When I was in high school, I took a class called Rockin’ Out. It was on rock history, but as interpreted by our high school band teacher, so we listened to a disproportionate amount of Chicago. Anyway, there are two things I remember from that class: 1.) the fucking stoners that sat behind me borrowed my Tom Petty greatest hits compilation for a class project and never gave it back, goddamnit, and 2.) we listened to all of “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” by Arlo Guthrie in class, and I found out that the subject of my family’s Thanksgiving tradition was actually a funny little anti-establishment ditty, which made angsty high school me love the fuck out of it even more.
As far back as anyone can remember (I guess since 1967), Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” has been played on classic rock radio stations every Thanksgiving. We’d arrive at Thanksgiving dinner at grammy’s house just as it was coming on the radio, and we’d stay in the car until it was over, because, well, that 18-and-a-half minute beast is just as much a part of Thanksgiving as the overrated food and family bickering, and we’d ride that thing out, and we’d know all the words, so we’d ramble along with Arlo and we’d walk in to a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat feeling all giddy. If you’ve never listened to the satirical monologue about a bullshit arrest/secret message to the Youth of America to avoid The Draft by committing minor crimes, you should, because it is a piece of history. I always wonder how many people hear it each year and think it’s just a goofy Thanksgiving-y song, though…maybe I was the only one not listening hard enough.
Almost 50 years ago, Woody Guthrie’s son Arlo dumped a pile of trash onto an existing pile of trash in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, got picked up by the cops for littering, later got to avoid the Vietnam War because of it, and wrote this rant about it over a catchy ragtime guitar phrase. True story – listen to Arlo explain it and talk about the song’s meaning and legacy back in 2005 on NPR’s All Things Considered. Because he had a criminal record for littering, he was seen as unfit to serve in the military. Even small shit like that could keep you from getting drafted. You’re hearing this back in 1967, and he’s letting you know about a loophole, man. Guthrie’s called “Alice’s Restaurant” more of a song against stupidity than an anti-war song, though, so I like to think of it his way. I mean, aside from the anti-’Nam stuff, throughout the whole thing he’s lampooning authority and bureaucracy and all that.
Sidenote: Did you know that they made a film about the story in the song, and that Arlo and the officer who arrested him both play themselves in it? Woah, Pete Seeger’s in it, too. And Alice Brock of actual Alice’s Restaurant fame (Remember Alice? This is a song about Alice…and the restaurant…) wrote a cookbook, which is now far out of print, but the fucking awesome website Aquarium Drunkard purchased a copy and posted about it, so check that out. It’s goofy.
I’m working today, six hours’ drive away from my family. Not my first Turkey Day away from home, but that doesn’t make it any less shitty. The one thing that’ll make it feel like not just some other day, though, is when I get home and spin Alice’s Restaurant, the 1967 LP on which “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” takes up the entire A-side, on my record player. It’s a fun record; the other side has a song that rhymes “pickle” with “motorcycle,” which tells you what kind of fun person Arlo is. I’m going to have a beer and a cold turkey sandwich and the memories are going to flood on back. When he gets to the part about the people on the Group W bench, I’m going to think about how I used to not know whether to laugh when he said “There were all kinds of mean nasty ugly people…mother rapers…father stabbers…father rapers!” in the car with my mom. When the chorus comes around, I’m going to think about how I sang it in the cell after my own bullshit arrest ordeal, which probably took up even less time than Arlo’s trash thing, until they told me to shut up and try to sleep. I’m going to think about how, when I brought this record to college, I played it and found out that most people I know grew up with it being a Thanksgiving memory, too. And while it’s playing, I’m going to think about how old Arlo, whose wife Jackie just passed, is doing, and hope he’s surrounded by friends and family and such. You ought to do that, too.
Happy Thanksgiving, all.