Discovering Alice in Wonderland

How I fell into a rabbit hole and ended up in the mid-1960’s

On the 10th day of my New England Reunion Bike Tour, I was waiting out the rain in Lee, Massachusetts. I set out for my last meal in town before I was to leave the next morning. This area is known for its history and its embrace of mystery and new-age trends. Here’s what happens when my course collides with local forces.

The Salmon Run Fish House. It sounded out of place here in Western Massachusetts. Sometimes all you want, and really need, is something good to eat and the Yelp reviews were good. But, there was more than food to be found here. It was a rabbit hole of sorts taking me on a journey back to a different time.

Being a Bar Fly

I was kind of stuck in Lee, MA on that rainy evening so I did not mind settling into a comfortable place for a couple hours. The Salmon Run Fish House restaurant was an old, narrow, dated place with paneled walls, maybe a dozen booths and a small bar. The waitress strongly suggested I might want to take a seat at the bar since booths were reserved and they would be occupied soon (Got it! I’m sure they did not want one person in a booth). Or, maybe it was just fate to sit at the bar that night.

A couple sat at the bar near me and we began a conversation about local craft beers. I recommended the beer I was drinking called Two Roads: Road 2 Ruin. It’s a mighty good double IPA brewed in Stratford CT. Their marketing tag “The Road Less Traveled” seemed like the perfect motto for my adventure.

My new bar new friend, Bill Russell, was a pleasant, seasoned guy, 73 years old with an attractive wife. Although they now live in Lenox, he likes to come to this place for the food and atmosphere. He’s retired now but has a couple of unique interests and a memorable past.

My new found legendary friend, Bill Russell was part of the mid-1960’s scene in Stockbridge.

Where it All Began

Bill used to live in nearby Stockbridge, a fairly famous artsy destination in the Berkshires. At least one reason for its recognition is that it was the scene for Arlo Guthrie‘s famous song and story telling adventure called Alice’s Restaurant (actually titled Alice’s Restaurant Massacree).

It turns out there once was a restaurant called The Back Room owned by Alice Brock and her husband Ray Brock in Stockbridge. The 18-minute song and 111-minute movie made from it are largely based on actual events outside of the restaurant and Bill Russell was part of that whole scene.

Bill grew up in Delaware but was sent by his parents as a teenager to the Stockbridge School in 1964 because of behavioral issues. It was a coincidence of time and place that Alice and Ray re-located to the the area from New York City. She became the school librarian and Ray taught shop at the school. Ray was an eclectic charismatic character who was an architect and talented woodworker. He quickly became an outspoken leader of an anti-establishment community which drew students from the school, including Bill and Arlo Guthrie. This was a turbulent time of radical social change, drugs and the Vietnam War.

Cooking Up Alice’s Restaurant

The story of “Alice’s Restaurant” is about a memorable Thanksgiving dinner in 1965 when Alice and Ray invited everyone they knew to a big feast in their newly bought deconsecrated church in Great Barrington which they converted to a commune-like place for young students and bohemian friends to meet, to discuss ideas and to party.

Arlo and friend Richard Robbins decided to help clean up after the Thanksgiving meal and headed to the town dump after dinner to cart off garbage. But the dump was closed. They unloaded the garbage where they should not have and are eventually caught and fined in an overly dramatic police arrest. Later the next year, Arlo was called up for his Vietnam-era draft physical in New York City. Much to his surprise he was re-classified. He had dodged the draft – not because of behavioral or physical issues – but because he had been arrested for littering!

Ironically, Arlo’s dad, famed folksinger Woody Guthrie, was on his deathbed at the time suffering from Huntington’s Disease, a rare genetic disease that Arlo inherited but was fortunate not to suffer from.

A Legend is Born

Bill was one among the dozens that attended that fateful 1965 Thanksgiving Dinner. Alice opened a real restaurant in Stockbridge afterwards which was a brief success before she became fed up with the business and with Ray. They split up a couple years later. Arlo Guthrie wrote Alice’s Restaurant as more a storytelling than a song. But it was to become a perfect humorous symbol of the times.

Album cover of 1969 recording of Alice’s Restaurant.

A movie deal followed the song’s success. It was not one of famed director Arthur Penn‘s greatest films. The movie was shot in the Stockbridge area and expanded the story with added fiction but it could not save it from a poor script and mediocre acting. Many of the original friends of Alice and Ray got walk-on parts, including Bill Russell.

