Every Thanksgiving I rise early. Often it’s to cook for the crowd coming to our house. Other times it’s to make side dishes to take to somebody else’s: brandy-laced Pumpkin Pie (so moist it weeps) and my to-die-for Creamed Onions (some people like Creamed Onions). My one constant is Alice’s Restaurant Massacree by Arlo Guthrie. I slip it into the CD player before everyone else is up. My husband and two sons don’t get its appeal to me. Not on Thanksgiving; my sons not at all. And one of them is a liberal-minded college student who wants to help change the world for the better. The last time he heard it, he said something like, “Mom, are you kidding? The guy must have the worst voice ever.”
Voice. It’s a magic quality akin to an alchemist turning base metal into gold, something all writers want and need: storytellers and singers, songwriters and poets. Arlo Guthrie has voice, even if you don’t like the way he sings. The song isn’t really about Alice’s restaurant. It’s about something far more important. Funny and ironic, it’s also profound. Listening to the words and Arlo’s delivery, I laugh until the refrain rolls around at the end and then I’m covered in goose bumps. You can get whatever you want at Alice’s Restaurant. At Guthrie’s insistence, I’m singing along “in four-part harmony”.
The ballad begins on Thanksgiving Day. Our songwriter and his friend drive up to the little town of Stockbridge, MA, to visit Alice and her husband, who are living in a converted church. It’s been a long time since the husband took out the garbage (me blame Alice?) so the two friends cart it off to the town dump, making noble use of their VW microbus. BUMMER, it’s closed for the holiday. BUT driving around, they spy a pile of garbage at the bottom of a big cliff, figure one big pile is better than two little ones, and get to return to Alice’s for a great Thanksgiving dinner. TROUBLE the next day when Office Obie calls to speak to our hapless singer. Kid, we found your name on an envelope at the bottom of a half-ton of garbage. Know anything about it? Following Obie’s orders, they stop by the police station on the way to pick up the garbage. ARRESTED and handcuffed, they’re brought to the scene of the crime–the biggest this town has seen in 50 years. At court the next day, Office Obie has his 24 color 8×10 glossy photos to present as evidence, but the judge shows up with his seeing-eye dog; it’s a case of BLIND JUSTICE. The criminals are fined $50 and ordered to pick up the garbage.
Fast forward two years to New York City. The Vietnam War is raging, and our anti-hero has to report to the draft office for a physical. He’s scared to death and determined to get de-selected: gets good and drunk the night before; jumps up and down and tells the shrink who interviews him about all the mean and ugly ways he wants to kill people. He’s still their guy. UNTIL they ask him if he’s ever been arrested and put on trial. Could this be his way out? Unlikely. Place on the Group W Bench with a bunch of really scary ex-cons, he’s told to fill out a long form. One question really gets to him. You want to know if I’m moral enough to go to war after being a litterbug? he blurts out to the guy in charge. KISS OF FREEDOM. They don’t like his kind and send his fingerprints off to Washington.
Let me be clear. I’m thankful for every man and woman who’s had the guts to put on a uniform. But war is hell. Some wars or military actions have been mistakes. Not all, but some. War is full of heroes and cowards, triumph and tragedy, poignancy and absurdity, truth and fiction. Whenever possible I’d rather weep over death and destruction in a novel than watch real soldiers suffer through it–during and after they’re home. If they come home. This Thanksgiving I’m grateful for all the military men and women who’ve sacrificed so much for their fellow Americans. But I’m also thankful for the different voices that make up America. There’s no harmony in a song with only one singer. And there’s no democracy unless multiple voices are allowed to rise up and twist and shout and rock-n-roll. Some may sound off-key, but freedom of speech resounds with its own kind of harmony.