Arlo Guthrie at Woodstock, 1969
Last week I posted some items about a young man in the Traffic Offenders Program and the similarity to an incident in Alice’s Restaurant, Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 hit. I also mentioned that the background to the song (actually more of a spoken narrative than a song) was interesting. Here are some of the background items.
Arlo Guthrie (1947 - ) is the son of folk singer Woody Guthrie. Like his father, Arlo is known for singing protest songs about social injustice. His appearance at Woodstock in 1969 will be remembered for his stoned rambling comments as much as for his rendition of his son Coming Into Los Angeles
"I was never anticipating performing that day, so I was excessing in all kind of indulgences. And after that day, I never did again. Because when I heard the record and saw the movie, I said, 'Oh my god. You can't make a living doing this.' It was the best time in my life but it was the worst moment in my life, both at the same time!"
- Arlo Guthrie, 2009, commenting on Woodstock and on being scared striaght.
The song Alice’s Restaurant lasts 18 minutes and 34 seconds, occupying the entire A-side of Guthrie's 1967 debut record album, also titled Alice’s Restaurant. Although the song's official title, as printed on the album, is "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" (pronounced "mass-a-cree"), Guthrie states in the opening line of the song that "This song's called 'Alice's Restaurant'" and that "'Alice's Restaurant'... is just the name of the song.” Hence it is usually just called by the shortened title.
Much of the narrative is based on fact. On Thanksgiving Day 1965, Arlo (then aged 18) and his friend Rick Robbins were to have Thanksgiving dinner with friends Alice and Ray Brock. The Brocks lived in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in a church. Deciding to get rid of a lot of garbage in the church, they piled it into a VW bus and Arlo and Rick drove to the dump. Unfortunately the dump was closed so they drove around. Arlo remembered a side road on Prospect Hill from previous time spent in Stockbridge and they dumped the garbage there. Not long afterwards Stockbridge police chief William J “Obie” Obanhein telephoned the church and stated “I found an envelope with the name Brock on it.” They readily admitted that Arlo and Rick had dumped the garbage, expecting to be fined. Instead Officer Obie drove to the church, arrested them and took them to the dump site at Prospect Hill where he took photographs. He then took them to the local jail. Two days later, they pleaded guilty in court before a blind judge, James E. Hannon. Arlo and Ricky were fined $25 and told to pick up their garbage. They then went back to the church and wrote the song.
The later part of the song contains an anti-war message, directed at the war in Vietnam. In the song Arlo is ineligible to be in the army, go to Vietnam and kill people because of the conviction for littering. In reality, Arlo was eligible but his number wasn’t called for the draft.
Many stations across the States have made playing "Alice's Restaurant" a Thanksgiving Day tradition.
The church where it all began.
In 1991, Guthrie bought the church that had served as Alice and Ray Brock's former home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and converted it to the Guthrie Centre, an interfaith meeting place that serves people of all religions. The centre provides weekly free lunches in the community and support for families living with HIV/AIDS as well as other life-threatening illnesses. It also hosts a summertime concert series and Guthrie does six or seven fund raising shows there every year. There are several annual events such as the Walk-A-Thon to Cure Huntington's Disease and a "Thanksgiving Dinner That Can't Be Beat" for families, friends, doctors and scientists who live and work with Huntington's disease.
Arlo Guthrie’s website at http://www.arlo.net/obie.shtml has a tribute page dedicated to Officer Obie (1924-1994), the Police Chief of Stockbridge, with most accounts and comments about him being sympathetic. A police officer of 34 years whose life and family was touched by suicide, divorce and alcohol abuse, he was also the inspiration for several Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post covers.
Officer (later Police Chief) Obie
Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover, "The Runaway", showing Officer Obie trying to talk a young lad out of running away from home