Arlo Guthrie's 'Alice' is alive, glad to be here
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"You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant"
PROVINCETOWN, Mass. -- The sign outside Alice Brock's art gallery gives no hint that she's the Alice in "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," the Arlo Guthrie song that has become part of the Thanksgiving holiday for many baby boomers.
"I don't keep it a secret," the salty 65-year-old says of her connection. "It's just that that's not all that I am."
For most people, though, the whole story of Ms. Brock has been a mystery ever since Mr. Guthrie released his satiric 18-minute saga 39 years ago, forever transforming her into a symbol of 1960s counterculture.
The song recounts Mr. Guthrie's arrest for littering in Stockbridge, Mass., after he and a friend dumped some trash following a 1965 Thanksgiving feast prepared by Ms. Brock. Mr. Guthrie, son of folk legend Woody Guthrie, says the resulting police record led to his being declared ineligible for the draft during the war in Vietnam.
At the time of the arrest, Ms. Brock and her husband were living in a converted church that served as a gathering place and crash pad for Mr. Guthrie, now 59, and his hippie friends.
Although Mr. Guthrie's album containing the work never got any higher than No. 17 on the Billboard charts, the song became a touchstone of the 1960s, and it still conjures up the era for many of its aging fans. Broadcasting it on Thanksgiving Day has become a tradition at scores of radio stations. WXRT, in Chicago, has broadcast it every Thanksgiving for 33 years. Channel 16 on Sirius Satellite Radio will play it nonstop on Thursday.
Its legacy has been a mixed blessing for Ms. Brock, however. At first, the attention she got helped her launch several restaurants. But a 1969 movie based on the song left her feeling like a hippie-era relic frozen in time. "It turned me into an object instead of a human being," says Ms. Brock, whose real story is more complicated.
A bright but rebellious child, the Brooklyn native spent most of her teenage years in a reform school. The early 1960s found her in Greenwich Village, where she honed her skills as a painter and caught the eye of Ray Brock, a charismatic architect and woodworker more than a dozen years her senior.
They moved to the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts in 1962 and landed jobs at the Stockbridge School, she as a librarian and he as a shop teacher. Although the couple lasted only a year at the boarding school, they quickly forged strong ties with Mr. Guthrie and his fellow students there, who came to see the Brocks' church home as a sanctuary of their own.
Alice sketched and painted, but she felt isolated. It didn't help that the constant visitors required her to spend more and more time in the kitchen. "Basically, the boys expected to be fed and then they would sit around the table and sing," Ms. Brock says. "I would do the dishes."
She opened her first restaurant, the Back Room, in 1966, aiming to get out of the house and earn some money. Though popular with local diners, the 30-seat cafe soon became another burden for Ms. Brock, who says she had no idea how to price food or make an omelet. Meanwhile, her relationship with Ray deteriorated to the point that she moved out of the church and rented a house in town.
By the time the "Alice's Restaurant" album was released, Ms. Brock had closed her restaurant and moved to Boston to share an apartment with her mother. "I felt that instead of owning it, it owned me," Ms. Brock wrote in "My Life as a Restaurant," her little-noticed 1975 memoir.
Her time in the spotlight might have ended there except that, in 1968, she got a call from Arthur Penn, the director of the 1967 hit "Bonnie and Clyde." He wanted to make a movie based on Mr. Guthrie's song.
At first, the project seemed like a lucrative lark. Ms. Brock used part of the $12,000 she got for the right to use her name to buy a Mustang convertible. Most of her younger friends signed on to play extras. "They sent a writer around to hang out with us and try to figure out what was going on," recalls real-estate developer Bill Russell, 61, of Lenox, Mass. "We made him buy all the beer."
The fun stopped when filming began. Though everyone was staying at the same motel, most had to make their own way to the set every morning while a limo fetched Mr. Guthrie, who played himself. "It took a long time to rekindle those relationships," the musician says.
Meanwhile, on a day when the actors playing Ray and Alice Brock were renewing their marriage vows for the movie, the real couple -- who appeared in some scenes as extras -- were finalizing their divorce in a local court. And few in the old crowd cared for the script. "They had to fill up the movie with stuff, and it was all fiction," says songwriter Rick Robbins, who was arrested with Mr. Guthrie for littering in the real-life incident. "All through the movie, they've got Alice having affairs with everybody, which was complete bull."
Mr. Penn, the director, did not return calls seeking comment.
"I had the feeling that we were all trying to make the best of it and that somehow we knew that our lives were never going to be the same," says Mr. Guthrie. By the early 1970s, he had grown tired of playing his song about Alice's Restaurant and, despite fan requests, eliminated it from his live performances for many years.
Soon after the movie was finished, Ray Brock left the Berkshires. He built boats and wrote children's books like "Scooters Are Groovy and You Can Build Your Own." In 1979, he died of a heart attack in his native Virginia.
By then, Ms. Brock's fortunes were also at a turning point. Her "Alice's Restaurant Cookbook," published by Random House in 1969, went through four printings, but she didn't enjoy promoting it alone on the road and, after lending money to friends and throwing big parties, she was broke, she says.
In 1971, she opened a small takeout in an old liquor store in Housatonic, Mass. She eventually expanded to include a 50-seat dining room and rechristened the place Alice's Restaurant. Business was good, but some tourists and autograph-seekers came simply to gape at the famous proprietor, who sometimes stayed in the kitchen to avoid them.
Other contacts were even less welcome. Ms. Brock says that Albert DeSalvo -- who confessed to being the serial killer known as the Boston Strangler -- wrote to ask whether her restaurant might be willing to sell the choker necklaces he was making in prison. She declined.
Frustrated by battles with local officials over her liquor license, Ms. Brock in 1976 borrowed money and moved her business to a 22-acre resort in Lenox. Dubbed Alice's at Avaloch, the property included a swimming pool and a disco, but it ultimately proved to be more than the owner could handle. In 1979, she turned the keys to the property over to her lender and left.
Staked with quarters from the closed resort's vending machines, she came here to Provincetown, the artists' colony and tourist spot on the tip of Cape Cod. Until severe emphysema set in about a decade ago, she cleaned and painted houses and did prep work in local restaurants.
Ms. Brock began concentrating again on her art, creating whimsical paintings of everything from eggplants to plump sunbathers. Six years ago, she opened a gallery in what was the front parlor of her home. A few weeks ago, she launched a Web site (www.alicebrock.com) that, while mostly devoted to her art, acknowledges that she's the Alice from the song.
The gallery has been a confidence-builder that has helped Ms. Brock come to terms with what she means to visitors like Slade Kennedy, a retiree from Ithaca, N.Y. He stopped by this past summer to talk about his teenage pilgrimage years ago to seek out the people and places of Alice's Restaurant.
Ms. Brock says that most callers these days just want to share what they were doing at that long-ago time in their lives. "You can always ring the bell and if I'm here, I'll open the door," she says.
First Published November 22, 2006 12:00 am