Arlo, at the Scene of the Crime
In Stockbridge, Mass., Guthrie's Lyrics Come to Life

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
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,

And that's why I called the song Alice's Restaurant.

Today, the church where Alice and Ray served their holiday meal and stashed their garbage contains the Guthrie Center. The singer, who lives on a farm not far from Stockbridge, bought the former Trinity Church 15 years ago to house his philanthropic foundation and to host live performances. However, for droves of aging Arloheads who can still recite every word from every song, the church is a living artifact from the Age of Aquarius.

"The story of the song is probably the only reason I know Stockbridge," said Richard Monk, a baby boomer who had road-tripped from Indianapolis to hear Guthrie perform and was tailgating with other fans before the show. "It's a stirring feeling to be here and know that the church is still standing."

A few times a year, Guthrie performs in the hallowed church, attracting dedicated followers who travel many highways to hear the best of Arlo, live from Stockbridge. Last month, during a fan reunion on a grassy lot by the church, folks were excitedly comparing recent playlists in between strums on their guitars, swigs of beer and sideways glances anticipating Guthrie's arrival.

Most of the fans at the Stockbridge concert could recite Guthrie's career without cue cards. The eldest son of legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie rocked the charts -- and the establishment -- with "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" and became even more famous as the star of the eponymous movie (directed by Arthur Penn, another Stockbridge resident). A string of well-received songs followed, such as "Coming Into Los Angeles" and "City of New Orleans," but "Alice" was the hit that made Guthrie a cultural wonder for many generations.

The singer still continues to tour the globe, his voice now a bit gravelly after singing "Alice" for so many decades.

Seat of the Arts

Stockbridge (population 2,500) seems an unlikely spot for a countercultural movement. The town, about 40 miles southeast of Albany, N.Y., is as well-preserved as a village in a snow globe, with every picket fence and steeple placed just so. One could describe it as Rockwellian, hardly a cliche in this case: Artist Norman Rockwell lived in Stockbridge for the last quarter of his life and worked in a light-streamed studio on Main Street. The studio has since moved down the road to the Norman Rockwell Museum, which was founded in 1969 -- the same year the movie version of "Alice's Restaurant" was released.

The compact downtown is prim and puritan, with Colonial-style buildings, thick foliage shading the two-lane road and such area-appropriate shops as a Yankee Candle outlet and a Country Store. On an autumn weekend, a woman was sweeping crumpled leaves off the sidewalk with a broom, abandoning her yardwork only to watch a parade of Victorian horse-drawn carriages clop through. When the town isn't throwing some type of festival -- one recent weekend there was a harvest celebration, a horse-and-coach procession, a wedding for 300 and an antique fire engine event -- visitors can peruse art galleries, shop for crafts and kitsch, or watch life stream by from rocking chairs at the 18th-century Red Lion Inn.

The town also has a strong creative streak, though it caters more to highbrow sophisticates than to "Kumbaya" types. "There are wonderfully artistic people here who come and see the Boston Symphony Orchestra [at nearby Tanglewood]. There's no better place to hear them, and there's no better place to see dance than at Jacob's Pillow," says Guthrie, whose mother taught summer dance classes here when he was a child. "We also have the Berkshire Theatre Festival and Shakespeare and all of the little clubs that are beginning to sprout up with music."

One of the biggest performing arts venues -- Guthrie calls it the "alpha music center in the area" -- is the venerable Tanglewood. The Boston Pops and symphony relocates to the outdoor venue for the summer, but music aficionados can also catch jazz, pop and other genres during the warm months. When the temperatures begin to drop, the musicians pack up their instruments and let the foliage take center stage. Come fall, leaf peepers come in packs, driving below the speed limit to soak up every red-orange tint.

"It's generally nuts all summer," says Guthrie. "After the leaves fall, that's when we head out to all of the great restaurants and go to some of the events."

To be sure, in small and preppy Stockbridge, Guthrie stands out. You could blame his success. Or maybe it's his long, crinkly hair and clogs.

