Congratulations Coles County and surrounding areas! You made it to another Thanksgiving! And here you are taking a few minutes to yourself in those hours before either the relatives start arriving, or before you’ve got to load everyone into the Family Truckster, to kill some time with your newspaper. And as you set aside all the coupons and fliers, looking for a cup holder big enough to hold the jumbo coffee you had to bring with you, or with flecks of flour across your face as something bakes in the oven, you might take a moment to flick on the radio and realize what I also did this week…there are no good Thanksgiving songs. Actually, let me clarify: There are no Thanksgiving songs.
And folks, please don’t fill my inbox with Turkey Day-related hymns or traditionals that you might have heard your kid belting out from the back row of a riser at the Thanksgiving Program this year while wearing a cardboard bird on their head. Those don’t count. I’m talking about holiday-related songs from artists you might actually hear on a radio station playing at this very second at any gas station of merit near you. It’s like some cosmic force just decided that we needed to go straight from “Monster Mash” to Mariah Carey belting out “All I Want For Christmas Is You” with nothing in-between.
And then suddenly, just as I was realizing my idea for a special Thanksgiving edition of my column was blowing up in my face, it hit me; not just “the” Thanksgiving-related rock song in that it’s “the” only one that matters, but in that it’s “the” only one that exists: And for that I bring to you, from the 1969 Journal Gazette, Arlo Guthrie’s "Alice’s Restaurant."
If you don’t remember Arlo then let me help you out: He’s the son of Woody Guthrie, a folk singer regarded as such a legend that many of his recordings and writings are kept by the Smithsonian. As for Arlo, well, you try strapping on a guitar and following that kind of act up. And chances are, in this area at least, Arlo and his 18-minute sing-along song-story “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” has probably been heard by more people.
If you don’t know a thing about “Alice’s Restaurant” then put the newspaper down, find your son, husband, dad, or granddad, and one of them will no doubt fill you in. And if you can’t find any of them because they’re spending the pre-holiday hours hiding in the garage putting kerosene into the Salamander and trying to find the best position for the TV on the workbench to get in the Bears game later in the day, then I’ll help you out.
“Alice’s Restaurant” is essentially a long monologue, with chorus included and performed in front of a live audience, with Arlo telling the presumably autobiographical tale of how a Thanksgiving Day spent helping “Alice” find a dumping place for the trash that had accumulated in the downstairs of the former church where she lived led to a run-in with “Officer Obie,” a trip to the local jail, a hearing in front of the local judge, and a citation for littering, before jumping into a another tale about how such a citation later proved to be quite handy while attempting to fool the draft board into thinking he was unfit for military duty.
According to my shopworn copy of the Rolling Stone Album Guide, second edition, the song, “doesn’t hold up.” I don’t know if I agree with that. Sure, all that hippie stuff hasn’t aged that well; we’ve been in a lot of wars since the ‘60s, and we protest them differently, if at all, since the draft has come and gone.
Still, it’s the first part of the song that’s always struck a chord with me; taking some time on Thanksgiving, of all days, to help a friend out with something ridiculous, even if it means discovering that yes, the local dump is closed on a holiday. Sure makes me think of all the times my dad would step out of the house each Christmas morning, just before dinner, and drive to the dumpster they had where he worked with empty boxes and trash bags full of crumpled Christmas wrapping. I always thought he did this because Mom couldn’t stand the mess, but now I’m realizing that maybe he remembered that one small part about “Alice’s Restaurant” too, which would make sense considering he’s the guy who taught me about “Alice’s Restaurant” in the first place, alongside the song about the motorcycle (ahem “Motor-sickle”) and who gifted me very own copy of “The Best of Arlo Guthrie” on CD when I was a teenager.
I don’t know if it really happened, or if I’m remembering it wrong and I just want it to have happened, but I can swear I remember being in the car with my parents one Thanksgiving and hearing “Alice’s Restaurant,” all 20-some minutes of it, being played by some wise-acre radio programmer on one of our local classic rock radio stations. I got the joke. My dad got the joke. I’m sure Mom sat there in bewilderment.
I’d like to believe that somewhere out there on your FM dial someone might do the same thing again this year for whomever might be paying attention during early Turkey Day preparations. If not, I’m more than prepared to sing it to myself while getting ready, and who knows, maybe even while carrying some of my neighbor’s trash to the dumpster myself.
And if by chance a local police officer tells me I can’t, I’m going to do what I recommend you do if your own holiday turns stressful: Take a little advice from ‘Ol Arlo, stand up straight, sing “You can get anything you want…at Alice’s Restaurant,” and then walk out. Yup, clear out of the house. They’ll think you’re insane, but as that old hippie was trying to say, that’s how a movement starts.