The Group W bench

In 1967, the year between my birth and my father’s being shipped off to Vietnam, folk singer Arlo Guthrie released his comic spoken-sung epic about a young man convicted of littering on Thanksgiving Day. The song, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” tells how later, when the young man’s draft board learns of his former crime, he is turned down for military service — having been deemed not moral enough to “burn women, kids, houses and villages after bein’ a litterbug.”

“Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” from the Warner Brothers/Reprise album Alice’s Restaurant, became an anti-establishment anthem in the last years of the ’60s, and a symbol — like the song’s “Group W bench” in the draft-board office, where hardened criminals like Guthrie were sent to ponder if they had rehabilitated themselves enough to go fight for the U.S.A. — of the absurdity of the whole Vietnam war effort.

As Guthrie got older, he stopped playing “Alice’s Restaurant” at concerts — its length proved prohibitive to including a variety of other material. Then in 1997, 30 years after the song was released, he reintroduced it at select shows.

When Guthrie aired that song at the old Grey Eagle club in Black Mountain on April 27 of that same year, I was, to my great joy, in attendance. A piece of a review I ran in Xpress went thus:

When, at song’s end, Guthrie good naturedly berated the [audience] for failing to adequately sing its part of the chorus — and, yes, [to] change the world — we were about ready to pop, vibrating like a tuning fork hammered out of joy.

I understood for the first time that night how truly powerful a communal experience music could be as the packed crowd, many of them of the generation to have experienced the song when it was new, turned the silly chorus to “Alice’s Restaurant” into some kind of auditory sacrament.

This week, as radio stations including WNCW-FM dust off the 35-year-old song for its annual Thanksgiving Day airing, its topicality seems weirdly heightened by our government’s open flirtations with the prospect of another unpopular and potentially protracted war.

I’ve wondered often of late how Guthrie — once the prodigal son in America’s greatest folk-music lineage, and now the grey-haired patriarch of another generation of touring musicians — views his most famous song today. As excuses for interviewing a cultural icon go, this seemed like a good one.

And let me just say that having Woody Guthrie’s son call you at your house is pretty damn cool.

Guthrie is, as you will see here, every bit as charming, thoughtful and funny a person as his music suggests.

Mountain Xpress: “‘Alice’s Restaurant’ has become, above all your other work, your greatest legacy. As legacies go, is it a comfortable fit?”

Arlo Guthrie: “There’s a lot of one-hit wonders that we run into, and who have been living off [that hit] for 40 years …”

MX: “You’re hardly what I’d call a one-hit wonder.”

AG: [Laughs.] “No, we’re talkin’ about a no-hit wonder! ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ was way too long to have been a hit. ‘Coming into Los Angeles,’ which was our next-best hope, was banned from the air as soon as it came out. ‘City of New Orleans’ came out, but Warner Brothers didn’t believe that kind of song would be a hit, so they never pressed singles until it was far too late, and [the song] had already started going down the other end of the chart. So for somebody who never actually had a hit, we’re workin’ pretty good here!”

MX: “You and a very few other performers have the peculiar distinction of being cultural ambassadors from what has become something of a mythic time in American history.”

AG: “The ’60s was a glitch. It wasn’t a usual time. [Laughs.]

“There was something profoundly disturbing about how normal things [like music] became really commercial in those days. Now I think we’re back to a time when the kind of music we’re playin’ is really off of the radar of the music industry. They leave us alone; they don’t have any connection to [the new music]. But the festivals are filled, the houses are packed — I mean, you can’t buy a decent banjo in a store anymore without somebody knowin’ what it’s really worth! This is the golden age of people makin’ their own music, and that’s how it should’ve been all along.”

MX: “As this ’60s cultural icon now, I suspect you get some pretty interesting responses from young fans who’ve just stumbled upon your work for the first time.”

AG: “Every once in a while I get a letter from somebody, or [else I see] writin’ on the message boards [at] from people who have ‘discovered’ me. It’s a little bit like Columbus comin’ over here and discoverin’ America while all the Native American guys are goin’, ‘What?’ We knew about this place too, y’know!'”

MX: “There’s plenty of lampooning going on in ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ — of law enforcement, the military, the medical establishment, the very temper of the times. Have you ever encountered any animosity for writing the song?”

AG: “You know what? I really haven’t. I’ve had people be negative about some of my opinions about things; but if you have an opinion in the world, you’re going to run into that, no matter what your opinion is.

“Luckily for me, though, the way the world has turned out, some of the concerns that me and a bunch of other people my age had 30 or 40 years ago have become part of normal life. In every hometown now there’s people worried about what their kids are learnin’ in school, what kind of water they’re drinkin’, what kind of air they’re breathin’, what’s happenin’ with that nuke plant down the road. All of those concerns that were crazy years ago have become normal. So in some sense, I’m much less of a danger. And I miss that!”

MX: “On the level that ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ relates to an unpopular war that brought people out into the streets in protest, the song would seem to have become very topical all over again. Have you gotten any feedback that ‘Alice’ has taken on heightened meaning for fans in light of recent political events?”

AG: “Let me answer the question this way: We’re livin’ in a much more sophisticated era than we were — the ’60s seems like simple times compared to what’s goin’ on now. All of the news media that at one time were independent and were focused on bringin’ to the attention of everybody what they thought was really goin’ on [have] virtually disappeared; [they don’t] exist anymore. Almost everybody has somebody lookin’ over their shoulders, not just in the music industry, but in the media industry, and in the defense industry and in the government business. We’re livin’ in a different world.

“So the sentiments expressed in the song may be a vestige of an era when people could actually question and have some ground to stand on. They could say, ‘Well, I think this is goin’ on, and what are you gonna do about that?’ But these days, people are constantly bein’ manipulated, so they don’t feel they have ground to stand on — we don’t really know what’s goin’ on. There seems to be deception on all sides by all people, [with] a depth to it that’s sort of like one of those crazy Chinese box puzzles or somethin’.

“So I’m lookin’ forward to seein’ how the kids who are growin’ up in this time deal with that, because bein’ born in a briar patch gives you a sophistication that somebody like me could never possess. I’m too simple to see the depth of this, but there’s kids out here who can. So I would be very interested to see how they deal with this; and in the long run, I have a deep, abiding faith in the people of this country that they will do the right things all the time. Not every moment, but in the long run.

“Things are not always what they seem, and I would be interested to hear what young people who can see through that fog actually are seein’ right now.”

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