Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Importance of Being Arlo

by Jesse Jarnow

I can't really put a finger on my earliest memories of hearing Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant Thanksgiving Day Massacree" the same way I can sometimes conjure the primal textures of my first exposures to the Beatles or the Pete Seeger LPs my parents played (at my demand) repeatedly. I remember my father singing "The Motorcycle Song," maybe, as a lullaby. I might be making that up. Perhaps it was just on some family trip. I have vague sleepy recollections of seeing Guthrie with Seeger at Carnegie Hall at one (or several?) of their Thanksgiving concerts in the early '80s and Seeger hollering a solo a capella song while chopping through a small piece of wood with an axe, which was actually quietly terrifying at the time and, in retrospect, also kind of badass. Their double-live album Together in Concert likewise provides my personal platonic Proustian memory: the particular smell of LP cover cardboard trapping the thin plastic sleeves Warner Brothers used during the early '80s. Also, an excellent solo piano version of Guthrie doing Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans" with Seeger (or a lightly overdubbed second Arlo?) joining with not-quite-gusto on the choruses.

But I didn't come to tell you about snorting the musty insides of record jackets or great cover songs. I came to tell you about "Alice's Restaurant."

One homesick autumn early in college, probably right near Thanksgiving time, I used some pre-Napster file-borrowing technology to nab an mp3 of the straight-up 18:20 album recording of Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant," likely one of the first 10 mp3s I ever downloaded. And somehow, miraculously, it has survived at least 10 laptops and countless panicked harddrive failures and, a decade-and-a-half later, still exists on my harddrive: a profoundly lo-fi 128 kbps rip of the song, untagged with an album or a track number, and with a sound as distinct to my ears as the familiar crackle of a record. My "Alice." (Eat it, Walter Benjamin, and download it below.)

When I listened in college, I realized that I pretty much knew all of "Alice," word for word, beat for beat, with full orchestration and proverbial five-part harmony, in some deep down part of me. Later, I appropriated my parents' thrashed Alice LP, held together with yellowing library tape, with its liner notes about "Arlo's folk-style Bar Mitzvah, which was held when he was about 13 1/2 years old in a Second Avenue dance studio loft on New York's lower East Side. Woody was there. So was Cisco Houston, Pete Seeger, The Weavers, and many others. Arlo was ushered into manhood with songs, guitar-pickin', square dancing, harmonica playing, and ritual blessings in what was the first (and probably the only) Hootenanny Bar Mitzvah in history."

Arlo's "sweet young rabbi" was a 20-something Meir Kahane, about eight years from founding the ultra-radical Jewish Defense League, their logo a raised fist inside a Star of David. "Rabbi Kahane was a really nice, patient teacher," Guthrie recalled to the Jewish Journal in 2004. "But shortly after he gave me my lessons, he started going haywire. Maybe I was responsible."

I was never Bar Mitzvahed. But as the product of a secular hippie upbringing, it was hundreds (thousands?) of memorized texts precisely like "Alice's Restaurant" that helped map my emerging worldview. Sometimes, their ingestion was self-guided and systematic, other times circumstantial and a product of the traditions of the world around me. Alice and the rest-terr-awwnt undoubtedly fell mostly under the latter. Probably, I'm not alone. Guthrie has called "Alice" an "anti-stupidity" song, and it's hard to miss that didactic aspect of the folk-tale. But--as I'd started to observe around college-time--it was also so plainly and obviously a really tight, excellent piece of writing that transmitted content, personality, style and pure lulz. Every single word was jiggled into its proper rhythmic place. Like Hunter S. Thompson's Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, "Alice" was an extended stoned reverie edited to devastating effect.

The first known recording of the song, from early 1966 at Gerde's Folk City, has a 19-year old Arlo running down a ten-minute, molasses slow version that's predominantly an extended riff on how the word of "Alice's Restaurant" might spread from MacDougal and Bleecker Streets to Greenwich Village to the west side, downtown and uptown, and beyond. There are a few familiar phrasings and Guthrie's got a Coney Island cowboy drawl that sounds awfully familiar, but there's not much to it. By February, though, if the dates on these recordings are correct, Guthrie had debuted an expanded "Alice" on Bob Fass's Radio Unnameable on New York's WBAI.

