Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
It is Thanksgiving and we here at the underground base which is the command center of Dave’s Corner of the Universe have, two holiday traditions. One, is for my niece and nephew, to have a “Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” Lunch, which is what Charlie served his friends in his thanksgiving special, namely Popcorn, jellybeans, pretzels and toast. And second is listening to the song Alice’s Restaurant Masacree. We are not the only ones; thousands of Americans listen to it, on the holiday. Almost every classic rock station plays it at least once on Turkey Day, on the West Coast it is a bigger tradition than The Macey’s Thanksgiving Day parade. So, lets explore this song a little deeper.
I first heard ARM when I was 8, my dad thought I would like it because it was funny. He was right, but it took some coaxing to get me to listen to it. With the naked Arlo on the album cover, the word masacree in the title, and the fact that I caught part of what was on TV when my grandmother watched The God Father, I thought it would be a movie about a gangland murder at a restaurant. Four decades later I found out that the word masacree did not mean a bunch of murders like the word massacre, but as our colleagues at Wikipedia define the word. “an event so wildly and improbably and baroquely messed up that the results are almost impossible to believe”
The restaurant is Alice’s in the fact she owned it, not the real name of the diner which was called The Back Room.
I will include a link to the song, which is 18 minutes and 34 seconds long (Reportedly the exact length of the missing Nixon tapes, a coincidence? I think not) But for those of you who are not familiar with the song, here is the basics.
Arlo Guthrie is the son of uber-famous folk singer Woody Guthrie, writer of This Land is Your Land. He was having Thanks Giving Dinner at his friend Ray and Alice’s restaurant a converted church. They were remolding so as a favor for having been served such good food, he and a friend decide to take a large portion of the trash to the local dump, not realizing it was closed for the holidays. Not wanting to take the garbage back to Alice and Ray, they dumped it out back in the woods.
Unfortunately there were things with Arlo’s name and address on it that also got dumped, so the cops traced it back to Arlo and locked him in the jail. The cop, Sheriff William Obenhime .AKA Officer Obie, took meticulous photos of the trash, which came to naught because the judge was blind. Arlo got a $25.00 fine and a misdemeanor record.
Later that year Arlo got drafted to go to Vietnam. He didn’t want to go to war, but showed up anyway. He was rejected form the draft for not being moral enough for military service. In Arlo’s word’s “you to know if I’m moral enough to join the Army—burn women, kids, houses and villages—after bein’ a litterbug”
This song is entirely true. Arlo Guthrie didn’t go to Vietnam, because of a littering convection!
The song which is over 18 minutes long has this awesome catchy chorus. The rest is pretty much told as a story like a stand-up comic might. Kind of a prototype rap based on the old southern “Talking Blues.”
It had gotten a little play by midnight shift disc jockeys, when Guthrie played it to an audience of around 300 people at the Newport Music festival. The festival organizers liked it so much they asked him to play it to a larger crowd the next day and then close the festival. Eventually Arlo would play it at Woodstock.
The song does have a regrettable use of a word to describe gays. In Arlo’s defense the word was not as objectionable back in the 60’s and he wasn’t saying he thought that way about gays, but that the military did. In later versions he changed the line to “They will think you are gay – Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
Eventually a movie was made about the song. Alice’s restaurant was directed by, Arthur Penn, who directed bonnie and Clyde. The movie opened the day before Woodstock. I haven’t seen the movie, so I am not qualified to talk about it, but I will anyways.
Arlo played himself. So, did the judge and officer Obie, who said that “If anyone is going to make a fool out of me, it will be me.” Alice was played by Pat Quinn. Alice Brock felt that she couldn’t portray herself because she wasn’t a professional actor. She didn’t like the part, she felt it was a different version of her, not the real her. Among other changes there is an implied romantic subtext between Arlo and Alice that never existed.
Arlo eventually bought the church, and converted it to The Guthrie Center, a nondenominational meeting place and children’s center.
The song with its ear worm chorus and funny story has survived 5 decades as a Thanksgiving institution. But at its core it is an antiwar song and a spotlight on how ridiculous humans can be. How the bureaucracy was more concerned about someone littering than. the women and children that were killed in a fruitless war. Not to harsh your Thanksgiving, but have we really changed that much 50 years later?