Thursday, November 26, 2015

50 Years Past: Alice's Restaurant Massacree

"Now it all started two Thanksgivings ago..."

Make that 50 Thanksgivings ago...

Here's a brief recap of what happened on that fateful holiday in 1965: An 18-year-old Arlo Guthrie was in Great Barrington, MA staying with friends - friends who apparently hadn't taken out their trash in a long time. Arlo offered to dispose of it, and did so in what turned out to be an illegal dump site in nearby Stockbridge (also famous from the line "Now the first of December was covered with snow / And so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston" from James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James"...but I digress).

The next day Arlo was arrested, appeared in court, was found guilty and got sentenced to a $50 fine plus picking up all the trash. But, as he says in the song, "that's not what I'm here to tell you about."

After this, Arlo was invited to visit the induction center to be sent off to "kill, kill, kill" in Vietnam. He tried to get out of it but only when he mentioned his conviction for littering was he found unfit to serve. At the end, Arlo advises other draftees to invoke the song and create "the Alice's Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement."

Arlo has written many other songs over the ensuing 50 years of multiple other wars. But Alice's Restaurant," in all its 18+-minute glory, remains his "Free Bird." Everyone wants to hear him perform it. And so he tours regularly but, as he said in an interview earlier this month, "I don't do it often. I only add it to the set list every decade or so, on the anniversary, so it doesn't become too much. By the time it comes around, I'm ready to deal with it again.

"It seems to be striking a chord," he says.

While the song is undeniably a political statement, Arlo avoids involvement in politics. "It's easy enough to get caught up in the candidate du jour, but in the long run they lead us to believe they can do things that are virtually impossible.Millions of people doing things they believe in is vastly more important than who the president is."

Arlo's friend Bill Rosendahl, a former Los Angeles City Councilmember, met Arlo and his late wife Jackie Hyde around 1972 when they were touring with their children in what they affectionately called the Blunder Bus. "Jackie spent a year here [in LA] working on a memoir with the guy who owned the Troubador. She worked the door there and met Arlo," Bill says.

Bill, who had worked with Bobby Kennedy and George McGovern, became Arlo's Executive Producer. "Peter Seeger, a friend, said we have to get Arlo involved [in the McGovern campaign]. We did 39 concerts in 30 days across the country," Bill says.

He remembers, "Arlo was straitlaced. He felt responsible to the kids that way. At the time we crossed the country he had two kids, and they were on the road with us. When we got to LA, Jackie had the third baby."

Bill says fans would always scream for "Alice's Restaurant," but that Arlo changed up the lyrics to keep it fresh.

While the song is beloved, Bill believes, "More important is the impact of Arlo's life and how he lived and still lives. He's a very sensitive, highly evolved spirit."

On a personal note, "Alice's Restaurant" holds a special place in my heart. On Thanksgiving Eve 1974 I was working the suicide hotline in Mamaroneck, NY. As with all the other nights I sat in that rec center basement with other depressed teens hoping for a call from someone more morose than we were, there were no customers. A couple of hours in, my friend Paul called, exciting everyone until it turned out he still had the will to live. When I told Paul the life-saving business was slow, he convinced me to cut out early and meet him and some friends of his who were hanging out. I left immediately.

I got to the unfamiliar house and joined the hippie wannabes in the second-floor kitchen. It was a low-key crowd and I was introduced to the others, including Paul's next-door neighbor. It might have been the joint or my innate shyness, but I sat mostly silently, listening to the radio in the background as it played that Thanksgiving tradition "Alice's Restaurant." I'd never heard it all the way through and I saw the entire story play out like a movie as Arlo described it. I left the house that night with a love of "Alice's Restaurant" and a new best friend. He still holds that title today, more than 40 years later.

In The Cusp of Everything he's known as Mark.