Alice’s Restaurant – Revisited

faux “Alice’s Restaurant” – which may be some kind of object lesson for today’s world.. 

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 And speaking of Thanksgiving!

Alice's Restaurant.jpg

Every year around this time I do my best to listen to Alice’s Restaurant.  (The “musical monologue by singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie,” released in 1967.)  When it first came out – in 1967 – the war in Vietnam was at its height.  Then there was The Draft.

There’s more on all that later, but first a lighter note.

In 1993 I started a tradition of listening to Alice’s Restaurant every Thanksgiving.  It has nothing to do with eating turkey or getting together with family.  Instead it has everything to do with my favorite college football team playing its hated arch-rival.

Back in 1993 that favorite college football team won its first national title.  And it just so happened that for that Thanksgiving weekend I had to drive up to Jacksonville.  (My late wife was working as a traveling sales lady.  For a church directory company.)  It also just so happened that was when my team played the hated arch-rival that stood as a final obstacle to the title game.

And that’s when I heard the full rendition – on the radio, of Alice’s Restaurant – for the first time in years.  And as it happened, 1988 was also when I met the woman who became my first wife.  It also turned out that 1988 was when I started getting serious on making a ritual sacrifice for my team.  (Doing things to help them win.  See also sublimation – referring to my former hobby.)

So anyway, at the end of 1988 I drove home from a Christmas vacation in Yankee-land.  Coming through Gainesville, I heard the full rendition of Alice’s Restaurant for the first time since the 1960s.  (When I also saw the singularly-depressing movie of the same name.)

There followed five years of close, but no cigar for my favorite team, from 1988 to 1992.

But it was different in 1993.  For Thanksgiving that year I drove north – not south – when I heard the song.  For another thing, in 1993 my radio played the song not once, but twice.  The result was that my team won its first national title.  And the last big test before the title game itself was playing and beating my team’s hated arch-rival, on that Thanksgiving weekend of 1993.

So again – ever since then, since 1993 – I’ve done my best to listen to Alice’s Restaurant every Thanksgiving weekend.   And if that all seems weird, see Was Moses the first to say “it’s only weird if it doesn’t work?  But getting back to those “Good Old Days of Yesteryear…”

Segregated Super Bowl 1955For one thing, Alice’s Restaurant reminds us that – for many folks – those good old days weren’t so good.  (An example:  The image at right: “segregated seating at the Super Bowl in 1955.”   Note also the Latin “sic.”)

For another thing, the song itself was “notable as a satirical, first-person account of 1960s counterculture.”

I’m not sure if we have that kind of counterculture today.  (Unless you count “liberals,” as Fox News does.)  But back in 1967 we sure had one.   In Arlo’s case – and to many young men of the time – the “opposition” was to the Vietnam war.  And as Wikipedia also noted:

The ironic punch line of the story is that, in the words of Guthrie, “I’m sittin’ here on the Group W bench ’cause you want to know if I’m moral enough to join the Army – burn women, kids, houses and villages – after bein’ a litterbug.”  The final part of the song is an encouragement for the listeners to sing along, to resist the draft, and to end war.

Unfortunately we haven’t ended war yet.  (We still have plenty of those to go around.)

On the other hand, today’s young men no longer have to worry about the Draft.  (Which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your viewpoint.)  All of which reminds me of a conversation I overheard on a flight out to Salt Lake City a summer or two ago.

Bigmouth.jpgThere was an old bigmouth – about my age actually – sitting in the seat behind me.  He proceeded to “pontificate” to the young man next to him about the 1960s, and how much better they were than today.

I forgot exactly how he put it – and there’s more in the notes below – but his words literally blew my mind(To borrow an old idiom from the 1960s.)

Or to put it in the words of Alice’s Restaurant, his recollection of the ’60s fit in precisely with the definition of massacree.   (The term Arlo used in the full, original title of the song.)  The term itself -as used in the song and/or title – refers to “an event so wildly and improbably and baroquely messed up that the results are almost impossible to believe.”)

Which is how I reacted to this particular bigmouth.  It was only later – after the drive home from the airport, and while enjoying one of Utah’s famed 3.2 beers – that I started to remember some of the things that were going on back in the ’60’s.  Race riots.  Assassinations.  The war in Vietnam.  Draft dodging.  Draft resistance.  The upshot being that while some great music came from the era – including Alice’s Restaurant – the decade itself was not fun to live through.

And in a big way, the Sixties are still with us.  (As shown in the image at right.)  On the other hand, there’s an old saying:  “If you stand on the bank of the river long enough, you’ll see the bodies of your enemies floating by.”

Which is another way of saying that Arlo did a reprise of the song.  But I’d never heard the reprise, until this last Thanksgiving weekend.  (For the first time.  See e.g., Arlo Guthrie Returns to ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ 50 Years Later.)

And this was after routinely listening to the original twice – on CD – on Thanksgiving weekends.

On the reprise, Arlo’s voice was deeper and more mellow.  On the other hand, at times he seemed to “overplay his hand.”  (To add some drama that seemed a bit forced, which sometimes afflicts us older folk.  On the other hand, the original had the spontaneity of youth.)

But the big news was his account of visiting the Jimmy Carter White House.

In 1977, Guthrie got invited to the Carter Inauguration.  (Which he figured would be pretty much the only time he’d get such an invitation.)  Here’s what happened next.

Chip Carter (the president’s son) advised Guthrie that they had found a copy of the ALICE’S RESTAURANT album in Richard Nixon’s record library.  Guthrie … found that interesting [but] didn’t think much about it until years later, when Nixon died and there was all this talk about the 18.5-minute gap in the former president’s tape collection.  At which point, it occurred to Arlo that “Alice’s Restaurant” also clocked in at 18.5 minutes!

See “Alice’s Restaurant” and Watergate.  (See also the note below on Carter pardoning the Vietnam era “draft dodgers.”)  So one point of all this rambling is that Arlo Guthrie turned a patently absurd situation into a timeless classic.  (And a Thanksgiving tradition to many.)

But there’s another point.  People who “wax poetic” on the Good Old Days usually forget what it was like actually living then.  See for example On American History, “patched and piebald.”

Nothing was clear, inevitable, or even comprehensible…   The real drama of the American Revolution … was its inherent messiness.

And that’s not to mention the “fractious disputes and hysterical rhetoric of [those] contentious nation-builders.”  The upshot?  Fractious disputes and hysterical rhetoric seem to have been with us in the past, and remain with us “even to this day.”  Or as John Adams put it, “as it is now, ever was, and ever will be, world without end.”

On the other hand – in the spirit of Harry Golden – here’s a more positive spin:

Maybe these days today aren’t so bad after all…. 

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New York’s Lower East Side “in the early 20th Century…”

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The upper image is courtesy of Alice’s Restaurant | You Can Get Anything You Want…  This particular version is located at 17288 Skyline Boulevard, Woodside, CA.  (Not Stockbridge Mass:  “Stockbridge was the location of Alice’s Restaurant in the song of the same name by Arlo Guthrie which describes the town as having ‘three stop signs, two police officers and one police car.'”

For details about what happened to the original “Alice’s Restaurant,” see Wikipedia, and/or The original Alice’s Restaurant – Review of Theresa’s Stockbridge Cafe.

The original lead-in photo – seen at left – was courtesy of Draft evasion – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  The original lead caption: “Potential “draft dodgers” – before the Draft lottery of 1969.”  The full Wikipedia caption, “U.S. anti-Vietnam War protesters at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.  A placard to the right reads ‘Use your head – not your draft card.'”

Re: church directories.  Aside from the link given, other directory companies today include Church Directories & Family Portraits – Lifetouch and Barksdale Church Directories.  In 1993, the company provided one “free” full-color photograph to each family.  The sales staff – who came to the church a week or two after the photographers – earned their commission by selling extra copies and/or photographs. 

Re: “the segregated seating at the Super Bowl in 1955.”  The image is courtesy of the blog ivman’s blague, “one French professor’s humorous and serious perspectives on life.”  (Listed above as  Good Old Days of Yesteryear.”)  Unfortunately, the first Super Bowl was not played until 1967 – not 1955.  (The Green Bay Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs 35-10.)  See Super Bowl – Wikipedia.  But notwithstanding that “typo,” such segregation unquestionably existed in the 1950s… 

Re: “Counterculture.”  That’s a “subculture whose values and norms of behavior differ substantially from those of mainstream society, often in opposition to mainstream cultural mores.”

The Ethan Bronner quotes – listed below – are from his 1989 book, Battle for Justice  How the Bork Nomination Shook America.  (Anchor Books, published by Doubleday, at pages 249-50.)  

The “‘Patriotic’ Americans” image is courtesy of Liberal group claims Mitt Romney, Dick Cheney, Donald Trump, others are draft dodgers.  Regardless of its liberal bent, the article does provide a short-and-pithy summary of the ways to get a draft deferment in the Vietnam era.

