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You can get anything you want from "Alice's Restaurant", except of course, Alice.

Featured Artist and Song: Arlo Guthrie and “Alice’s Restaurant”

“You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant/Walk right in it’s around at the back/just a half a mile from the railroad track/You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant” (Arlo Guthrie “Alice’s Restaurant” 1965-66)

In honour of the 40th anniversary of the writing of “Alice’s Restaurant” Blogcritics.org is featuring the song and its creator, Arlo Guthrie, as our Featured Artist (and song) for the month of May. As the month progresses various writers from the site will be contributing articles on what the song has meant to them, reflections on the movie that the song inspired or just talk about Arlo in general.

We’ll be adding the links to each post right here at “Alice Central” throughout the month, and updates will be announced on the front page as they happen. Feel free to chime in with your own reminiscences and thoughts in the comments section here or on the individual posts.

So come on in and pull up a chair or take a seat at the counter, while Blogcritics.org takes you on a tour of “Alice’s Restaurant”. Hope you enjoy the meal.

There’s a certain kind of creative genius required to take the mundane and turn it into something interesting. To also make it endure across 40 years and two generations is testimony to either the uniqueness of the creation, or the individual behind it.

Perhaps it’s all part and parcel of being a folk singer; you sing songs that resonate with people no matter when they were written. Either something in the content or the attitude of the material manages to continue to appeal to people long after the song may have been topical.

Whatever the reason, Arlo Guthrie’s 18 minute song about a six month period of his life in the years 1965-66 has stood the test of time. What could be so interesting about someone getting arrested and going to trial for littering or even their initial inspection by the draft board? When it was turned into a long narrative, spoken over the same simple tune, he was forced to go on a special tour just to satisfy demands to hear it performed every ten years.

I was only four years old when Mr. Guthrie started writing that song, and was probably five by the time he had polished it off. I might have been seven or eight when the movie Alice’s Restaurant was released, but by the time I was seventeen I had memorized the entire 181/2 minutes (save for the speech by the sergeant to the guys on the bench in group “W”) and was performing it whenever anybody was stupid enough to ask me to.

The war in Vietnam had been over for two or three years by than. I lived in Canada, which hadn’t even been involved in the conflict, and so it shouldn’t have had any relevance to us at all. Okay it was funny, and there were some great lines in it which were just fun to say: “24 8X10 colour, glossy photos with circles and arrows on the front and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining how each one was to be used as evidence against us” said all in one breath sounds really silly.

But songs like “You Can’t Roller Skate In A Buffalo Herd” were funny too, and they don’t seem to be quite as in demand today as “Alice’s Restaurant”. Other songs from the era about the draft, like “Draft Dodger Rag” by Phil Ochs haven’t endured, so why do people still want to hear Arlo Guthrie talking about “jumping up and down yelling Kill, Kill, Kill, and the sergeant came over and pinned a medal on me and said ‘Boy, you’re our kind'”?

Well one good reason is that it’s a damn good story, and a good story will stay good no matter if it’s topical or not. It has suspense; will Arlo have to go to jail? It has pathos; who doesn’t feel sorry for Officer Obie when all his great evidence turns out to be for naught because the Judge turns out to blind? It has moments of great ridiculousness; see above “Kill, Kill, Kill” sequence, and of course it has social commentary: “you want to know if I’m moral enough to go over and kill women and children after being arrested for littering?”.

The fact that the incidents recounted all happened, no matter how ridiculous they sounded, made the whole thing that more appealing. So many of us have been on the receiving end of similar enough encounters with bureaucracy gone awry that even if we hadn’t been arrested for dumping a ¼ ton of garbage or been up before the draft board we can identify with the experience.

When Arlo sings, “You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant” he could be talking about the song itself. You can get anything you want from “Alice’s Restaurant”, except, of course, Alice.

To start off our month of Arlo and “Alice” we already have some tasty items on the menu, starting with this recent interview I conducted with him about the song and life in general. As additional appetizers you can read a review of his latest release Live In Sydney, and a piece about his fundraising tour on the City of New Orleans, the train made famous through his version of the Steve Goodman song of the same name, to raise money for the musicians of New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

New addition: (May 12) Concert Review: Arlo Guthrie in Kingston, Ontario (May 11, 2006)

(May 26)DVD Review: Alice’s Restaurant (1969 Arthur Penn Film) A look at the movie from Al Barger.

(May 26)The Friday Morning Listen: Arlo Guthrie In his weekly column, Mark Saleski takes a poignant look at a comical protest song.

(May 29) Scott Butki serves up a DVD Review: Alice’s Restaurant.

(May 30)In his DVD Review: Alice’s Restaurant, El Bicho also examines the movie that grew from the phenomenon that is the song.

Arlo Guthrie’s complete discography would take up far too many pages so here are some highlights for you:

  • Alice’s Restaurant 1967

  • Arlo 1968

  • Running Down The Road 1969

  • Hobo’s Lullaby 1972

  • Together In Concert (with Pete Seeger) 1975

  • Outlasting The Blues 1979

  • Precious Friend (with Pete Seeger) 1982

  • All Over The World 1991

  • Alice’s Restaurant – The Massacree Revisted 1996

  • Arlo Guthrie – Live In Sydney 2005

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.

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