Thursday, November 15, 2007

Alice's Restaurant

First of all, let me just say that I love Thanksgiving. Almost everyone has a four and a half day weekend, the stress of travel and gift buying that comes during Christmas isn't here yet, and it's one of the few days all year that I can catch the Lions game in New York! Although those are the big ones, one of the more subtle reasons that I always get excited about the holiday is knowing that I will soon dig out and listen to Arlo Guthrie's classic Thanksgiving song, Alice's Restaurant Massacre.

To call this 18 minute, 37 second piece a song, however, probably diminishes it's stature too greatly. Alice's Restaurant is a song about thanksgiving, food, Vietnam, garbage, the draft, and the power of sing-alongs. Seriously. The song is built around a very simple chorus and a playful, pleasant guitar line. What seems just kind of bizarre and silly becomes something of an anti-Vietnam War anthem as the builds and gains momentum. You've probably heard this chorus before, even if you weren't aware of who sang it or what is was about:

You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant
You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant
Walk right in it's around the back
Just a half a mile from the railroad track
You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant
In the shortest possible form, the story goes like this:
  • Arlo and his friend visit their pal Alice at her restaurant on thanksgiving night and decide to haul away her trash for her.
  • After finding out the garbage dump is closed, they throw the garbage off the side of a cliff.
  • They got caught and arrested.
  • More stuff happens, hilarity ensues
  • Later on the song mutates into a story about the Vietnam war (not sure how, exactly, but it does) and he explains his decision to protest and how he'll do so (the chorus is involved)
  • The crowd (oh yeah, it's also recorded live) sings the chorus along with Arlo and everyone is joined together in some sort of anti-War protest movement
Don't ask me how, but the song works, dammit.

My memories of the first time hearing it are still a little fuzzy, as I was in the middle of my "get stoned before work with my coworker Phil" phase in college (which, thankfully, I bowed out of fairly quickly. Getting stoned with Phil, that is, not college.). Still, I thought the melody was so upbeat and pleasant that I went out and bought it the next day. I think I played it once and that was it for the year (it's not really the kind of song you want to play twice in a row). But the next year I went back and listened to it and found that I liked it just the much as the first time. The year after was the same, and so it continues into the present.

Anyway, as I'm hosting thanksgiving at my place this year for the first time ever, I'm hoping to convince my friends to listen to it. Although I'm pretty sure it will be a tough sell (is a 20 minute song ever an easy sell, no matter how good you swear it is?) , perhaps, once the Tryptophan in the turkey takes hold, I'll slip it on before my guests know what hit them.

(P.S. Although I didn't post this gigantic song on here, if you want to listen to it let me know and I'll find a way to get it to you. Legally, of course.)


MDD said...

Funniest thing I've heard about this song:

Guthrie later wrote a follow-up recounting how he learned that Richard Nixon had owned a copy of the song, and he jokingly suggested that this explained the famous 18½ minute gap in the Watergate tapes.

Josh said...

Wow, Nixon owned the album? Hmm, its interesting to imagine him lounging around the office and playing that. Perhaps he used it to block out his voice during various under-the-radar conversations?

Megan said...

Now i am confused because i thought i've heard this song before, but - 18 minutes!!! that is kind of incredible. Maybe i've only heard snippets. I mean, even the extended-length version of Nights in White Satin that i have on my ipod, with instrumental breakdown AND spooky poetry recitation, only comes to 7 and a half. Josh, you should play Alice's Restaurant on repeat on thanksgiving. All night.
Also, MDD, that is hilarious about Nixon.

Josh said...

Yeah, there might be a radio-version, I'm not sure. Its the kind of song that the radio would only play, like, once a year during thanksgiving, though, so perhaps they just play the full version when they do.