Thursday, March 15, 2012

Woody, Arlo, and me

In 1967, when I was in college, I spent the summer working as a “gateman” at the New York Shakespeare Festival at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. There were 6 of us with this job description, and 2 of us worked days and 4 of us worked nights; we rotated doing 2 weeks of nights and then a week of days. Both had their perks. Nights, 4pm to (more or less) midnight, were less real work; we handed out the tickets to those people who lined up for them, let people out and back in at the intermission, and put up the seats in the outdoor theater at the end of the performance. Not too hard, and we got to watch the plays – many times. I saw, for example (not all in ’67, I worked there ’68 as well) young Sam Waterston as Prince Hal, Stacy Keach as both Falstaff and Peer Gynt, Martin Sheen as Romeo; some folks who were more famous in other arenas too.  Judy Collins as Anitra in Peer Gynt, and Tom Tryon, then an actor but later more well-known as a novelist, as someone (?Hotspur? Maybe not.)

The “perk” was being able to hold tickets for friends and relations to pick up at the box office without waiting in line. It was the first time that I ever had any such clout, and it felt good. I also felt a little conflicted; I liked the fact that people were supposed to line up for the free tickets, and approved of the fact that it rewarded folks with more time than money. After all, everything else rewarded more money. It still does, and I don’t think there are many other venues where the reverse is true anymore. But I could do favors for my parents, or friends who were working for not much and thus had little time or money. I was getting what seemed like good pay; $4/hour, which, in 1967 for a college student, was not at all bad. The minimum wage in NYC at that time was $1.50 (I looked it up!).

Which was the good part about working days. It was much harder work than nights, as the two of us had to clean up the theater. As an outdoor venue, there was a lot of trash and it was hard, dirty work. On the other hand, there was no supervisor and we got paid for 8 hours even when we finished in 3 or4. Of course, in those days folks could smoke in theaters (even indoor ones) so a lot of what we had to pick up was cigarette butts, and I noticed that folks smoking regular cigarettes (say, Camels, or Marlboros) would have several butts at their seats, while those smoking the relatively new “low tar” cigarettes seemed to smoke a pack or more. I was ready to do a commercial: “I pick up all the garbage at the New York Shakespeare Festival, and I find more ‘True’ cigarette butts than any other brand. So – be cultured! Smoke ‘True’!” The reality was, as I knew from trying them, that it was hard to draw any smoke through the complex ‘True’ filters, so probably folks got not satisfaction from them, which is why they smoked more of them.

Anyway, that summer my parents took a vacation in their motor home with my younger sisters and drove up to Provincetown on Cape Cod. I told them I’d hitchhike up for the weekend and did; take the “Number 6” train to the last stop, Pelham Parkway, climb the fence on to the New England Thruway, and stick out your thumb. I didn’t get rides as easily as my friends who were young women, but this time it worked well. And we had a good weekend, and my parents paid for me to fly back (Provincetown to Boston Airways up and down, good thing as the weather was terrible, then the Eastern Shuttle back to LaGuardia. And the Q-33 bus to Roosevelt-Jackson to get the subway).

While we were there, we saw that Arlo Guthrie was playing at a coffeehouse, so we decided to go see him. Arlo was at that time just Woody Guthrie’s son, and also the son of Marjorie Mazia, who my sister (I think) and certainly friends took dance lessons from. It was afternoon, and the coffeehouse wasn’t too crowded, and we sat there as this young man sang, in particular a long and complicated story-song (not too common back in ’67) that went on and on, involving a restaurant, garbage, an arrest, and a Selective Service induction physical (yes, Virginia, there was a draft and a war on at the time!). That fall, his first album was released with that song, “Alice’s Restaurant”, as the title track. (By the way, when we heard him he sang, referring to himself, "the All-American boy from Coney Island"; on the record it has "New York City".)

I thought about this last night when Pat and I attended the Woody Guthrie Centennial Concert in Tulsa, OK, where the new Woody Guthrie Museum will be housed, not far from his birthplace in Okemah. It was an excellent concert; Arlo performed, along with John Mellencamp, Roseanne Cash, Jackson Browne, and a bunch of groups I knew less well (some of them from Oklahoma, but apparently popular, like Flaming Lips and HANSON).  Arlo’s sister Nora, who has maintained the archives and organized the concert was there (but not performing), but his son and grandson did perform with him. Yes, that tall, stocking-capped guitarist was his grandson – and I think he is only a year older than me! Heck, my friend Stefanie went to his bar mitzvah! So I have seen Arlo early in his career, and late (hopefully not at the end, but at least as the grandfather of a full-grown adult musician!) Tempus fugit.

What was a little disappointing about the concert, in addition to the entirely white audience, was the ratio of male to female performers. I mentioned Roseanne Cash. That was it. Including supporting performers. She played with her guitarist husband John Leventhal, and every member of every band was male. I mean, it was sponsored by the GRAMMY Museum, so maybe not totally progressive, but it was a Woody Guthrie memorial, and this was pretty amazing. I bought a CD, not of the concert, but of songs that consist of lyrics that Woody wrote and different artists put music to and recorded, none as good as the whole ‘Mermaid Avenue’ CD by Billy Bragg and Wilco, and ONE is by a woman, Ani DiFranco. It is depressing that even when lauding a real progressive (a conference that we missed during the day yesterday included talks on Oklahoma’s “different shades of Red”, from being a populist “red” state to a Republican “red” state”) we see such a lack of female performers. On top of having seen the film “Miss Representation” recently (highly recommended) it is incredible that so little net gain seems to have occurred in the media in the 40 years of the “second wave of feminism”.

But the music was good, the exhibit currently at the Gilcrease Museum was excellent, and it was a fun, 4.5 hour drive each way to Tulsa, with a nice stay in a Courtyard by Marriott that is a converted office building downtown. Maybe we’ll go back again.

1 comment:

  1. Josh,
    Thanks so much for this moment. If you haven't already, you need to check out Jonatha Brooke's 2008 album "The Works", with Woody's lyrics set to her new music. She worked with Nora at the Woody Guthrie Archives, and she REALLY shows that his music is not music for and by men, but for all of us human beings. Jonatha says that she fell in love with Woody, and I fell in love with Jonatha...

    Don Kollisch


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