An essay in tribute to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”
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There are three quotes, three statements, in my head this Thanksgiving afternoon, 2016.
Earlier this morning, a friend and I were chatting about our different Thanksgiving Day plans and he asked me if I had ever been to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City. (I almost marched in it, by accident of all things, but that is an anecdote for a different blog post. Perhaps later today.)
“Well, I just hope,” he said, that no one tries any terrorism down there today, but if they do,” and here he looked like someone who hoped that “someone” would “try terrorism down there” because he added, “If they do, I hope we go ahead and use our nuclear weapons the way they were meant to be used. Just go over there and flatten that whole place.”
Quietly infuriated, I found for myself something else to do somewhere else at our gathering. I did not ask where this place that he seemed to want to flatten is. I do not think I needed to inquire. My neighbors walk around with the fear-hope that a horrible act of terrorism is a given in our country’s near future and that it will be, obviously, the act of someone from a part of the world whose foreign-ness (to them) is the only thing they care to know about. They, my neighbors, want to be angered so much that they already can smell the blood that they want the youth of our nation to spill.
They want to be angry perhaps more than they are angry. That is what fear when it is embraced rather than confronted creates in a population. It creates monsters. It creates average Americans who in polite conversation fantasize about annihilating a third of the planet’s population. A fear-filled population is a malleable one, and my friend is just one more example in m my world of the clay that is being molded into useful hatred.
In Arlo Guthrie’s song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” Arlo tells an army draft board psychologist, “Shrink, I want to kill. I mean, I wanna, I wanna kill. Kill. I wanna, I wanna see, I wanna see blood and gore and guts and veins in my teeth. Eat dead, burnt bodies. I mean kill, Kill, KILL, KILL.” He wants to sound crazy, so crazy that he won’t be drafted by the army to fight in Vietnam, but his very detailed interest in bloody killing only makes it more likely he will be enlisted.
A littering offense dating from Thanksgiving 1965 keeps him out of the service. “I went over to the sergeant and I said, ‘Sergeant, you’ve got a lot of damn gall to ask me if I’ve rehabilitated myself. I mean—I mean—I mean, I’m just—I’m sitting here on the bench. I mean, I’m sitting here on the Group W bench ’cause you want to know if I’m moral enough to join the Army and burn women, kids, houses and villages after being a litterbug.'” A littering offense from cleaning up a Thanksgiving meal served by a friend at a former church.
And that is why the song is a Thanksgiving classic: the coincidence of Guthrie’s personal semi-comic Thanksgiving event and all of our Thanksgivings every Thanksgiving since. It is a song that is staunchly anti-stupidity. Anti-bureaucracy. Anti-pointlessness. It is not so much an anti-war song as it is a song against the stupidity that can make war seem like a reply, seem to be a logical response to something. It is a song against fear.
In a 2005 interview with NPR, Guthrie spoke about the song: “Well, it’s celebrating idiocy you might say. I mean, thank God, that the people that run this world are not smart enough to keep running it forever. You know, everybody gets a handle on it for a little while. They get their 15 minutes of fame, but then, inevitably, they disappear and we have a few brief years of just hanging out and being ourselves.”
Half of America this November 2016 feels like our brief years of just hanging out and being ourselves are ending and the other half appears to feel that they can now start to hang out and relax about being themselves. My friend this morning is one of that latter group. I am among the former group.
Which brings me to my third sentence. In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, he offers one of his most famous quotes: “Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
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Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” as originally released in 1967:
Happy Thanksgiving 2016 from my family and me to you and yours.
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How comes a Brit-Swiss has a record of this song. I bought the record “The Best of Arlo Guthrie” which I believe was issued in 1978, but I did not buy the record because of Alice’s Restaurant. I did not even know about Alice and her restaurant. It was because I wanted the song “City of New Orleans”, which was always a great favourite of mine and was also on the record.
So in the meanwhile I have listened to Alice’s Restaurant and grown to like it, even almost love it. I can even sing along with it, ok just now and again. The first hearing was that it was just a little bit boring, but after listening to it more often I must say it is a work of genius. I am a Brit, and to me American is not just American. Everyone has a different accent, but Arlo Guthrie uses an intonation on this track that is almost poetic. It can be a funny song, but also tragic. I have grown to like it very much.
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This comment made me think a lot, Pat. What is Arlo’s accent? He was raised pretty much in the northeast, where I’m from. There’s certainly a Dylan influence, which means there’s some of his father refracted through Dylan influencing his droll-ness. “Droll” isn’t an accent, but it is here.
“City of New Orleans” is a great song, and Arlo’s rendition is the one I know best, but I have a personal memory. One of my professors in graduate school, the man who wrote the definitive biography of Laurence Sterne and is married to Mary Gordon, Arthur Cash, sang that song every English Department party (and there were many), with and without accompaniment. His version, live, was the first that I had ever heard. Just a sweet memory.