Feature

It was Thanksgiving 1965, and Arlo Guthrie's friend Alice was cooking the turkey. He figured taking out her garbage was the least he could do.

He didn't count on the city dump being closed. He didn't count on being arrested for tossing the garbage off a cliff. And he certainly didn't figure that "Alice's Restaurant," his 30-minute song about the experience, would become an anthem of a generation.

But, back in the '60s, listeners heeded the call when folksinger Guthrie urged them to sing along with "with feeling" to the words, "you can get anything you want, at Alice's Restaurant."

This summer, psychologists may well be the ones singing along if Guthrie, son of the legendary Woody, includes the song in his performance at APA's Annual Convention in Washington, D.C. No guarantees he'll play it, he says, but if the audience seems warmed up, the odds get better. After all, he's bringing "Alice" out of a decade-long retirement especially for this tour, a 40th anniversary celebration of her creation.

The revival may seem apt given national anxiety over terrorism and the war in Iraq: When the song debuted in 1967, it highlighted such social issues as intergenerational conflict, the draft and the Vietnam War, says the 57-year-old Guthrie. But it also, he says, got people to laugh together, which helped relieve public tension.

"It's funny how things come around again," he says. "But when things start getting all serious, it's time to look for something to smile about again. No one knows better than a group of psychologists what happens when everyone gets too stressed out."

Spreading that conciliatory spirit is what APA President Ronald F. Levant, EdD, had in mind when he invited the singer to play this year's convention.

"One of the themes that runs through Arlo's music is an emphasis on peaceful means of resolving conflicts," says Levant. "That represents a fundamental part of American psychology--collaboration, conciliation and dispute resolution as alternatives to aggression."

A song called 'Alice'

To grasp the group spirit of "Alice," it helps to understand its evolution. On its face, the song represents the absurdity of government bureaucracy: of law officers who would arrest a teen for off-loading a friend's garbage and take "27 8-by-10 color glossy photographs" of the scene for evidence--legal actions that put such a black mark on the teen's record that the Army rejected him. For Guthrie, the song came to represent much more than the skirmish: it was a way to reconcile its warring forces--the kids and the cops. Because as it turned out, the song's very own "Officer Obie" (William Obanhein) and "blind judge" (James Hannon) joined Guthrie to reprise their real-life roles for the 1969 "Alice's Restaurant" movie.

"It was a time of major gaps in generation, money, age, status, gender, everything," says Guthrie. "Getting along was hard. And here we were, these different folks from disparate parts of society, working together, becoming friends, and poking fun at ourselves while we did it. That's when I realized the real value of the song."

Guthrie is quick to note, however, that he doesn't mean people should abandon what they stand for--quite the opposite, he says.

"I wouldn't say to an 18-year-old hothead, 'Calm down to the point of being quiet,'" he explains. "But I would say that over the long haul you make the most change by working together. When you learn to respect the opinions of others that are different from yours, you learn to advance the sort of world you want in the first place--one in which people are free to disagree, without fighting or killing over it."

After 'Alice' and back

That message of Guthrie's extends beyond his music to the Guthrie Foundation, which he founded in the early 1990s. In fact, it's housed in Great Barrington, Mass.-based Trinity Church, where the real Alice lived. The foundation's intent, Guthrie says, is to keep the spirit of the '60s alive through fundraising for HIV/AIDS, the environment, health care and other social causes.

"The '60s movement was a heart thing--it would be sad to see it disappear," he says. "Getting out there against the bomb, for women, for civil rights, what a transformation that all made. It seemed crazy and far out at the time. But now that transformation has all become normal because of those people's work."

A new transformation Guthrie would like to see is increased interfaith understanding. To help, Trinity Church also serves as a musician's haven and interfaith gathering place, the Guthrie Center. Among its activities, the church has hosted dinners and walk-a-thons for Huntington's disease and offers interfaith meditation, yoga and prayer sessions to families living with terminal diseases. It also holds art exhibits and folk music concerts to raise funds. David Crosby and Pete Seeger have been among the regular players there.

Explaining the church's mission, Guthrie says, "In almost every confrontation I can think of, people think that their religion, their costumes, their drama are being threatened, and if you can get these people together in the same room to talk about holding onto their local culture while also embracing global culture, you are getting somewhere."

Key to keeping his foundation, center and music going are members of his own family, Guthrie says. Daughters Annie and Cathyaliza run the business end, and daughter Sarah Lee and son Abe often jam with him when he tours--which he's done constantly, 10 months a year, since 1967.

He's also produced a succession of albums, most recently "Alice's Restaurant--The Massacree Revisited" in 1995 and "Mystic Journey" in 1996. Most of his songs, like "Coming into Los Angeles," are his own, though he sings his father's as well. He's also well known for his rendition of Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans."

As for "Alice," Guthrie retired the song because he "didn't want to be a trained seal, night after night, decade after decade."

But now, he says, it's time for Alice's resurrection. And he thinks it's fitting that psychologists will be a part of that.

"Psychologists have reminded us all that actually listening to somebody means something, and they're able to help people get comfortable with who they are," he says. "I think these are some of the most important things anyone can do in a culture that seems to have lost its central tribal nurturing nature."


Further Reading

Arlo Guthrie will perform at APA's Annual Convention during the opening session, 5 p.m., Aug. 18. For more information on Guthrie, including the complete lyrics of "Alice's Restaurant," visit www.arlo.net.