I heard from an old friend today who I hadn’t talked to in a while. I remember having lots of great conversations with her, but then the old e-mail bounced and I couldn’t find a new one, and you get busy and, and, and…
She heard the news that Arlo Guthrie announced his retirement from touring. She was thinking about the old times when we both volunteered at The Guthrie Center.
If Arlo can write an 18 minute song, I can write a ridiculously long blog post. My apologies in advance. As a famous author once said “I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”
So it’s the end of an era. There was a large tranche of my life in which Arlo figured very prominently. I must have gone to two or three shows a year, maybe more. And in a year of loss, there’s a strange feeling to losing something that’s not really been a part of your life for a while because you get busy and, and, and…
So in writing this I hear Arlo laughing over my shoulder, “What’s any of this got to do with me.” It’s making me self-conscious as I write. Because I am well aware how subjective it is when you think about other people, especially musical people. Music creeps into your memory as part of its texture.
For example, one of the vivid Arlo-related memories is the 25th (I think it was 25th) anniversary Woodstock concert. It was one of those days that stands out as singular in my mind. I was there with my great friends Lynda and Will, hanging out in their van in the mud. Arlo’s performance was a highlight, though I couldn’t tell you much now about it. I remember the place, and the experience and the feeling of being part of something that was outside of everyday experience.
I was between worlds at that moment, I’d left my second radio job and was in the process of moving to Virginia for a third. On the first day of work at that job, I took some time to find a computer and type out my experience so I wouldn’t forget. I didn’t forget, but I lost the thing I wrote. It’s probably in a file in a drawer in storage somewhere. I hope it still exists at any rate. But even if I found it, it’s about my experience of something that involved Arlo. It meant a lot to me, but it’s not really about Arlo. It’s not one of those great stories that sums up who he is. It’s about me and my experience. (I guess that’s the only way I can talk about concerts.)
I’ve been feeling nostalgic. The writer in me instinctively wants to explore the feeling. But I want to talk about it, as much as I can, without getting all literary. It’s an occupational hazard. The technique starts to kick in, all that craft of story-telling built up over the years. I don’t want to be false. So I’m just going to try for first thoughts if you’ll humor me.
I’ve been thinking back to that past self, past selves even, who inhabited places and times where the folk singer was central. Those old selves are connected to me somehow. I remember them, but am not them.
I find that looking back on a past self is like watching children. You have experienced more than they have, but you have to let them make their own mistakes and find their own joys. You can’t judge them. Even if there were some way that your present self could go back tell them what you know, they wouldn’t listen. You really only get what you live.
So I’m looking back, cataloging some of the episodes that were filed in the recesses of my brain with the keyword “Arlo.” They span different eras of my life and different selves. My interest began with my first internship in radio. I wrote here before:
Interestingly, it was while working at 89X that I discovered Arlo Guthrie. The program director, for some reason, had decided to line up an interview with Arlo. I think she was, personally, a fan. The music director, who I was then working with, was on the air and he resented having to do the interview. He didn’t think it fit the format. His first question to the folksinger was “Our listeners probably don’t know who you are…” and it did not improve much from there. I was impressed, however, by the man on the other end of the line, his grace and humor and I wanted to know more.
I guess there is a bit more I could say about this. What I responded to, when I listened to Alice’s Restaurant, was the sense that this artist had created something that was all his own. My late father always used to paraphrase Robert Frost that the goal in life was “to unite avocation with vocation, as two eyes make one sight.” I thought that was what I was seeing. This mix of biography, and craft, the audacity of recording a song that had no chance of being played on the radio. There was a naturalness to it that I aspired to and felt I lacked.
I continued the narrative of my experience of Arlo in the next blog post, and I’ll repost that here as well:
I promised that I would continue my narrative with the music of my adult life. I realized that I have already written some of this, however, and so I give you this excerpt from the book Arlo, Alice and Anglicans. It discusses my first radio job after graduating from broadcast school:
Not long after, I got my own airshift at “your light rock, more music station KJF” in Cadillac, Michigan. At the time, the station’s format was AC/Gold, which meant that it played a combination of the innocuous hits of today with a generous helping of oldies. I worked at KJF at the end of an era. My co-workers and I actually cued up records. For those who are too young to remember, the word “record” is short for recording. It referred to black vinyl discs with grooved surfaces. Cuing a record involved putting the stylus in the groove, finding the very beginning of the sound and then spinning the record back a quarter turn, thus allowing the turntable to get up to speed before the music began. (When it was not up to speed you got an embarrassing swoosh into the song.)
Cuing records didn’t allow a D.J. a lot of time to sit around. Today, with automation technology, D.J.s are generally unnecessary. If there is an actual human being in the booth, the music is usually played by a computer. If you hear the announcer say, “We’ll be back after this 20 minute music marathon,” that actually means that, if there was a live announcer in the booth at all, she’s now going to go away and let the music marathon play from a computer while she does other things. Back in the cuing vinyl days, this was not the case. While the song played, an announcer was busy selecting the next record, cuing it up on the turn table and getting the commercials which were all recorded on individual cartridge tapes.