Bill Russell ended up living in a room near the restaurant in Stockbridge and got to know Alice well. He learned the craft of woodworking and ended up moving to New York City where he bought a shop at a time and place when it was affordable. He lived there for 25 years but eventually came back to Stockbridge. He continues to live off the income from properties including his NYC building which once was his workshop.

When Bill and I parted company that night he told me he would be heading to Provincetown on Thanksgiving Day, as he has for many years. Alice Brock is still carrying on their tradition by hosting a dinner for her close friends, including Bill.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Bill was like the Mad Hatter in Alice In Wonderland. He showed me the rabbit hole and I could not help but go in.

I learned Alice opened and closed several restaurants, wrote a few cookbooks and a biography called “My Life As a Restaurant“. Still, she’s always had a love/hate relationship with running a restaurant. She preferred a creative free-form style of cooking. Here’s an audio recipe for Salt and Pepper Soup recorded at NPR.

NPR This I Believe – Alice Brock on her philosophy of life and cooking.

Today, Alice Brock (alicebrock.com) lives in Provincetown, MA and sells beach stones (painted stones meant to be hidden in strategic places) and other personal artwork through her website. Her former husband, Ray Brock, passed away in 1979. The deconsecrated church in Great Barrington was bought by Arlo Guthrie and is now the Guthrie Center at Old Trinity Church. where people people of all religions are welcome, musical events still occur and a large, open Thanksgiving dinner is served each year.

After googling the incident, characters and times, I viewed the movie Alice’s Restaurant on a library DVD. It brought back old memories including the strange times we lived through in the 60’s, including my own draft physical in Newark, New Jersey about that same year.

Arlo Guthrie has continued his tradition of touring and singing Alice’s Restaurant for 52 years (see current schedule). This year 2019 is said to be his last year culminating with his last show at Carnegie Hall on Saturday, November 30th.

Its fair to say that listening to this song has become an American tradition for many of us – linked with Thanksgiving, story-telling humor, questioning authority and an ability to laugh at the absurdities of life. To me it’s become as timeless and strange as Alice in Wonderland.

Original recording of Alice’s Restaurant

Heart of Gold Revisited

A great concert for the ages. Neil Young at the Ryman Auditorium.

We’re taking a slight “detour” here from my Reunion Tour bike trip blogging to comment on and recommend a movie that brought home some of my personal feelings as of late. It’s one of the best concert movies I have ever seen.

Striking Gold

undefinedOccasionally, out of the blue, something appears as a selection on one of my 60+ streaming TV channels that really, really is worth watching. That happened last night when I selected from Kanopy the 2006 Neil Young: Heart of Gold documentary directed by Jonathan Demme. Its themes, music and point in Neil’s life tie right into my 13-day, 500+mile bike tour I completed last week. The message sent to me was clear – others pass this way too.

This is the thoughtful and everyman Neil Young performing songs for the first time from his Prairie Wind album which was critically acclaimed and nominated for 2 Grammys. It was a different turn toward an Americana sound somewhat like country, bluegrass and folk ballads. It reminded me of the music I heard in Vermont that just tell simple stories well. I loved the album at the time but had totally forgotten about it. This is the same Neil Young who once sang, “It’s better to burn out than fade away.”

You’re Never too Young

Young wrote most of the songs after his father’s death a few months before. At the time, he was diagnosed with a treatable brain aneurysm. Yet, he opened a tour of the album at the famed 2,600-seat Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the shrine and home of the original Grand Ole Opry. At the time he was all too aware of the fragility of life.

The songs are about growing up in Alberta, his father, his daughter, his god, and even his guitar. It’s a beautiful positive ode to the basic important things in life. While I’m not a country music fan, the emotional connection that a good country song brings is in this music, in spades.

Young is reverent to all the places, old times and everyone he has known. The heartfelt lyrics and sound are true and played to perfection with great musicians, including Emmy Lou Harris and with artistic and minimalist filming. Neil never looked more like the musical genius he is than in this work.

If you’ve read other posts on my blog myplanc.blog, you know its about getting older and in appreciating and discovering joy in everyday things. This documentary did just that for me and helped me bask a bit longer in the good vibes I got from visiting some old friends – and having the unforgettable opportunity to reminisce about good old times.

One of These Days – one of my favorite songs on Prairie Wind in harmony with my Reunion Tour.

Memory Motel

Some memories of people are etched in our minds. Some of places. And, some memories have both.

It was a rainy day, exactly as forecast. I enjoyed sleeping late that morning at my airbnb in Lee, Massachusetts. I had decided that after 10 days on the road and only 3 more to go to complete my Reunion Tour, it would be wise to avoid riding my bike through the light, steady rain.

