Alice's Restaurant Massacree - Depicting Reality Through Absurdity

Thanksgiving has always felt weird. It’s almost a half-holiday. Smacked between the two heavy hitters of Halloween and Christmas, there really is no ‘season’ for Thanksgiving. Despite how grand of a holiday it is, there isn’t much culture surrounding it either. As I wrote this, I ran a Google search for Thanksgiving movies and as expected, outside of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, it was pretty slim pickings.

 
Ah, my favorite Thanksgiving movie:  Four Christmases

Ah, my favorite Thanksgiving movie: Four Christmases

 

Perhaps it’s the lack of other content that helps elevate it, but growing up, my dad introduced me to a magical song known as Alice’s Restaurant Massacree by Arlo Guthrie.

Every year on Thanksgiving, my family (which is not one for traditions) all get together and listen to this 18-minute track. This year is no different.

Presently, the most notoriety this song has is being the inspiration for a parody on Arrested Development, so I’d like to bring it back in the spotlight.

 
 

Part 1: Thanksgiving and a pile of garbage

This long and comedically drawn out folk song tells the true story of Thanksgiving in 1965 when an 18 year old Arlo Guthrie was helping some friends get rid of their garbage only to find that the city dump was closed on Thanksgiving. They found another pile of garbage that someone else had thrown down to the bottom of a small cliff and per Arlo:

‘And we decided that one big pile was better than 
two little piles, and rather than bring that one up, we decided to throw 
ours down. That's what we did.’

The following morning they get arrested for littering when their information is found in a letter on the bottom of the pile of garbage. After a wacky court case, the gang is released and the song transitions into part two.

Part 2: The Draft

Over seven and a half minutes into the song, Arlo disregards the entire story with this:

‘But that's not what I'm here to tell you about
I'm here to talk about the draft.’

He then goes on to sing about his attempts to get out of being drafted into Vietnam. He even attempts to pretend to be insane for the psychiatric evaluation in what is probably my favorite verse of the song:

‘And I went up there, I said, "Shrink, I want to kill. I mean, I wanna, I
wanna kill. Kill. I wanna, I wanna see, I wanna see blood and gore and
guts and veins in my teeth. Eat dead burnt bodies. I mean kill, Kill
KILL, KILL." And I started jumpin up and down yelling, "KILL, KILL," and
he started jumpin up and down with me and we was both jumping up and down
yelling, "KILL, KILL."

And the Sergeant came over, pinned a medal on me
sent me down the hall, said, "You're our boy."

Didn't feel too good about it.’

Despite his efforts he continues to be approved throughout the selection process. Finally, he reaches the last stage and in a perfectly executed callback to part one of the song, he is asked if he had ever been arrested. Arlo goes on to tell the recruiters about Thanksgiving and how he was arrested for littering. He is sent to ‘The Group W’ bench, which contains all of the violent felons who need to have their moral standing evaluated before being drafted.

Finally, after being associated with murderers and hardened criminals for littering, he is asked if he believes he has been rehabilitated. In what I consider to be the most poignant line of the song, Arlo retorts:

‘Sergeant, you got a lot a damn gall to
ask me if I've rehabilitated myself, I mean, I mean, I mean that just, I'm
sittin' here on the bench, I mean I'm sittin here on the Group W bench
cause you want to know if I'm moral enough join the army, burn women
kids, houses and villages after being a litterbug.’

The sergeant is disgusted by this anti-war rhetoric and Arlo is rejected from the draft but put in a database for the government to monitor anti-war protestors.

The commentary

I cannot express enough how much I love this song, but as a kid the social commentary was lost on me.

The song, as the title suggests, is a Massacree. If you don’t know what a massacree is without looking it up, you might be me.

massacree (plural massacrees)

  1. (colloquial) A sequence of events so absurd, complicated and uncommon as to be unbelievable. The situation has fallen so far out of control to rightly be considered a massacree.

No better term describes the tale of Alice’s Restaurant. Despite how hilarious the story is, it isn’t funny without a point. The song uses humor to juxtapose certain elements and point out the absurdity of the Vietnam era world at the time the song was written.

Part one features ridiculous coincidences such as Arlo’s arresting officer showing up in court with a mountain of indisputable evidence against him:

‘They was taking plaster tire tracks, foot prints, dog smelling prints, and
they took twenty-seven eight-by-ten color glossy photographs with circles
and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each
one was, to be used as evidence against us. Took pictures of the approach
the getaway, the northwest corner the southwest corner and that's not to
mention the aerial photography’

But when they arrive in court, they notice the judge is blind and the visual evidence is rendered useless, leaving them simply with a $50 fine and having to clean up the garbage.

The silly nature of the arrest over the garbage pile is amplified when it is the reason that Arlo is rejected from the draft. As he stated, they are determining if he is moral enough to go to Vietnam and commit horrific acts of war, yet the only thing holding him back from being drafted is a simple charge of littering. As a cherry on top of everything, Arlo is placed on a Government watch list for simply pointing out the absurdity of it all to the sergeant.

the Alice's Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement

The song ends with Arlo urging everyone to walk into the psychiatrist’s office if they ever find themselves facing the draft and sing his song so they can be dismissed from the war as well. He claims that if enough people do it then the government will see it as a movement and call it The Alice’s Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement and if we do it loud enough we just might be able to end ‘war and stuff.’

I don’t expect to have as powerful of an impact as Arlo Guthrie, but I do think that everyone can use a laugh. Join the movement, and give it a listen.

‘All you got to do to join is sing it the next time it come's around on the
Guitar

With feeling.’