PITTSFIELD, MA – As a lifelong motorcyclist, singer/songwriter Arlo Guthrie knows about the camaraderie felt by riders. Thanks to one of his best known compositions, a silly song in which he tells of riding off a cliff “doin’ 150 miles an hour, sideways, and 500 feet down at the same time,” Guthrie says that he has a passport to acceptance wherever he travels.
“One of the great things about having written the song is that I know that I can go into any town along the road, and if there’s a bunch of bikes in front of a bar, I can go in there. And if they start giving me trouble, I’ll just tell ’em, ‘I’m the guy who wrote the freaking song’ and I won’t have any more trouble. It’s like a passport. I’ve got mine,” he said recently while sitting against his 2001 Indian outside of The Berkshire Museum.
Guthrie has many well-known songs to his credit – from the beloved “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” to “Coming Into Los Angeles.” His biggest chart hit was the Steve Goodman tune “City of New Orleans,” but among riders it is “The Motorcycle Song” that invariably gets mentioned. It contains the memorable lyrics “I don’t want a pickle, just want to ride my motorcycle,” with motorcycle pronounced as “motor-sickle.”
Ask Guthrie about the origin of “The Motorcycle Song,” as RIDE-CT did late last month after he completed a book signing at the museum for his recent children’s book “Old Bill: The Famous Berkshire Moose,” and you get a wonderful tale that leaves you, well, wondering.
“I’ve told it so many different times and so many different ways, over so many different years and decades, that it’s really hard for me to know the reality from the fiction I’ve created,” he said. What began as a 30-second, real-life incident while riding has evolved into something that’s lasted.
“The reality of it is mired in early Alzheimer’s or whatever,” Guthrie continued. “I have no idea how it came about except I was riding here around Sheffield or one of those towns. I remember I was on one of these Triumphs I was telling you about. The pig hit a root, spun me right off of that thing. I went for a ride as it went through the air, did some acrobatics up there, came down and wrote that song.”
At least that was his version on the afternoon of Aug. 29 “to be the best of my memory, which may have been altered in flight,” he added.
A few minutes earlier, I’d asked him how he began riding. “When I was about 18, I wanted a bike. I tried a bunch of them. I think the first one I ever really rode was a Ducati. I learned to ride from my friend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott,” he said, recalling that his folk singer buddy primarily rode British bikes. He soon became interested in dirt bike racing.
“We’re all riding around on Triumphs. That was probably 1965, 1966, somewhere around there,” he said. Indeed, Triumphs and dirt bike scenes are featured in the movie version of “Alice’s Restaurant.” “I didn’t have my own bike until probably the early ‘80s when somebody asked me to do a piece for a movie about motorcycles. The guy’s name was Peter Starr and he has gone on to make some of the greatest motorcycle movies ever. This one that I was involved with was called ‘Take It To the Limit’ and in order to do that I had to have a bike.”
Guthrie said that he ended with a 400cc Honda Hawk. “I rode that for a while until my kid decided it would be better off going through the woods than on the road – all the lights came off, there was nothing left of it when he was done, but it was a fun bike. Once that was toast, I thought it would be really nice to get something that I could actually use; that would be too big for him to kill, and that was this bike right here,” said Guthrie, patting his leather jacket that rested across the passenger seat of his Indian
The 68-year-old Guthrie has a fondness for the Indian. “I don’t really remember how I came upon it. I might have just been going through the newspaper and looking. This was a used bike but it didn’t have that many miles on it; maybe 4,000 or 5,000 miles on it. At some point, probably around 2005, I got this bike and have been riding it ever since,” he said.
When time permits, Guthrie rides his Indian near his Berkshire County home. “We’re on the road eight, nine months a year. When you get off the road, if it’s in December, I ain’t riding around here. There has to be a confluence of weather, time off and the bike has to be nearby. When those things converge, I’m out there. I’m down the road,” he said.
Guthrie did get to ride a new Indian for an event on the West Coast about six months ago. “Indian provided some bikes to go riding. They were so light that I didn’t feel comfortable. I didn’t feel safe on the thing. You could tell that they were really well designed. None of the problems associated with an older bike. But when I got home and got on this thing, which is so heavy compared to the new ones, I thought, ‘Yeah, this is right. This feels right.’”
Guthrie is currently halfway through an 18-month tour celebrating the 50th anniversary of his writing of “Alice’s Restaurant.” He will play The Colonial Theatre here on Oct. 11, which may give him the opportunity for some seat time.
“This is one of the few countries in the world, one of the few places in the world where you can ride for 20 days … and not have to go through a border, get an ID checked or a passport needed. I think there’s something to be said for that. This is still a country that welcomes people who have the guts to get out there,” he said.
Arlo Guthrie talks about his side career as a children’s author here.
Whereas some performers get testy because of success and even resent the songs that have made them famous, Guthrie came across as genuinely appreciative, even of “The Motorcycle Song.” “It’s kind of fun. Every time I go to a place where there’s a lot of bikes, people will ride by going ‘I don’t want a pickle’ or something like that. I’m going, ‘Oh, geez, how many times do you gotta hear that?’ But I get it. These things become part of the soundtrack of your life,” he said.
And, like the rest of us who enjoy two wheels, Guthrie just wants to ride his motorcycle.
(Originally published in “The Sunday Republican” on Sept. 27, 2015.)