There's a story making the rounds about a recent songwriting symposium in the Northwest that featured several stars of acoustic music. Someone raised the issue of the "signature song"--that one tune with which an artist becomes most closely identified, frequently to his great regret.
"How'd you like to be known for writing a song about seeing a dead skunk in the middle of the road?" Loudon Wainwright III ("Dead Skunk," 1972) is supposed to have complained, provoking much laughter.
"Hey, how'd you like to be known for writing a song that's 18 minutes long?" countered panelist Arlo Guthrie in reference to "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," the 1967 song-yarn that introduced the folk musician, then 20 years old, to the pop world.
When told about the story Tuesday, Guthrie laughed, mostly at its apocryphal nature.
"I haven't taken part in a songwriting symposium in I don't know how many years," he cheerfully demurred from his hotel room in Tempe, Ariz., one of the stops on a concert tour that will bring him to the Theatre East in El Cajon tonight. "But if I had, and the subject had come up, I'd probably have said something just like that."
For Guthrie, now 44, "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" was the anomaly that became an albatross. Clocking in at exactly 18 minutes and 20 seconds, the sung-spoken epic related Guthrie's Thanksgiving Day 1965 arrest for littering in Stockbridge, Mass., the town to which he had returned after dropping out of college in Billings, Mont. Somehow, Guthrie tied this tale to his subsequent problems with the local draft board, and he bookended the whole affair with a refrain about a real eatery in Stockbridge run by a real woman named Alice Brock.
Laden with social commentary that Guthrie leavened with absurd humor, the talking-blues consumed the entire first side of the "Alice's Restaurant" album. The song (which was never released as a single) and the album became huge, albeit unlikely, underground hits during that Summer of Love. Two years later, in 1969, director Arthur Penn made it the basis of his movie, "Alice's Restaurant," starring Guthrie.
Guthrie went on to have several other popular songs--including "Coming Into Los Angeles" in 1969 and the 1972 recording of the late Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans," his biggest hit--but he would be inextricably linked with his breakthrough narrative. Guthrie stopped performing "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" many years ago, but he revived it for the 1985 Newport (R.I.) Folk Festival, and again in 1987 for the 20th anniversary of the song's release. Today, the musician accepts the ode's prominent place in his public life, and he's even thinking of releasing an updated version.
"I've added to it some important historical footnotes," he said in the idiosyncratic cadence first heard on the song itself. "Probably the most intriguing one concerns a talk I had with Jimmy Carter's son, Chip, at Carter's inauguration. Chip told me he'd found a copy of 'Alice's Restaurant' in Richard Nixon's record library at the White House. That got me to thinkin'. Y'know, that gap in Rosemary Woods' tape was 18 minutes and 20 seconds--the exact same length as my song.
"Now, I'm not implying anything," Guthrie added impishly of the infamous Watergate incident involving Nixon's secretary. "I'm just pointing out pertinent historical data."
To this day, Guthrie is befuddled by the success of his "signature song," and by the role in which it unexpectedly cast him.
"Who would have thought 'Alice's Restaurant' was going to be a hit?" he asked. "No one writes an 18-minute monologue with his sights set on radio play. Heck, I never even expected 'City of New Orleans' to be a hit, and that's a much more normal song. To tell you the truth, I was never completely comfortable with all the attention I got because of that 'Alice' song."
Although he would continue to record and tour into the '80s, by then Guthrie's popularity had settled to a cultish level commensurate with the low profile and bucolic lifestyle he and his wife maintain on their non-working farm in Washington, Mass. While some popular musicians would bridle at such isolation, Guthrie views it as an opportunity for self-sufficiency.
For the past five years, the singer has published a quarterly newsletter called Rolling Blunder Review, a folksy collection of articles and amusing tidbits that always features a recipe submitted by Alice Brock. (Brock is semi-retired in Provincetown, Mass.) In 1983, Guthrie started his own label, Rising Son Records, and eventually acquired the rights to the albums he had recorded for Warner Brothers, including "Alice's Restaurant."
Since then, Guthrie has released modest numbers of reissues of his early albums, which he claims are doing just fine.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm not earning any platinum records or anything," he said. "I can't afford to press 200,000 copies of something and then sit around waiting for them to sell. But you'd be surprised at how well some of that music is still moving."
And Guthrie would be surprised, and not necessarily overjoyed, if he ever had another chart-topper. "See, I grew up around music that was never meant for the Top 40," explained the eldest child of the late, legendary folk musician ("This Land is Your Land") and political activist, Woody Guthrie. "So there came a time in my career when I just threw in the towel as far as worrying about hits and sales figures and charts and all that."
And when exactly was that?
"Right after I released my first record!" he replied, laughing.
Nevertheless, the fact that he's hardly a ubiquitous vision on MTV doesn't mean that Guthrie is idle, creatively speaking.
"I'm still writing songs, and after this tour we'll probably take time to work on a new record," he said. "I really like some of the new tunes we're doing, and we're looking forward to playing them in San Diego." The "we" includes Guthrie's backup band, Xavier, which features his son, Abe, on keyboards.
"These kids range in age from 18 to about 22. Having two extra guitarists, a keyboardist, a percussionist, and a bassist enables me to duplicate as closely as possible the sound of my records. They're a hot band, and it's been great fun playing with them," he said enthusiastically. Father and son are especially anxious to hit town because it will reunite them with Guthrie's daughter, a student at San Diego State University. Two other daughters attend school in Florida.
That Guthrie has reached a point in life when he can enjoy his four grown children is itself a blessing that the singer doesn't regard lightly. Woody Guthrie contracted Huntington's disease--a genetically transmitted degenerative disorder of the nervous system--at age 40. Inactive and hospitalized for much of the last decade of his life, he died at age 55 the same year that "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" made his son a star. Arlo learned to live with the fear that he would inherit the fatal illness, whose specter he keeps at bay with his usual good humor.
"Hey, I'm fine!" he exclaimed when the subject was raised. "Y'know, there's no due date on that stuff; it can get you at any time. But I feel great. It probably would be hard for people to tell if I got it anyway," he added, chuckling, "because I'm naturally crazy!"
Arlo Guthrie and Xavier will perform one show at 8 p.m. today at Theatre East, in the East County Performing Arts Center, 210 East Main St., El Cajon. Doors open at 7p.m.