arlo guthrie graced boardinghouse park last night, under a sky full of stars, and it was all of the times that have ever stood still. to his left stood his son, abe, at the keyboard, and to his right sat his grandson, krishna, behind a sparkling silver drum kit. what we think we know of "protest" we hardly know of arlo, and the irony of his progeny being named from such diverse religious heritages is only one such clue. to sit in front of arlo is now, to me, to sit and to be begged to have an open mind, and to USE IT, no more and no less. not to be left, nor to be right, nor even, especially, in the middle.
"i've only met two kinds of people in this world--those who gave a damn, and those who didn't." paraphrasing now: "i learned i had more in common with people who gave a damn than those who might have agreed with me on one particular issue or another". (did you know that arlo endorsed ron paul for president in '08? if you read his reasons why, i dare you not to agree with him).
during the evening last night, arlo described being invited, during one particular tour break, when he found himself in possession of a few free days and staying at a backwater hotel somewhere between the back woods behind shreveport, la, where leadbelly is buried, and peoria, illinois. (time first begins to stand still when it begins to sink in to you that standing before you is a man who learned to play 12 string from huddie ledbetter himself). also staying in the hotel was a convention of vietnam veterans, whose organizer took it upon himself to invite arlo to say a few words to the group. i cannot even begin to imagine the moment. here in lowell arlo invited those assembled to imagine it as marilyn monroe once did--"ever notice that 'what the hell' is always the right decision?"
our treat, for having our seat in the park last night, was to hear arlo follow that story with the haunting "when a soldier makes it home
". it put me in mind, sung as it may be for the russians who once returned northward from afghanistan, of the stories i've read of the interviews with those russian veterans of that and their particular war, and how they see themselves in solidarity with the americans now there. not idealogues, nor enemies--just men and women of families, and sacrifice that is never completely their choice. to be against war is to be against all war...
and arlo regaled us with the truth he learned, that he sold more copies of alice's restaurant
through military px's than he did through regular record stores. (though the literal truth of any of arlo's stories is always a riddle unanswered, and hard to truly know). i won't paste a link to the entire piece, which arlo also pulled out of the repertoire and played for us, because you will have to want to find it and listen to it all the way through if you don't already have the whole thing memorized as me and my son do, about the "27 color glossy pictures with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was to be used in evidence against us". few songs say as much, and seem so short while doing it...
yes, i was at the concert with my son, in another one of those generational facets to the evening. he immediately embraced arlo's description of how he was asked to the woodstock stage to play after richie havens, having imbibed and ingested, among the who's-who backstage, all the 175 cases of champagne meant for the close of the festival, and a few of the other "substances" on hand. arlo described how the stage was designed to rotate, though it never was successfully made to, and how its center was a hole into which all the wires and conduits were threaded, and into which it was first his peril to have stepped. he told of successfully teleporting himself up out of the hole onto the safety of the other side, to be able then to describe for all those once assembled the experience of coming into los angeles
speaking of such, the funniest story of the evening, for both me and for my son, was arlo's of his first tour trip to california. his mother, worried as she was for her son set free upon the world, and vice versa, insisted that he stay with family friends, and she chose for him a guy known by the monicker of "rambling jack". (elliott, i looked him up). arlo explained how he knew rambling jack far better than did his mother, and how he was EAGER to follow her instructions. rambling jack's first words to arlo (again, how literally to take these stories we shall never know) were "take this, son--don't worry, it'll eventually wear off". funny enough, and we were all laughing already, but the line that still cracks my son up this morning was delivered in description of how reality appeared to arlo as he stepped to the stage for the first time immediately after... "the notes on my guitar were coming out wha-ow-wee-oohhh..." (funny enough). "but i knew i was in trouble when the people in the audience started melting".
maybe you just had to be there. but the memory my son and i will always have of being there, and being able to say "i knew i was in trouble when the people in the audience started melting" and always laugh, is priceless to me.
my favorite nostalgia of the evening was arlo's contribution, early on, of the motorcycle song
. (accompanied version here
'cuz i love 'em all). "i don't want a pickle... i just want to ride on my motor-sickle... and i don't want to die... i just want to ride on my motorcy... ... ...cle". he prefaced his rendition by observing the potential embarrassment to his family for it, that such was something he actually sat down and wrote, and so he followed the song with an instrumental he suggests is easy to be motivated to do if one writes such lyrics as the alternative. (the instrumental reportedly being composed on a trip to hawaii where the local pickers guard secretly the strange tunings they pass down from generation to generation, and, for which if they should happen to notice you trying to figure them out, "they have to kill you"). the instrumental i can't describe other than to say i'll always remember.
also indelibly memorable was arlo's take on huddie's alabama bound
. his version last night was up and rockin', which you'll have to extrapolate from the original, (plus imagine the incredibly rich blues keys by abe during the breaks), but, trust me, it was tasty and delicious.
yes, he did city of new orleans
. he did it after telling an hysterical story of talking his oversized childhood piano teacher into playing each piece as many times over as needed to learn it from watching her fingers, rather than actually learning to sight read the music. his stepdad, being unable as well, wasn't able to tell the ragtime pieces arlo preferred to play as a child weren't the ones painted on the pages labeled "beethoven" while "practicing" at home... so the one day his mother happened to walk in on him snowing stepdad on the truth, and the description of the sweeping, slow-motion whoosh of her backhand, had the whole park in stitches. he even treated us to one of his own compositions played on the grand piano on the stage, explaining that, because he wasn't able to pack one into his tour bus, the only chance he ever got to play/practice such pieces was right on stage in front of an audience. we felt ourselves the lucky ones.
but the capstone of the evening, by far, was this land is your land
. the same awe at who was seated in front of us was there as was when telling tales of leadbelly, only now it was blood and his father, woody, and the story of how his mother, a dancer with the martha graham troupe, had returned from a cultural exchange in china back in nixon's 70's, to glowingly tell of the chinese schoolchildren singing for their guests "this land is your land", even unknowing whose wife it was for among whom they were singing it. arlo explained his first dismay at the irony, and then his mother admonishing him that he was missing a larger point. to which arlo, upon reflection, reported a revelation that "from california to the new york island" didn't have to go the short way around... and that, indeed, for the chinese and for everyone else in the world, this land could, indeed, be their land... except then, what about the americans? (my son, getting it all, was quick to point out that we here in massachusetts would have still been included either way). the audience got to sing it along with arlo, and you could hear the music of the true stars all throughout.