(UPDATED: Arlo Responds!) 45 Years Later, What's The Big Deal About Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant"?
Updated: Arlo Guthrie contacted us after this first posted. See his comments below.
A few days ago Houston Press music editor Chris Gray was bemoaning the lack of quality Thanksgiving songs. There are really only six that he could think of. That Adam Sandler song doesn't count either.
"It's Thanksgiving" by Nicole Westbrook shouldn't count, but sadly, it will for the rest of our lives.
But what about "Alice's Restaurant," a 1967 spoken-word epic by folk singer Arlo Guthrie, son of Woody?
"Alice's Restaurant Massacree" is more than 18 minutes of '60s freak culture, Vietnam War military paranoia, and proto-slacker joy.
For some families it is a Turkey Day rite, right up there with the cracking of the wishbone, or the wine-drunk argument about who lived with each other out of wedlock.
After dinner someone pulls out a scratched LP or dusty compact disc and the fam sits around and listens to Guthrie's tale of good deeds gone hilariously awry.
Last year around this time the New York Times had its say about the performance piece too.
The album it comes from, Alice's Restaurant, also features the anti-pickle screed "The Motorcycle Song".
The song itself was made into a cult movie in 1969, starring Guthrie as himself, with a special appearance by family friend and folkie Pete Seeger.
The events in the song -- occurring on Thanksgiving 1965 -- the (closed) garbage dump, the subsequent arrests of Guthrie and Rick Robbins, the draft board debacle, didn't all happen as Guthrie sang/spoke them.
From an email exchange today with the man himself, Mr. Arlo Guthrie:
The events happened as in the song. We were in the small jail in Stockbridge Mass for a few hours, then released to clean up the garbage. We went to the court house in Lee, MA where were fined by Judge Hannon (who was blind). There was no lottery during 1965, so I never had a number. I had an 1A designation and appeared as required to Fort Hamilton in NYC to report for induction. I was rejected by the US armed services because of my criminal record - littering.
And just yesterday, I met with Chief Rick Wilcox, who followed Bill Obanheim, (Officer Obie) as Chief of Stockbridge police. We had a great time laughing about the old days. On Thanksgiving day Chief Wilcox and his wife will be at the church, where the story actually took place. They and a dozen other volunteers will help serve our 21st annual "Free - Thanksgiving Dinner That Couldn't Be Beat." The Church (now called The Guthrie Center) provides food and other services for the communities in our area. This is the same church where I took out the garbage in 1965 and where Arthur Penn filmed the movie "Alice's Restaurant" released by United Artists in 1969. We will not inflict the song on the attendees. But the spirit survives and for that, I'm thankful.
Many radio stations around the country play the song in its entirety as a baby-boomer Turkey Day tradition, but with the changes in terrestrial radio, it's a rare occurrence now. You can probably hear it on one of Houston's indie stations, like KPFT if you are lucky.
Why play an 18-minute song from a dirty, nasally-voiced hippie when you can sell ad space around Rihanna and One Direction? Money slipping through your fingers, I tell ya.
These days I can imagine a family crowding around a laptop or the tediously-slow family desktop computer and watching Grandpa or Grandma dial up "Alice's Restaurant" on YouTube and making some poor kid's endure it.
And hearing this...
"No! No! This isn't Bob Dylan. No, it's Arlo Guthrie. Get some culture, junior."
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Houston.