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Life is not ‘Alice’s Restaurant’

Because I am not quite sure that ‘you can get anything you want.’

Arlo Guthrie talks during a concert at a Woodstock 50th anniversary event in Bethel, New York, on Aug. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

(RNS) — I admit it: The first thing I read in the Sunday New York Times is the Styles section.

I like seeing who is getting married, and reading their stories.

But, there was one big story this past Sunday that immediately grabbed my attention. It was the story of the wedding of folk singer Arlo Guthrie to Marti Ladd.

Arlo Guthrie and Marti Ladd. Credit: New York Times

Arlo Guthrie, right, and Marti Ladd. Credit: The New York Times

It is a poignant, sweet tale of love, challenges and commitment. Guthrie and Ladd are hardly alone in finding love again, in their 60s and 70s. I regularly perform weddings for older couples in their 80s and 90s.

Guthrie is now 74 — the son of the late, iconic American folk singer Woody Guthrie, and best known for his eternal Thanksgiving anthem “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” which was released in 1967 and which is an American folk classic. It is also the subject of a movie of the same name, released in 1969.

For anyone who spends time in the Berkshires, the restaurant (which really is “right around the back, just a half a mile from the railroad tracks” in Stockbridge), and the church in which Guthrie and friends lived, which is now the Guthrie Center, are not just geographical locations. They are the western Massachusetts Western Wall — places of pilgrimage.

What’s Jewish about this story? First, Guthrie himself. He was the product of Woody’s marriage to the Jewish dancer Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia. Woody felt a deep spiritual kinship with his mother-in-law, Aliza Greenblatt, a Yiddish poet with a strong social consciousness. (Woody would go on to write and record Hanukkah songs.)

The Guthries settled in Coney Island, Brooklyn, which was a primarily Jewish neighborhood. They lived in one of Fred Trump’s properties, immortalized in the song “Old Man Trump.” The younger Guthrie celebrated becoming bar mitzvah; the rabbi at the ceremony was the late Meir Kahane, the radical founder of the Jewish Defense League.

But, it is not simply Guthrie’s Jewishness that makes this story Jewish.

It is something larger — an evocation of the Psalmist’s plaintive words: “Do not cast us off when we are old.”

Arlo Guthrie is eternally frozen in our memory as the 17-year-old rebellious kid of “Alice’s Restaurant,” and as the hippie folk singer at Woodstock and beyond.

The Guthrie Center is housed in a former church in Stockbridge, Mass. The church is highlighted in Arlo Guthrie's song "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" Photo courtesy of Wikipedia/Creative Commons

The Guthrie Center is housed in a former church in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The church is highlighted in Arlo Guthrie’s song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” Photo courtesy of Wikipedia/Creative Commons

But, to quote the Stones: “Time waits for no one.” The Stones themselves should know; each of them is pushing 80, with Mick Jagger already a great-grandfather. Time did not wait for Guthrie; it caught up with him. He has seven grandchildren. He lost his first wife to cancer. He has suffered several strokes and other medical challenges, as has Ladd.

Neil Young (age 76) could put it this way: “Rock and roll will never die.” But, when rock stars did die, it was the 27 Club: Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse.

Rock stars have now conquered the grim rule of 27. The Angel of Death can wait backstage for an autograph, but he will be waiting much longer than usual. In “You Want It Darker,” Leonard Cohen sang “Hineini — I am ready, my Lord” — and he was ready, but at 82 he had already outlived Jim Morrison by 55 years.

No, time waits for no one. We watched James Taylor and Carole King in concert footage on CNN the other evening, and we marveled at how they are in their mid-70s and almost 80, respectively. They are strong in spirit, and strong in voice.

Or, we see the aging, ailing Joni Mitchell, and we weep inwardly, remembering the 1970s version of her.

That is because we say kaddish for the 1970s versions of ourselves. The sleek track star, at age 16, attends his 50th high school reunion, and he is using a walker. How could we have thought it would not happen to our rock heroes and heroines? Are the performers gods and goddesses, that the brutality of time and the burden of the years would not strike them?

But, oh — how the young Guthrie, arrested by Officer Obie, is still there within us. The young Joni Mitchell, singing “Both Sides Now,” years before she would actually see life from both sides now.

In their youth — barely in their early 20s — the Stones sang: “Time is on my side.”

No, it isn’t. Some years ago, I saw this quote on the wall of a synagogue in Poland. “People worry about the loss of their money, but not about the loss of their years. Your money can’t help you, and the years won’t return.”

In 2022, let us resolve to use that time wisely. And, may Guthrie and Ladd have many years of love together.

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