|Posted on December 13, 2015 at 7:35 PM|
By Dennis Stone
At Thanksgiving in both 2013 and 2014 I wrote articles about listening to Arlo Guthrie’s classic 18-minute song/story “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” as I drove to my family Thanksgiving. Somehow a super long song from 50 years ago has become a Thanksgiving classic on radio, ostensibly because the first part of the song is about events on Thanksgiving. But it was1965, and the song was recorded in 1968! I’m not sure why the tradition endures, but since I love the song I’m happy it has.
In each of the last two years the centerpiece of my article was my reaction to the line near the end, where Arlo suggests that a way to avoid the military draft might be for two guys to go in, sing a bar of Arlo’s song – in harmony! – and walk out: “They might think they’re both faggots, and they won’t take either of them.” In brief, my reaction has always been that the line shouldn’t be censored. If you want to know why, you can read my prior articles here and here.
In both 2013 and 20 14 I had not been looking for the song on the radio. I just happened to come across it as I drove. That did not happen this year. I rode with my sister and her husband to my brother’s house, and we did not have the radio on. Even though I had not updated this website for close to a year, and had not been thinking of writing a new article, I was nonetheless sad when I realized I had missed the song. But….
Imagine my reaction when I turned on the television the following Monday and saw that PBS was showing a special 50th anniversary Alice’s Restaurant concert, including a full performance of the classic song. And, imagine my further happiness when my good luck timing of the prior year proved to be intact, and the song began literally within two minutes of my tuning in! Perhaps that was a sign that I was meant to write a third annual article for my site. And here it is!
Arlo is now 68 years old, and looks much different than he did fifty years ago. White hair and moustache, big glasses, hard-earned wrinkles, a few extra pounds. A much different look than the skinny, elfin-cute 18 year old from 1965. But he had the same twinkle in his eye, and the same wry vocal delivery.
“It all started about 50 years ago,” he began, and the familiar song poured out. He made minor changes here and there, but the song was remarkably close to its original version. I watched, rapt, the older looking singer not inhibiting my nostalgia as part of me returned to the 16-year old I was when I bought the album. The draft was a memory by then, but there were few better albums for a budding liberal teenager to fall in love with.
I wondered how he would handle the “faggot” line this time around. I knew he wouldn’t sing it. Although I wanted the radio stations to play it, it was obvious that singing it in 2015 wouldn’t be appropriate. Finally, about sixteen minutes in, Arlo had reached that point in the song. “Imagine two of ‘em, trying to get married in Texas” – the crowd erupted in cheers – “or Ohio or somewhere.” It didn’t work perfectly, but it made me happy nonetheless.
About halfway through the song, after Arlo talks about his Thanksgiving experiences and resulting trial for littering, he says, eyes at full twinkle: “But I didn’t come here to talk about that. I came to talk about the draft.” In the same way I didn’t come here to talk about the word “faggots.” I came to talk about some weightier issues that the performance caused me to ponder.
The audience for the concert was roughly Arlo’s age, give or take a few years. Like Arlo, they had aged considerably since when they were eighteen. A lot of gray or missing hair. Faces that reflected grandparent status rather than youthful exuberance or idealism. Clothes that they would have snickered at when they were teenagers. And yet, there was a light in their eyes, grins on their faces. They were clearly feeling what they had felt so many years before, reconnecting with Arlo’s antiwar and anti-establishment song.
I had the distinct feeling that this was more than nostalgia, more than a brief return to an earlier time. I had the feeling that for many of them the idealism still lived, the dreams had not withered away. Arlo was not rekindling a dead fire, but was reminding them that, for all the changes life had brought them, the spirit of that time in their lives was still vital.
We’re all going to be 68 some day, if we’re lucky enough to avoid accident or disease. One of my regular readers is already past that (shout out to Jellybean!). To watch Arlo at 68, singing with the same verve as ever, and to observe the audience reacting to it, gives me reassurance that important qualities, feelings and convictions need never die as long as we strive to keep them alive.
Arlo sang some other songs in addition to “Alice’s Restaurant,” and two of those also got me thinking of “big things.” The first was “I Hear You Sing Again,” written by Arlo’s famous father Woody. It’s a song to his mother in which he wishes he could hear her voice again, “every note as natural as then.” But then he discovers “when I sing those songs for family and friends, in my heart I hear you sing again.” I lost both of my parents in the past few years, much too soon (don’t smoke, kids). But Arlo reminded me that they still live in my heart and my memory, and so they never really die.
He also sang one of my favorites from the Alice album, “Highway In the Wind.” Before singing it he told the story of hanging out with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott when Arlo was eighteen (his 18th year turned out to be quite eventful!), and watching a parade go by before a rodeo event. Leading the parade, riding a horse, was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He couldn’t get her out of his mind, and the next day he wrote “Highway In the Wind” while thinking about her. As it happened, their paths crossed again in a few years, and they were married. It’s enough to make you really consider the idea of fate. She died in October 2012, shortly after they celebrated their 43rd wedding anniversary.
That song has a special meaning for me, and always dredges up intense and bittersweet memories. It is forever attached in my mind to the first guy I ever was madly in love with, when I was sixteen or seventeen. That was before I even classified myself as fully gay. Today it’s hard to imagine how I could feel so intensely without recognizing why. But that was a different time, and I lived in a small, rural town in a land far, far away.
I remember playing “Highway In the Wind” back then, and every time I did the same desperate longing welled up. How could I possibly live without that guy as an intimate part of my life, without him as a best friend and confidante? Hearing Arlo play and sing that song now, many years later, brought up many of those same feelings. I wonder whatever happened to that guy?
Suddenly, while Arlo played another of my favorites, “Chillin’ Of the Evening,” a revelation hit me. Everything we’ve ever been, everything we’ve ever done, everyone we’ve ever loved, all of it remains a part of us, inextricably a part of our soul. Time goes by, we change, we age, but everything is still there. We just have to be open to it.