Photo Gallery | 50th anniversary of Alice's Restaurant
GREAT BARRINGTON — "Alice's Restaurant's Massacree," one of the most iconic folk masterpieces of the 20th century, came home this week.
Revisiting the scene of the "Thanksgiving dinner that couldn't be beat," Arlo Guthrie retold the saga of that episode 50 years ago that led to his epic anti-war ballad.
"Fifty years ago," mused Guthrie on stage Tuesday. "I never thought I'd live this long."
It was Thanksgiving of 1965 that local restaurant owner Alice Brock hosted a meal attended by Guthrie and friend Rick Robbins that generated the typical load of holiday trash. Guthrie and Robbins filled a VW van with the garbage to haul to the dump, only to find it closed for Thanksgiving.
Famously, they decided to dump it on a side road in Stockbridge, prompting their subsequent arrest for littering by then-Stockbridge Police Chief William "Obie" Obanhein, who dutifully took photos of the crime scene for use as evidence in court.
Problem was, the judge in the case was blind, and he never got to see the photos Obanhein had so carefully prepared. Guthrie and his pal were fined $25 and ordered to pick up the garbage.
The punch line, in both the song and in real life, was that Guthrie's police record exempted him from the draft two years later.
Guthrie, who now lives in the town of Washington, has been touring with his band across the country to mark the anniversary of the event that inspired the song. On Monday and Tuesday, he performed special benefit shows at the Guthrie Center, the former church where Brock once lived.
The center runs classes and programs and a regular community dinner year-round. About 120 people were at each show.
The song, over 18 minutes long on his 1967 album "Alice's Restaurant," has become a Thanksgiving tradition, aired on countless radio stations each year to mark the occasion.
Over the signature, repeating guitar riff, Guthrie gave his usual wisecracking rendition of the number on Tuesday night. But he has also made the song more than a funny tune about a long-ago adventure. After the song ended, he spoke to the audience of his relationship with Obanhein, who played himself in the movie made in 1968.
"I hadn't seen Obie since everything happened three years before," Guthrie said. "We got to the set and we didn't say much to each other, just read the lines in the script: But one day, he said to me, 'Well, if you hippies can get up at 4 a.m. to do this movie, you can't be all bad.' And we started talking and we eventually became good friends.
"So you had two guys with absolutely nothing in common," he said. "And they start talking and they become friends. And Obie was a dear friend to me until he died some years ago.
"The world," said Guthrie, "could use a lot more of that these days."
Guthrie joked that he wasn't initially sure if he could learn the song again after not doing it for years.
"Yeah, there was some talk about that," said Terry a la Berry, Guthrie's longtime drummer. "He hadn't done it in 10 years. But he pickled it up pretty fast."
Berry was asked how many rehearsals were needed.
"Rehearse? We didn't rehearse," he said. "The first time we did it was at a show."
Berry have any problem picking up the song?
"Ha!" he said. "No."
In addition to fans, there were many Guthrie family members and friends at the shows, including daughter Annie Guthrie from Texas.
"I come up every year," she said. "As you can imagine, Thanksgiving is a very special holiday in our house."
Although Annie Guthrie said she has heard the "Massacree" many, many times, her father never played it at home.
What did he listen to, she was asked.
"Classical music," she said. "And nothing. Sometimes, silence is a good thing."
Guthrie started his set with a few of his signature tunes, including a rousing rendition of "Coming Into Los Angeles" with a blistering solo by guitarist Bobby Sweet, and 'St James Infirmary Blues" with son Abe Guthrie on keyboards tickling the ivories in the intro.
Another daughter, Sara Lee Guthrie, warmed up the crowd, opening the night with a half-dozen songs which showcased her vocals. The set included a cover of Donovan's "Catch The Wind," and her song "Seven Sisters."
Arlo Guthrie will also be on hand for a screening of the movie at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington. WAMC's Alan Chartock will conduct an on-stage interview with Guthrie before the film.
PBS will broadcast Guthrie's performance at The Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield last spring at 8 p.m. Thursday.