|"Alice's Restaurant Massacree"|
|Song by Arlo Guthrie|
|from the album Alice's Restaurant|
"Alice's Restaurant Massacree", commonly known as "Alice's Restaurant", is a satirical talking blues song by singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie, released as the title track to his 1967 debut album Alice's Restaurant. The song is a deadpan protest against the Vietnam War draft, in the form of a comically exaggerated but essentially true story from Guthrie's own life: he is arrested and convicted of dumping trash illegally, which later leads to him being rejected by the draft board due to his criminal record of littering (and the way he reacted when the induction personnel brought it up). The title refers to a restaurant owned by one of Guthrie's friends, which plays no role in the story aside from being the subject of the chorus.
The song was an inspiration for the 1969 film also named Alice's Restaurant. The work has become Guthrie's signature song and he has periodically rereleased it with updated lyrics. In 2017, it was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or artistically significant".
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 brief "Alice's Restaurant" bookends and guitar backing 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. Due to Guthrie's rambling and circuitous telling with unimportant details, it has been described as a shaggy dog story.
Guthrie refers to the incident as a "massacree", 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, but carries a much lighter and more sarcastic connotation, rather than describing anything involving actual death.
Guthrie explains that his friend Alice owns a restaurant, but adds that "Alice's Restaurant" is the name of the song, not the business. He then sings the chorus, which is in the form of a jingle for the restaurant, beginning "You can get anything you want at Alice's restaurant", and continuing with directions to it.
Guthrie recounts events that took place two years earlier, when he and a friend spent Thanksgiving Day at a deconsecrated church on the outskirts of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, which their friends Alice and Ray had been using as a home. As a favor to them, Guthrie and the friend volunteered to take their large accumulation of garbage to the local dump in their VW Microbus, not realizing until they arrived there that the dump would be closed for the holiday. They eventually noticed a pile of other trash that had previously been dumped off a cliff near a side road, and added theirs to the accumulation.
The next morning, the church received a phone call from the local policeman, Officer Obie, saying that an envelope in the garbage pile had been traced back to them. Guthrie, stating "I cannot tell a lie", confessed only that he put the envelope at the bottom of the pile. He and his friend drove to the police station, expecting a verbal reprimand and to be required to clean up the garbage, but they were instead arrested, handcuffed, and taken to the scene of the crime. There, Obie and a crew of police officers from the surrounding areas collected extensive forensic evidence of the litter, including "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." The pair were briefly jailed, with Obie taking drastic precautions to prevent Guthrie from escaping or committing suicide. After a few hours, Alice bailed them out.
Guthrie and his friend stood trial the next day. When Obie saw that the judge relied upon a seeing-eye dog, he realized that the officers' meticulous work had been foiled by a literal "case of American blind justice". Guthrie and his friend paid a $50 fine to the court and were ordered to pick up the garbage.
Guthrie then states that the littering incident was "not what I came to tell you about" and shifts to another story, this one based at the Army Building on Whitehall Street in New York City as Guthrie appeared for a physical exam related to the Vietnam War draft. He tried various strategies to be found unfit for military service, including getting drunk the night before so he was hung over, and attempting to convince the psychiatrist that he was homicidal, which only earned him praise.
After several hours, Guthrie was asked whether he had ever been convicted of a crime. He answered in the affirmative, explaining his story, and was sent to the "Group W" bench to file for a moral waiver. The other convicts ("mother-rapers... father-stabbers... father-rapers") were initially put off that his conviction had been for littering, but accepted him when he added "and creating a nuisance". When Guthrie noticed one of the questions on the paperwork asked whether he had rehabilitated himself since the crime, he noted the irony of having to prove himself reformed from a crime of littering when the realities of war were often far more brutal. The officer in charge of the induction process commented, "We don't like your kind", rejecting Guthrie and sending his fingerprints to the federal government to be put on file.
