Arlo Guthrie Talks ‘Alice’s Restaurant’, Woodstock, Taking Care Of His Dad As A Teen, & More At The Shubert Theatre

“I don’t know how I survived it, but somehow or another, here we are.”

This was famed folk singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie, who discussed a pivotal four months at the end of 1969 that changed the course of his life: playing Woodstock in August, buying his forever home in Western Massachusetts in September, marrying his late wife Jackie in October, and Alice’s Restaurant the movie releasing in November.

Talk about a banner year.

Guthrie kicked off his What’s Left of Me tour in Boston at the Shubert Theatre this past Saturday April 1st in front of an eager audience. And across the street inside the historic Wang Theatre, where the new Folk Americana Roots Hall of Fame (FARHOF) resides, is a brand new coinciding Arlo Guthrie exhibit with a multitude of memorabilia and artifacts chronicling the iconic folk singer’s life and career.

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Having been retired from the road a fresh three years, Guthrie was set to simply kick back and regale the crowd with stories facilitated by curator and moderator Bob Santelli, who helped pioneer Guthrie’s new exhibit and has a laundry list of his own accolades in the music world.

At 8 o’ clock the lights dimmed, and on the screen came a giant claymation pickle. What would transpire in the next five or so minutes was a comically psychedelic stop-motion animated cartoon playing over a version of Guthrie’s iconic track, “The Motorcycle Song.” 

After firmly planting smiles on the faces of the audience, the lights came on and out came Guthrie and Santelli to a round of applause. 

Naturally, the two got talking about Guthrie’s upbringing, and how he coped with his famous father Woody Guthrie being in and out of hospitals much of his life, and having to take care of him in certain ways as an adolescent. Guthrie discussed playing records that would come rolling in from all over the world with various versions of “This Land is Your Land,” and he’d play them for Woody, to which he “got a kick out of them,” Guthrie said. Woody suffered from Huntington’s Disease, and would succumb to it October 3rd, 1967 when Arlo was 20.

He told a story back in the early 60s when a crazy-eyed corkscrew-haired teenager came knocking on his family’s door one day asking if Woody was home. His babysitter and siblings were aghast to see the stranger welcomed inside, and they wondered why the hell Arlo didn’t say “no” and shoo the transient away- but apparently he simply liked his shoes. “So I let Bob Dylan in,” he ended with, eliciting a roar of applause and laughter from the audience.

Then it was time to talk turkey.

And when one thinks of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, gravy and the like, they think of Thanksgiving. And when thinking of iconic songs around Thanksgiving, few come to mind like Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.”

This was also the first song he wrote, and it happened to eclipse 18 minutes- a track he’d have to remember how to play for decades to come. What started as some playful goofing around with friends would go on to cement a revolutionary folk track that even spawned a movie Guthrie notoriously hated. 

“Do you ever get tired of that song?” Santelli asked and gestured to the crowd, to which he got a booming “Nooo!”

“I do!” Said Guthrie. Cue crowd laughter.

Guthrie talked about the transition from hit album to a phone call from director Arthur Penn, who wanted to capitalize on the record sales and make a movie about the epic song. Penn had just directed the successful 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, and had his sights set on Alice’s Restaurant next.

Guthrie said Penn heard many people thought it was a made-up story, but Penn knew it was true, and wanted people to realize it. But the end result would be a movie with an uneven blend of truth and fiction, creating an even murkier haze around the event.

“It was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it was great for me as an 18 and 19-year-old kid- to be in a movie?! But I mean I wasn’t an actor, I wasn’t very believable, and the problem is that the song is 20-minutes long, but a movie has to be 90 minutes long. So they had to make up 70 minutes of stuff, and the things they made up was stuff I was uncomfortable with.” 

He discussed how the fictional parts put himself and others ill at ease, largely because they were tying their real names to false happenings. Things like the actress who played Alice (Pat Quinn) having affairs or at least hinting at that, which rubbed the real Alice and Guthrie the wrong way, as it was untrue. It was the ambiguous amalgam of truth and fiction that was difficult for Guthrie to get behind in the film, knowing viewers would be confused as to what’s real and what’s not. 

“What can you tell us about the last time you saw the movie?”

“Well, I don’t remember the last time, but I can tell you about the first time. I walked out.” The crowd got a kick.

“It was premiering in New York, and the first thing was they wouldn’t let me in… because I was- me. I kept going, ‘I’m the guy in the poster!’ They just said, ‘I don’t care who ya are. If you don’t got a ticket, ya don’t get in.’”

He said he bought two tickets, but gave them away to a couple on the street who recognized him, and eventually when the producers got there he skirted in with them. But it wasn’t long before he would put down his popcorn and walk out. Guthrie would go on to do a few more movies and television appearances, including an appearance on The Muppets in 1979. 

Santelli then posed the question to Guthrie if being asked to play “Alice’s Restaurant” became a burden over the decades.

“People’s lives happen, and the music that’s going on at that time becomes linked to whatever’s going on. You fall in love, your dog dies, you get in a car crash- somethin’ happens, and every time you hear that music you remember those things. So ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ became one of those things. Fine! If you’ve got a 2-3 minute song! But 18 minutes? Every night? For all your life? Screw that!” 

When the subject of Woodstock was inevitably brought up, Guthrie told Santelli, “I remember gettin’ there, but I don’t remember leavin’.”

He would reflect on recognizing in the moment the historical magnitude of what was going on, especially when his friend and famed concert promoter Michael Lang made the call to let the masses trample the fences and get in free. 

When Santelli asked Guthrie if he was satisfied with his performance, he let out a resounding, “No!” To which the crowd got a good chuckle. The likely stoned stage crew forgot to turn his mics on, and he explained how the audio version that’s played of “Coming into Los Angeles” over the Woodstock footage was actually recorded weeks after under different circumstances. 

There were rumblings prior that Guthrie might just bust out his guitar and play a few songs, and while he was maybe nudged and coerced a bit, he did eventually do just that.

“This Land is Your Land”

Guthrie first played a beautiful instrumental tune, and a little later gave the crowd exactly what they hoped for: he sang the folk song of all folk songs, his father’s very own, “This Land is Your Land.” After he hit the final chord, the crowd erupted in hysterical applause- a rumbling roar that might’ve just jolted the spirit of Woody if he wasn’t already in that room. 

He would end the night with a song he noted was one he always closed with: “My Peace.” 

While Father Time has caught up with ol’ Arlo and naturally his performing isn’t what it was some odd years ago (hence the retiring, but he still sounded good) he very much maintained his signature storytelling wit and sense of humor that captured the hearts of many. 

Preserving the legacies of these iconic folk troubadours is imperative, and teaching and inspiring the younger generations is crucial. These legends who paved the way in the golden era of music will not be around forever, and it’s important to hear, absorb, and pass on their incredible stories. You just never know who might write the next “Alice’s Restaurant.”

Thanks Arlo, thanks Woody, and thanks to places like the Folk Americana Roots Hall of Fame for helping preserve and perpetuate such essential legacies.  

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