Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Group W Bench

One of the most influential songs for people like me who came of age during the Vietnam War was “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” an 18-minute anthem that spurred a successful antiwar movement and created an enduring meme.

Alice's Restaurant CoverArlo Guthrie’s epic story turns 50 this year and is the subject of PBS special on Thanksgiving. It is a hard story to get out of my mind, combining a case of “litterin'” with being culled out of the military draft and placed on the Group W bench.

As Guthrie described it in the song, “Group W is where they put you if you may not be moral enough to join the Army after committin’ your special crime.”

Who can forget what happened when Guthrie was shuttled to the Group W bench:

There was all kinds of mean, nasty, ugly-lookin’ people on the bench there. . . there was mother-rapers . . . father-stabbers . . . father-rapers! FATHER-RAPERS sittin’ right there on the bench next to me! And they was mean and nasty and ugly and horrible sittin’ there on the bench, and the meanest, ugliest, nastiest one . . . the meanest father-raper of them all . . . was comin’ over to me, and he was mean and ugly and nasty and horrible and all kinds of things, and he sat down next to me. He said, ‘Kid, what’d you get?’

I said, ‘I didn’t get nothin’. I had to pay fifty dollars and pick up the garbage.’

He said, ‘What were you arrested for, kid?’ and I said, “Litterin'” . . . .

And they all moved away from me on the bench there, with the hairy eyeball and all kinds of mean, nasty things, till I said, ‘And creatin’ a nuisance.’ And they call came back, shook my hand and we had a great time on the bench talkin’ about crime, mother-stabbin’ and father-rapin’.

After an indecipherable 45-minute lecture, those on the Group W bench were asked to fill out a form and answer the question of whether they had been rehabilitated, which prompts one of the best riffs in music history:

I went over to the sergeant. Said, “Sergeant, you got a lot of god-damned gall to ask me if I’ve rehabilitated myself! I mean . . . I mean . . . I mean that you send . . . I’m sittin’ here on the bench . . . I mean I’m sittin’ here on the Group W bench, ’cause you want to know if I’m moral enough to join the army, burn women, kids, houses and villages after bein’ a litterbug.”

arlo_guthrieIn an NPR interview, Guthrie said he didn’t conceive his song as an anti-Vietnam War anthem, just a “song against stupidity.” That may be just a semantic fine point.

Guthrie doesn’t take credit for inventing grassroots movements with his closing lines encouraging people facing the military draft to sing the chorus of “Alice’s Restaurant.”

And the only reason I’m singin’ you the song now is ’cause you may know somebody in a similar situation.

Or you may be in a similar situation, and if you’re in a situation like that, there’s only one thing you can do:

Walk into the shrink wherever you are, just walk in, say, ‘Shrink, . . . you can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant,’ and walk out.

You know, if one person, just one person, does it, they may think he’s really sick and they won’t take him.

And if two people do it, in harmony, they may think they’re both faggots and they won’t take either of them.

And if three people do it! Can you imagine three people walkin’ in, singin’ a bar of “Alice’s Restaurant” and walkin’ out? They may think it’s an Organization!

And can you imagine fifty people a day? I said FIFTY people a day . . . walkin’ in, singin’ a bar of “Alice’s Restaurant” and walkin’ out? Friends, they may think it’s a MOVEMENT, and that’s what it is: THE ALICE’S RESTAURANT ANTI-MASSACREE MOVEMENT!

group-w-magnetMovements existed before the song, Guthrie said, and they have sprung up afterward when people speak up.

Guthrie’s message for today is that people need to speak their mind, no matter how quirky, to make things right.

Not a bad lesson to learn after 50 years from the Group W bench.

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