In the final part of the song, Guthrie explains to the live audience that anyone finding themselves in a similar situation should walk into the military psychiatrist's office, sing the opening line from the chorus and walk out. He predicts that a single person doing it would be rejected as "sick" and that two people doing it, in harmony, would be rejected as "faggots", but that once three people started doing it they would begin to suspect "an organization" and 50 people a day would be recognized as "the Alice's Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement". As he continues fingerpicking, he invites the audience to sing the chorus along with him "the next it comes around on the gee-tar", claims that the singing "was horrible" and challenges them to sing it with him "with four-part harmony and feeling" as the song ends.
Guthrie cited the long-form monologues of Lord Buckley and Bill Cosby as inspirations for the song's lyrics, and a number of different musicians (in particular Mississippi John Hurt) as inspirations for 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 he appeared before the draft board (the opening was originally written as "you can hide from Obanhein at Alice's restaurant", which is 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 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 in October 1967. Because of the song's length, Guthrie never expected it to be released, because such extended monologues were extremely rare in an era when singles were typically less than three minutes.
"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. The initial performance was part of an impromptu supergroup at the WBAI studios that included David Bromberg, Jerry Jeff Walker and Ramblin' Jack Elliot. Guthrie performed the song several times live on WBAI in 1966 and 1967 before its 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 (Fass subverted it and occasionally asked for donations to get him to stop playing the recording).
"Alice's Restaurant" was performed on July 17, 1967, at the Newport Folk Festival in a workshop or breakout 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 in October 1967.
The original album spent 16 weeks on the Billboard 200 album chart, peaking at #29 during the week of March 2, 1968, then reentered the chart on December 27, 1969, after the film version was released, peaking that time at #63. In the wake of the film version, Guthrie recorded a more single-friendly edit of the chorus in 1969. Titled "Alice's Rock & Roll Restaurant", it included three verses, all of which advertise the restaurant, and a fiddle solo by country singer Doug Kershaw; to fit the song on a record, the monologue was removed, bringing the song's length to 4:43. This version, backed with "Ring Around the Rosy Rag" (a cut from the Alice's Restaurant album), peaked at #97 on the Billboard Hot 100. Because the single did not reach the popularity of the full version, which did not qualify for the Hot 100 because of its length, Billboard officially classifies Guthrie as a one-hit wonder for his later hit "City of New Orleans".
It has become a tradition for many classic rock and adult album alternative radio stations to play the song each Thanksgiving. Despite its use of the slur "faggots", radio stations generally present the song as originally recorded, and the Federal Communications Commission has never punished a station for playing it. When performing the song in later years, Guthrie began to change the line to something less offensive and often topical: during the 1990s and 2000s, the song alluded to the Seinfeld episode "The Outing" by saying "They'll think you're gay—not that there's anything wrong with that," and in 2015, Guthrie used the line "They'll think they're trying to get married in some parts of Kentucky", a nod to the controversy of the time surrounding county clerk Kim Davis.
After the release of the original album, Guthrie continued to perform the song in concert, regularly revising and updating the lyrics. In 1969, for instance, he performed a 20-minute rendition of the song that, 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 the Lyndon Johnson administration orchestrated a plan for the nation to defend itself. A recording of this version titled "Alice: Before Time Began" was released in 2009 on a CD distributed by Guthrie's Rising Son Records label; another recording of this version, titled "The Alice's Restaurant Multicolored Rainbow Roach Affair", was also released on that 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. That version has not been released on a commercial recording; at least one bootleg of it 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 rerecorded 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 Iraq War and George W. Bush administration. Guthrie revived the song for the 50th anniversary edition in 2015, which he expected would be the last time he would do so. In 2018, Guthrie began the "Alice's Restaurant: Back by Popular Demand" Tour, reuniting with members of his 1970s backing band Shenandoah. The tour, which features Guthrie's daughter Sarah Lee Guthrie as the opening act, was scheduled to wrap up in 2020. To justify bringing the song back out of its usual ten-year sequence, he stated that he was doing so to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the film version of the song. The tour ended in 2019 and was later confirmed to have been Guthrie's last; he suffered a career-ending stroke in November of that year and announced his retirement in October 2020.
