By Norman Knight
Fifty years ago, popular music seemed to be in the very air I was breathing. The sounds I was hearing along with the counterculture lifestyle I was absorbing through magazines and movies, fashions and attitudes were the templates for how I was trying to know myself and the world.
In November 1967 a record album came out that comes to my mind, at least briefly, each year as Thanksgiving approaches. Fifty years ago, my friends and I could not stop listening to Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant. It was so funny. And so true.
The title song takes up one side of the LP, so we didn’t often hear it on the radio unless some rebellious “underground” DJ decided to play the entire 18 minutes, 34 seconds. This meant that those of us who possessed a copy would need to share with those who didn’t. This fit right in with the hippie communal living idea that in 1967 was becoming a topic of curiosity even among the adults. (We knew it must be important because it made the cover of Life magazine.)
The song is a narration by Arlo who speaks to a live audience in a sort of rambling, folksy style. As I listened to his voice back then, I imagined that his dad, Woody Guthrie, probably sounded much like him. This album was part of the reason I tracked down a copy of Woody’s autobiography, “Bound for Glory.” It gave me a new understanding not only the Great Depression, which I knew from history class, but of the romantic ideal of the poet vagabond which was not really an area of study in my school.
The song’s complete title is “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” I found out that a “massacree” (pronounced with a long e at the end) is a series of improbable, complicated and absurd happenings that border on the unbelievable. That is a good way to describe the story. The part of the lyric that evokes November memories for me starts at the beginning when Arlo shows up at Alice’s house for a “Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat.” Afterards, Arlo and his friend offer to take Alice’s rather large pile of garbage to the city dump. The dump is closed on Thanksgiving so they decide to shove the trash over a cliff where they spot another pile of trash.
Arlo eventually gets arrested and taken to jail where one official government absurdity after another follows. Alice comes to bail him out and they go back home to have another “Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat.” Arlo eventually goes to court and is fined $50 for littering. This is the point halfway through the song where the story shifts. “But that’s not what I came to tell you about,” he says. “Came to talk about the draft.”
In 1967, “the draft” and Viet Nam were facts of life for young American males and their families. I wasn’t yet 18 years old but would be in just a couple of years. My friends and I were well aware how our lives would soon be changed. In the second part of “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” Arlo tells in his humorous, deadpan way about his experience with the Selective Service induction process where he got “injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and selected.” The song ends with his observation that the government was in essence questioning his fitness to serve because he was arrested for littering.
Those were contentious times. People had strong, righteous opinions on all sides. There didn’t seem to be much middle ground, not much give or take and very little compromise. In so many ways, 50 years ago seems much like today. Well, we got through it, and I pray history repeats itself.
Once again November has come around, and once again I am reminded of Alice’s Restaurant and the massacree. I am also looking forward once again to a Thanksgiving dinner that can’t be beat.
Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.