The song is far faster and jumpier than what Guthrie would record a year later, its creator clearly giddy with his new creation, which is almost totally complete. It's so fast that the rhythms and phrasings of Guthrie's word torrents reveal themselves and one can easily imagine a pepped-up Arlo dinging the song out on a typewriter with the guitar pattern running on an endless, obsessive loop in his head. It's almost entirely there, the pauses and self-interruptions, as nuanced as a screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen. But it's not all there either. Some punchlines don't quite work, some line-breaks need to be elongated. The real measure of the song's strength is exactly how well Guthrie remembers it all. It might sound like a ramble, but "Alice" is a song with verses and lyrics that run in nearly exact clockwork precision atop its changes. Some of the time.

The matching album was released in September 1967, but it was already an underground hit, if not before Guthrie's Newport Folk Festival appearance in August, then certainly by its conclusion. And he was already growing weary of his masterpiece. On a recording from October 1st of that year at the Bitter End, only a few weeks after its official issue, the crowd claps wildly when Guthrie strikes up the song. "You don't know which version I'm gonna do," he warns, "and there's nobody that likes all three versions," adding, "When you play it for two years, three times a night, you've gotta do a lot to get into it," and the crowd laughs nervously. He runs through the changes a bunch of times while he decides, takes a mental breath, and plunges into "Alice"'s familiarly appointed rabbit hole of Thanksgiving dinner at the church, Officer Obie, littering, and Guthrie's draft inspection at Whitehall Street in New York City.

On another version of the song, recorded in and released on the live album Tales of '69, the year "Alice" got a movie adaptation by Arthur Penn and the LP cracked the actual bonafide mainstream top 20, Guthrie repeats a similar spiel. "Nobody likes all three," he says, this time continuing, "the last time we all clapped before we knew what song it was, we elected Lyndon Johnson President of the United States," and this time, it's a very different rabbit hole. Instead of the "Masacree," we get the "Multi-Colored Rainbow Roach Affair."

It is the "Dark Star" of the Arlo Guthrie canon, where the folksinger simply goes out, improvising on phrases and themes over the "Alice" pattern, keeping the vague pretense of narrative but almost immediately dissolving into maddening, disconnected story-streams that lie on the dreamy horizon line between half-baked and way super-duper-mega-baked. A charitable (and not inaccurate) description of Guthrie's babble would be "Pynchon-like." I dozed off while listening to one version on headphones on a long train ride and kept waking into jagged and unpleasant half-consciousness to Guthrie singing about miss-iyle explosions in the sky, the remains "dumped on the White House lawn where all the fragments are put into little jars according to what kind of fragments they was. There was Russian, Green, Red, there were all kiiiiiinds of fragments…"

Likely, Guthrie ditched the "Multi-Colored Rainbow Roach Affair" not too long thereafter, when he jettisoned his story-songs for a more proper career singering and songwritering and Arlo-ing. "Alice" stayed behind, too, both a genuine pop culture phenomenon and an achievement unparalleled by, say, Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan: an 18-minute campfire singalong for red diaper babies and public radio listeners of all stripes.

This Thanksgiving, the last time it will coincide with Hanukkah for 77,798 years, let us offer thanks for folk-pop phenomena that keep on giving almost five decades later, for good writing, for fundamental and ancient anti-stupidity parables, for holiday songs, and for Arlo. But let us also give thanks for the "Multi-Colored Rainbow Roach Affair," for stoned rambles that don't transform into parables, for first drafts, and for bizarre holiday traditions of all kinds that still leave plenty of room for editing.


"Alice's Restaurant" (early version) mp3
by Arlo Guthrie
at Gerde's Folk City, early 1966

"Alice's Restaurant Massacree" mp3
by Arlo Guthrie
at Radio Unnameable with Bob Fass, 2/26/66

"Alice's Restaurant Multi-Colored Rainbow Roach Affair" mp3
by Arlo Guthrie with Ramblin' Jack Elliot
at Radio Unnameable with Bob Fass, 5/67

"Alice's Restaurant Massacree" (degraded mp3 version) mp3
by Arlo Guthrie, 1967.
available on Alice's Restaurant

"If I Should Ever See The Mountain" mp3
by Arlo Guthrie, 1969.
available on Tales of '69

"City of New Orleans" mp3
by Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger, , 1975.
available on Together in Concert


Freg said...

My favourite radio station -- K-SHE from St Louis -- played "Alice's Restaurant" this morning -- it's a Thanksgiving tradition with them. I hadn't heard it in a long time and i was delighted to hear how well it has stood up.

daisy said...

I really enjoyed this, thanks Jessie - and hey, is that true that this Thanksgiving is the last time it will coincide with Hanukkah for 77,798 years. That's some sum someone worked out.