I’ll be listening to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” from my kitchen in Jerusalem tomorrow. Though I moved to Israel from the US in 1994, I enjoyed quite a few Thanksgivings with the kids during stints for work in New York City over the years – Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parades with a thermos of hot chocolate and everyone needing to pee, a stop at the Whole Foods to choose exotic beers to pair with the turkey, and a cramped apartment with a table laid out with a bounty of food and fellowship.
Thanksgiving is Shabbat without the restrictions (and that means a guitar and a football game on TV), celebrated in tandem with all of the neighbors of every creed and religion. The kids always loved it, I always loved it, and we have kept the tradition alive until today.
The only part about Thanksgiving that I love that the kids don’t is listening to “Alice’s Restaurant.” It is a very long, very Boomer kind of song, and they just can’t stick with it. Oh well. I can’t imagine Thanksgiving without “Alice’s Restaurant.” I love that song.
Now we can talk about his father another time, about Woody Guthrie the warrior for justice’s impact on Bob Dylan – that singer I’ve sung rhapsodies about here before – but suffice it to say that Arlo is a hippy’s hippy with a nasal twang who made his name not from his father’s name alone, and not even from beloved classics like “City of New Orleans,” “Coming into Los Angeles,” and “Motorcycle Song” (“I don’t want a pickle, I just want to ride on my motor-sickle!”), but from that ubiquitous, sui generis, modern masterpiece of a song about Alice and her restaurant.
You know the tune, and if you don’t, take 20 minutes or so to listen to it here. It’s an epic tale of well-meaning hippies, a Thanksgiving feast, many tons of garbage, an angry cop, the Vietnam War, a jail full of trouble, secret FBI files, a call for world peace, and, of course, Alice.
“You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant,” Arlo sings. You can have a perfect day – friends and family, food and music, peace and love. You can have it all – everything, even Alice if you’re lucky. Except for the garbage. Except for the war. Except for what you can’t have. Except for knowing what you know about those who have lost everything.
Somehow, suspended in the sweet fingerpicking figures that come around again and again on Arlo’s guitar, his down home humor, his nonchalant swipes at everything that can get taken away from a fellow and his friends just because they wanted to take out the garbage, the song teaches us that we really both can and can’t have everything we want.
Never have I understood what I can’t have more vividly than these days of war, these days of hostages – days of the faces of babies, children, and innocents – bring them home now! These are days of Jew hatred from the ignorant, the evil, and the entitled. We know days of horrific, nauseating acts of killing, rape, and terror. These are the days of my kids attending a funeral every few days.
Never have we seen more clearly that the world is Alice’s Restaurant and Alice’s Restaurant is the world: bountiful and warm and full of love, but also immeasurably cruel and stupid and prejudiced and violent and hateful and full of garbage that no one knows how to dispose of. The world is heaven and it is hell, and there is no escaping the awful paradox of having to make sense of both of these truths at once.
I once worked as a waiter at a place called the Iron Horse Cafe in Northampton, MA. It’s still there, an incredible music hall where I saw and met many of my musical heroes – Warren Zevon, Buddy Guy, John Prine, Richard Thompson, Billy Bragg, Dr. John, Shawn Colvin, Richie Havens, and many more. And then there was a night with Arlo Guthrie, who played a gig there too. Old Alice’s Restaurant and his own homestead weren’t that far down the Mass Turnpike from the Iron Horse, though decades had passed since that day with the garbage. His son had a heavy metal band at the time, and they were the openers. It was such a funny scene – hippies and Boomers in cardigans standing outside in the cold holding their ears until his son’s band finished his set. Then Arlo took the stage, tall and chatty with long hippy hair and a big, toothy smile. Eventually, as he must be sworn to do at every gig for the past half century, he played “Alice’s Restaurant.” I stood in the back of the room and listened as my tables’ food got cold.
I was living on my own back then, kind of a wandering minstrel myself, and I cried when he played that song. I had known “Alice’s Restaurant” since I was a kid, and there I was with Arlo himself singing it. And I wished I had my own Alice. And I wished that I had a little of everything I wanted. And I wished that it was Thanksgiving Day too.
I’ll be cooking and praying and praying some more for the hostages this Thanksgiving, and I’ll probably be crying – and you should too. For them and for what’s gone wrong in the world today and what it means for the future. Arlo’s last line from “Motorcycle Song” – “And I don’t want to die, I just want to ride on my motorcy-cle” – will ring truer than ever.
We face life and death, we weep for the losses, we hug our kids, we find a space to love, and even so we keep looking for everything we want for ourselves and for all of those people at the tables we share who are looking, begging, praying, and hoping for everything they want too.