For many, an 18-minute Arlo Guthrie song is a Thanksgiving tradition. Here's why.
Going back to 'Alice's Restaurant' site
For years, he downplayed his role in the world's most celebrated case of littering. "If you were famous for dumping garbage, you might try to hide it yourself."
Peter D. Kramer, Peter D. Kramer/New York State Team
Correction: WBAI, the radio station that first broadcast Arlo Guthrie's song, "Alice's Restaurant," is still broadcasting in New York City at 99.5 FM and online at wbai.org. An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the station's status.
Thanksgiving arrives with must-haves: For some, that means family, football, a parade and turkey with all the trimmings.
But for others, the fourth Thursday of November is not complete until they’ve heard an 18-minute, 20-second, spoken-word song about littering, overzealous policing, the draft and a long-ago “Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat.”
To them, Thanksgiving’s not Thanksgiving until they’ve heard Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.”
They tune in to classic rock stations over the airwaves, via internet or on satellite radio to laugh at the ridiculousness of his shaggy-dog story, to marvel at how Guthrie weaves it over a gentle guitar. They love joining in on the chorus.
"You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant."
They tune in to hear all about how Arlo and his friend were arrested for littering in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, on Thanksgiving weekend 1965.
Rick Robbins was that friend. (And co-defendant.) He still is that friend.
Now 75, Robbins still can't believe that every November people want to talk about a stupid thing he did when he was a 19-year-old only interested in guitars and girls.
He grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York, the son of a World War II foot soldier, but attended the Stockbridge School for one year, where he met fellow student Guthrie and Alice and Ray Brock, who were on the staff at the private school.
That 'Alice' Thanksgiving
That "Alice" Thanksgiving in 1965, Guthrie, 18, and Robbins, 19, had dinner at Alice and Ray's house, in the kitchen, which was in the bottom floor of their deconsecrated church's bell tower.
When Ray needed help cleaning up the large church hall, Guthrie and Robbins loaded up Ray's red VW Microbus with trash — which Robbins contends was not household garbage, but was furniture, scraps of wood and cardboard — and drove in the direction of the town dump, only to find the dump closed for Thanksgiving.
"The bottom line is we were a couple of dumb kids from the city and didn't know anything about dumps because in the city, a garbage truck comes and takes your trash away," Robbins said. "Not to make any excuses, but we just didn't know any better."
Not knowing any better, they dumped the garbage in a makeshift dumping site that Guthrie knew about, near a music summer camp he had attended.
Someone saw. Someone told. And the police came calling. Robbins and Guthrie were arrested and fined $50 and ordered (by a blind judge, really) to pick up all the trash: the stuff they had dumped and the stuff that was there when they dumped the stuff they dumped.
For a couple of years after that Thanksgiving, Guthrie talked about the episode on stage, gently strumming his guitar as the story got longer and longer. Then he sang it live on Bob Fass’ late-night show on New York radio station WBAI's "Radio Unnameable," and soon "Alice's Restaurant" became a tradition at the station. And beyond.
In 1967, Guthrie, the son of folk icon Woody Guthrie, recorded it as the entire first side of his first album, titled "Alice's Restaurant," although the song's full title is "Alice's Restaurant Massacree."
The album made it to No. 17 on the Billboard charts and has since gone platinum, selling more than 1 million copies.
In 2014, Guthrie told Rolling Stone magazine he never intended to write a Thanksgiving song.
"I think it’s just one of those funny, crazy coincidences that you have an event that takes place on Thanksgiving, therefore it becomes associated with the holiday," he said. "If I go back and look at the hits to the website for example, they will spike one day a year. I always thought, 'Hey if they’re gonna play one song of yours on the radio one day a year, it might as well be the longest one you wrote!'”
And play it they do.
An appointment listen
In an age when Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” makes headlines for lasting a comparatively paltry 10 minutes, and when Pandora, Spotify and YouTube put any song a click away, “Alice’s Restaurant” remains an 18-minute appointment listen, with classic rock stations across the country setting aside time every Thanksgiving for the event, typically at noon.
It will play on several SiriusXM satellite radio channels over the holiday weekend (Deep Tracks, Classic Vinyl, The Village). Mojo Nixon will play it at 7 p.m. EST on Thanksgiving on SiriusXM's Outlaw Country channel.
