Alice's Restaurant Massacree
|"Alice's Restaurant Massacree"|
|Song by Arlo Guthrie|
|from the album Alice's Restaurant|
|Genre||Talking blues, folk music|
"Alice's Restaurant Massacree" (self-identified multiple times in the lyrics of the song itself as "Alice's Restaurant") is a song by singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie, released as the title track to his 1967 debut album Alice's Restaurant. It is notable as a satirical, first-person account of 1960s counterculture, in addition to being a hit song in its own right and an inspiration for the 1969 film also named Alice's Restaurant. The song is Guthrie's most prominent work, based on a true incident from his life that began on Thanksgiving Day 1965 with a citation for littering, and ended with the refusal of the U.S. Army to draft him because of his conviction for that crime. The ironic punch line of the story is that, in the words of Guthrie, "I'm sittin' here on the Group W bench 'cause you want to know if I'm moral enough to join the Army—burn women, kids, houses and villages—after bein' a litterbug." The final part of the song is an encouragement for the listeners to sing along, to resist the draft, and to end war.
The song consists of a protracted spoken monologue, with a constantly repeated fingerstyle ragtime guitar (Piedmont style) backing and light brush-on-snare drum percussion (the drummer on the record is uncredited), bookended by a short chorus about the titular diner; Guthrie has used the short "Alice's Restaurant" bookends and guitar backings for other monologues bearing the Alice's Restaurant name. The track lasts 18 minutes and 34 seconds, occupying the entire A-side of the Alice's Restaurant album. The work has become Guthrie's signature song and he has periodically re-released it with updated lyrics.
"Alice's Restaurant" is a satirical, deadpan protest against the Vietnam War draft, in the form of a comically exaggerated but true story from Guthrie's own life. It has been described by at least one source as a shaggy dog story.
The term "massacree", used by Guthrie in the title to describe the whole scenario, is a colloquialism originating in the Ozark Mountains that describes "an event so wildly and improbably and baroquely messed up that the results are almost impossible to believe". It is a corruption of the word massacre (itself of French origin, possibly from the now nearly extinct Missouri French dialect) but carries a much lighter and more sarcastic connotation, never being used to describe anything involving actual death.
In November 1965, when Guthrie was 18 years old near the end of his brief stint at Rocky Mountain College, he spent the Thanksgiving Day holiday in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, at a deconsecrated church being used as a home for two of his friends, Alice and Ray (Alice owned a restaurant at the time, but other than being the subject of the chorus, none of the events of the song involve the restaurant). As a favor to Alice and Ray, Guthrie and a friend (not named in the song, but identified in contemporary news reports as Richard Robbins) volunteered to take the church's large stockpile of trash to the local dump, not realizing until they arrived at the dump site that it was closed for the holiday.
They proceeded to dump the trash over a cliff on Nelson Foote Sr.'s property on Prospect Street, across from the Indian Hill School (where Guthrie's mother had previously been a teacher) in the nearby town of Stockbridge. The next day, after spending "a very disagreeable two hours" searching through the trash for a clue and finding an envelope with Ray's name on it, Stockbridge chief of police William Obanhein arrested Guthrie and Robbins for littering.
The song describes to ironic effect Obanhein's frustration at the ensuing "typical case of American blind justice", in which the officer was prepared to present at trial "twenty-seven 8-by-10 color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was to be used as evidence against us", only to have the judge enter the courtroom accompanied by a seeing-eye dog. Guthrie and Robbins both pleaded guilty, were fined $25 each by Special Justice James E. Hannon, and picked up the garbage on Saturday afternoon, following a heavy rain. Obanhein said the youths "found dragging the junk up the hillside much harder than throwing it down". He added that he hoped their story would prove to be a deterrent to others.
At the end of the littering story, Guthrie states that the entire story up to that point was "not what I came to tell you about". He then goes on to describe his subsequent experience before the Vietnam-era draft board, and the surreal bureaucracy at the New York City induction center at 39 Whitehall Street. Initially, Guthrie attempted to dodge the draft by appearing for his physical exam while hung over. For his second attempt, he attempted to convince the psychiatrist that he was homicidal, which only earned him praise. Finally, when asked whether he had ever been convicted of a crime, Guthrie mentioned the public dumping incident and learned that his conviction on a littering charge had the same effect on his eligibility as a violent felony—the military could not induct him unless they issued a moral waiver. In Guthrie's words, they wanted "to know if I'm moral enough to join the Army—burn women, kids, houses and villages—after bein' a litterbug".
The draft officer did, in fact, reject Guthrie for military service; according to the song, the sergeant in charge of the induction process stated, "Kid, we don't like your kind, and we're gonna send your fingerprints off to Washington." (The FBI was collecting data on prominent anti-war protesters through its COINTELPRO program, the existence of which would not become publicly known until 1971.)
In the final part of the song, Guthrie tells the live audience that should they (or someone they know) find themselves facing the draft, the draftee should walk into the military psychiatrist's office, sing the opening line from the chorus and walk out. Guthrie notes that the military would not take serious notice of the protest unless "fifty people a day" followed Guthrie's instructions, at which point they would realize that it was "the Alice's Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement".
"Alice's Restaurant" was first performed publicly with Guthrie singing live on Radio Unnameable, the overnight program hosted by Bob Fass that aired on New York radio station WBAI, one evening in 1966. Guthrie performed the song several times live on WBAI in 1966 and 1967, prior to the song's commercial release. The song proved so popular that at one point Fass (who was known for playing songs he liked over and over again in his graveyard slot) started playing a recording of one of Guthrie's live performances of the song repeatedly; eventually the non-commercial station rebroadcast it only when listeners pledged to donate a large amount of money.
"Alice's Restaurant" was performed on July 17, 1967, at the Newport Folk Festival in a workshop or break-out section on "topical songs", where it was such a hit that he was called upon to perform it for the entire festival audience. The song's success at Newport and on WBAI led Guthrie to record it in front of a studio audience in New York City and release it as side one of the album, Alice's Restaurant, which was released in October 1967.
The original album spent seventeen weeks on the Billboard 200 album chart, peaking at #63 during the week of December 27, 1969, more than two years after its release. The song itself was far too long to be released (or even fit) on a 45 rpm single, and so never made the Billboard Hot 100 (because of this, Billboard classifies Guthrie as a one-hit wonder for his later hit, "City of New Orleans", without regard to his success with "Alice's Restaurant"). Two years after the album came out, Guthrie released "Alice's Rock & Roll Restaurant" as a single—a much shorter (4:43) tune that incorporated the chorus, removed the entire monologue, used a significantly different arrangement, and added extra verses (all of which do little but advertise the restaurant). It peaked at #97 on the Billboard singles chart.
It has become a tradition for many classic rock radio stations to play the song each Thanksgiving. At one point in the original recording, Guthrie notes that if two draftees sing the line "You can get anything you want, at Alice's restaurant" in harmony the military will consider them "faggots" (a slur that was more acceptable in 1967) and, because open homosexuals were not allowed in the armed forces until 2012, reject them as soldiers. The song is nonetheless always presented uncut and the Federal Communications Commission has never punished any radio station for playing the song. When he performs the song live in concert, Guthrie now changes the line to something less offensive and often topical: "They'll think you're gay—not that there's anything wrong with that" or "They'll think they're trying to get married in some parts of Kentucky."
After the release of the original album, Guthrie continued to perform the song in concert, frequently revising and updating the lyrical content. In 1969, for instance, he performed a 20-minute rendition of the song which (instead of the original narrative) told a fictional story of how Russian and Chinese military operatives attempted to weaponize "multicolored rainbow roaches" they had found at Alice's restaurant, and how the Lyndon Johnson Administration orchestrated a plan for the nation to defend itself. A recording of this version, given the title "Alice: Before Time Began", was released in 2009 on a CD distributed by Guthrie's own Rising Son Records label; another recording of this version, given the title "The Alice's Restaurant Multicolored Rainbow Roach Affair", has also been released through that record label. By the late 1970s, Guthrie had removed the song from his regular concert repertoire.
In 1984, Guthrie, who was supporting George McGovern's ultimately unsuccessful comeback bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, revived "Alice's Restaurant" to protest the Reagan Administration's reactivation of the Selective Service System registrations. This version has not been released on a commercial recording; at least one bootleg of this version from one of Guthrie's performances exists. It was this tour, which occurred near the 20th anniversary of the song (and continued as a general tour after McGovern dropped out of the race), that prompted Guthrie to return the song to his playlist every ten years, usually coinciding with the anniversary of either the song or the incident. The 30th anniversary version of the song includes a follow-up recounting how he learned that Richard Nixon had owned a copy of the song, and he jokingly suggested that this explained the famous 18½ minute gap in the Watergate tapes. Guthrie re-recorded his entire debut album for his 1997 CD Alice's Restaurant: The Massacree Revisited, on the Rising Son label, which includes this expanded version. The 40th anniversary edition, performed at and released as a recording by the Kerrville Folk Festival, made note of some parallels between the 1960s and the then-present day Iraq War and George W. Bush Administration. Guthrie revived the song for the 50th anniversary edition in 2015, which he expected to be his last, as he does not believe he will still be able to perform the song (and may not even be alive) by the time the 60th anniversary comes around in 2025; if he believes he can still perform the song by then, he will hold a 60th Anniversary tour.
In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, Guthrie pointed out that he believes that there are such things as just wars and that his message was targeted at the Vietnam War in particular. Interviews with Ron Bennington in 2009 and NPR in 2005 describe the song not so much as an anti-war song but as an "anti-stupidity" song. Guthrie considers the song as relevant today as in 1965.
Guthrie has said that because of the length of the piece, he never expected the song to be released, much less become a Thanksgiving tradition, because such extended monologues were extremely rare in an era when singles were typically less than three minutes in length. He cited as his inspiration the long-form monologues of Lord Buckley and Bill Cosby when writing the song's lyrics and a number of different musicians (in particular Mississippi John Hurt) in composing the Piedmont fingerstyle guitar accompaniment. The song was written as the events happened over the course of approximately one year; it grew out of a simple joke riff Guthrie had been working on in 1965 and 1966 before Guthrie appeared before the draft board (the opening was originally written as "you can hide from Obanhein at Alice's restaurant", hence how the restaurant got tied into the original story), and he later added his experience before the draft board to create the song as it is known today. Additional portions of the song were written during one of Guthrie's many stays with the English songwriter and music journalist Karl Dallas and his family in London. Guthrie recalled his friendship with Dallas in a 2016 obituary for Dallas. Guthrie sent a demo recording of the song to his father Woody Guthrie on his deathbed; it was, according to a "family joke", the last thing Woody heard before he died.
Alice and Ray Brock
The Alice in the song was restaurant-owner Alice May Brock (born c. 1941). In 1964, shortly after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, Alice used $2,000 supplied by her mother to purchase a deconsecrated church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where Alice and her husband Ray Brock (c.1928–1979) would live. It was here rather than at the restaurant—which came later—where the song's Thanksgiving dinners were actually held. Alice was a painter and designer, while Ray was an architect and woodworker. Both worked at a nearby private academy, the music and art-oriented Stockbridge School, from which Guthrie (then of the Queens, New York City neighborhood of Howard Beach) had graduated. Alice Brock only operated the song's titular restaurant for a short time in 1966 and, after a breakup and abortive reconciliation, divorced Ray in 1968; she went on to launch two more restaurants (a take-out window in Housatonic in 1971 and a much larger establishment in Lenox in the late 1970s) before leaving the restaurant business in 1979. She lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and owned an art studio and gallery at 69 Commercial Street until closing that location in 2016. She was diagnosed with emphysema in the mid-1990s. She illustrated the 2004 children's book Mooses Come Walking, written by Guthrie, and authored and illustrated another, How to Massage Your Cat. Ray Brock, after the divorce, moved back to his original home of Virginia and died in 1979 of a heart attack.
In 1969, Random House published The Alice's Restaurant Cookbook (ISBN 039440100X) which featured recipes and hippie wisdom from Alice Brock, as well as photos of Alice and Guthrie, and publicity stills from the movie. A tear-out record was included in the book with Brock and Guthrie bantering on two tracks, "Italian-Type Meatballs" and "My Granma's Beet Jam".
The original restaurant
Brock's original restaurant was called "The Back Room". It was located on 40 Main Street in Stockbridge, in back of a row of stores, as stated in the song lyrics; at the time, it was located behind a grocery store and directly underneath the studios of Norman Rockwell. Theresa's Stockbridge Café was last known to occupy the site; the café's sign makes note that the space was "formerly Alice's Restaurant".
The VW Microbus
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The church, originally built as the St. James Chapel in 1829, was enlarged in 1866 and renamed Trinity Church. Ray and Alice Brock purchased the property in 1964 and made it their home. Alice sold the building shortly after the film adaptation was released, commenting that the song and film had brought a great deal of unwanted publicity. The building changed ownership several times in the 1970s and 1980s until Guthrie bought the facility in 1991 and converted it to the Guthrie Center, a nondenominational, interfaith meeting place.
The church's exterior is covered with white vinyl siding with the original cornerstone dedications still intact. There are two public entrances, a ramp for guests with disabilities on the side of the building and another consisting of two large wooden doors. The entrance from the side leads directly into the chapel. The front entrance leads into a living room with couches and a kitchen to the left. Bathrooms are located down a straight hallway to the right. Above this hallway is a sign that reads "One God — Many Forms / One River — Many Streams / One People — Many Faces / One Mother — Many Children -Ma".
In the main chapel area is a stage on which Officer Obie's chair sits as a reminder of the arrest. In the rear of the chapel is a set of stairs and a loft area. A set of private rooms in which Alice and Ray once lived remains.
In later years, the Guthrie Center became a folk music venue, hosting a Thursday evening hootenanny as well as the Troubadour Concert series annually from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Musical guests have included John Gorka, Tom Paxton, Ellis Paul, Tom Rush, The Highwaymen folk group and, of course, Arlo Guthrie. The Troubadour series helps to support the church's free community lunch program which is held at the church every Wednesday at noon. On Thanksgiving, the church hosts a "Thanksgiving dinner that can't be beat" for the local community. The annual "Garbage Trail Walk", retracing the steps of Arlo and folksinger Rick Robbins (as told in the song), raises money for Huntington's disease research.
Restaurant in California
The song was adapted into the 1969 movie Alice's Restaurant, directed and co-written by Arthur Penn and starring Guthrie as himself, Pat Quinn as Alice Brock and James Broderick as Ray Brock, with William Obanhein ("Officer Obie") and Judge James Hannon appearing as themselves and the real Alice making a cameo appearance.
The movie was released on August 19, 1969, a few days after Guthrie had appeared at the Woodstock Festival. A soundtrack album for the film was also released by United Artists Records. The soundtrack includes a studio version of the "Massacree", which was originally divided into two parts (one for each album side); a compact disc reissue on the Rykodisc label presents this version of the song in full and adds several bonus tracks to the original LP.
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Richard J. Robbins, 19, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Arlo Guthrie, 18, of Howard Beach, N.Y.. each paid a fine of $25 in Lee District Court after pleading guilty of illegally disposing of rubbish.
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- as stated on the front page of Alice's Restaurant Cookbook. Some of the pictures have word balloons drawn on them.
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