Everything’s Cool in World According to Arlo Guthrie
For a ‘60s veteran like Arlo Guthrie, these are weird and confusing times.
Flag-waving support of America has taken hold with a febrile fury. War is in. Drugs are out. Conformity is trendy; individuality isn’t.
Still, in the world according to Arlo, who for a quarter of a century eschewed his father’s daunting shadow by singing his own folk songs with a smile, none of this is worth getting all worked up about.
“I think we’re in one of those transitional times, where you feel like you ought to feel good, but you’re not sure why,” Guthrie said during an interview last week. “It’s probably just because we don’t know what ‘the new world order’ means.”
With that, Guthrie laughs, as usual.
More than two decades since Woody Guthrie’s smart-aleck, 20-year-old kid wrote “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” an anti-draft novelty song that rallied a movement, spawned a movie and still tickles audiences today, Arlo is still grinning and needling everything, himself included.
“Basically,” he explains, “I think you need two things to get by in this world: a sense of humor and the ability to laugh when your ego is destroyed.”
Guthrie, 43, speaks from experience. Commercial success, for him, didn’t last much longer than the 18 minutes it takes to listen to the “Massacree” in its entirety. The closest he ever came to a hit record was his version of Steve Goodman’s “The City of New Orleans,” which peaked at No. 18 in 1972.
Consequently, for about two decades running, Guthrie has played mostly before small, loyal crowds in clubs across the country, except when he has teamed up with Pete Seeger for performances of larger venues.
Guthrie rarely records any more. His only release in the past dozen years was “Someday” in 1986.
He says he may return to the studio this year, however, to cut a new album. And he still has yet to record his updated version of “Alice’s Restaurant,” which he wrote and took on tour in 1987 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his most famous ditty.
His most likely upcoming project, though, is a children’s record that he has been asked to do by Warner Bros.
Through the years and the descent from relative stardom, Guthrie has retained a vision of optimism, about both his career and the world he sees around him. And not only because of his impish humor and longtime friendship with Seeger, the seemingly ageless, ever-hopeful activist/folk singer.
Beneath the rise of new conservatism through the 1980s and into the ‘90s, Guthrie says he has witnessed a heightened social awareness, on some level, among people of all ages and cultures.
“Most people really don’t want to be so distant from different people from around the world, I don’t think,” he said. “And we had been in America. But we’re entering a new, global age. And that means reconciling ourselves to living with much more diversity, which means a lot more tolerance than I ever thought we would have.”
Guthrie’s view of global convergence may smack of naivete, but can be better understood in the context of his live performances.
With his offbeat brand of comedy, philosophy and music, Guthrie draws a remarkably diverse audience that bridges generational and ideological gaps.
“Everywhere I go, I see all kinds of people at my shows--conservatives, liberals, new-agers, teen-agers, old pensioners,” he said. “And, for those people to have something in common is real interesting to me.”
Guthrie is joining in that generational unity himself these days, often performing with his son, Abraham.
On his current tour, which stops at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano today and Wednesday, the younger Guthrie will open the show with his band, Xavier, a metal outfit “that borders on spandex,” his father jokes. After Arlo takes the stage for a set with his own band, father and son team up for a few acoustic numbers.
“See, that’s normal to me. I think it’s nice when your kids want to do what you’re doing,” he said. “It’s a nice way to move through time.”
Guthrie then reflected back on his famous folk-singer father, who died while Arlo was in his teens. “I, unfortunately, didn’t get a chance to do that with my own dad, so this is really special for me.”
And, Guthrie adds, that timeless sense of shared celebration is what folk music was, and should be, all about.
“I don’t think that’s any new phenomenon. That’s the way it always was. It’s just that that was disrupted recently,” during the 1960s, he said. “We went through a cultural revolution here. And it’s taken a couple of decades to get it back to normal.”
For the past six years, even though he hasn’t been recording, Guthrie has helped to sustain that spirit by publishing a quirky, quarterly newsletter, appropriately called “Rolling Blunder Review.”
RBR started with a mailing list of a few thousand fans Guthrie had accumulated through the years. Its circulation soared to 60,000--before he started charging for subscriptions.
About 7,000 “blunderites” now pay $5 a year for four issues of the eight-sheet review. Typically it features Guthrie’s philosophical and satirical banterings, tour listings, “recipes from Alice’s Restaurant” and two pages of letters, complete with the editor’s wry responses.
And, as Guthrie acknowledges, it’s a handy way to merchandise his records, T-shirts and other paraphernalia offered through his Massachusetts-based Rising Sons Records.
“Plus, I have fun pretending to be a reporter,” he says.
But with the publication, as with Guthrie’s music, beneath the playful whimsy lies a fervent idealism, the same spirit that inspired his father’s ageless odes chronicling the struggles of the disaffected.
Indeed, upon being reminded of a slogan on one of Woody’s guitars proclaiming “This machine kills fascists,” Arlo turned serious, replying: “It still does. And maybe people are embarrassed about that, especially people who aspire to political power. . . .
“They’re all minute in comparison to what musicians have done the last few decades, in terms of changing the world, and making it a better place to live.”
* Arlo Guthrie sings at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $19.50. Also Wednesday. Information: (714) 496-8930.