In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, Guthrie said he believed there are such things as just wars, and that the message of this song 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 anti-war but as "anti-stupidity". Guthrie considered the song as relevant as in 1965.
Most of the events of the story are true; the littering incident was recorded in the local newspaper at the time it happened, and although Guthrie made some minor embellishments, the persons mentioned in the first half of the story all granted interviews on the subject, mostly verifying that part of the story. The second half of the story does not have as much specific corroborating evidence to support it; the public exposure of COINTELPRO in 1971 confirmed that the federal government was collecting personal information on anti-war protesters as Guthrie alleged.
Alice, Ray and the restaurant
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. Alice was a painter and designer, while Ray was an architect and woodworker who originally was from Virginia; the two had met while in Greenwich Village in 1962. Both worked at a nearby private academy, the music and art-oriented Stockbridge School, from which Guthrie (then of Howard Beach, a neighborhood in Queens, New York City) had graduated.
Alice Brock operated a restaurant called "The Back Room" in 1966, at 40 Main Street in Stockbridge, located behind a grocery store and directly underneath the studios of Norman Rockwell. The Back Room was already closed by the time the song was released; it ceased operations in April 1966. (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".) After a breakup and abortive reconciliation, Alice 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. Ray returned to Virginia after the divorce and took on various projects until his death in 1979.
Alice owned an art studio and gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts until 2016. She illustrated the 2004 children's book Mooses Come Walking, written by Guthrie, and authored and illustrated another, How to Massage Your Cat.
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".
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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.
In the main chapel area is a stage on which Officer Obie's chair sits as a reminder of the arrest. 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 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.
The littering incident
The incident which Guthrie recounts in the first half of the song was reported in The Berkshire Eagle on November 29, 1965. It describes the conviction of Richard J. Robbins, age 19, and Arlo Guthrie, age 18, for illegally disposing of rubbish, and a fine of $25 each, plus an order to remove the trash. The arresting officer was Stockbridge police chief William J. Obanhein ("Officer Obie"), and the trial was presided over by Special Judge James E. Hannon. It identifies the incriminating evidence as an envelope addressed to a male resident of Great Barrington (presumably Ray Brock) rather than Guthrie. In a 1972 interview with Playboy's Music Scene, Obanhein denied handcuffing Guthrie and Robbins. He also said the real reason there was no toilet seat in the jail cell was to prevent such items from being stolen, not as a suicide deterrent as Guthrie had joked.
The Armed Forces Examination and Entrance Station was part of a large complex at 39 Whitehall Street in New York City from 1884 to 1969. By the late 1960s, the building had become a target for anti-war protesters, and two bombings left minor damage to the building, prompting the building to be vacated. The building has since been repurposed as a mixed-use development and its address changed (it is now 3 New York Plaza).
The brief fleeting mention of "faggots" being rejected for military service in the song's epilogue was based on military policy at the time, which rejected all homosexuals and expelled anyone caught engaging in homosexual behavior with an undesirable discharge. In 1993, this was softened such that, so long as a service member did not publicly talk about homosexuality, they would not be discharged; open homosexuality was eventually allowed in 2012.
The song was adapted into the 1969 movie Alice's Restaurant, directed and co-written by Arthur Penn, who had heard the song in 1967 while living in Stockbridge and immediately wanted to make the song into a movie. Guthrie appears as himself, with Pat Quinn as Alice Brock and James Broderick as Ray Brock, William Obanhein and James Hannon appearing as themselves, and Alice Brock making a cameo appearance.
The movie was released in August 1969, a few days after Guthrie 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 song, which was originally divided into two parts (one for each album side); a compact disc reissue on the Rykodisc label presents this version in full and adds several bonus tracks to the original LP.
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