Stories from Backstage – Arlo Guthrie

by Bruce A. Smith

 Today’s temperatures in the 60s, our first warm day of the year, brought out the motorcycles and as I rode home from Tacoma in my current mode of transport – as a passenger in a comfy Ford Taurus driven by the kind and generous Lisa Cool – she mentioned that her husband Ray Cool used to own a motorcycle.

 “Except that he used to call them ‘motorsickles,’” she told me.

 “Ah, just like Arlo Guthrie in his famous ‘Motorcycle Song’” I replied.

 I then began singing the chorus from Arlo’s song:

 “I don’t want a pickle, just want to ride my motor-sickle.  And I don’t want to die – just want to ride on my motor-sigh – kel.”

 An icon of the 60s, Arlo Guthrie made a one-night stop in Seattle back a few spring’s ago, and he was replete with his now-graying hair and a ton o’ stories peppered throughout each set.

 Reflecting my own state of evolution at the time, Arlo’s performance was the first one I saw from a seat in the house after ten years of watching from the wings.  Yup, I’m not a stagehand anymore – too many years of dust, dirt and fumes for my lungs to handle, so I had to hunt up a new line of work.  Now, I’m a news reporter, and Arlo’s Paramount Theater show in Seattle was my first gig at an old stagehand haunt.

 Not that Arlo needed many stagehands – he only required a handful of guys to push his guitar rack on stage, load it with a half-dozen acoustic jobs, and position his grand piano.  Less is more, and Arlo had all he needed.

 Besides the cushy seat and being able to breathe clean air, I was able to cross a threshold forbidden to stagehands: talking to the performers.

 Paramount graced me with a 30-minute phone interview the following day, and my first question had to do with my biggest surprise from the previous night.

 “Where were all the grey-haired hippies, Arlo?” I asked.  “I didn’t see too many of my age group!”

Arlo Guthrie, through the years and across the generations

 “Yeah, my audiences are really changing,” he said.  “I’ve been discovered on YouTube!” he said, chuckling.  “Just in the past eight months, too, and now, a whole new generation wants to hear Alice’s Restaurant.

 “I hadn’t played it for years,” Arlo continued, “but when its 40th Anniversary came around in 2005, I figured I ought to bring it back.  Took me three days to re-learn it!  Then the young people started coming, so now I sing it every night.”

 Arlo estimates about a third of his audiences are now under thirty years-old.

 “There’s a very wide range of interests because of that,” he said.  “You don’t see that very often at concerts these days.”

 Arlo said it brings a magical component to his performances.

 “I can hear the impact.  It’s not the songs – they’re little vehicles.  It’s the feeling ‘we’re in it together’ that comes out.

 “Young and old, rich and poor – all in a room together listening to music.  So many people on so many sides of things, so many sides of life – they get to go beyond the cheesy and get to the soul of things.”

 In addition, I asked him about his famous father, Woody Guthrie, the extraordinary songwriter and folk singer from the Dust Bowl era and during the ultra-conservative McCarthy period.

 “Woody is present, he’s all around,” Arlo replied.  “He’s physically present – he’s there in all of us.  What’s especially nice is that his quiet feelings are there – present in my life, my kids’ life and my grandkids’ life.

 “Now, he didn’t start the thing – these feelings – they come from so far back.  But when I feel the continuity, I begin to relax.”

 Arlo Guthrie tours throughout the year, taking only eight weeks off in the summertime.  Often, he performs with his kids, one of whom -Annie Guthrie – has teamed up with Amy Nelson, daughter of  Willie.

 As for the Paramount stage hands, Arlo said:

 “One of the Paramount crew gave me a big hug when I came off stage.  Just walked up to me and wrapped his big arms around me.  He had tears in his eyes.  I love that – when the crew is with ya.  It takes a dozen people for me to be me – out there on stage.”

Synchronistically, Arlo will be perfoming locally in the near future:

– Portland, Oregon, April 11

– Tacoma, April 14, at the Broadway Center

– Port Angeles, April 15, at the Port Angeles High School

Arlo Guthrie, back a few years

 ©  2008, 2012 Bruce A. Smith

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