Every year at this time A Local Community Radio Station (all right, it’s WERU) plays Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant”.
Several times. Various versions.
Although “Alice” has become a tradition at WERU, it doesn’t appear to be limited to reformed hippies with quirky musical tastes along the coast of Maine (I grew up on Paul Harvey News, Reader’s Digest and Lawrence Welk). No, Alice has become a cross-cultural nation-wide nostalgia item, part of the sub-culture of Thanksgiving Day USA; and for no good reason other than that the story (which is about littering, and not really about draft-dodging, protesting, Richard Nixon or Vietnam) is set during Thanksgiving Day 1965 when Arlo and a buddy of his got arrested in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. For littering.
We know it’s about littering (and not those other horrible things) because the thugs in jail all moved away from Arlo when they found out that’s why he was arrested. It seems there’s an honor among thieves in the slammer.
And the cops had the goods on them: “the twenty-seven 8-by-10 color glossy pictures with the circles and arrows and the paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was, to be used as evidence against us.”
The rambling, 18-minute-and-20-second musical monologue might have escaped immortality if not for Richard Nixon. Remember the Watergate Tapes? And the infamous “gap” of 18 minutes and 20 seconds, suggesting that the tape had been erased? Chip Carter, son of president Jimmy, discovered a copy of the Alice’s Restaurant LP in the Nixon Library shortly after the Carters moved into the White House, and it made the news. Hmm.
And so, in the spirit of “Didn’t ya always kinda wonder,” Arlo updated Alice’s Restaurant after Nixon’s death in 1994, thus insuring immortality. For the song, not for Nixon.
Here is a live, more-or-less original version from 2005, forty years after the crime, showing Arlo as an aging but not-yet-reformed hippy. No mention of Nixon, and I pray they have made peace with one another.
[You may have to click the link below if the video doesn’t work]: