As far as hit songs go, they don’t get much more unlikely than Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 song “Alice’s Restaurant.”
For one thing, the song from the album of the same name clocks in at 18 minutes.
“It was a quirky kinda thing to begin with,” Guthrie said in a news release. “Nobody writes an 18-minute monologue expecting fame and fortune. The initial success of the song really took me by surprise more than anyone else.”
For another, it’s a rambling, satirical protest against the Vietnam War draft.
In the beginning of the song, Guthrie lets listeners know they can get anything they want at Alice’s Restaurant, “just half a mile from the railroad track.”
But in the very next verse, he clarifies something: Alice’s Restaurant isn’t actually the name of the restaurant, just the name of the song.
And anyhow, Alice doesn’t even live in the restaurant; she and her husband Ray and their dog Facha live in the belltower of a church near the restaurant.
But back to the story.
On Thanksgiving, Guthrie and a friend visit Alice and Ray and, after seeing how much trash they’ve collected, decide to take their garbage to the dump for them.
But after discovering the dump is closed on Thanksgiving, Guthrie and his friend dump their pile of garbage onto another pile of garbage, because, they reason, “one big pile was better than two little piles.”
To make a long song short, the next day Guthrie and his friend are arrested for littering, bailed out of jail by Alice (“Remember Alice? There’s a song about Alice.”) and sent to court.
The judge had a seeing eye dog, which meant he couldn’t see the “27 8x10 colored glossy pictures with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explainin’ what each one was” that Officer Obie collected as evidence, and the duo was fined $50 and had to pick up the garbage in the snow.
But the song is far from over. It’s at this point that Guthrie makes a 180-degree turn lyrically.
“But that’s not what I’m here to tell you about,” Guthrie says. “I’m here to talk about the draft.”
Guthrie then goes into detail about his experience getting “injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and selected.”
After all of that, it turns out his arrest for littering has made Guthrie morally unfit for the military.
He ends with a plea to the audience that the next time they walk into a shrink, they say “Shrink, you can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant” and walk out.
“They may think it’s a movement, and that’s what it is, the Alice’s Restaurant anti-massacree movement!” Guthrie sings. “And all you gotta do to join is to sing it the next time it comes around on the guitar.”
The convoluted tune helped send the album to the Billboard 200 chart, where it spent 16 weeks, peaking at No. 29.
Guthrie then parlayed the success of the song into the 1969 feature film of the same name, starring himself and directed by Arthur Penn, who earned an Academy Award nomination for best director.
After a successful 40th anniversary tour, Guthrie is on the road in support of the film’s 50th anniversary.
He’ll bring the “Alice’s Restaurant Back By Popular Demand” tour to the Bing Crosby Theater on Thursday.
“I didn’t think I was gonna live long enough to have to learn ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ again,” Guthrie said in a news release. “The fact that I have contended with it for five decades either by having to learn it again or by not doing it has been an interesting balancing act. I’m surely looking forward to it again being a centerpiece of my live repertoire.”
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