How can a memoirist put 60 years of his life into a 328-page book? In his memoir Guitarlo, Arlo Hennings finds himself equal to the task by portraying himself as a sympathetic, fearless and daring character living a remarkable life. Like Ulysses, he is an unlikely anti-hero thrust upon journeys to defy the Gods and win or lose over and over again. His writing is equally as fearless and experimental using a hipster music industry vocabulary, daring syllogisms and unique mode of expression that defies pigeonholing.
Tom Robbins wrote that only famous people should write memoirs. Hennings isn’t famous but the sheer span of time, space and range of humanity he covers in post-modern America is in itself a unique spin on the memoir genre. From attending the first Rainbow Family gathering in Colorado in 1972 and stumbling into three days of peace, love and music at Woodstock to meeting Dennis Banks of the American Indian Movement and witnessing South Africa’s first free all-race election in 1994, he always seems to find himself in the middle of the main currents of his time.
The first two thirds of Guitarlo is about the author’s personal life and career as a music manager and impresario leading up to his leap of faith in starting a new life to Indonesia. The last third of the book, beginning with the chapter “Welcome to the Bud,” takes place on Bali and in his Javanese wife’s home village of Pasuruan in East Java and in Yogyakarta in central Java.
The writer chose the memoir format because the truth mattered to him. He didn’t need to create a fictional world when his own life’s experiences were extraordinary enough. But this is not a self-indulgent memoir as is true of many published recently. Far too frequently boomers insist on self-publishing their lackluster and boring life stories. Just because it happened doesn’t make it interesting. Each story of the 29 stories is about multiple events – divorce, cancer, death, travels, etc. No single event propels the narration. At the end there is no final resolution, just more eager and hopeful struggle ahead.
Mature and city wise beyond his years, at 15 Hennings ran away from his parents’ contentious and financially insecure marriage for a life on the gritty streets of Minneapolis. He fell in with drug-crazed counter-cultural renegades, narrowly escapes a lynching by redneck farmers and gets picked up by a busload of hippies. The collapse of his ownmarriage leads to a period of restlessness and physical problems.
Following attempts at a normal life as a dental mechanic and travelling salesman, he discovers a talent for managing rock and roll bands that takes him to the heart of the American music industry and ultimately on tours to South Africa.
Hennings doesn’t hold much back. Facing an uncertain future due to Hepatitis C, you get the feeling that he wants to come clean, to unburden himself and leave a permanent record of his disadvantaged childhood, his lack of any sense of identity and self-worth and his brutally frank assessments of musicians that he has represented.
Hennings was at the very center of the revolutionary counterculture movement of 1960s and 1970s. His recollections of the high-flying world of rock and roll are fascinating. He faults Stephen Stills for ruining a Crosby, Nash & Stills tour by getting stoned and then breaking his nose in a bathroom.
Throughout the book he encounters famous people of the era (Wavy Gravy, Ravi Shankar, Shawn Phillips). While hitching from Minneapolis to Woodstock, he meets Hunter S. Thompson and climbs aboard the same Magic Bus driven by the Merry Pranksters who were made famous by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test.
Hennings’ first-hand accounts and anecdotes of a tumultuous era resonate with a unique voice and are narrated at a quick pace that entices the reader. Although the episodes of his life in Indonesia do not match the lyrical quality, the confessional power, the anguish and emotional force of the book’s first chapters, he employs a probing writer’s eye, the sensibility of a novelist and a finely tuned sense of absurdity and irony.
It was never his plan to go to Bali, find himself and write a book. His rude introduction to the island on the drive from the airport up to Ubud was inauspicious – the stifling heat, the traffic congestion, the endless roadside art shops, the tawdry all-pervading commercialism – but his escape to Bali was to change his life forever. He settles into the trendy New Age Ubud scene, taking up residence in a hilly area overlooking a deep river valley ironically next door to where Elizabeth Gilbert ofEat, Pray, Love fame lived. He eventually comes to grips with his newly adopted home, its culture, language and strange customs.
A litany of the typical woes of foreigners building in Bali follows-disappointments with contractors, shoddy unprofessionalwork, workers starting late, not showing up and not being paid, run-ins with batty neighbors, etc. He teaches music and makes an erstwhile attempt to open a hip eco-smart guesthouse. Though his professional skills and background are all his own, his experiences mirror those of many newcomers to Bali and he has to learn many of the same lessons. In a short three years, the island teeming with tourists and expats, he observes the enormous changes taking place as his neighborhood travels to the new century.
At last fully embracing his new island home, he meets a Javanese woman through an online dating site. We read about surprising twists and turns: his digression into new-age spiritualism, becoming an unwitting witness in a murder case of a kind English teacher, the subsequent sale of his property that the tragedy triggers, his wedding in East Java and in 2015 finding a new life in Yogya, the City of Artists where he opened a successful digital recording studio.
He reaches his full literary stride with sparkling, analytical, often blistering portraits of various personalities he meets – backpacking yoga teachers, the absurd dingbat 67-year-old landlady, the gorgeous black goddess with a southern drawl, the alcoholic yet sympathetic Dutch painter, his instructive Balinese housekeeper, his svelte and loving Javanese girlfriend, the miserly and complaining Russian acupuncturist, the metaphysical chiropractor, the unpretentious and generous-hearted gardener, the wrinkled grandmother who lays out the morning offerings. His descriptive gifts extend also to the natural and supernatural worlds – poison-spitting frogs, malevolent jungle spirits and supernatural phantoms inhabiting the surrounds of his villa.
Hennings is an endearing rogue who burrows deep into his being and shares his strengths and faults without flinching. The book’s honesty and its characters and anecdotes maintain the right balance between passion and truth. The story he tells is bigger than all its sad and happy parts. Not just a personal history of six decades of his life, Guitarlo is also a travelogue, social commentary, spiritual journey and journalistic chronicle of American pop music history.
Guitarlo by Arlo Hennings, Hear2Ear Records and Books 2016, ISBN 978-0-692-32349-6, paperback, 328 pages.
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