Alice’s restaurant

16 Dec 2019


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

SOME time ago, I wrote on these pages about the poet, lyricist and musician (and several other talents) beyond par, Leonard Cohen. I was fortunate enough to have some people write in, thus linking persons who may not know each other, but are able to bond to some extent nevertheless by a shared love of Cohen, and music. The posthumous album I’d written about, I was fortunate enough to have been shared with by a gentleman whom I’ve never met, and to whom I’m greatly indebted.

Such a preamble is not common, but there is a point: since all those very kind individuals took the trouble of writing in, I’ve been mulling over the thought that there is a flip side to music as well — such innumerable dimensions, in fact — that are sometimes not recognised for their true worth and the great talent that underpins it. Music that is set to poetry, to lyric excellence, is absolutely beyond comparison, beyond worth. And poetry can be of innumerable styles: consider Shakespeare, who wrote also for the gallery, or Elizabeth Bishop, well-known for her brevity, or the opulence of Keats.

There is music and lyricism that are no less in stature, outstanding, that aim to share a laugh or two with the audience, find some irony or witticism, perhaps a bawdy or comedic sentence or so, maybe a pithy observation of the times.

With this context, I am reminded of a song called ‘Alice’s restaurant’. The title track of Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 debut album, it is a ‘talking blues’ piece, a straight-faced yet deeply ironic protest against the Vietnam War draft rules. But unlike the work of others that have spoken to the same issues — including Joan Baez and Cohen and many others — this takes the comedic form of an individual (actually pinned on one of Guthrie’s own experiences) of being arrested for dumping trash illegally, because of which he is rejected by the draft board since he has a criminal record — for littering. Alice’s restaurant’s role is simply that that is where the story started. And, as the deadpan line so memorably goes, “You can get anything you want, at Alice’s restaurant — excepting Alice.”

Musician, mathematician, singer, satirist ... how much more talent can be asked for?

The song won a place in the Grammy Hall of Fame, and was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or artistically significant”. In a Rolling Stone interview some years ago, Guthrie explained that while the song of course targeted the Vietnam War, it was primarily an “anti-stupidity” song.

From there, we can move to the warmth and stature of a person such as Tom Lehrer, to say nothing of the wry — some could say quite black — humour he’s given the world. A teaching mathematician at institutions ranging from MIT to the University of California, Santa Cruz, (now retired at the grand age of 91) he also used to teach liberal arts majors musical theatre. Often, he presented his lectures set to music. On the side, he sang such wonderful stuff as ‘Poisoning pigeons in the park’ (about the vagaries of human relationships) or ‘We’ll all go together when we go’ (“in one incandescent go”) about nuclear disaster.

Musician, mathematician, songwriter, singer, satirist ... how much more talent can be asked for? And that’s just two amongst a pantheon.

Carrying on, the argument has long been made that music is a mathematical science. The notes need to add up, to together form a unified whole, just as the numbers do. There is no flying in the wind, there is only precision. Thus civilisation has Beethoven, or Schubert, or Tchaikovsky, and a hundred more, to say nothing of ‘Sheila ki jawani’ or ‘Raag Durga’. Whether its classical Western, or modern American, or contemporary subcontinental, or Eastern classical, or European (look up Kovacs), to say nothing of all the other great civilisations and traditions the world has hosted, the calculations are writ in some kind of stone — and when it comes with a bit of wit and intelligence ... well then.

Which leads my humble pen, in a random direction in a galaxy, to Brian May, astrophysicist by learning and lead guitarist for the band Queen. He collaborated with Freddie Mercury — who, in opinion far, far superior to mine, had the singular ability of being able to soar up through eights or even perhaps more octaves in seconds — and drummer Roger Taylor. The rest, as they say, is legend (that’s a reference to a film, more about which some other time, perhaps).

It has long been an aphorism that music is the soul of life. I’ve always been inclined to argue that aphorisms and clichés become so for a reason, because they generally hold true. It seems also to be true that everywhere one looks, there is knowledge worth acquiring, universes within universes, in infinite numbers. Required is merely — if one can use such a pedestrian word — curiosity and willingness.

The writer is a member of staff.

Published in Dawn, December 16th, 2019