Thursday, April 12, 2018

Arlo Guthrie & Alice Now Staples of fall Holiday

By Jim Beckerman - 2015

November 26, 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the events that inspired Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant Massacre" and the freaks and free spirits got their own Thanksgiving.

"Alice's Restaurant," now a holiday staple at many radio stations is the counterculture's answer to the kind of wholesome Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving we're all familiar with -- not least from Norman Rockwell paintings.

So consider this curious footnote to history: Rockwell and Alice shared an address.

Alice Brock's restaurant -- the inspiration for Arlo Guthrie's famous album and "talking blues" song -- was in fact located directly below the studio of Norman Rockwell at 40 Main St., Stockbridge, Mass.

"It's kind of funny to think that I have become another attraction, in addition to Norman Rockwell, to the town of Stockbridge," Guthrie told The Record, by email.

The actual article from the
Berkshire Eagle detailing the
arrest of Arlo Guthrie for
littering and his sentencing 
of picking up the garbage
on Thanksgiving 1965.
This year's "Alice" anniversary marks, not the birth of the album or song -- both came out in 1967 -- but the real-life incidents that inspired them. It was 50 years ago today -- Thanksgiving 1965 -- that 18-year-old Arlo, son of legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie ("This Land Is Your Land"), volunteered to haul some garbage for his restaurateur friend Alice and her husband Ray. Fans of "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" (the track's official title -- "massacree" being Ozark-ese for a tall tale) know what happened next: an 18 1/2-minute whopper involving cops, a blind judge, a draft board and a memorable group of social rejects on "the group W bench."

This year, to mark the golden anniversary, Guthrie ("The City of New Orleans") is reviving his famous story-song in concert -- something he does only sparingly these days. Guthrie, who also has a new children's book, "Monsters," out for the holiday season, will be at NJPAC on Sunday.

"We're doing a really big show for the 50th anniversary - lights and multimedia effects and even a fog machine," Guthrie says. "It's a little crazy, especially for a folk singer. But it has been very well received so far."

Meantime, many radio stations today will be doing what they do every year -- playing the entire, lengthy track as a holiday treat. Guthrie's non-traditional Thanksgiving yarn has itself, over time, become a much-loved Thanksgiving tradition.

"It's taken on a life of its own," says Kenny O'Boyle, host of WFDU's "Let There Be Country," who will be playing it at noon today. "Obviously the fact that the incident happened on Thanksgiving has a lot to do with it."

Back in the 1960s, of course, the takeaway of "Alice's Restaurant" had less to do with Thanksgiving than Vietnam. The punchline of the song, you'll recall, is that Arlo's criminal status as a "litterbug" makes him unacceptable as a soldier. "In the Vietnam era, it had such a poignant message," O'Boyle says.

Nevertheless, there's a reason the song has become a kind of alternative anthem for the holidays, O'Boyle says.

"We all know not everybody gets along with their family so great," he says. "Some people dread Thanksgiving. How about a Thanksgiving with your friends, the people you relate to?"

In the song "Alice's Restaurant," and even more in the 1969 Arthur Penn movie version, starring Arlo as himself, new-agers got an alternate take on Thanksgiving -- a laid-back day to celebrate with your groovy friends in a wicked cool setting. Possibly even one as cool as the deconsecrated church (now the Guthrie Center in Great Barrington, Mass.) where Arlo and his pals had their famous "Thanksgiving dinner that couldn't be beat."

The film version, which paints Alice and Ray's church as almost a proto-hippie commune, may push this a bit far, Guthrie thinks.

"The movie version of it was so believable that even my kids thought it was a re-creation of actual events," Guthrie says. "But it was nothing like what really took place. There were just a half-dozen friends who had been invited by Alice and Ray Brock. We sat around, sang some hymns and old ballads after dinner. I loved the old church where they lived, and I slept up in the bell tower that night."

Moreover, by the time the movie was made, 1969, the end of the hippie era was plainly in sight, and the "Alice's Restaurant" film has an elegiac vibe that Guthrie isn't entirely happy with.

'30-percent-true story' 

"I loved working with Arthur Penn who directed the movie," Guthrie says. "But I didn't like the way the movie eventually came out. It was kind of depressing, and in real life we were not depressing people. I think what happened is that they wanted to make a 90-minute movie based on a 20-minute song. So they had to make up a lot of stuff. They made up parts that had much less humor, and used 100-percent real people to tell a 30-percent-true story."

But the fact that the movie was made at all was just one more improbable chapter in the odd saga of "Alice's Restaurant" -- one of the stranger tunes ever to hit the Top 20 (No. 17 on the Billboard charts). A shaggy-dog story set to some folksy strumming, nearly 20 minutes long, with a chorus that might be mistaken for an advertising jingle, is not exactly the definition of radio-friendly -- then or now. It was an odd combination of circumstances, Guthrie says, that made "Alice's Restaurant" a hit.

"WBAI in New York was where the song first got recorded," Guthrie recalls. "Just because I had wandered in the station late one night, and sat down to goof off with Bob Fass, who was the host of a late night show. The song got played a lot as a fundraising effort for the station. Later that year, in the summer of 1967, I went to the Newport Folk Festival and was invited to sing before the largest crowd I'd ever seen. Again, no one was expecting much of me, I was just a kid. But the following day the headline in The New York Times read 'Festival His - Just for a Song,' or something like that. They liked it. Within a few weeks, I'd had a record in the works which came out later that year. ... After that, all hell broke loose."

In the end, the most important fan of "Alice's Restaurant" may have been the first. Guthrie family tradition has it that "Alice's Restaurant" was the last song Woody Guthrie heard before he died on Oct. 3, 1967. "That's true," his son says. "He got to hear the reference recordings -- what we called 'test pressings' in those days. He passed away very shortly thereafter, a few weeks before the record came out."

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