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Gene Weingarten: Grilling Arlo Guthrie on 'Alice's Restaurant'

WASHINGTON — Like many middle-aged people, I wear more than one hat. I'm a husband, a father, a journalist, a role model to a generation of idealistic young Americans, etc. But one of my favorite hats, the floppy felt one that still smells faintly of the sweet smoke of a controlled substance, is "former hippie." We children of the '60s tenaciously hold on to this self-image, even though our mirrors tell us that in terms of sheer hipness, we look more like Arlen Specter than Arlo Guthrie.

And that is why I am on the phone right now with Arlo. I need him to clear up a little problem I am having, and reassure me that everything is okay in my world. Guthrie became a hero to my generation in 1967 when he recorded his iconic, self-deprecating, darkly comic, antiwar counterculture proto-rap masterpiece, Alice's Restaurant. The 18-minute song tells the true story of Arlo's teenage arrest for littering and his subsequent defiant confrontation with a Vietnam-era draft board over his "criminal" record. The strength of Alice's Restaurant is its feel of truth — and how it speaks that truth to power. I had occasion to reread the lyrics recently, and for the first time, my instincts as an investigative humorist kicked in. I detected a dissonant note. Hence, this phone call.

Me: So, you were arrested for illegally dumping a half-ton of garbage that you scooped up from the floor of Alice's home, and took away to dispose of as a favor, right?

Arlo: Right.

Me: And you were nailed by the fuzz because Officer Obie found your name on an envelope in that half-ton pile of garbage and phoned you. And in the funniest line of the song, you solemnly admitted to Officer Obie that you had put that envelope under that half-ton of garbage, right?

Arlo: Right.

Me: Why was your name in the garbage from Alice's restaurant? Wasn't that all Alice's garbage?

Arlo: In 40 years, no one ever asked me that.

Me: Well, someone is asking now.

Arlo: Bravo. I will hate you forever for this.

Me:

Arlo: Okay, we have to attribute that line to creative license. Obie actually found a paper with Ray's name — Ray was Alice's husband — and Ray directed them to me. But it worked better in the song the other way.

Me: So, no biggie? A misstatement is okay because it "worked better"?

Arlo:

Me: I don't want to overstate my disillusionment here. But this is like hearing Jesus say, "Okay, I didn't turn the water into wine, exactly. Actually, I just added some Kool-Aid powder and turned it into a nice, refreshing beverage."

Arlo: I don't know what to say, man.

Me: Are there any other untruths in the song?

Arlo: There's one. The 27 8-by-10 color glossy photographs with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was? They were not in color; they were actually black-and-white.

Me: Did you learn your ethics from your dad? Might it be that this land was really made for just him and a few of his cronies?

Arlo: You know, it's possible! I've heard that song sung at Republican conventions.

Me: Ha-ha-ha-ha!

Arlo: Yeah!

Me: Wait. What were you doing at Republican conventions?

Arlo: I'm a registered Republican now.

We talked a bit longer, Arlo and I, and it was amicable, but it all went by in a blur. My mind was cartwheeling. By becoming a Republican, Arlo Guthrie has shredded the last remnants of my faith that our hippie principles had any lasting meaning. How can he do this to us?

I'm a peaceable man, but if I had a hammer . . .

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com.

Gene Weingarten: Grilling Arlo Guthrie on 'Alice's Restaurant' 07/03/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 2, 2010 7:21pm]

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