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Alice's Restaurant: Classic Rock's Thanksgiving Tradition

11/24/2013 05:02 pm ET | Updated Jan 24, 2014

Thanksgiving is a brilliant holiday, dedicated as it is to the singular and secular interest of gorging. Not to dismiss the importance of giving thanks or gathering together with loved ones, but from a strictly ritualistic perspective, it's all about the eating.

My family doesn't stand too much on ceremony when it comes to Thanksgiving. We save that for Passover, when you're not allowed to eat until you've verbally recounted the entire history of the Jewish people up to and including Seinfeld.

But not on Thanksgiving. Nope. On Thanksgiving, we really just go at it like hogs to a trough.

There is, however, one holiday tradition that persists in my household, that is cherished, and that does take some commitment. Thanksgiving morning is time for the annual airing of Arlo Guthrie's evergreen holiday classic, "Alice's Restaurant."

Originally released in 1967 as the "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," it tells -- in exaggerated detail -- the true story of the morning after Thanksgiving, 1965, when an 18-year-old Guthrie and his traveling companion were arrested for littering.

The song became the title track of Guthrie's debut album, which reached #17 on the Billboard charts. It also inspired a feature length film of the same name in 1969.

Still, at 18 minutes and 20 seconds, you don't hear it on the radio too much these days, with but one exception. On Thanksgiving morning, if you live in a major metropolitan area and tune in to your home for Classic Rock, you stand a good chance of catching some part of this absurdist comic yarn.

That 's how it was in my house. We always left the parade on but it was muted so you couldn't hear the play-by-play and (sorry if your kid is in one of those crappy marching bands but) those crappy marching bands. My father would let our local rock station choose the soundtrack, which resulted in a surreal mash-up of Van Halen, Katie Couric and hovering 12-story Disney inflatables. If you've ever wondered whether any portion of Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon plays in perfect synchronicity with any portion of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, it does not.

But what would inevitably happen was the broadcast of Guthrie's rambling, homespun anti-war saga. To be brief (because you really should listen for yourself), the song recounts how Arlo and his friend, fellow folk musician Rick Robbins, spent a Thanksgiving with dear friends Alice (of restaurant notoriety) and Ray. Alice and Ray had converted a deconsecrated church into their home, with the titular restaurant around back. As a favor to their friends, Arlo and Rick decided to clean out the church. So that they did, gathering up a bunch of garbage, piling it into their hippie wagon and hauling it off to the dump. It being Thanksgiving, the dump was closed.

The resourceful musicians drove to another area that was used by locals for unauthorized dumping. As Arlo recounts in the song, "we came to a side road. And off the side of the side road was another 15-foot cliff and it -- at the bottom of the cliff was another pile of garbage, and we decided that one big pile's better than two little piles, and rather than bring that one up, we decided to throw ours down."

The boys then returned to the church for "a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn't be beat."

The next morning, they were awakened by the local chief of police and led off in handcuffs. According to the police blotter from the local paper, "Richard J. Robbins, 19, of Poughkeepsie, New York, and Arlo Guthrie, 18, of Howard Beach, New York, each paid a fine of $25 in Lee District Court after pleading guilty of illegally disposing of rubbish. Special Justice James E. Hannon ordered the youths to remove all the rubbish. They did so Saturday afternoon, following a heavy rain. Police Chief William J. Obanhein of Stockbridge said later the youths found dragging the junk up the hillside much harder than throwing it down. He said he hoped their case would be an example to others who are careless about disposal of rubbish."

Obanhein would be immortalized as Officer Obie in the details of the song thereafter. He may also be credited with saving Guthrie's life, at least according to song and legend. Arlo, son of dustbowl balladeer Woody Guthrie, proceeds to tell the story of his draft examination, underlining the irony that his conviction for littering would make him morally unfit to travel to Vietnam to burn down villages.

I admit, when you say it that way, it doesn't sound like a very family-appropriate song. I guess every family is different. But all these years later, the song's continuing relevance has less to do with its political implications than with sharing "a thanksgiving dinner that couldn't be beat."

In a 2005 interview on NPR, Guthrie himself observed that "now -- really, it's a Thanksgiving ballad more than an anti-war this or a pro-that or whatever it was."

Indeed, as to its universality, Guthrie tells a story in one performance of being approached by Jimmy Carter's son Chip at a presidential inauguration party. The younger Carter asked Guthrie how many things he was aware of that were exactly 18-and-a-half minutes in length. The answer was two: the notorious gap in the Nixon White House Tapes and "Alice's Restaurant," an opened copy of which Richard Nixon had on file in his presidential listening library. This led Guthrie to conclude that the famously missing section of the tapes was part of a massive government conspiracy to cover up the fact that Richard Nixon and H.R. Haldeman sat around listening to "Alice's Restaurant."

So I guess that's one Thanksgiving tradition my family has in common with the Nixons.

How about yours? Other than gathering, squabbling and eating gelatinous canned cranberry cylinders, what annual traditions do you and your family observe to mark the occasion?

Happy Thanksgiving to all!