By Andrea Sachs
Imagine if you
had heard Frank Sinatra sing "New York, New York" in a smoky Manhattan
club, or caught John Denver performing "Country Roads, Take Me Home"
atop a West Virginia mountain. Gives you chills.
When Arlo Guthrie
Restaurant Massacree" at the Guthrie Center in Stockbridge, Mass.,
last month, the legendary folk singer summoned the ghosts of the 1960s, calling
forth Alice and Ray, the garbage dump and the draft -- all characters and
scenes intimately familiar to anyone who grew up singing along to the protest
song-cum-Thanksgiving staple. Nearly everyone in the high-ceilinged church,
aglitter with candles set on the 100 (sold-out) tables, knew the lyrics by
heart. And during the singalong refrain, the effect was more religious revival
up with Arlo," said Dennis Dilmaghani, a middle-aged New Yorker who was
taping the show from the second-floor balcony. "This is the most genuine
place to see Arlo and the most fitting place to hear" the fabled 18-minute
Thanks to "Alice's
Restaurant" and its perennial radio play (usually at noon on Thanksgiving
Day), Stockbridge and Guthrie will forever be linked. "It's become a
little part of the history of the town," Guthrie said during a pre-show
chat on the back porch of the Guthrie Center. "That's what makes an area
feel like home -- you have a history with it."
But times do
change. Forty years later, there's no Alice's Restaurant, but you pretty much
can get anything you want in Stockbridge.
would never dump on Stockbridge.
come to Stockbridge, Mass., to see the foliage or catch folk singer Arlo
Guthrie perform in the church where Alice of "Alice's Restaurant"
served up her Thanksgiving meal in 1965. -- Berkshire Visitors Bureau/DCR
In 1965, however,
it was a different story. Back then, the young hippie and a friend tossed
a VW van-load of trash off a cliff in the western Massachusetts town, creating
a stir -- and a song.
has been very good to me," said Guthrie, 59, now a father of four whose
hair has grayed and waist size has doubled since his youth, but whose vigor
has hardly waned. "The great thing was, when the record came out, most
people thought it was a nice piece of fiction."
Those who live
around the Berkshires town, or were raised on 1960s antiwar music, know the
truth behind the lyrics. (Guthrie completed the song Thanksgiving of 1966,
making this year an anniversary of sorts.) Yes, Guthrie's friends Alice and
Ray Brock are real, and in 1965 they did host Thanksgiving dinner for a motley
group of pals in their home, a converted church that is, yes, just a half
a mile from the railroad tracks in Housatonic, a hamlet bordering Stockbridge.
The illegal garbage run truly happened, as did the subsequent arrest, jailing
and fining of Guthrie. The main discrepancy is that the Alice's Restaurant
of the title does not refer to the eatery Alice briefly ran in Stockbridge.
Listen closely to the lyrics, children:
is called Alice's Restaurant, and it's about Alice, and the restaurant,
Restaurant is not the name of the restaurant,
the name of the song,
why I called the song Alice's Restaurant.
Today, the church
where Alice and Ray served their holiday meal and stashed their garbage contains
the Guthrie Center. The singer, who lives on a farm not far from Stockbridge,
bought the former Trinity Church 15 years ago to house his philanthropic foundation
and to host live performances. However, for droves of aging Arloheads who
can still recite every word from every song, the church is a living artifact
from the Age of Aquarius.
of the song is probably the only reason I know Stockbridge," said Richard
Monk, a baby boomer who had road-tripped from Indianapolis to hear Guthrie
perform and was tailgating with other fans before the show. "It's a stirring
feeling to be here and know that the church is still standing."
A few times
a year, Guthrie performs in the hallowed church, attracting dedicated followers
who travel many highways to hear the best of Arlo, live from Stockbridge.
Last month, during a fan reunion on a grassy lot by the church, folks were
excitedly comparing recent playlists in between strums on their guitars, swigs
of beer and sideways glances anticipating Guthrie's arrival.
Most of the
fans at the Stockbridge concert could recite Guthrie's career without cue
cards. The eldest son of legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie rocked the charts
-- and the establishment -- with "Alice's Restaurant Massacree"
and became even more famous as the star of the eponymous movie (directed by
Arthur Penn, another Stockbridge resident). A string of well-received songs
followed, such as "Coming Into Los Angeles" and "City
of New Orleans," but "Alice" was the hit that made Guthrie
a cultural wonder for many generations.
The singer still
continues to tour the globe, his voice now a bit gravelly after singing "Alice"
for so many decades.
Seat of the
(population 2,500) seems an unlikely spot for a countercultural movement.
The town, about 40 miles southeast of Albany, N.Y., is as well-preserved as
a village in a snow globe, with every picket fence and steeple placed just
so. One could describe it as Rockwellian, hardly a cliche in this case: Artist
Norman Rockwell lived in Stockbridge for the last quarter of his life and
worked in a light-streamed studio on Main Street. The studio has since moved
down the road to the Norman Rockwell Museum, which was founded in 1969 --
the same year the movie version of "Alice's Restaurant" was
downtown is prim and puritan, with Colonial-style buildings, thick foliage
shading the two-lane road and such area-appropriate shops as a Yankee Candle
outlet and a Country Store. On an autumn weekend, a woman was sweeping crumpled
leaves off the sidewalk with a broom, abandoning her yardwork only to watch
a parade of Victorian horse-drawn carriages clop through. When the town isn't
throwing some type of festival -- one recent weekend there was a harvest celebration,
a horse-and-coach procession, a wedding for 300 and an antique fire engine
event -- visitors can peruse art galleries, shop for crafts and kitsch, or
watch life stream by from rocking chairs at the 18th-century Red Lion Inn.
