Derek Gentile: Alice doesn't live there anymore — but true legends do
GREAT BARRINGTON >> Every year, once or twice in the summer and fall, I'll give directions to someone who wants to know where "Arlo's church" is.
They are referring to the Guthrie Center in Vandeusenville, of course, And I know what they're saying. It is at the center of Guthrie's iconic song, "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," about the adventures of Guthrie and his friend Rick Robbins one Thanksgiving weekend.
There have been a few more this year. A young man, with what I took to be a French accent, stopped by the bench on which I was sitting on Main Street and asked directions.
In answer to several questions, I said no, Mr. Guthrie doesn't live at the church, and no, Alice Brock (the Alice in "Alice's Restaurant") doesn't live there, either. No, Chief Obanhein is no longer the Stockbridge police chief. And yes, you might find someone there to show you around. He seemed to leave happy.
It's been 50 years since that amazing, yet strange adventure, and people are still utterly fascinated by it, in no small part because the song itself, "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" is so fascinating.
A reporter from a New York paper asked me a few days ago what it is about the song that seems to create such interest.
I don't think it's terribly hard to see. First of all, while it's about 18 minutes long, it's never self-indulgent. No drum or guitar solos (although I have to say that if there had to be, Arlo Guthrie is a really good guitar player). You really have to listen to it. All the way through. And of course, Guthrie is such a world-class storyteller that you do listen all the way through.
Second, it's just so unique, It's an 18-minute song that includes sung verses, spoken word and a sort of free form narrative. Name another it song that pulls that off. Name another songwriter who would even try.
And finally, it's almost all true. Guthrie grabs to the details and showcases them. For instance, Judge James Hannon really was blind. His odyssey from law school to the bench is a story in itself.
I've seen the crime photos Chief Obanhein took, and there really are arrows and circles on them. And if you go to the selectmen's meeting room in the Lee Town Hall, you'll see the rail that separated lawyers and defendants from the public, and row upon row of law books behind the selectmen's table.
That's because the Town Hall used to be the Lee District Court, now closed. The selectmen's meeting room used to be the courtroom. The selectmen should charge admission to get in.
The song is real. And it's told by the guy who went through it. You can't get any better than that.
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