Dave's Corner of the Universe

Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide

Alice’s Restaurant Masacree: How an Anti-war Song Became a Thanksgiving Staple.

 

alices cover

 

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.

alice and arlo

A & A

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.

dump

 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.

officer obie

Obbie as himself.

 Arlo eventually bought the church, and converted it to The Guthrie Center, a nondenominational meeting place and children’s center.

church

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?  

4 comments on “Alice’s Restaurant Masacree: How an Anti-war Song Became a Thanksgiving Staple.

  1. leggypeggy
    November 22, 2018

    I love this song. When I taught speech high school, one of the students used this song for his final. He wrote new lyrics and titled it Howard’s Cafeteria, and skewered the school cafeteria. Hilarious and clever. Loved the ingenuity.

  2. ducksam
    April 11, 2019

    I saw this movie, at the age of 20, at a drive-in theater in the middle of nowhere Missouri—just off highway 60, near Ellington, in the Ozarks. I was riding with three of my friends, all of us returning to the town of Rolla, where we attended engineering school at a branch of the University of MO. We travelled that same road about every two weeks, a four-hour drive from Caruthersville, in the Bootheel. This time we noticed that Alice’s Restaurant was playing at that drive-in, and we pulled off the highway and made a decision to sneak in through the exit road, so we wouldn’t have to pay.

    A few weeks earlier, while riding the same route, we had heard our “draft lottery” numbers—based on our birthdays—called out over a public radio broadcast. My number had turned out to be 9 out of 365, so I would likely be looking at a stint in the military after graduation, maybe even Vietnam itself. It had felt like the hammer of doom, partly because my cousin Michael had been killed in Vietnam a couple of years earlier—an 18-year-old Marine in a personnel carrier that struck a mine. That had been a revelation for my family, and I wasn’t eager to become a throwaway pawn of Nixon’s misguided war effort.

    Some of us were a little crazy then. We drove through the drive-in exit, watched the entire movie, which shocked this naive country boy, and were just about to leave when a highway patrol car pulled up beside us. Turns out the drive-in manager had seen us and called the state police. After searching us and the car—no drugs, not even a beer—and learning we were college kids, the cops told us to pay the manager, and simply let us go.

    There was no note at the bottom of a pile of garbage, no arrest or interment, no order to enlist in the Army, no psychological exam—as there were in the movie. I did, however, wind up in the MO National Guard two years later. At that time MP units were training to quell more expected antiwar riots, and I wanted no part of that. To sum up, I was discharged after only a few months, and never went to Vietnam. A medical discharge—young men were even breaking their own trigger fingers then, but mine was stomach related—saved me from six years of utter nonsense in the Guard.

    I have never been proud of my avoidance of military service, but the insanity of those days changed my perspective forever.

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This entry was posted on November 22, 2018 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , .
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