Seeking Sanctuary

updated 02/10/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/10/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

IT WAS BACK IN 1965 WHEN ARLO GUTHRIE took out his friend Alice's trash, got arrested for littering—and thereby found the inspiration for the song that made him famous. "Alice's Restaurant," his whimsical, 18-minute musical narrative about the arrest and all that followed, launched his career, became a gentle antiwar anthem of the '60s and even inspired an uninspired movie.

Guthrie, 44, went on to record 13 albums, married in 1969 and now lives quietly with wife Jackie and their four children (ages 13 to 21) on a Washington, Mass., farm. But he recently returned to the scene of the crime—the Housatonic, Mass., church where he had once camped with its then owners, restaurateur Alice Brock and her teacher-husband Ray. His purpose this time: to buy the erstwhile house of worship.

"Most of the songs on my first few albums were written on the organ by the altar," he recalls wistfully. "It was a very creative place for me."

If he can raise the $300,000 asked by its present artist owners, Arlo plans to turn the old church into the Guthrie Center, with fund-raising offices for his favorite causes (the environment, the homeless and American farmers), an archive for the works of his late father, Dust Bowl folksinger Woody Guthrie, and headquarters for his Rising Son record label. (Guthrie's first album in five years, Son of the Wind, is due this spring.) Given until March to come up with the loot, he is renting the building for the time being while he tries to raise money from contributions and a February concert tour.

Despite some complaints from locals (who had memories of the raucous hippie refuge portrayed in the 1969 film Alice's Restaurant), Guthrie's plans have already gotten the go-ahead from zoning officials. And if a few townsfolk are still fretting, he has at least one enthusiastic supporter: Alice Brock. Divorced in 1969 from Ray, who died 10 years later, she is now a sometime author (How to Massage Your Cat) living in a remote beachfront home in Province-town, Mass. Declares Alice, 50, of the old church: "It's great that it's going to stay in the family—the family of the '60s."

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