The golden era of rock in the late 60’s and early 70’s produced much great music and many pop stars but it led to only two epic poems.
Don MacLean’s American Pie was a mega hit in 1972 that is still in regular rotation on classic rock radio today. It’s music history that began with a lament for the lost careers of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper who died in a plane crash in 1959.
Arlo Guthrie’s saga about his brush with the law on Thanksgiving Day in western Massachusetts is a send up of his trivial misfortune that he whips around into a stinging protest against the much larger tragedy of Vietnam. As an undergrad, I helped wear out the grooves on Alice’s Restaurant (and Massacree) and many of his most memorable phrases (27 8X10 color glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph about each one on the back…a typical case of blind justice…shrink, I wanna kill…have you rehabilitated yourself?) became the parlance of our generation.
As the war and the draft faded, Arlo’s incredible monologue drifted into the memory shadows except for a few loyalists. One group was the deejays at the DC area alt-rock station, WHFS, who made a point of playing it every Thanksgiving. We programmed our schedule to include time to listen (and sing along) for the 25 minutes it takes Arlo to wait for the chorus to come around again. As our kids got older they incorporated the tradition and the lyrics in their routines. Then a colleague bought me the CD version just as the radio station went under so we could listen while driving over the river and through the woods.
Over the years, the Alice saga has crossed my path is some wonderful ways. I met Venable Herndon who co-wrote the screen play for the movie (directed by Arthur Penn). I have a great t-shirt from the Group W Bench Head Shop in New Haven from my friend Elizabeth. As recently as this summer I started an email thread about “picking up the garbage” left by kids on one of our beach areas. My neighbor wrote how he hated the song because as a 14-year-old he had a camp counselor who sang it in its entirety. All day long.
That might be a little much even for me. I can recommend listening to it at least once a year and Thursday is the perfect day. There’s always some garbage that needs to be picked up and a war that needs ending. And it’s nice to know there is still a place, “you can get anything you want.” So Happy Thanksgiving and thanks to Arlo Guthrie for capturing a moment in time and spirit.
Here’s a youtube link if you don’t have a copy handy.