Today is the day that many of us of a certain age (over 6o, let’s say) celebrate… the real-life incident that inspired “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” a song about criminal behavior, the war in Vietnam and a Thanksgiving dinner of unusual proportions. This, in fact, is the fiftieth anniversary of that event.
The song has special meaning for me because I was part of something quite similar. The following is a true account, as far as I can remember the details (it happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, you know), of the Neosho massacree.
The story starts in the summer of 1966 when I join a rock ‘n roll band called The Approximate Thots. Previously, I was the stand-up bass player in a Dixieland band that performed at summer church picnics, senior citizens’ parties and political events. One day, we traveled around the county on the back of a farm truck, playing at rallies for a Republican candidate for state representative. Sunburn and $25 to split between the five of us was our reward. I’m pretty sure the guy won, since only Republicans ever ran for office in Lawrence County.
Joining the Thots was a real change in prestige, especially among my peers. There was nothing less-cool in the mid-sixties than playing Dixieland jazz, so being in a rock band was big stuff. We were the prototypical garage band, rehearsing in our parents’ garages, breezeways or back yards until the neighbors had had enough and the police came to tell us to pull the plug. We were what was known then as a “cover band” doing faithful renditions of the Young Rascals, Buckinghams, Dave Clark Five, Byrds, Lovin’ Spoonful, and Freddie and the Dreamers, with a few Beatles and Stones thrown in. We played sock hops around southwest Missouri and ironically, that summer we were invited to play one of the church picnics my Dixieland band had done the year before. The gentleman who invited us had no idea what type music we played; he just had the business card with my number on it. Boy, was he surprised when a bunch of “long-haired hippies” showed up and started playing “Get Off My Cloud” at 110 decibels. He literally pulled the plug on us.
When fall came, we headed off to school, then known as Southwest Missouri State College, now Missouri State University. I had a full scholarship to SMS, having been a good student in high school, but I managed to spend all my time either playing in the band or listening to music with my roommate. After the first year, I was politely asked not to come back. I was not heart-broken, to say the least, but I began to be aware that not being in school was not a good idea, given that the war in Vietnam was heating up and a college deferment was an important thing to have.
I managed to enroll at Crowder Junior College in Neosho, despite having a .01 grade point from SMS. I spent a semester commuting back and forth between Monett and Neosho, attempting to atone for my academic sins. By the end of the semester, I had proven to the Dean of Students that I was worthy to continue and so decided to move to Neosho to save the commuting time. A couple of my friends from SMS who had also had lackluster careers there and I rented a house and settled down to work on our studies.
By this time, the Approximate Thots had become the Ultimate Purpose and we continued to play dates around the area. That lasted until one of our members, the organ player, Steve Vermillion, got drafted, which meant that quite a bit of our repertoire followed him to the Army. No more Rascals, Buckinghams, Dave Clark Five, Doors. The band membership had always been fluid: sometimes there were five of us, sometimes four, sometimes even six, but the core group was made up of John “Breeze Blues” Mitchell on drums, Dennis “Denny” Willard on guitar and vocals, and me on bass. At just about the time that Steve was heading off to boot camp, we heard a group called the Jimi Hendrix Experience that had only three pieces: drums, guitar, bass. Heck, we thought, we could do that. And so we did.
Despite rehearsing and playing gigs, I managed to keep my grades up and prepared to graduate with an associate of arts degree. Shortly before the end of the semester, my friends and I started cleaning out the house we were renting. I was planning to move but a couple of my housemates intended to stay on. Now, in southwest Missouri at the time, not many towns provided trash service. Most people either used a barrel in their back yard to burn whatever would burn or hauled the refuse to the town dump (at that time, as far as I know, there were no “landfills,” that being a rather modern linguistic convention). Over the course of the semester, we had “stockpiled” our trash in the garage, but finally decided that it was prudent to dispose of it properly, so we piled it into the back of a friend’s pickup and headed to the dump. Much like Arlo Guthrie discovered on Thanksgiving Day in 1965, we discovered on a Sunday in 1968 that the town dump was closed. Now, most folks would just turn around and go home and wait until the next day to deliver the trash to the dump, but as I remember it, it was a nice spring day and we weren’t inclined to make a return trip, so on the way back to our house, we happened to pass a spot at the side of the country road that obviously had been used by other impatient folks to leave their unneeded bread wrappers, food cans, old clothes, and letters from long-lost relatives. We looked at each other, stopped the truck and began tossing our treasures onto the obviously well-visited pile.
A few days later, as I sat in the front room of our house listening to The Blues Project play “Violets of Dawn” (actually, I certainly can’t remember what I was listening to but that was, and still is, a favorite of mine, so it very well might have been on the turntable. Note for my younger readers: a turntable was a device that we used back in the olden days to play round pieces of plastic called “records.” I know, it seems like an inefficient way to listen to music, but it was all we had and it worked, unless you happened to step on the records, which always seemed to be strewn across the floor) when I heard a knock at the door. Not expecting company, I opened the curtains just a bit and peeked out. Caution was called for at that time because a couple of my friends were in the back bedroom experimenting with an herbal compound that was said to have spiritual and soothing properties. To my shock, on the other side of the door was a Sheriff’s deputy, looking quite perturbed. For a moment, I considered just pretending that I hadn’t heard him knock but knock again he did, more forcefully this time. Nothing to do but open the door and be arrested, along with my friends, for inhaling, as Bill Clinton would say (for the record, I only tried pot one time, not this time, and even though I inhaled, I really didn’t enjoy it).
“Are you Charles St.Clair?” the deputy asked. “Is this your letter?”
He handed me an envelope that clearly had my name on it.
“Yes, I am. I guess this is my letter.”
“We found it out in a pile of trash by the dump. We think you should go out and clean it up. Get in your truck and I’ll follow you out.”
By this time, my friends had emerged from the back room, looking a bit glassy-eyed, but wondering what was going on.
“Maybe your friends can help you clean up the mess,” the deputy suggested.
“Yeah, we’d be happy to, officer,” one of them said, just managing to suppress a laugh.
So, we all got in my friend’s truck, with me driving, and followed the deputy and his partner to the dump site and spent the next couple of hours throwing trash, ours and everyone else’s who used that place, into the back of the truck. My friends would occasionally descend into a fit of giggling and snorting, which irritated the deputies, but since we were doing what we were told to do, they let it slide, not suspecting the reason for the mirth.
When we finished, we got one of those “don’t ever do it again” lectures and were allowed to go on our way. The next day, we went back to the dump and emptied the truck.
There were a few times after that, especially after I heard “Alice’s Restaurant” and Arlo’s experience with the draft, that I wished I had gotten arrested and fined for “litterin’.” That would have solved my problem with the draft board, but looking back, I’m proud that I chose another route and applied for a “conscientious objector” classification, which I miraculously was granted. Being a CO is, on the whole, more honorable than being a convicted felon, although I know in some circles, they are considered to be pretty much the same thing.
So, happy “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” 50th anniversary to you all. Don’t litter.