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A storied tradition

Music flows into sagas that span generations as Arlo Guthrie and his tribe carry forward a tradition woven from luck, loss and a legendary arrest.

June 11, 2006|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

Great Barrington, Mass. — AN hour before Arlo Guthrie is to go on stage, a reminder of life's serendipity walks into the old church here.

A volunteer doesn't recognize the man at the door, and she can't find his name on the "comp" list of invited guests, either, so she calls over Guthrie's longtime right hand, George Laye, and tells him, "There's a Mr. Wilcox...."

Laye confers briefly with Richard B. Wilcox, laughs and says, "Oh, of course. I'm sorry. Go right in." Then as soon as the new arrival has stepped into the onetime sanctuary to await the concert, Laye announces, "That's the chief of police of Stockbridge!"

Everybody has a good laugh at that, for this church in the Berkshires would not be the Guthrie Center today had it not been for Stockbridge police. And Arlo himself ... well, had not those cops arrested him four decades ago for the crime that began right on this spot, he might have gone on to be a forest ranger, as he'd intended as a kid, and not followed his doomed father, Woody, into musical storytelling.

The tale of that absurd life-changing encounter became the entire A-side of his debut album, "Alice's Restaurant," the 18-minute, 20-second song relating how, as a teenager in 1965, he had Thanksgiving dinner in the church -- then a commune of sorts presided over by Ray and Alice Brock -- and thought he'd do a good deed by carting away the truckload of trash that had accumulated at the place

The catch was, all those glossies were of little use as evidence when his case came before the local judge -- the blind judge -- and then came the real twist, in Arlo's song's version of history, when the misdemeanor arrest prompted a New York draft board to toss him aside with the other rejects, the mother stabbers and father rapists, thus sparing him a trip to the front lines of the Vietnam War or, more likely, flight to Canada.

"Garbage has been very good to me," sums up Arlo Guthrie, who was resting up, that hour before his "Spring Revival" concert, in the old bell tower of the church, now the green room lounge of his nonprofit Guthrie Center.


Keeping things afloat

FOR years he owned a farmhouse a half-hour away, in a hill town with no traffic light, but he did not get the church until 1991, when he was brought here by a TV crew filming what he calls a "whatever-happened-to-him?" feature. The deconsecrated church, which dates to 1829, had been through a number of owners since the Brocks had it and was not in the best shape. But the owners at the time must have seen him coming, for that story has them peering out the window exulting, "Oh, there's Arlo Guthrie, he'll buy it," and he did, with the help of donors, whose names now adorn a wall of the Guthrie Center.

Today, there's still no heat or air conditioning in most of the structure, but that doesn't stop the crews of volunteers and one paid staffer, the 64-year-old Laye, from offering free community lunches every Wednesday, with health food (lentil soup, rice dishes) provided by a nearby yoga center. Thursdays there's "Hootenanny Nite!" with an open mike for local musicians in the 100-seat performing space that has tables set up nightclub style where the pews once were. Summer weekends, the professional acts take over in a "Troubadour Series." And on two or three weekends a year it's all Arlo, in fundraising concerts that help keep the operation afloat.

His annual spring weekend has spawned another tradition, a "Historic Garbage Trail" walk to combat Huntington's disease, the hereditary neurological ailment that killed his father. Participants trek 6.3 miles from the church to Stockbridge, the scene of other "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" landmarks, the tiny restaurant once run by Alice and the Stockbridge police headquarters. The cops no longer have cells there ("liability issues," Chief Wilcox says), but the front of one has been preserved for posterity and was displayed on a platform for this year's Sunday hike, May 21, so the walkers could pose behind the same bars that once confined the littering Arlo. In the spirit of the '60s, they also were given pens embossed "This pen has been stolen From Stockbridge Police Department," courtesy of the chief.

As a child, the 57-year-old Wilcox was a model for a Boy Scout painting by the local chronicler of Americana, Norman Rockwell, and he later served two tours in Vietnam. But the chief long ago came to embrace Arlo and that contentious era as slices of Americana as well, even if a church volunteer did almost diss him and his wife at the door that evening. "They try to keep the riffraff out," Wilcox reasoned, "but we snuck in."

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