Sunday December 13, 2020 Smile of the Day: Alice’s Restaurant

On this Day:

“Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”, commonly known as “Alice’s Restaurant”, a satirical talking blues song by singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie, was released as the title track to his 1967 debut album Alice’s Restaurant. 

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 (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

Alice took several wrong turns when driving to a new restaurant.

When she finally found the right road, she asked her husband, “Why didn’t you tell me I was lost?”

“I thought you knew where you were going,” he replied. “You always know where you’re going when I’m driving.”

Second, a Song:

Most of the events of Arlo’s song 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.

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”.

On October 23, 2020 Guthrie announced he was retired (“Gone Fishing”) from touring and stage shows citing health issues, including a stroke on Thanksgiving Day 2019 which required brief hospitalization and physical therapy (per Wikipedia).  

Here is Arlo Guthrie performing a live version of Alice’s Restaurant at Farm Aid 2005.  


Thought for the Day:

“I’d rather have friends who care than friends who agree with me.” – Arlo Guthrie

Michael Goler from Ohio emailed about the Beethoven Smile. “This was fun to read. We were in Bonn a couple years ago and got to a lot of Beethoven places. 

Thanx for the “refresher”!  🎼🌧


Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2020 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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