The lower image is courtesy of Lower East Side – Wikipedia.  The caption:  “‘Cliff Dwellers‘ by Bellows, depicting the Lower East Side as its in the early 20th Century” (sic):

In Cliff Dwellers, George Bellows captures the colorful crowd on New York City’s Lower East Side.  It appears to be a hot summer day.  People spill out of tenement buildings onto the streets, stoops, and fire escapes.  Laundry flaps overhead and a street vendor hawks his goods from his pushcart in the midst of all the traffic.  In the background, a trolley car heads toward Vesey Street.    

The point being:  That’s how many used to live – in the ‘good old days’ – including Harry Golden.  Another positive note: My college team beat its hated arch-rival the Saturday after Thanksgiving 2015, possibly by virtue of my hearing Alice’s Restaurant “thrice,” including the reprise. 

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For more on Alice’s Restaurant, see The Story Behind ‘Alice’s Restaurant‘: the 50-Year-Old Song that Is Forever YoungArlo Guthrie Looks Back on 50 Years of ‘Alice’s Restaurant,’ 50 things about Arlo Guthrie’s ‘Alice’s Restaurant,’ and Arlo Guthrie Returns to ‘Alice’s Restaurant‘ 50 Years Later.

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Re: the draft.  See Vietnam War DraftDraft lottery (1969) – Wikipedia, and… article/0,28804,186225, regarding President Jimmy Carter’s pardoning the “Vietnam war draft dodgers” in 1977.  Other articles of interest include Was Trump a ‘draft dodger’? | PunditFact – PolitiFact, and How I Got Out of the Vietnam Draft – And Why That Still Matters.

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And finally, here’s a portion of the post where I started going off on a tangent

(Beginning with the sentence, “Unfortunately we haven’t ended war yet…”)

Unfortunately we haven’t ended war yet.  On the other hand, today’s young people no longer have to worry about the Draft.  (Which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your viewpoint.)  That “phasing out” started in 1969 with the Draft Lottery:

In the late 1960s, President Nixon established a commission to recommend the best ways to raise military manpower, to keep the draft or to institute a volunteer army.  After much debate … it was decided that an all-volunteer force was affordable, feasible, and would enhance the nation’s security…

And that’s what we’ve had ever since.  But Wikipedia also noted that the 1970s “were a time of turmoil in the United States, beginning with the Civil Rights Movement.”  Further, the draft lottery “only encouraged resentment of the Vietnam war” – and the draft – and “strengthened the anti-war movement.”  Which brings up a conversation I heard a summer or two ago.

I was flying out to Salt Lake City.  In the row right behind me, the older guy in the window seat was pontificating.  (Actually he was about my age.  The subject of his pontification – to the young man “captive audience” in the next seat – was how great things used to be – in the 1960s.

Bigmouth.jpgI forget exactly how this bigmouth put it, in his unchallenged opinion.

But what he said fit in precisely with the definition of massacree Arlo used in the full, original title of Alice’s Restaurant.  (Meaning “an event so wildly and improbably and baroquely messed up that the results are almost impossible to believe.”)  Or respond to in a timely manner.

It was only later – after the drive from the airport and the comfort of one Utah’s famed 3.2 beers – that I fully started to remember why the ’60s and ’70s weren’t so great.  Or more precisely, what exactly happened during those years of turmoil.

As Ethan Bronner noted, “In the 1960s much changed,” beginning with the U.S. Supreme Court. Court rulings began protecting the private possession of obscene materials (for example).  The Court did so under the theory that the right to receive information and ideas – “regardless of their social worth” – is fundamental to a free society.

But to many others, “the sixties were where America went wrong.”  To them, the government existed to make value choices.  To them, allowing such “free speech” as the 1978 March on Skokie (Ill.) led to feelings of “powerlessness and alienation of many Americans:”

Citizens’ efforts to take control of their lives and environments were further undercut by the growing power of courts and bureaucracies.  No wonder so many Americans dropped out of the political process…

Which could bring up the term Kafkaesque.  Illustrated by “Kafkaesque bureaucracies,” the term means something marked “by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity,” and/or “by surreal distortion and often a sense of impending danger…”

Like I said, that’s where I started going off on a tangent, last night, as I tried to finish this post in time to be relevant to Thanksgiving weekend, 2015.

Black-and-white photograph of Kafka as a young man with dark hair in a formal suitAnd one final note, Franz Kafka – who’s name gave rise to the term “Kafkaesque” – died in 1924, at the age of 41.  He was noted for writings that explored “themes of alienation, existential anxiety, guilt, and absurdity.”   (Perhaps in his way not unlike Arlo Guthrie.)  See Wikipedia.

The point being that alienation, anxiety, guilt and absurdity seem to have been with us – as Adams noted – now and forever, “world without end.”

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