The town also
has a strong creative streak, though it caters more to highbrow sophisticates
than to "Kumbaya" types. "There are wonderfully artistic people
here who come and see the Boston Symphony Orchestra [at nearby Tanglewood].
There's no better place to hear them, and there's no better place to see dance
than at Jacob's Pillow," says Guthrie, whose mother taught summer dance
classes here when he was a child. "We also have the Berkshire Theatre
Festival and Shakespeare and all of the little clubs that are beginning to
sprout up with music."
One of the biggest
performing arts venues -- Guthrie calls it the "alpha music center in
the area" -- is the venerable Tanglewood. The Boston Pops and symphony
relocates to the outdoor venue for the summer, but music aficionados can also
catch jazz, pop and other genres during the warm months. When the temperatures
begin to drop, the musicians pack up their instruments and let the foliage
take center stage. Come fall, leaf peepers come in packs, driving below the
speed limit to soak up every red-orange tint.
nuts all summer," says Guthrie. "After the leaves fall, that's when
we head out to all of the great restaurants and go to some of the events."
To be sure,
in small and preppy Stockbridge, Guthrie stands out. You could blame his success.
Or maybe it's his long, crinkly hair and clogs.
Arlo, a long, long time ago
To the Dump,
Then to Jail
Every May, when
snow is a distant memory and the Berkshires are revving up for the summer
arts season, the Guthrie Center holds its annual Garbage Trail Walk. The 6.3-mile
tour, which raises money for Huntington's disease (Guthrie's father died of
the degenerative neurological illness), follows the route spelled out in "Alice's
Restaurant Massacree." But the tour is hardly seasonal; in fact,
to accurately re-create the 1965 event, go in the fall, when the leaves crunch
underfoot and the air smells of spiced pumpkin pie.
To remain faithful
to the song, start at the third stanza: at the old Trinity Church by the railroad
Now it all
started two Thanksgivings ago, was on --
ago on Thanksgiving, when my friend and I went up to visit Alice at the restaurant,
doesn't live in the restaurant,
in the church nearby the restaurant, in the bell-tower, with her husband Ray
and Fasha the dog.
With its high
peaked roof and round stained-glass window, the church is a textbook example
of New England architecture; only the peace-sign flag in the window gives
away its bohemian reincarnation. When Alice and Ray lived in the church, they
stashed their garbage in an adjoining sanctuary. The detritus is long gone,
and the annex now is used as an entrance to the nave. Inside, posters, photos
and other memorabilia capture Guthrie during his more rebellious times. In
the main hall, tables and chairs form a thick wedge around a stage. A solitary
office chair sits like an abandoned throne at the back of the stage. The chair
belonged to Chief of Police William "Obie" Obanhein, Guthrie's arresting
officer. The singer and his adversary became friends during the filming of
the "Alice's Restaurant" movie, and though Obie has died,
his memory still attends Guthrie's shows.
Stop 2 is about
four miles away, at the old Town Dump, which was closed 41 years ago, forcing
a young Guthrie to search elsewhere to unload his trash.
So we took
the half a ton of garbage, put it in the back of a red VW microbus, took shovels
and rakes and implements of destruction and headed on toward the city dump.
Well we got
there and there was a big sign and a chain across the dump saying, "Closed
And we had
never heard of a dump closed on Thanksgiving before,
tears in our eyes we drove off into the sunset looking for another place to
put the garbage.
The site off
Glendale Middle Road remains shut, this time for good. The landfill is now
punctuated with small lumps of rubble and wildflowers. Wild turkeys dash about,
as if they know Thanksgiving is near.
To follow the
song to the letter, the next stop would be the scene of the crime, where Guthrie
dumped heaps of garbage off an escarpment.
came to a side road, and off the side of the side road there was another 15-foot
cliff and at the bottom of the cliff there was another pile of garbage.
And we decided
that one big pile is better than two little piles,
than bring that one up we decided to throw ours down.
a house now stands in that spot, so it's best to skip ahead to the Stockbridge
lockup, where Guthrie did time.
. . . When
we got to the police officer's station there was a third possibility that
we hadn't even counted upon,
And we was
both immediately arrested. Handcuffed.
And I said
"Obie, I don't think I can pick up the garbage with these handcuffs on."
The police station
and the town hall are housed in the same stately white building, so locals
can do all their legal errands at one time. To see Guthrie's cell, you don't
have to get yourself arrested: His blue cell door sits outside, at the bottom
of the stairs of the police station. Guthrie's jail sentence has become a
The final stop
in Stockbridge is Alice's Restaurant. For a short time, the real-life Alice
ran a restaurant off Main Street, along a narrow alleyway. Now a sign reads
"Theresa's Stockbridge Cafe, formerly Alice's Restaurant." It is
temporarily shuttered, but the connected Main Street Cafe is open -- and crammed
with tourists lining up for ice cream, home-baked goods and scented candles.
The restaurant and gift shop sell Alice's Restaurant T-shirts, but the apple
bread pudding is much more filling. Down the block, the public library has
in its files clippings of the arrest and the police photos of the crime scene
-- black and white, not color, despite what the song says.
As a bonus attraction,
fans can venture about six miles east to the town of Lee and the courthouse
where Guthrie was fined $50 for some major littering. The red-brick building
was closed the weekend I visited, but a kind cop opened the doors and pointed
out where Guthrie stood (back right, on an enclosed podium) and where the
blind judge sat (center seat).
are no relics of Guthrie in the courthouse, not a name scratched in the wood
or a peace sign inked on a chair. But Guthrie did leave behind one lasting
memento: a legendary song, which has become an anthem of sorts to Stockbridge.