "You've got a lot of records of mine that you don't even list in the catalog any more. Why don't you give them to me and I'll give you a small percentage of what we sell them for."
So they gave me twelve or so records or whatever it was. And we started our own record company, Rising Son, in order to make them available. The bottom line for us was, unlike Warner Brothers, I didn't need to make a profit-all I needed to do was break even. If the records were out, I was ahead of the game. Very soon, we found we were selling enough of the old records to start making new ones. Then, we added things to the catalog besides records. We started doing stupid T-shirts and all kinds of things we'd never thought of because marketing was not something that people in the Old Left ever thought of.
You'd see a country artist going out selling tapes, but folk singers were too pure for that. So I said, "To hell with that. We've got to make some money here to make new records that our people want to hear. Okay, so there's not millions of 'em out there. But there are certainly 10,000. That's enough to make a record! "
We've started selling everything. We've got all kinds of things that I like, incense, candles, books, videotapes of the Weavers. All kinds of stuff that's hard to get if you live in Des Moines.
And now, we've just finished a record of Woody's children's songs, called Woody's Songs. We're all singing along with Woody - me, my brother, my sister, all our children, all singing with Woody. We've got three generations of Guthries, all singing with the old man. And we've just sold that to Warner Brothers, and they're very happy. Q: In 1990, during the period when George Bush was building up the troops in the Gulf for his little war, a lot of radio stations started playing "Alice's Restaurant" again. Guthrie: And I loved it. I don't think of "Alice's Restaurant" as being mine any more. It's out of my dominion. It belongs to everybody. But I'm glad to receive the royalties. They help.
Claudia Dreifus, a free-lance writer in New York City, is a frequent contributor to The Progressive.
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|Date:||Feb 1, 1993|
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