Arlo Guthrie (Source: arlo.net)
Am I referring to Still Alice, Lisa Genova’s 2014 fictional book about a woman overcome with Alzheimer’s? Poignant and a bit too real for those of us with family members suffering from this awful affliction, it’s a compelling story made into a movie starring Julianne Moore.
Or could it be Alice of Through the Looking Glass? The book, though almost ready to celebrate its sesquicentennial, is still a must-read.
But no, in this case it’s another Alice, once a proprietor of an eatery in Massachusetts and the namesake of Alice’s Restaurant, a song about, well, all sorts of things. Garbage, in part. The draft. In one version Richard Nixon.
Fifty years ago this past Thanksgiving an 18 year old Arlo Guthrie was visiting a couple who lived in the bell tower of an old church. Seeing as they had all that room downstairs, they didn’t bother to take the garbage out for a long time. Arlo and a friend decided to do them a favor, and loaded a red VW microbus with the half a ton of garbage and implements of destruction. But the dump was closed! They had never heard of a dump closed on Thanksgiving so sadly drove off till they spied a pile of trash at the bottom of a cliff. Figuring one pile was better than two, and rather than bring that one up they tossed theirs down.
So begins the song Arlo wrote about that incident. They get arrested for littering and go to court. That conviction makes the selective service leering of drafting him. He’s indignant the army feels he’s not moral enough to serve after being a litterbug.
The story is embellished but at its core true. At 18 minutes long this is a lengthy and funny ballad.
In the 30th anniversary edition of the song Arlo is invited (and this is apparently a true story as well) to Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, an invitation he accepts as he figures it’ll be the last one he ever gets. “Been right so far!” he exclaims. Chip Carter mentions that when they moved in to the White House there was a copy of Alice’s Restaurant in the Nixon music library. About president Nixon: “And he used to like to tape stuff. If you can image a world before VCRs and tape decks was everywhere, he was a man ahead of his time!” But then Arlo starts thinking about a certain 18 minutes of erasures on one of those tapes, and wonders if maybe Nixon was erasing Alice’s Restaurant!
Arlo and his band are on a 50th anniversary of Alice’s Restaurant tour, covering an exhausting number of cities between now and July. Last week the band played at the Strathmore Music Hall, a beautiful venue in Bethesda, MD. Marybeth, another couple and I attended. His daughter Sara Lee opened, and she and brother Abe, with three other musicians, backed him up.
There was a lot of gray hair in the audience.
I bought the Alice’s Restaurant LP in 1969 and CDs as they came out. Since my kids were little we’ve had a tradition of playing it on Thanksgiving. Now they are grown and on their own, but they have continued the tradition. It’s good clean fun that always puts a smile on our faces. Alice has, for me, seemed somewhat singular due to the long story that’s not sung but is set to music; his other songs are more traditional. Well, that simply wasn’t true at the show. The man is a natural raconteur (as is his daughter). He regaled the crowd with long tales about Woodstock, meeting his wife (married 43 years till her death in 2012), Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and a panoply of other colorful characters. He told us that officer Obie played himself in the film version of Alice’s Restaurant (which I thought was an awful movie) and became lifelong friends with Arlo. His dad was an over-arching presence. He played riffs on Woody’s music, and ended with This Land is Your Land, adding lyrics Woody wrote but had been lost till recently. An encore was a long-lost snippet of dad’s lyrics that Arlo set to music.
In the 30th anniversary edition, after going on for ten minutes about the garbage and his subsequent arrest, he completely changes the subject, saying “but that’s not what I came to tell you about. Just thought I’d mention it.”
And none of this has anything to do with embedded systems.
Just thought I’d mention it.
Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges, and works as an expert witness on embedded issues. Contact him at . His website is .