The Art of Dying

Alice’s Restaurant

In 1967, during the Vietnam war, Sweden (along with Canada), was a haven for American young men — some no more than boys — who did not see eye-to-eye with boarding planes for southeast Asia, there to kill or be killed.

I lived in Stockholm at the time and, as far as Sweden went, this is where most of these life-cherishing guys ended up, and as it happened (most of them being about my age), I came to know some of them quite well.

There was Greg, an absolute wizard on the banjo. He obviously came from a well-to-do family for he (or his parents, more likely) had rented him a huge apartment (one of those old Stockholm apartments you could easily get lost in — not kidding) just a couple of blocks from where I lived. No, they did not come cheap, these apartments. And then there was his mother who kept sending him care packages containing things like, oh, 1915 Gibson banjos, Rolex GMT Masters, American snacks (I clearly remember Fritos for he gave me a few of these wonder things — they did not impress), warm clothes for our uncompromising and inconsiderate winters, you name it, his mother would track it down, buy it, wrap it, pack it, send it. Reddish-curly-haired and grinning-mostly Greg was not hurting for cash, lets put it that way.

He, in turn, had American friends who I’d run into (and be introduced to, though none of their names stuck, as it were) in his apartment. Some of these friends were girls (perhaps visiting their boyfriends), but most were boys escaping the draft, just like Greg.

Then there was the small crowd of Americans that I’d run into at Sturehof (a famous Stockholm pub by Stureplan — an almost as famous Stockholm square — that I believe is still there, in the same location, at least it was last time I looked; circa 1995) and who’d clamor for Alice’s Restaurant whenever they’d spot me.

Which leads me to the album (and song) itself:

True to form, I’m only an album or so short of broke three days after payday (having paid back all the little loans I had incurred from often reluctant, though cash-richer friends to keep me afloat till that next paycheck), but there is enough tinkle in the till to buy an album (apparently) for that’s what I did with my last pieces of silver. And the album I bought this time was Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant.

To this day I don’t know why I bought it. I don’t recall having heard of it until that day, nor that someone had recommended it. No, I suspect I just liked the cover and by impulse (that deep, resonant and insisting voice — so much stronger and convincing than its prudent and nay-saying little sibling — which I normally listened to, and whose advice I usually took when it came to investments) decided to buy it.

I brought it home and put it on my turntable and proceeded to be very, very amazed indeed. When it came to the length of the thing, Arlo Guthrie had out-Dylan’ed Dylan — I’m thinking Sad Eyed Lady of the Low Lands, and Desolation Row, and when it came to storytelling and sheer brilliance in weaving the narrative around the brilliantly played guitar, well, I had never heard its likeness before (and rarely since).

In fact, I was so captivated by the song that I played it over and over and over again to the point where I could (yes, I actually could) recite more or less the whole almost twenty minutes of it from memory.

Did I know what everything Mr. Arlo said/sung meant? No, not even close. I had no idea what Thanksgiving was all about for one or what pews were or, or, or, but I still retained the words, just as sounds, and I could recite them, parrot-like, in the right order and with the right (Arlo’s) intonation, and recite them I did. This mainly to Swedish friends who found me doing Arlo amusing but then one night, at Sturehof, some of the American boys must have overheard me for they wanted me to come to their table and take the whole song again, from the beginning — free beer(s) included, of course.

The second part of Alice’s Restaurant is about the American draft, of course, so this was right up these guys’ alley, so to speak — no wonder they found it amusing.

Now, here let me interject an interesting observation:

For the last forty odd years I have been under the impression, living with the assumed notion, that I recited Alice’s Restaurant more than just a few times for American draft dodgers at Sturehof; that I hade a definite habit of holding forth in exchange for beer. But now, now that I write about this in some detail and now that I revisit the scene of the crime so to speak, it strikes me — a little unpleasantly to be sure — that I most likely only held forth this once.

When I now look back, I remember sitting at the short end of the table and “doing” Alice’s Restaurant to a small gathering and smiling, grinning, laughing faces, but I really don’t have any clear, definitive memory of doing it again after that. I find this both amazing and a little embarrassing, for I have told people, many people, over the years, that I would hold forth on a regular basis to educate the Americans at Sturehof. I’m shaking my head as I write this. That was indeed fiction, pure personal fiction.

That said, I could, however, recite the song almost verbatim and this is what I did that evening, and what I found both conf- and am-using at the time was that they would laugh at places where I literally did not know what I was saying; I was simply parroting sounds, not meanings.

Yes, they plied me with beer, one or two pints. I may have recited the thing a second time for others who now appeared at the table and wanted the thing from the beginning. But as I said, I don’t recall doing this ever again.

Thirty or so years later I bought the CD and listened to it — now with the vocabulary to understand and more fully appreciate the brilliance of this song. It still cuts glass, methinks.

© Wolfstuff

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Raised by trolls in northern Sweden, now settled on the California coast a stone’s throw south of the Oregon border. Here I meditate and write.

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Ulf Wolf

Raised by trolls in northern Sweden, now settled on the California coast a stone’s throw south of the Oregon border. Here I meditate and write.