Yellow ribbons whip down city streets on the pinned-back antennae of imported Sentras, Camrys, and Accords, wrapping the USA in patriotism like the loosely woven fabric of a giant Ace bandage. On the radio, the premier pop diva of the day belts out the national anthem as if the centuries-old ditty was her latest hit single--which, in fact, it is.
And at a fair-to-middlin'-sized club on the outskirts of town, a 43-year-old folk singer with long, snowy hair picks out a jaunty melody on an old acoustic guitar. He proceeds to spin a tall tale of his misadventures in the psychiatrist's office of the New York City bureau of the selective service, circa 1967:
"I walked in there and said, `Shrink, I wanna kill. I mean, I wanna kill! I wanna see blood and gore and guts and veins in my teeth. Eat dead, burnt bodies. I mean kill, kill, kill, KILL!' And I started jumping up and down, yelling, `Kill! Kill! Kill! KILL!' And he started jumping up and down with me. And we were both jumping up and down, yelling, `Kill! Kill! Kill! KILL!' And the sergeant came over, pinned a medal on me and said, `Kid, you're our boy.'"
It doesn't take a masters in sociology to see that Arlo Guthrie, the folk singer in question, is just a tad against the tide of popular opinion at the start of his current U.S. tour.
With hostilities rapidly winding down in the Persian Gulf, Americans are flushed with a star-spangled military pride the likes of which hasn't been seen since the ticker-tape parades following World War II. The omnipresent yellow ribbon adorns everything from the door at the local 7-Eleven to the latest issue of Rolling Stone. Even rock radio, once the voice of opposition to the military during the Vietnam War, has shunned the handful of dissenting discs issued since the outbreak of fighting in the Persian Gulf. "While we all want peace," wrote SuperRadio CEO John Garabedian in a sharply worded memo sent to the company's nationwide network of radio stations upon the January 16 release of the all-star remake of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance," "as responsible broadcasters we should be sensitive to the controversial nature of this in the 1991 environment. We are not hippies, and this is not Vietnam."
It's a distinction even an old hippie like Arlo Guthrie can draw. "This is a different situation altogether," says Guthrie during a stop in Knoxville, Tennessee, just one day before the liberation of Kuwait City. "I mean, don't get me wrong, I don't think that war is ever a wonderful thing. But there are times when it's more justified than others. And this war is certainly a lot more justified, in my mind, than the war in Vietnam. Especially if it indicates that there is a world consciousness taking hold right now that says bullies can't go around telling other people what to do. Then it really does make sense for a coalition of people under the United Nations to go up to Saddam Hussein and say, `Hey, forget it!'"
What Guthrie does protest, and what prompted him to resurrect his Vietnam-era antidraft hit "Alice's Restaurant" (complete with that subtle-as-a-machine-gun poke at the Army's `Kill! Kill! Kill! KILL!' mentality) is the prepackaged attitude toward the war he feels we've all been forced to adopt. That warm and fuzzy patriotic buzz, all wrapped up in bright yellow ribbons, that everyone from President George Bush to the gang at the office water cooler has made us feel is the only appropriate view to voice.
"The problem we had with Vietnam," says Guthrie, "is that we had a lot of these people in positions of authority telling other people the way they had to feel about the war. And if they didn't feel like they could go along with it, they were told that they were no good. We had people in the antiwar movement that were equally as obnoxious, making the ones who found themselves in that situation feeling like they weren't any good. And I found that attitude as abhorrent as I did the attitude of the president and the prowar people."
The one-sentiment-fits-all attitude we were sold on the Persian Gulf War is but the latest example of the kind of watered-down, nonoffensive, "politically correct" thinking Arlo Guthrie believes is slowly killing off what he calls "the real person."
"Everybody's gotten so cautious," he laments, "about saying anything that might get crushed in an avalanche of disapproving words. A president can't get elected today without sounding so general that he ends up not saying anything. And the same thing's true for the people in Congress, who are masters at taking too long to say nothing."
