When I turned 30 years old, old woman that I was, I had a mind to treat myself to a fancy haircut of fancy proportions. After all, I was surely deserving of such a fine treat, seeing as how I was a fine, upstanding member of a fine, upstanding society complete with a fine, upstanding career and a fine sort of marriage if you didn’t look too closely.
So I moseyed on over to a fancy local salon full of handsome young people wielding scissors and combs and all sorts of instruments of beautification. These groovy youngsters washed their subjects’ fine hair in bubbles of water and they utilized various electrical appliances and chemical accouterments to shape and pull and shear and blow and inflict bouncing, burning curls onto the locks of fancy, high-paying customers such as myself.
I walked right in and settled on down into the whirly-twirly chair of a handsome young man who had as distinctive a look of familiarity as ever I had seen. This handsome young man twirled my chair around to face his mirrored glass wall surrounded by twenty seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures of fancy hair-do’s. He proceeded to wield his scissors and combs and bubbles and blows until I looked like no one remotely recognizable.
And that is when I recognized him.
I said, “You look just like Arlo!”
With as blank a face as ever I had seen, he said, “Arlo who?” He continued to snip-snip-snip at my limpy-skimpy, old-lady locks.
And I said, “Why, Arlo Guthrie, of course! Don’t you know who that is?”
“Never heard of him.” Thud.
Thud… snip-snip…. Thud… blooowwwww… sounded the silence as I took a nosedive down the rabbit hole known previously and remotely as the generation gap, fancy head of hair leading the way, all while twenty seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures of fancy hair-do’s helplessly looked on.
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That was nearly 30 years ago. It was the first time in my life that I knew what it felt like to be old. Or, at least, older. Or, at the very least, growing older.
I was reminded of all this the other night when I caught Tavis Smiley’s interview with a nearly 70-year old Arlo Guthrie on PBS. Arlo looked like Santa Claus after half a century of smoking weed. I don’t know why it comes as such a shock when I see a famous person that I haven’t seen in quite a while and discover that they have aged. It feels personal. How dare they succumb to the vagaries and ravages of time? Oh, heavens-to-Betsy, has that happened to me, too? “Yes, dear,” responds the little voice in my head, calmly primping her own imaginary hair-do.
But then I stopped obsessing, quieted down, and opened up. I listened. I learned. And I enjoyed a trip to the past where I found hope for the future. Mr. Smiley did a wonderful interview, and Arlo charmed.
Arlo recounted what it was like growing up as Woody Guthrie’s son. Remember Woody? In the United States of America, Woody’s musical and poetic efforts on behalf of the downtrodden and against war earned him the label of communist. Apparently he was a sympathizer, but never a member. In the 1940s, Woody was part of the Almanac Singers, where a long friendship and collaboration began with Pete Seeger (another American folk singer and social activist–for any too young to know–and an actual member of the Communist Party for a time, for which he paid dearly).
Arlo, born in 1947, spent his formative years absorbing the music, poetry, politics, and drama of his surroundings. And in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, he first performed what would become probably his most noteworthy, long-lived, far-reaching, heart-stirring, laugh-inducing musical opus, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” His father, Woody, was blessed to hear the demo copy shortly before he died.
That was 50 years ago. Imagine that.
Arlo went on to enjoy his own long friendship with Pete Seeger. My favorite part of Mr. Smiley’s interview was when Arlo talked about walking with Mr. Seeger, then in his early 90’s, 30 blocks through New York City to join Occupy Wall Street demonstrators at Columbus Circle on a cold October night in 2011. There they found young people singing snippets of old protest songs, switching from one song to another before finishing any simply because they didn’t know all of the words. Pete took out his banjo and he and Arlo led the night-time gathering in song. Teaching words. Sharing stories. Crafting connections through the power and magic of song.
When you get old enough, you can be cool again. As long as you have stayed true (or come back to your truth–it is, after all, so easy to become separated). True to yourself, your beliefs, your ideals. True about your past and humble in the face of your future. And, most importantly, honest with those who come after. After all, it is a very particular gift to have traveled your road far enough, long enough, and awake enough that you gather even a glimpse of the bigger picture. You might as well be honest once you get there.
Thank you, Arlo. And thank you to all who have gone before. Thank you for your ageless voice and timeless message, your poetry, your song, and your humor.
Oh, and by the way, you’ve still got great hair.
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You can find Mr. Smiley’s April 14, 2017 interview with Arlo Guthrie through the following link:
And, for a youtube recording, complete with lyrics, of “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” here is a link for you: