"Alice's Restaurant," says Arlo Guthrie, is not like riding a bike.
The 18-minute, talking blues, surprise anti-Vietnam War hit has taken on such a life of its own that Guthrie could never quite shake it. So he's dusted off the quirky tune again and again, perfecting that precise comedic timing that made an absurd story of littering a timeless protest classic.
"There's a whole bunch of little things that have conspired to make me have to relearn it again, decade after decade," says the 67-year-old Guthrie. "It takes a few weeks. It's not like riding a bike. You don't just get on and get going. It takes practice and you can't do it in the living room or at the kitchen table. You have to practice in front of an audience so you can gauge their reaction so you can get the timing you need to have all of the parts work together."
The story of the song is true: the Thanksgiving dinner in an old church, the good-intentioned trip to a closed dump (in a red VW microbus, with shovels and rakes and implements of destruction), the fateful decision to unload the garbage anyway and the saga of Guthrie's arrest at the hands of Officer Obie.
"Certainly when I began writing it on Thanksgiving of 1965 I had no idea that it would even be a record, let alone a song that I would have to know 50 years later," Guthrie says. "That would have seemed entirely absurd to me. I'm sure that had I not written the song, the events would've disappeared from my memory as well."
When it was released, the song became a signature hit for the then-20-year-old son of iconic folksinger Woody Guthrie. And as much as Woody became associated with the Dust Bowl 1930s, Arlo found himself at the center of the hippie anti-war movement, a Woodstock performer who would later make the observation that "Alice's Restaurant" is the exact length of an infamous gap in Richard Nixon's Watergate tapes.
"I never imagined that it would be popular. Mostly it was a piece that was working for me onstage. To have a live audience who had never heard it before was a lot of fun for me because they weren't aware of what was in the song," he says.
When the song pivots to the Vietnam draft, the story of how Guthrie was rejected for military service for his littering and creating a public nuisance arrest forms a surreal commentary that the singer says is "anti-stupidity" as much as anti-war.
"I'd finished the song in 1966. By 1967 it was a record, in 1968 we were making the movie version of it and in 1969 the movie finally came out. It seemed like a long time to me at the time, of course looking back it's like a few seconds," he says. "I'm thankful in the sense that it reminds me of another time when the world was a little bit different and yet it seems to still be relevant to people these days."
When Guthrie was playing the song for audiences, he never guessed it would become a radio hit. In the mid '60s, the dominant A.M. stations rigidly stuck to short songs, two-and-a-half minute pop singles. Even a song like Guthrie's only top-40 hit, the 1972 version of Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans," would not have found airplay in the mid-'60s.
But the rise of F.M. stations—typically college and community radio at the time – that could run counter to the prevailing commercial trends gave a huge boost to "Alice's Restaurant."
"At some point, somebody recorded it at a radio station in New York City and started playing it on the radio and they kept getting calls to play it again, play it again. That's when I began to realize that 'Oh my God, people might like this thing,'" he says.
The old western Massachusetts church at the center of the story is now the Guthrie Center, an interfaith meeting place and community center that provides a weekly free lunch, holds a summer concert series and, naturally, hosts an annual Thanksgiving dinner. Guthrie's opportunity to close the circle came by chance.
"That just came about totally by accident. I was filming a TV show in the '80s, one of those 'whatever happened to him' shows and we were filming outside the church. I hadn't been back to it since we made the movie. My friends had moved out and it had been sold and been in this transition state," Guthrie says. "We were walking around the church filming this TV show and people came out and said 'That's Arlo Guthrie, let's get him to buy it.' The last thing a folksinger needs is another mortgage, but I said 'Let's make this work.' I love having that old building there with people who care about it and keep using it. It's not just another empty church somewhere. It's thriving."
For the "Alice's Restaurant" 50th Anniversary Tour, Guthrie performs with his son Abe Guthrie, Terry "A La Berry" Hall, Darren Todd and Bobby Sweet. After wrapping up this long string of dates, he's looking forward to getting back out on the road with another Guthrie Family tour. His daughters Annie, Cathy and Sarah Lee (and her husband Johnny Irion) are all musicians, as are the growing-up-too-fast grandkids.
"The tradition is alive and very well," Guthrie says. "My mother and father, when we were very young, had a dream that they would be able to take the entire family and ride on the road and spend some time traveling around together doing shows. He saw that when he was a kid and loved the idea of a family singing and playing together.
"I realized at some point that we were living that dream. It took a generation or two, but here we are doing it. That's a legacy in itself."