On the Town

Arlo Guthrie's Storied Career

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 12, 2005

HAD ARLO Guthrie known his "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" would be so popular and enduring, he surely would have made it shorter.

After all, it took 18 minutes and 20 seconds, and one full side, of his 1967 debut album for Guthrie to gleefully recount the saga of how two years earlier he and his buddy Rick Robbins tried to help his former teachers Alice and Ray Brock clean their Stockbridge, Mass., home -- a deconsecrated 17th-century church -- for Thanksgiving dinner by taking a half-ton of garbage to the local dump in their Volkswagen bus. Except the dump was closed, leading Guthrie and Robbins to toss everything down a residential hillside.

When Stockbridge police chief William Obanhein (forever after called Officer Obie) inspected the mess, he found a scrap of paper with the Brocks' address, and soon after their young guests (18 and 19 at the time) were arrested for littering -- literally "illegally disposing of rubbish." Alice bailed them out, and after pleading guilty before a blind judge, Guthrie and Robbins were fined $25 each, which left them with a criminal record; they also had to pick up the garbage in the snow.

That could have been the end of the story, except that it was the middle of the war in Vietnam, and when the draft board called, Guthrie's misdemeanor proved a far greater obstacle to his being inducted into the Army than his hilarious efforts to paint himself as a bloodthirsty psycho. In fact, Guthrie's littering rendered him unfit for military service.

Guthrie's tall-but-true, decidedly exaggerated monologue was told with sardonic charm, framed by a mini-chorus that gave the track its name despite having almost nothing to do with the story. Four years later, Guthrie found himself appearing, with Officer Obie, the blind judge (James Hannon) and Alice herself (in a cameo) in Arthur Penn's film version of "Alice's Restaurant," by which time Guthrie was well on his way to a successful music career that still finds him touring 10 months out of the year.

"Alice's Restaurant" would dip in and out of Guthrie's repertoire, first retired after the end of the war in Vietnam, briefly replaced by another fable in which Guthrie talked about Richard Nixon owning a copy of "Alice's Restaurant" and jokingly suggested that that might explain the famous 18 1/2 -minute gap in the Watergate tapes. Guthrie revived the original in 1995 when he recorded a "30th anniversary edition" of his debut album and "ran it around for a couple of years," he says. "But then we dropped it, and now, much sooner than I thought, we're here at the 40th anniversary" of the incident.

People, Guthrie explains, "were demanding it for everyday shows. But it was just too long and sometimes it didn't seem quite appropriate except as some kind of nostalgic piece, perhaps. And to spend a half-hour on that, I thought, was crazy! Had it been a three-minute song like 'The City of New Orleans' [the Steve Goodman train classic that is Guthrie's only charted hit] it wouldn't be a problem. What I did was promise everybody that really wanted to hear that on the occasion of these anniversaries, we would serve it up again, as it were."

Thus we have the Alice's Restaurant 40th Anniversary Massacree Tour, which stops at the Birchmere on Wednesday. Thankfully, Guthrie hasn't had to set up a teleprompter to guide the telling four decades on. "I thought about it," he admits. "After three nights, it came back."

It never really went away, even as Guthrie suggests that "nobody in their right mind would have expected an 18-minute monologue to have shelf life, especially in an era when radio refused to play anything that was over 2 1/2 minutes."

Yet Guthrie sensed something special, particularly in the two years before he recorded "Alice's Restaurant," when he was just starting to perform and his audience was made up of "a wide variety of political types, right and left, social types, people from all walks of life. To see the effect on people who hadn't heard it before, to see all those different kinds of Americans laughing together and singing together was so powerful for me. As the decades went by and as it became more and more popular, that faded, and it became even more of an inducement not to perform it."

"Alice's Restaurant" is sometimes construed as an antiwar song, though Guthrie has always said it's more about the ways in which government works -- or doesn't.

"Most people don't know we did as well at the PXs [commissaries on Army bases] and that it was hugely popular with the guys in Vietnam," Guthrie says. "I have photographs and letters from guys who set up little 'Alice's Restaurant' tents, who would get together and quote parts of the song that their superiors would have no knowledge of. I was obviously personally opposed to the war, but the song wasn't about that, but about the absurdity of the situation that I found myself in, which was not unique to me -- it was the same for hundreds of thousands of regular guys."

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