To the Dump, Then to Jail

Every May, when snow is a distant memory and the Berkshires are revving up for the summer arts season, the Guthrie Center holds its annual Garbage Trail Walk. The 6.3-mile tour, which raises money for Huntington's disease (Guthrie's father died of the degenerative neurological illness), follows the route spelled out in "Alice's Restaurant Massacree." But the tour is hardly seasonal; in fact, to accurately re-create the 1965 event, go in the fall, when the leaves crunch underfoot and the air smells of spiced pumpkin pie.

To remain faithful to the song, start at the third stanza: at the old Trinity Church by the railroad tracks.

Now it all started two Thanksgivings ago, was on --

Two years ago on Thanksgiving, when my friend and I went up to visit Alice at the restaurant,

But Alice doesn't live in the restaurant,

She lives in the church nearby the restaurant, in the bell-tower, with her husband Ray and Fasha the dog.

With its high peaked roof and round stained-glass window, the church is a textbook example of New England architecture; only the peace-sign flag in the window gives away its bohemian reincarnation. When Alice and Ray lived in the church, they stashed their garbage in an adjoining sanctuary. The detritus is long gone, and the annex now is used as an entrance to the nave. Inside, posters, photos and other memorabilia capture Guthrie during his more rebellious times. In the main hall, tables and chairs form a thick wedge around a stage. A solitary office chair sits like an abandoned throne at the back of the stage. The chair belonged to Chief of Police William "Obie" Obanhein, Guthrie's arresting officer. The singer and his adversary became friends during the filming of the "Alice's Restaurant" movie, and though Obie has died, his memory still attends Guthrie's shows.

Stop 2 is about four miles away, at the old Town Dump, which was closed 41 years ago, forcing a young Guthrie to search elsewhere to unload his trash.

So we took the half a ton of garbage, put it in the back of a red VW microbus, took shovels and rakes and implements of destruction and headed on toward the city dump.

Well we got there and there was a big sign and a chain across the dump saying, "Closed on Thanksgiving."

And we had never heard of a dump closed on Thanksgiving before,

And with tears in our eyes we drove off into the sunset looking for another place to put the garbage.

The site off Glendale Middle Road remains shut, this time for good. The landfill is now punctuated with small lumps of rubble and wildflowers. Wild turkeys dash about, as if they know Thanksgiving is near.

To follow the song to the letter, the next stop would be the scene of the crime, where Guthrie dumped heaps of garbage off an escarpment.

Until we came to a side road, and off the side of the side road there was another 15-foot cliff and at the bottom of the cliff there was another pile of garbage.

And we decided that one big pile is better than two little piles,

And rather than bring that one up we decided to throw ours down.

Unfortunately, a house now stands in that spot, so it's best to skip ahead to the Stockbridge lockup, where Guthrie did time.

. . . When we got to the police officer's station there was a third possibility that we hadn't even counted upon,

And we was both immediately arrested. Handcuffed.

And I said "Obie, I don't think I can pick up the garbage with these handcuffs on."

The police station and the town hall are housed in the same stately white building, so locals can do all their legal errands at one time. To see Guthrie's cell, you don't have to get yourself arrested: His blue cell door sits outside, at the bottom of the stairs of the police station. Guthrie's jail sentence has become a tourist attraction.

The final stop in Stockbridge is Alice's Restaurant. For a short time, the real-life Alice ran a restaurant off Main Street, along a narrow alleyway. Now a sign reads "Theresa's Stockbridge Cafe, formerly Alice's Restaurant." It is temporarily shuttered, but the connected Main Street Cafe is open -- and crammed with tourists lining up for ice cream, home-baked goods and scented candles. The restaurant and gift shop sell Alice's Restaurant T-shirts, but the apple bread pudding is much more filling. Down the block, the public library has in its files clippings of the arrest and the police photos of the crime scene -- black and white, not color, despite what the song says.

As a bonus attraction, fans can venture about six miles east to the town of Lee and the courthouse where Guthrie was fined $50 for some major littering. The red-brick building was closed the weekend I visited, but a kind cop opened the doors and pointed out where Guthrie stood (back right, on an enclosed podium) and where the blind judge sat (center seat).

There are no relics of Guthrie in the courthouse, not a name scratched in the wood or a peace sign inked on a chair. But Guthrie did leave behind one lasting memento: a legendary song, which has become an anthem of sorts to Stockbridge.

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