Running Down the Road

So, how was the new multimedia Alice’s Restaurant?

Mixed. Most of the video footage was clips from the 1969 movie. Interesting, especially if you haven’t seen the movie in years, but not very fulfilling. Sort of the audiovisual equivalent of a Krispy Kreme doughnut. I’ll admit that it was good to be reminded that Officer Obie played himself in the movie (“If anyone’s going to make a fool out of me, it might as well be me”). Using the footage and talking about Obie also gave Arlo the opportunity to riff on bringing opposite ends of the political spectrum together, a sentiment that’s as timely today as in the Summer of Love. On the whole, though, I’d have preferred to see more archival photos and unstaged footage.

The presence of the screen did prove useful at several points during the evening. It was used sparingly, but well to show a long-lost animated film of The Motorcycle Song (aka Significance of the Pickle), lyrics for a couple of singalongs, and animated backgrounds for Coming Into Los Angeles.

As for the music–and that’s what most of the audience was there for–Arlo acquitted himself well. No Reuben Clamzo, but he did do Me and My Goose with an accompanying slideshow of illustrations from the children’s book.

He had a bit of a memory lapse during, of all things, Alice’s Restaurant, skipping directly from dumping the garbage to going to court, but he circled around to cover the arrest and the twenty-seven eight-by-ten, color, glossy photographs, as the person running the video scrambled to keep up.

Anniversary tours are aimed at fans who haven’t seen the performer recently, so the set list will generally lean on the most popular songs. So we got the previously-mentioned Coming Into Los Angeles and City of New Orleans. We also got Darkest Hour, Last Train, and Highway In the Wind. Arlo also did When a Soldier Makes It Home, but interestingly, he didn’t do Victor Jara, his other major perennially-topical song.

I was pleased to hear the folk process was alive. Arlo made little effort to make the songs sound “just like the album” or some definitive version. No major changes, but almost every song had some changes in emphasis, minor lyrical tweaks, or melodic variations. Oddly, the one song that had almost no changes was This Land Is Your Land. An unwillingness to tamper with his father’s music seems unlikely, nor does Arlo seem the sort to keep a cultural icon on a pedestal. Perhaps he didn’t want to make it too difficult a singalong, though that shouldn’t prevent some musical variation. Whatever the reason, though, he played it straight from the elementary school songbook, including in his choice of verses. In the past, Arlo has sung several verses; this time, he stuck with a couple of the best known, and used the song as a springboard for a minor riff on the song’s somewhat paradoxical international popularity.

“But what about the merchandise?” I hear a voice in the back of the room asking.

Of course there was merchandise. CDs, naturally, posters, magnets, and the obligatory tour T-shirts. Most of the goodies can be purchased through his website, but there was one item that seems to be a tour-only item:
Yes, there is now a Group W Bench T-shirt. Maggie is considering tie-dying hers. That seems appropriate, but I think I’ll keep mine as-is. Not mint-in-lack-of-box: I fully intend to wear it, but having different backgrounds will simplify Laundry Day.

The crowd’s age was skewed upward, heavy on the Baby Boomers. I didn’t expect a strong turnout of the younger generations, and I don’t suppose that, even had they been there, that many would have gone forth to preach the gospel of Arlo. But a good time was had by all, and if the tour is coming to your vicinity, I recommend it.

Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant 50th Anniversary Tour may not change the world, but for one night you may not care. And that’s no bad thing.

All This Stuff Takes Time

Here’s some scary information for those of us of a certain age.

Alice’s Restaurant is fifty years old.

Remember Alice? (The song’s about Alice.) Arlo Guthrie’s eighteen minute anti-war folk song that reduced radio program directors to tears, spawned a movie, and–as Arlo assures us–brought down Richard Nixon.

Arlo is currently doing the fiftieth anniversary tour. It’s a trifle premature*, but I realize all this stuff takes time.

* The Font of All Knowledge tells us that the song commemorates an event from Thanksgiving Day in 1965 and that the song was first performed in 1967. Take that latter date with the proverbial grain of salt. A little googling will turn up bootleg recordings of prototype performances dating from early 1966 and a radio performance in February 1966. There’s also a claim that WPKN radio beat WBAI to the air with the song. Either way, the tour is a little early.

For the tour, Alice has been reworked as a multimedia extravaganza with, according to an article in today’s SF Chron, “lights, videos, film clips, [and] archived photographs”, assembled by Arlo’s son Abe. The show hits Berkeley tomorrow, and yes, I’m going.

I confess to being an unrepentant Arlo fan. I have all of his albums, even the evangelical ones. I keep hoping he’ll pull a fast one at a show and replace Alice’s Restaurant with The Story of Reuben Clamzo & His Daughter in the Key of A*.

* A justly-neglected piece of Arlo’s oeuvre. It’s funny, but comes off as a case of trying too hard. Despite its flaws, though, I’d hate for this tale of “humongous giant clams” spreading their shells, flying cross-country, and eating unwary settlers to be totally forgotten.

Last month I mentioned that my second novel is approaching completion. Many books in its primary genre include a playlist of what the author was listening to while writing it. Most of those lists are heavily loaded with either Top 40 hits or classic rock. I’ll probably skip that tradition. I don’t want to get chased out of town by readers who couldn’t handle a list consisting of approximately equal parts Arlo Guthrie, Apocalyptica, Mike Oldfield, and Mariners’ games.

But I digress.

Over the years, I’ve listened to the original recording of Alice’s Restaurant many times. I’ve also listened to the twenty-fifth anniversary version Arlo started performing in the nineties (the one that presents proof of the song’s contribution to Nixon’s downfall) almost as often. I’m looking forward to the new sound-and-light version. It’s a shame that Alice’s message is still relevant after half a century, but it’s good to know that it’s changing with the times.