Below the Beltway

Alice's Restaurant Massacree II: The trashing of a legend

Below the Beltway
(Eric Shansby)
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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, July 4, 2010

Like many middle-age people, I wear more than one hat. I'm a husband, a father, a journalist, a role model to a generation of idealistic young Americans, etc. But one of my favorite hats, the floppy felt one that still smells faintly of the sweet smoke of a controlled substance, is "former hippie." We children of the '60s tenaciously hold on to this self-image, even though our mirrors tell us that in terms of sheer hipness, we look more like Arlen Specter than Arlo Guthrie.

And that is why I am on the phone right now with Arlo. I need him to clear up a little problem I am having, and reassure me that everything is okay in my world. Arlo Guthrie became a hero to my generation in 1967 when he recorded his iconic, self-deprecating, darkly comic, antiwar counterculture proto-rap masterpiece, "Alice's Restaurant." The 18-minute song tells the true story of Arlo's teenage arrest for littering, and his subsequent defiant confrontation with a Vietnam-War-era draft board over his "criminal" record. The strength of "Alice's Restaurant" is its feel of truth -- and how it speaks that truth to power. I had occasion to reread the lyrics recently, and for the first time, my instincts as an investigative humorist kicked in. I detected a dissonant note. Hence, this phone call.

Me: So, you were arrested for illegally dumping a half-ton of garbage that you scooped up from the floor of Alice's home, and took away to dispose of as a favor, right?

Arlo: Right.

Me: And you were nailed by the fuzz because Officer Obie found your name on an envelope in that half-ton pile of garbage and phoned you. And in the funniest line of the song, you solemnly admitted to Officer Obie that you had put that envelope under that half-ton of garbage, right?

Arlo: Right.

Me: Why was your name in the garbage from Alice's restaurant? Wasn't that all Alice's garbage?

Arlo: In 40 years, no one ever asked me that.

Me: Well, someone is asking now.

Arlo: Bravo. I will hate you forever for this.


Arlo: Okay, we have to attribute that line to creative license. Obie actually found a paper with Ray's name -- Ray was Alice's husband -- and Ray directed them to me. But it worked better in the song the other way.

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