When I say “selecting the next record,” I don’t simply mean taking it out of its jacket. In those days, the music was not chosen with the aid of a computer program. Disc jockeys actually had some say in what we put on the air. The station manager did have a way of making sure we didn’t play the same songs over and over. We had what was called a clock hour. It was a pie chart, representing an hour, divided into three minute intervals. In each section was a color representing a category of music to be played in that time. Each song we played was written on the top of an index card. The cards were kept in the studio. When you played a song, you wrote the time and day on the card. You had to play music from the correct category at the correct time. As long as two other air shifts had played the specific song since you had, you could play it.
This method allowed D.J.s to do theme shows, take requests… and go to the bathroom. In every radio station I’ve ever seen, the bathroom is about as far as humanly possible from the air studio. Therefore, if nature called, a D.J. either had to be very quick or he had to play a very long song. If you ask a D.J. who worked at a rock station in the 1970s or early 80s, he can probably tell you the exact lengths of the long songs from memory. The longest song on our official play list was Don McLean’s “American Pie” at a wonderful, get a snack, 8:28. It was always the background music for studio emergencies. At KJF, we were always getting in trouble for playing certain songs more frequently than others. Our station manager believed we all loved Chicago’s “Beginnings” (7:41 with a full one minute drum fade at the end), The Beatles “Hey Jude” (7:02) and Al Stewart’s “The Year of the Cat” (7:38). They weren’t really our favorite songs, we just had to go to the bathroom, and those Dave Clark Five songs (1:51) were just useless.
In the 1970s, long songs were very popular. I believe this was the bathroom phenomena at work. After releasing a 6:26 song, a band would suddenly get lots of air play. When MTV came about in the 1980s, the VJs didn’t actually stand around and play the videos. They had all the time they needed to go to the bathroom, so short songs came back into style.
Of course, it was possible for an artist to carry the long thing a little too far. Even in the vinyl disc days of radio, it was difficult to drop in a song that was the length of the average sit-com. Such was the case with “Alice’s Restaurant.” Our station manager refused to have a copy of the 18 and a half minute record on the premises. It would have gotten what they call “saturation play” late at night while overnight D.J.s (another casualty of automation) took naps. There was, in fact, a whole mythology among DJs surrounding that song. Many announcers had colorful stories of things they had done during that 18 minutes. (Most of them were probably lies)
Despite it’s enduring popularity, “Alice’s Restaurant” was never a chart hit. Apparently, the record company couldn’t figure out how to release an 18 minute song on a radio-friendly 45 without having it fall off the edges of the disc. (An abbreviated version, Alice’s Rock & Roll Restaurant, made it to number 97 on the charts.) Once a year at Thanksgiving though, the KJF public wanted to hear nothing else. The story that Arlo Guthrie tells in “Alice’s Restaurant” begins on Thanksgiving. It is a tenuous connection to the holiday at best, the song has about as much to do with Thanksgiving as it has to do with, well, Alice. But as the marketing people would say, Arlo found a niche that was not being serviced. Can you name another rock and roll Thanksgiving song? Can you name another Thanksgiving song, period? That is why, once a year, members of the baby boom generation called KJF to request it.
One thing I failed to mention in this introduction is that listeners had this strange belief that radio stations had magical access to every recording ever made. When people called to request “Alice’s Restaurant” and I said we didn’t have it I meant we did not have it. The only Arlo Guthrie record we physically had in the studio was “City of New Orleans.” Callers, for some reason, found this hard to believe.
That is, of course, the story for public consumption.
Then there are the memories that can’t be unwound from the personal, and they have not been told, and most probably never will be. One of my first vivid “Arlo” memories has to do with a picture that I had cut from the back of a CD long box. Do you remember CD long boxes? For a brief moment, to make CDs fit in the space for LPs, they packaged albums in these disposable rectangular boxes with all the album art. It seemed wasteful to me, so I liked to cut them up and put my favorites on my refrigerator.
The picture to the right, from “Alice’s Restaurant,” was stuck to the fridge with a blue magnet in the shape of a frog, painted psychedelic colors. (The magnet, for some reason, really draws me back to that time.) But the image from the CD box is distorted in my memory because of how I looked at it, up from the floor, where I was lying with a phone cord stretched into the bedroom as I tried to get to the ex-boyfriend who was stalking me to understand I didn’t want him to call any more. That now-ancient history dominated every waking moment of my life for a time. Only the unplugged phone and an Arlo CD on repeat provided a respite. If I could have told that young woman she would not have believed it: Things that are all consuming in the moment can be almost forgotten years later.
I went to my first Arlo concert when I lived in Pennsylvania, working at my second radio job. It was the early era of the internet, and I also discovered a community that existed on message boards that you dialed into with Prodigy and later AOL.
