There was no need to ask "Arlo who?" The instantly recognizable voice on the other end of the phone has been a familiar one since 1967 when Arlo Guthrie's first album was released. A goodly chunk of that classic work was the lengthy monologue within a ballad that gave that album its title. "Alice's Restaurant" is one of those pieces of music that just becomes part of you once you've had a chance to hear it. Arlo's warm manner and quick wit leap out of the speakers and turn any listener into an old friend.
And they leap out of a telephone as well. During a recent conversation from Arlo's home base in Massachusetts, he had stories to tell and was eager to share them. This, after all, is a man who could hold an audience with an evening full of spoken-word anecdotes as easily as he could with his bag full of folk songs. And Guthrie has been holding audiences since before he was out of high school. It takes him a moment to pin down exactly when he started: "I did my first actual performance that wasn't like in school or something when I was about 13, which would have been 1961."
Through the years, he has played his songs all over the world in every sort of venue imaginable. That would include tiny coffee houses all the way up to the largest concert ever held, the original Woodstock. Are there any places left that he's wanted to play but hasn't yet? "There are parts of the world I haven't been to yet. I haven't been to Eastern Europe. I do hope to get there sometime. I went to Africa about a month ago for the first time. I'd never been there, and that was a real thrill. We went to South Africa and played for some folks there, and that was just terrific."
Since his most famous calling card is the aforementioned "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," how does he explain its enduring appeal? "You know, I just don't know. I'm probably more surprised than anyone mostly because I've likely heard it more than anyone. I guess somewhere along the line, I realized that it's a new look at an old-time story. It's a modern-day David and Goliath sorta story in its own weird way. It's the little guy against the big world. That rings true for a lot of people. Frankly, I'm surprised that it made the transition from being a song about Vietnam to a song about something that's bigger and more universal. I'm really thrilled that it has."
How does someone work up enthusiasm to play a 20-minute-long "greatest hit" every night after more than three decades? "The real truth is I haven't done it each night. There are entire years when I've let it go when I didn't feel it was relevant or I didn't think people would be interested. Lately, I've discovered that there's a whole generation of folks for whom it's new. There are people in the audience each night these days who have brought friends to hear it without telling them anything about it. So I know I have some new victims out there and that always thrills me."
Another one of Arlo's most familiar numbers is his version of "City of New Orleans," by Steve Goodman, who died way too young in 1984 after a lengthy illness. How did Guthrie come to record the song? "[Goodman] gave me that particular song around 1971. Steve was one of those people who seemed bigger in life than life itself. He was fighting leukemia for a long time, so he always had this wonderful presence. He was constantly really living. I don't know how to say it exactly, but it was always a pleasure to be around him. He had such energy, just a wonderful human being. He also wrote wonderful songs and was a great performer. Anytime I would call him up trying to raise some money for some benefit or other, he never hesitated. He always just said that he would be there. He was one of those kind of guys."
Through the years, Arlo has performed solo, with a full band, in duets with Pete Seeger, with his son Abe and even in tux and tails with symphony orchestras. When asked if he has a favorite format, he says not really, he just has a fondness for variety. That might explain some of his assorted other creative endeavors. As an actor, Arlo starred in the film version of Alice's Restaurant and has had recurring roles in such television series as Byrds of Paradise, Relativity and Renegade. He is also author of the award-winning 1995 children's book Mooses Come Walking.
Arlo Guthrie is scheduled to perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, January 22; and at 7 p.m. Sunday, January 23, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, 7380 East Second Street. 480-994-2787 (SCA), 480-784-4444 (Ticketmaster).