Every Thanksgiving I try to listen to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.” It’s one of those traditions that seem to evolve over the years for no particular purpose, though it would make the holiday just that much poorer without it.
It’s easier now, in the YouTube age. You just go there, do a quick search on the title and – BOOM! – there it is. I still have the LP, just in case, though I have nothing to play it on anymore. Better stick to YouTube.
Or I just sing it.
Yes, I know all the words to all eighteen minutes of “Alice’s Restaurant,” and I have been known to perform them in public. I am a dangerous man.
I first ran into the song in high school, when my friend Julia introduced me to it one heady summer. I had a highly developed sense of the absurd even then, and I just loved it. Arlo Guthrie is a lot of fun that way. At one point I also knew all the words to “The Motorcycle Song,” with its five minute digression. I never did memorize the ten-minute introduction to “The Ballad of Reuben Clamzo in the Key of A,” which is worth the price of an album any day, but it sticks with me still.
When I got to college, I found that I was not alone in my devotion to “Alice’s Restaurant.” My roommate Jack knew the guitar part, for example, and when we formed a band we would occasionally throw it onto the playlist. One of my fonder memories of that band is performing “Alice’s Restaurant” during a hurricane. The audience was puzzled but appreciative.
Jack and I actually went to see Arlo Guthrie one night while we were in college. He didn’t do the song, but then he was only on stage for an hour or so. It wasn’t much of a show as I recall. His opening act – John Prine – was a lot more fun. It didn’t diminish my affection for the song, though.
My senior year I took a class called The History of the 1960s, which absolutely floored my mother. “Those were my glory years!” she said. I understand that reaction a lot better now than I did then.
The professor was something of an aging hippie himself, and he actually had a transcript of the song on the reading list. And you know? You just can’t read “Alice’s Restaurant.” You have to hear “Alice’s Restaurant.”
So one day Jack and I walked into this class of about 150 students and let them hear.
We did it again the following year, too.
I’ve never figured out how to work it into my US2 class. There’s just so much to cover and never enough time. Someday perhaps I’ll teach my own History of the 1960s class, one that won't have to cover everything that happened between 1877 and yesterday, and won’t that be a time?
It is a silly thing, this song, but it reminds me of friends and times, of goofy summers and hurricanes and classrooms. It is a small thing to be thankful for, on a day meant to remind us of how much we have to be thankful for.