A personal reflection in tribute to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”
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A friend and I were chatting about our different Thanksgiving Day plans one recent Thanksgiving 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 one year, by accident of all things, but that is an anecdote for a different post.)
“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 perhaps hoped that “someone” would indeed “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 hate that I do not ask the question, “Why would you think that?” of some of my acquaintances more often or at all, but I know that such a question is seen as confrontational more than a provocative expression of a hope that our nation uses nuclear weapons if and when it is attacked is seen as confrontational.
I did not ask where this place that he seemed to want to “flatten” is. I did not think I needed to inquire. Some of 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. My friend is no monster, but that thought he expressed is monstrous. 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 my world of the clay that is being molded into a 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 conscripted. They want to mold him.
A littering offense from Thanksgiving 1965 keeps him out of the service, however. “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 this is why the recording 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, against the fear that can make fascism seem sensible.
(For those on the side of fascists or wanna-be fascists, fascism can feel like freedom, a freedom beyond one’s wildest dreams, a freedom in which one can never be harmed by those the fascists will never allow us to hear.)
In a 2005 interview with NPR, Guthrie spoke about his 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.”
The portion of America that I count myself a member of feels like our brief years of just hanging out and being ourselves are on hold or perhaps never existed, and the citizens of the other half came to feel in recent years that they can now start to hang out and relax about being themselves. (My friend who felt comfortable enough to express a desire for a retributive war in the future, if “necessary.”) Both populations have always existed. Three years into our current era, both populations appear to live in anticipation of a fascist American future. Some want it, but then, some always do.
May we all be wrong.
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In celebration of idiocy, here is Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” as originally released in 1967:
This essay was started in 2016. It may not be finished. Happy Thanksgiving 2021 from my family and me to you and yours.
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Good to read from you again, Mark. In reading your story, I realize that I should count myself very fortunate, as I prepare to head off to a holiday celebration, that the family members I’ll be doing Thanksgiving with are more liberal-minded than perhaps your nuclear-favoring friend is.
On another note, I had no idea about the Guthrie song; I’m much more familiar with 70s and prog rock (or even harder rock) than this. Has Guthrie ever mentioned being influenced by Heller’s Catch-22 for this song in particular? [You don’t have to answer this, Mark, as I’m sure you’re busy. It just sprang to mind when you included the lyrics and Guthrie’s interview explanation.] Anyway, long-windedly, this is also my way to say: hope you have a fantastic day and hope to read from you again!
Hi Mark, I’m a long time fan of Arlo. I first heard the vinyl record when I was 16 back around 1970. I loved it and learned the whole thing word for word and occasionally had the opportunity to recite it to small gatherings. Last year I had a couple opportunities to do it again. Once at my Kiwanis meeting and another at a conference of peers. Of course most of them had never heard about it.
I just came across your site from a link on an article about SMA4. I feel we share similar issues and maybe values. I was diagnosed with SMA4 in 1999 and probably had it for a few years before that but didn’t know why I was getting weaker. Old age? I didn’t feel old at the time. I was only 44. For a long time I was in denial and carried on with my life, adjusting to the weakness as best I could. I’m 66 now and thinking of retiring but looking forward to more time writing. I’ve managed my illness pretty well over the years, continued to work, kept my sense of humour, remain optimistic and am grateful for what I have and try not to dwell on what I don’t have. If you get this note, feel free to reach out. We may have a lot in common. (Except I’m Canadian and married). You could also see my blog at http://www.IAmCuriousWayne.wordpress.com.