25 Housatonic Street is conveniently located near the town center and is large enough for to host at least a few guests in some old period rooms as well as accommodate the owner’s family and grandkids on an occasional visit. Definitely not a motel. It was, as they claimed in the airbnb listing, “Comfortable Living in 1870’s House”.

Trivets from the three states that meant the most to me appeared on the table. A good sign, indeed.

I was sitting alone in a shared guest area that offered coffee, food, and information. There were obviously lots of memories made and shared in this home. The creaky floors and the numerous tsotchkes here seemed to prove that beyond a doubt. But people make memories and I was fortunate to meet a few.

This house keeps lots of memories frozen in time.

New-Age Kathy

I had met Kathy yesterday when I arrived. She was also a guest for the upcoming week, here for the Women’s Week program at Kripalu in nearby Stockbridge. It is the largest yoga retreat in North America. Her upbeat conversation reflected my understanding that this area of the Berkshires is known for its new-age thinking. She had come to gain a new enlightenment, become an instructor and to meet up with other yoga friends. Later, she said the program was everything she expected and more.

Biker Debbie

Later that day I met Dave and Debbie, who were my thoughtful and friendly hosts. Debbie was probably near my age and had been a competitive cyclist who also organized mountain biking races in the Kingdom Trails Burke Mountain area for several years – where I had visited a few days ago. It was obvious she had lots of old memories of those past glory days. Now, she and her husband still ride on tamer local trails and enjoyed walking. Funny, how easily it can be to relate to memories from people we might not have otherwise met.

Nurse Elizabeth

Sharing coffee and stories with Elizabeth, an inspiration of hard work and persistence.

But, that rainy morning I also met Elizabeth who was a regular boarder here and not your usual airbnb guest. After a friendly greeting I noticed she had a slight European accent. She began to explain she actually lived here 3 days a week to accommodate her job as an emergency room registered nurse in a Pittsfield hospital. Obviously, being an EMT nurse requires a certain type of individual.

You probably know that nurses are in high demand these days but their salaries do not necessarily reflect that. Apparently, Massachusetts hospitals pay much better than upstate New York. Elizabeth’s home is about 25 miles west of Albany so rather than travel 80 miles each way for 3 days, she stays here. This way she can have 4 days off to take care of her home and farm animals.

It turns out Elizabeth was born in Poland in an area known as Galacia that is the same area where my ancestors are from. Yet, her family began their American odyssey first in Bayonne, New Jersey, as many Poles did over the last century. Her family was able to begin immigration in the 1940’s after the war when sympathetic Polish troops allowed Poles to cross the border into Austria despite a Russian blockade. Later, the border closed and the family was denied entry until Glasnost occurred in Russia.

As was the custom of the time and place in Poland, Elizabeth married a neighbor in what might be called a pre-arranged marriage which she fought. Eventually, Elizabeth immigrated and worked through marital difficulties, earned here RN degree and raised three daughters (all now in their 20’s) that are doing very well, including one who is a pre-med student. Her’s is a story of a successful persistent immigrant and of one woman’s strength. I could not help but feel her story is not over yet and wondered what memories were ahead for her.

Lasting Memories

Nearly a week after my stay in Lee, I found myself on a weekend away in the Hamptons with my wife, kids, their spouses and the grandkids. It was to celebrate my wife Mary Ann’s 70th birthday. Yes, we were making our own memories too. Accidentally, a moment came a few days ago that brought a flood of memories back from that day in Lee, MA.

The Memory Motel still creates memories-Montauk Bar/Motel made famous by the Rolling Stones

In 1975 Mick Jagger was escaping a busy schedule of North American shows and a productive period of new music. Mick and Kieth Richards escaped to Andy Warhol‘s Montauk vacation home for a break. During that stay, Mick had a fling with a strong-willed woman. They would later name her as Hannah in a song he and Kieth wrote called the Memory Motel. (lyrics here) Some consider it one of their longest anb best ballads.

It’s speculation that the basis of the song then was Carly Simon, who Mick had a relationship with (Of course, it’s no secret that Carly got back at Mick with her hit single “You’re So Vane“). But the famous photographer Annie Leibovitz was also know as Hannah. So, let’s just say Memory Motel it was about remarkable women.

As we traveled through Montauk, we passed the actual Memory Motel. I did a double-take remembering the name but not realizing its history at the time. Apparently, there’s still a dive bar and beat up motel that lives on as a monument to memories past and those that can still be created.

Just like my stay at 25 Housatonic, some memories are just burned-in and will never leave. Rightly so. Chief among them are hard-headed women that make a difference and special places that we never forget.