Tuesday, June 09, 2009

"It's not like it's dead, and it's not like
it only belonged here."

Twenty years ago, I interviewed Arlo Guthrie for a story that ran June 16, 1989, in the Press-Republican of Plattsburgh, NY. It was the second time I'd interviewed him, and both times we had a very enjoyable conversation that could only be hinted in the story that came from it. But this time, he said some things that have stuck with me and that I've referred to many times since, and thought of many more. Here's the story.

Staff Writer

SARANAC LAKE - Arlo Guthrie will be bringing his guitar and his catalog of songs to Saranac Lake Friday, June 23, for an 8 p.m. concert at the Harrietstown Town Hall. It's a quiet style he has been pursuing for the past year and a half, after touring previously with a backup band and a country rock approach to his music.

"I really haven't toured like this since '67 when (Alice's Restaurant) came out," he said, in an interview from his rural Massachusetts home. "It's been great. I'm having a lot more fun. It's a little more work, but it's a little more intimate, too."

Although he is a country-dwelling family man, Guthrie still maintains a busy schedule. He spends more than 200 days out of the year on the road, and recently went into the record business, buying out the rights to the 13 albums he recorded for Columbia, bringing them out on his own Rising Son label and handling distribution through mail-order and at his concerts.

"It's been fabulous," he said of the cottage industry approach to recording. "We're actually making more money than we were when we were with the company."

That busy schedule is made a little busier by the fact that his four children are no longer young enough to simply come along. So a lot of his touring is in short spurts, with trips back to Massachusetts and the family between gigs.

"They're in that sort of critical time when they have to be in school, and they're involved with sports and all those kinds of things, so they can't just pop up and go anymore. But my wife is here all the time; she doesn't travel with me as much." Then he laughed. "They only go where there's palm trees."

But other people's teen-agers do go to his concerts, which he admits is not what you might expect, considering he made his mark as a 1960s' troubadour.

"Surprisingly enough, it seems there are a lot of younger people who are showing up," he said. "I haven't asked them why; I really don't want to know. But I find it interesting."

The fact that his audience is made up of more than 1960s veterans helps keep his music fresh, he said. "It's one of the things that makes me not want to stop doing 'Alice's Restaurant' right away, because it's a whole herd of people showing up who only know it through the record or through the movie. Live, it's a different thing, and so I'm playing it for the first time to a lot of people, and it doesn't turn out to be the nostalgic ballad it could be if I were playing it for my own peers over and over."

The fact that younger audiences respond to it may be part of a general trend among young people to look back on the 1960s with longing, and the feeling that their own time is not as interesting as their parents' was — that there is nothing going on for them now.

"I think their instincts are probably right," he laughed. "I think it was a fabulous time to be alive and it was a fabulous time to be a teen-ager. It was great; there's no doubt about it."

But that doesn't mean that there is nothing interesting going on right now, he noted: "It just isn't going on in the United States. For other young people, in other places, this may be the generation their children wax romantic over.

"I think what's going on in the Soviet Union right now, and what's going on in China right now, and what's going on in Poland, for those young people, this is that time," he said. "It's not like it's dead, and it's not like it only belonged here."

Moreover, Guthrie said, the various movements towards freedom and democracy will continue to inspire young people in other places, just as they always have. "There were people in other countries in the world who, 20 years ago, were looking this way. Younger people, I think, shortly, will begin to look elsewhere and see that they can participate in what's going on."

Of course, those people who know what happened in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, one Thanksgiving already know it only takes three people to make a movement.

For those who don't know, or may have forgotten, or want to hear it again, Arlo Guthrie will be appearing at the Harrietstown Town Hall in Saranac Lake, Friday, June 23, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12.50 in advance and $14 at the door and may be purchased at the Saranac Lake Chamber of Commerce and Peacock Records in Plattsburgh.

(I took my son, Jed, to the concert. We had a great time. In two years, he'll be the age I was then.)


Vt Teacher said...

It was your other son's first concert.

Mike said...

I hadn't remembered it was your first -- Talk about setting the bar high. A very intimate acoustic evening with John Sebastian on the undercard. No sidemen for either of them. Practically a coffeehouse atmosphere.

Your brother (and I) just had a "when I was your age" discussion. He's about six months from the age I was when I left Colorado, which makes him feel old and me feel older.

Brian Fies said...

Nice interview with Arlo. I've always considered myself a fan but remember reading other interviews in which he came off as pretty surly, especially about Alice's Restaurant. I enjoy seeing a more thoughtful, appreciative side (even if it was 20 years ago).

My wife Karen just remarked yesterday that in one year our daughters will be as old as she was when we married. I couldn't believe it. She actually had to take me through the math twice to convince me. Time + Family is an amazing, potent combo.