That cautiousness, says Guthrie, trickles down to the average Joe. People become afraid to show a preference for any person, thing or attitude that doesn't get the stamp of approval in the What's In and What's Out bibles of US, People, Esquire, or Rolling Stone.
"It's almost like they're keeping score," Guthrie says of the self-appointed media tastemakers. "I think sometimes the society and the media and the culture we live in overly glorifies certain attitudes and points of view and overly vilifies others. It doesn't give us room to grow and to change our minds about things. We should be able to make mistakes without being crushed by society, and if we make a right decision, we shouldn't be praised beyond just having had a learning experience. To an extent, we have to learn to be ourselves."
Certainly, Arlo Guthrie has perfected the skill of just being himself. The son of the late, great folk legend Woody Guthrie, Arlo entered the burgeoning Sixties folk-rock scene under the long shadow of the man Bob Dylan had years before cited as his all-time hero. But the young Guthrie took with him some important words of wisdom from his dust bowl dad. "He told me, `It's better to fail at being yourself than to succeed at being anybody else.'"
By the time he took the stage at Woodstock (with that immortal cheer to the Woodstock Nation for clogging up the New York State Throughway), the young Guthrie was already a star in his own right, with a wry, witty presence one reviewer at the time pegged as that of "a gentle Lenny Bruce." That same year, Guthrie starred in a film version of "Alice's Restaurant," married his girlfriend Jackie, bought a farm in the small town of Washington, Massachusetts, and purchased what he now calls "the best car I ever had"--a 1969 Checker.
Today, almost 22 years and four kids later, Guthrie is still married to Jackie, still lives on that farm in Massachusetts, and is still touring the world nine months out of each year, playing essentially the same music. His hair, though much grayer than before, is still the long, tangled mass it was in his film debut. Last month, he even managed to find a replica of his beloved '69 Checker--and bought it with the checks he receives from the sales of his back catalogue, which Warner Bros. reportedly "gave" him the rights to after his contract expired in 1983. Nearly all his old albums are now available on his own label Rising Son Records. He also manages a quirky fan club newsletter, The Rolling Blunder Revue, which offers everything from psychedelic posters to "that really strange incense that you can't find anyplace."
For Guthrie, playing to the surprising number of young people who've started showing up at his concerts is a good way of sorting out the gems from the zircons in his thirteen-album catalogue.
"Some of them hold up better than others," he admits. "I wrote songs about some of the political leaders of the time that were very judgmental, and those don't hold up as well as some of the others. It's easy to call someone names in a song and make them look stupid--especially if they are."
Guthrie's new songs--many of which were inspired by the new war--are aimed more at encouraging would-be heroes than ripping apart villains.
"I heard an old rabbi once, when asked what he learned from World War II about how people react in a crisis, say that contrary to what he thought, he discovered good people get better, and bad people get worse. And I thought that was very interesting. So rather than to try and convert or vilify people who are only gonna get worse, I find myself in a position of wanting to support those who want to do better."
He finds many of those same kinds of people in the young music fans who come to his shows for a jolt of Sixties idealism. One of the young people showing up at a lot of Guthrie's shows is his own twenty-year-old son Abraham, who's entering the family business by opening up for Dad with his own band Xavier. But true to the Guthrie credo of trying not to succeed at being someone else, young Abraham's music is anything but a continuation of his father's gentle folk style.
"I wouldn't exactly call it heavy- metal," Guthrie laughs. "I mean, they're not crazy people. I would call the band's music more straightahead rock 'n' roll.
"But his stuff has nothing to do with me whatsoever," adds Pop with an odd sense of pride. "And that's a good sign."
Arlo Guthrie will perform at After the Gold Rush on Tuesday, March 12. Showtime is 9 p.m.
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"This war is certainly a lot more justified, in my mind, than the war in Vietnam."
"It's easy to call someone names in a song and make them look stupid--especially if they are."
Guthrie's new songs are aimed more at encouraging would-be heroes than ripping apart villains.
"We are not hippies, and this is not Vietnam.