I wrote a letter to the Rolling Blunder Review (Arlo’s entertaining newsletter) around this time asking why the “27 8×10 color glossy photos” in the movie of Alice’s Restaurant were in black and white. It got printed with a response, but Arlo couldn’t read my signature and I became L?L in that close-knit world.
And so I will continue, to quote from another old post here:
There was a period of my life when I was entirely Arlo immersed. That voice, his pauses, his relaxed comic delivery, lived in my mind in familiar phrases. I could share those catch-phrases with others in the greater Arlo community, which I assure you does exist and is quite as vibrant as I imagined it might be when I had hippie fantasies stoked by the film version of Alice’s Restaurant.
Incidentally, when you go to a lot of Arlo Guthrie concerts in the same year, you tend to hear the same stories repeated…
Arlo’s way of talkin’, the music of it, has found a permanent place in my thoughts and is probably a subconscious and generally unacknowledged influence on my writing…
I thought of The Garden Song and that moment when Arlo asks the crowd to sing along and then says, “Stop the song.” The audience is with him, but they are not enthusiastic enough. They’re happy to listen, but not yet ready to participate.
“Why should I sing along with that dingleberry folk song anyway?” In another version of this narration Arlo takes on the voice of an audience member and says, “I’m not going to sing that song because I hate gardens, and I hate songs about them.”…
II tried to imagine how I could use this tactic. (To sell books) “I’m not going to buy that book because I hate words, and I hate books filled with them…”
I tried to imagine how I could start from that spot, modulate the cadence, bring people along until there was a crescendo of enthusiasm, good feeling and support; take my audience from passively clicking like to clapping and singing out loud, telling their friends what a great story they have experienced.
Ah, but I’m not Arlo. Print is not verbal poetry. And I don’t play the guitar.
And at this point, the narration of my experience of Arlo becomes more difficult, because I did get to know him a little bit when I moved to New York on the Massachusetts border, but I find that I’m more comfortable still telling Arlo-adjacent stories rather than Arlo ones.
That part of my history started when I wrote a book about the old church that was the setting for Alice, and then became involved in The Guthrie Center, and had a part time job at Arlo’s office in the front where there was a shop called the Arlozone.
As I described it here before “This ranks up there with shopping mall Easter Bunny and professional mime as one of my oddest jobs. The job itself was not all that odd. I worked a cash register, rang up coffee, CD purchases and bowls of soup. What was odd is that I was working in a shop that sold Arlo Guthrie merchandise, cups of coffee and bowls of soup.”
I made a note at one point when I was working there: Most commonly heard question at Arlozone: “Does Arlo ever come in here?” And its variation: “Is Arlo here now?” Weirdest questions: “Did Arlo make the coffee? Did Arlo use the soap?”
A lot of little bits and pieces of that experience ended up in the novel Identity Theft. I tend to find that I need to draw on a real physical space to ground my writing. So some of the little details of the office are based on experience, although none of the characters in Identity Theft were based on anyone I knew. (Except maybe aspects of myself.)
To self-quote again: “The shop did not have huge traffic. So I had a lot of time to sit and think about writing. It was there that I started to imagine that a famous person’s office (and the mundane, every day tasks there) would make a good setting for fiction and to further imagine that a great dramatic conflict would be to have someone use his insider status to pose as a celebrity and wreak some kind of havok– what kind, and how it would play out I did not initially know.”
Most of my memories surrounding Arlo are joyous. They are social and involve community, the community of The Guthrie Center mostly. But also the community of fans who met up a few times a year at concerts. The nostalgia for those times at “The Church” listening to music, inventing programs (some that worked, some that didn’t) talking to people while ringing up a t-shirt in the Arlzone. It’s all intertwined now with a general nostalgia for face to face community. There is a quality to face to face interaction that can’t be replicated. There’s a sense of belonging that is built among people who are breathing the same air.
If I could time-machine myself back and do it again, and appreciate it more, and stress about life less, and do everything better I would. It’s one of those grand existential crises that you can really only laugh about. You live it first, you learn how you should have done it only when it’s too late to do anything about it.
So that’s the thing about Alice’s Restaurant, any number of songs, the musical riff contains that dysfunctional relationship with my ex-boyfriend, it contains my first radio job, and burning out on my last radio job. It contains the time I spent with some of my closest friends at an anniversary concert for Woodstock, the times I met Arlo face to face, and the communities that it connected me to. I can give glimpses, but I can’t share with you the shape of the emotions those memories evoke. I’m sure you have yours too.
I’ve been giving some thought to how many concerts Arlo Guthrie must have performed over his life, how many people attended each, and the memories and the feelings are exponential.
It’s too early to talk about something as grand as “legacy.” Arlo’s retirement message said he is giving up touring but he’s not going anywhere. So I think that my overall feeling is gratitude that we all have an opportunity to share what some of those moments meant to us while he’s still around. Right now while we’re thinking about it before we get busy and, and, and…