Over the years, the appeal of “Alice's Restaurant Massacree," Arlo Guthrie’s rambling folk ditty about how dumping some garbage on Thanksgiving Day got him in a heap of trouble and inadvertently helped him avoid the draft for the Vietnam War thanks to his criminal record, hasn’t diminished. On Thanksgiving Day, classic rock stations throughout the country will spin the 18-plus minute song in its entirety. And Guthrie is on a lengthy tour to mark the 50th Anniversary of the event that inspired the song. He plays the Lorain Palace Theatre on Oct. 3. Given that the track captures a specific time in U.S. history, it’s remarkable that it’s endured. Guthrie admits he can’t even explain its continued popularity.
“I have no idea really,” he says via phone from a Nashville tour stop when asked why he thinks it’s still so popular. “If I was to hazard a guess, I would say that there’s always room to laugh. Sometimes, taking a funny poke at people in positions of authority is more than humorous; it’s actually healing. It’s difficult in times of stress to get by anyhow. When you can laugh at yourself or take a poke at others, I think it’s not only healthy — especially in a democracy — it’s also but needed. I’m not alone. If I was, I wouldn’t be doing a tour like this.”
He says it wasn’t his idea that radio stations play the tune on Thanksgiving Day. That tradition grew organically.
“It was not something that began from my intent,” he says. “Somewhere at the end of the ’70s and beginning of the ’80s, there were some stations that began getting requests. It was too long of a song to play at ay other time. It just grew. Who woulda thunk.”
On the current tour, he’ll perform the song in its entirety each night with some help from his backing band, which includes Terry Hall (drums), Bobby Sweet (guitar, vocals), Darren Todd (bass), and his son, Abe Guthrie (keyboards). Guthrie's daughter Sarah Lee Guthrie, a singer-songwriter who has a career of her own, will open select shows as well. The concerts will also feature an “awe-inspiring” light show created specifically for the tour by 44 Designs, Inc., along with previously unseen images from the Guthrie archives. More than 75,000 photos have recently been digitized, and selections will be projected during the evening.
“We did the 30th and 40th anniversary tours in support of the song, and they were all special,” he says. “For the 50th, it has to be extra special. We added something which I never really did before which is the whole light show. There’s animated film that we made decades ago. We’re incorporating it all into something that will be memorable, not only for us but for lots of people.”
The song is based on an actual incident that took place on Thanksgiving Day in 1965, but the events that followed took another year or so to play out, so the song didn’t make its debut until 1967.
“About 98 percent of what it is in the song is absolutely true,” says Guthrie. “I took a little bit of literary license with very few things. The photos were in black and white and not in color, something like that. The story itself is totally true. I was in college in the fall of 1965 in Billings, Montana when I returned to New England to visit some friends on Thanksgiving holiday. In those days, pre-lottery, if you were not in school and you were a guy, you were pretty much going to Vietnam. Even with that threat hanging over me, I decided I wasn’t going back to college. I wanted to become a musician. It took the next six or seven months for the draft board to contact me and set up all the meetings. Even though I started the song in 1965, I didn’t finish it until 1966. It took that long for everything to happen.”
Guthrie maintains the song is anti-stupid as much as it’s anti-war.
“I think that’s what makes the song funny,” he says. “It’s difficult in times of stress to find a sense of humor. It becomes all the more important during those times. I’ve done it in Europe and Canada, English-speaking countries. I did a recorded version with a guy in French. I wasn’t singing it in French myself. It’s gone to other places. Because I don’t speak other languages aside from Brooklyn, I can’t tell you where it’s been or what it’s done or what I’ve done but Warner Bros. has never discounted it. They’re still getting the bucks for it that they were all of 48 years ago when as when it came out. It’s doing well. I get young people who write in and say they just discovered me and they think I’m funny. I love that.”
Arlo Guthrie’s 50th Anniversary of Alice’s Restaurant Tour, 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3, Lorain Palace Theatre, 617 Broadway Ave., Lorain, 440-245-2323. Tickets: $46.50-$80.50, lorainpalace.org.