Arlo, at the Scene of the Crime
Sunday, November 19, 2006
Imagine if you had heard Frank Sinatra sing "New York, New York" in a smoky Manhattan club, or caught John Denver performing "Country Roads, Take Me Home" atop a West Virginia mountain. Gives you chills.
When Arlo Guthrie performed "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" at the Guthrie Center in Stockbridge, Mass., last month, the legendary folk singer summoned the ghosts of the 1960s, calling forth Alice and Ray, the garbage dump and the draft -- all characters and scenes intimately familiar to anyone who grew up singing along to the protest song-cum-Thanksgiving staple. Nearly everyone in the high-ceilinged church, aglitter with candles set on the 100 (sold-out) tables, knew the lyrics by heart. And during the singalong refrain, the effect was more religious revival than concert.
"I grew up with Arlo," said Dennis Dilmaghani, a middle-aged New Yorker who was taping the show from the second-floor balcony. "This is the most genuine place to see Arlo and the most fitting place to hear" the fabled 18-minute story-song.
Thanks to "Alice's Restaurant" and its perennial radio play, Stockbridge and Guthrie will forever be linked. "It's become a little part of the history of the town," Guthrie said during a pre-show chat on the back porch of the Guthrie Center. "That's what makes an area feel like home -- you have a history with it."
But times do change. Forty years later, there's no Alice's Restaurant, but you pretty much can get anything you want in Stockbridge.
Arlo Guthrie would never dump on Stockbridge.
In 1965, however, it was a different story. Back then, the young hippie and a friend tossed a VW van-load of trash off a cliff in the western Massachusetts town, creating a stir -- and a song.
"Garbage has been very good to me," said Guthrie, 59, now a father of four whose hair has grayed and waist size has doubled since his youth, but whose vigor has hardly waned. "The great thing was, when the record came out, most people thought it was a nice piece of fiction."
Stranger Than Fiction
Those who live around the Berkshires town, or were raised on 1960s antiwar music, know the truth behind the lyrics. (Guthrie completed the song Thanksgiving of 1966, making this year an anniversary of sorts.) Yes, Guthrie's friends Alice and Ray Brock are real, and in 1965 they did host Thanksgiving dinner for a motley group of pals in their home, a converted church that is, yes, just a half a mile from the railroad tracks in Housatonic, a hamlet bordering Stockbridge. The illegal garbage run truly happened, as did the subsequent arrest, jailing and fining of Guthrie. The main discrepancy is that the Alice's Restaurant of the title does not refer to the eatery Alice briefly ran in Stockbridge. Listen closely to the lyrics, children:
This song is called Alice's Restaurant, and it's about Alice, and the restaurant,
But Alice's Restaurant is not the name of the restaurant,
That's just the name of the song,