The Radio Survivor blog charts planned airings of "Alice" on satellite and terrestrial stations that last year stretched from Philadelphia (WXPN) to Chicago (WXRT and WDRV), from Louisville, Kentucky, (WXOX) to Boston (WERS and WUMB), from Fordham University in the Bronx (WFUV) to Denver's KBCO. "Alice" is also a tradition at KSLX in Phoenix.
For decades, it was a tradition on KFOG in San Francisco which folded. Now, many fans of that station turns to satellite radio or to a tiny station in Westchester County, New York — WXPK “The Peak” 107.1, at www.1071thepeak.com — where NYC radio veteran Jimmy Fink holds forth. Fink was a fixture on legendary New York rock stations WPLJ and WXRK where the Guthrie song played each Thanksgiving.
This year, listeners to "The Peak" will get five heaping helpings of the song, Fink said.
It will play on the eve of the holiday, as part of the station's 10@10 block of songs at 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. on Wednesday, at noon and 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving, and on the Weekend Replay of the 10@10 on Sunday after Thanksgiving at about 6 p.m., he said.
"I'm pretty sure people will get everything they want at Alice's Restaurant from The Peak this year," Fink said, paraphrasing the catchy chorus.
A holiday tradition
In Nyack, New York, Keith Olsen — a "Sesame Street" prop man — committed "Alice's Restaurant" to memory 41 years ago, when he was in high school.
He remembers sitting in the children's room at Palisades Public Library, stopping and starting the tape recorder and writing down the lyrics longhand, decades before YouTube made things easy.
This year, Olsen will have a traditional Thanksgiving with his parents, cousins, wife Moriah and one of his two daughters.
They'll watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and, at noon, as the meal prep continues, he'll turn on "The Peak" and hear Guthrie sing "Alice" again on the radio.
Later, he'll pick up his guitar and play it for his family and friends, whether they're with him in person or, of late, on a Zoom screen.
"I did it once at a Thanksgiving gathering and that was it," Olsen said. "It became, 'That's why you invite Keith.' You invite Moriah because she cooks excellent and Keith will bring a guitar," he said.
"It was always like a transition, people sitting around and 'Oh, come on. Let's play "Alice's Restaurant."' Then it would turn into a sing-along for the rest of the night."
It is a protest song, Olsen said.
Rockland resident has been singing Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant Massacre" for 40+ years
Rockland resident Keith Olsen has been singing Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant Massacre" to friends and family for over 40 years
John Meore, Rockland/Westchester Journal News
"There's a truth that still resonates through that song that's still vital today. There's still people who will use you or let you be used for their purposes if they can. When you step back and you look at the truth, it's like: 'You want to know if I'll go into the jungle and kill women, houses and villages after being a litterbug.' That so encapsulates the absurdity of what it was and continues to be."
Somehow, all the lyrics stay in his head, as long as he doesn't think about his guitar-playing. But there has been a concession to the aging process.
"It’s become earlier in the day in recent years due to the combined effects of turkey and wine," he said. "Remembering 18 minutes of dialogue is not quite as easy as it used to be."
A long song's longevity
Rick Robbins still marvels at the long song's longevity, that it still somehow manages to make the news every Thanksgiving.
"Alice" also became a 1969 feature film, of which Robbins is clearly not a fan, saying there's 15 minutes of truth in it.
"The whole episode was something that for many years, I never really associated myself with," Robbins said, standing at The Guthrie Center, the Brock's former home, which Guthrie bought in 1991 and turned into a community center dedicated to his parents, Woody and Marjorie.
"People didn't think that I had anything to do with it because they made that movie, and the guy who played my part was a friend of mine, Geoff Outlaw."
That made it easier for Robbins to distance himself from his brush with small-town law.
"If you were famous for dumping garbage, you might try to hide it yourself, you know?" he said. Then, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, he added: "I'd tell people, 'Arlo ruined my career. I wanted to be a sanitation worker in New York, but they wouldn't hire me because I had a conviction for littering.'"
Despite their brush with the local police when they were teenagers, both Robbins and Guthrie still live in the Berkshires, within a few miles on either side of “the scene of the crime." Guthrie, who stopped performing last year, is 74; Robbins, a singer-songwriter who still performs, is 75.
Robbins couldn't resist having a little fun at the expense of the friend whose career was catapulted by their Thanksgiving efforts.
"He never thanked me for helping to dump that garbage," Robbins said, laughing. "I never got a thank you for that."
Reach Peter D. Kramer, a 33-year staffer, at email@example.com or on Twitter at @PeterKramer.