Tales of ’69 – Arlo Guthrie
There is almost no question that Arlo Guthrie is inconceivably, impressively stoned on Tales of ’69, a new live release recorded a few weeks before Guthrie’s Woodstock appearance and legendary Alice’s Restaurant session. For starters, on a 30-minute track labeled "Alice – Before Time Again," Guthrie cracks all kinds of dope jokes, about very high Jews swimming across the Red Sea and multi-colored rainbow-color roaches. "Being stoned in a straight world is a lot easier than being straight in a stoned one," Guthrie declares.
For another, he is kind of insanely incoherent. Like, whoa. Perhaps it all made sense then. Indeed, the crowd claps for a few beyond-surreal jokes.
"What are you clapping for?" Guthrie giggles as—after six interminable minutes—he slides from "Old MacDonald Had A Farm" into the distinct fingerpicking that runs beneath "Alice." "You don’t know what song this is," Guthrie says.
What is astounding, though—really, honestly, flabbergastedly astounding—is what ‘Alice’ turned into only weeks later: an accessible, refined story that people have expected Guthrie to repeat word-for-word nearly every performance since. Was it as improvised as this batshit stupid rendition obviously was? ‘Even if you did know what song this was, you wouldn’t know what version it was,’ Guthrie says to the baffled crowd. ‘And nobody likes all three. The last time we all clapped before we knew what song it was, we elected Lyndon Johnson President of the United States…’ What?
It is doubly surreal to hear Guthrie delivering his unparsable, nearly Pynchon-like yarn with the same intonations and rhythmic hep-talk as "Alice." (One of them involves Lyndon Johnson "getting groovy.") For those who grew up on "Alice," it’s a most curious curiosity with an arc all its own, the chorus still clearly a punchline, the set-up not quite there. It’s a shame that the available recording information is so scant. It’d be good to know exactly what the time frame was.
The rest of the show is good fun, but equally uneven, which also includes an, ahem, extended version of ‘The Motorcycle Song’ (here called ‘The Unbelievable Motorcycle Ride,’ the chorus buried in the midst of another shaggy dog tale).
But other tracks offer tantalizing glimpses of Guthrie as somebody he never became: a psychedelic folksinger. It’s hard to accuse him of sounding like Bob Dylan, given Dylan stole his own voice from Arlo’s father, but… well, Arlo sounds like Dylan. And probably (like the rest of the world) was listening to lots of Bob in those days. Or maybe Donovan. On "If Ever I Should See the Mountain," what seems to be an otherwise totally lost Guthrie original, Guthrie picks on Indian scales while singing about how, "if ever I should reach around the plastic words before me, leap into the crowded streets of people who ignore me, running down the evening footprints, finding he who saw me there." It’s great. "Road To Everywhere" is post-protest psych-pop with an Everly Brothers chug. "All the hands across the land commence to turn the wheel," Guthrie sings.
"Groovy" might not be exactly the right word to describe Tales of ’69, but it’s definitely not the wrong one.