Moments. They flock to mind, come and go. There is no reason on this late June Night (have I said “time flies” lately?) that I should be thinking of this particular moment. It’s worth only a few words; or maybe a paragraph or two.
It’ll get far more than that.
In the Seventies, I worked at a little daily suburban Boston newspaper with a guy named Bill Greville. I liked him. We were both reporters. We joined up for a couple of excursions — one time to the Cape (Cape Cod), another time to head out west. He was a Williams College grad. On this westward trip, we stopped into a dark little backstreet bar in downtown Stockbridge, Mass. It was afternoon. There wasn’t another soul in the place besides the bartender and us. The bartender was a Korean War vet, a solemn but genial sort of guy, if that makes any sense. Just friendly enough to be sincere, no fake charm. Since I’d served in Korea (twenty years after the war), I seem to remember that gave us something to talk about — him and me, at least.
But both of Bill and I were talking to this bartender — name long forgotten, if, indeed, we ever asked it — about the rambling, famous Arlo Guthrie ballad, “Alice’s Restaurant” which is set in Stockbridge. In fact that’s exactly what we’d been talking about for some time when another guy walked into the bar and sat down next to Bill and me — whereupon the bartender said, “gentlemen, meet Ray Brock….”
Ray Brock was the husband of Alice Brock — of “Alice’s Restaurant” fame. The song became an Arthur Penn-directed movie of the same name, released in April, 1969 at the ragged end of the decade it more or less celebrates and to which it tries to lend another measure of pop cultural heft, as if any was needed. It was, in a sense — or the movie was — a Sixties culture time capsule making much out of little material — there was the rambling ballad and its crazy narrative fact about a trip by Arlo Guthrie to Western Mass some years before. Arlo plays himself, rather badly, in the movie and serves as narrator. At the core of the story is a trip to see Arlo’s friend Alice Brock at Thanksgiving time. The song/movie is, more than anything, about, post-dinner illegally-dumpingof garbage, leading to Arlo’s comical arrest, etc., his subsequent, somewhat unrelated trip to the draft board which gets woven into the narrative, because, if I recall, the dumping arrest helps save him from the draft. (Contemporary environmentalists, and probably not a few of them back in 1969, were probably not happy about the denigration of the environment, i.e., the illegal dumping of unsorted garbage down a Berkshire roadside embankment that is at the core of both Arlo’s ballad and Arthur Penn’s movie — not to mention the failure to recycle. I actually think it underscores the wanton carelessness of the counter-culture. You may recall images of the rubbish-strewn aftermath of the sprawling Woodstock concert venue of that same year.)
All in all, the movie is a so-so counter-culture/anti-Vietnam War/ anti-regimentation, anti-military celebration of communal hedonism — in my distant, square & sober adult hindsight estimate. I did go see it upon its release, though before my own military draft. ( I’ll always recall the day I was being pushed unhappily through training, possibly bayonet training, at Fort Dix after my October, 1969 induction and seeing, close by, the big marquee on the base movie theater. It was advertising, in huge letters, the current feature film — Alice’s Restaurant. I’ll bet a lot of trainees, on their rare, unregimented free time, found some deliverance in the dark at that theatre before moping back to their barracks to resume their basic training nightmare. For my part, I saw no reason to see it twice. )
The people Arlo sang about were real and the incidents were real — though significant liberties were taken and serious dramatic augmentation was necessary to achieve a script for a feature-length film, with Alice and Ray Brock at the center of it all , played well, it must be said, by B-list actors Patricia Quinn and James Broderick.
So — that day in Stockbridge, all of a sudden, as BillGreville and I were on our second beers, we found ourselves sitting in the presence of the real Ray Brock ( I have no reason, based on our conversation, to doubt for a minute that that was exactly who he was). I recall he had an earring and short hair. He struck me as a blue collar working guy, which in fact he was — he taught “shop” for a while at a local high school. I recall he was a ambiable, open, and, I sensed, no stranger to barstools. Neither was I in those days. I recall him saying a publisher had approached him — or he had approached them — about writing a book about his “thoughts.” This would have followed on questions about how he felt about being portrayed in a movie. I can’t for the life of me recall whether he liked the movie but suspect he did, since it gave his ordinary life a soupcon of respectability and fame — although it was not an entirely positive portrayal of a man who’s wife was on the promiscuous side — which, by the way, is why the real Alice Brock reportedly had serious objections to the movie. But the soul next to us on the barstool a soul, this otherwise anonymous and ordinary denizen of Stockbridge might have found the trade-offs acceptable, as did the local cop known as Officer Opie who also gained a little immortality from the movie by playing himself. (The story goes that when he heard they were making a movie, based on the song, based on his “illegal dumping” arrest of Arlo, he insisted he play the part himself. “If anybody’s going to make a fool of me,” he reportedly said, “it might as well be me.”
Thereafter, young movie-goers were known to cruise by and greet him as he directed traffic in the center of town.
Too bad Bill and I didn’t meet Officer Opie that day.
Anyway, I Googled ole Ray tonight and found out that he died in 1979, cause of death unstated. That would have been only a few years after this encounter. He looked perfectly healthy when we met him.
Rest in Peace, Ray.
Bill and I, after a decent, garrulous interval of fellowship, drained off our beers that day, rose from our stools and went on our way, leaving Ray with that anonymous friendly, war veteran bartender for whom I suspect Ray was apparently something of a regular. If I recall, we were bound for Lenox and Tanglewood. High culture. I forget what we heard — or even if we made it into the concert.
I hoped I’d remember that, having remembered the barroom.
It often seems as if, throughout the Seventies, one was encountering the flotsam and jetsam of Sixties culture — consisting of quirky people, places and things — before they sank out of sight and and into memory. This was such an encounter. Sometime these are barely-worth-remembering memories and “moments”.
In retrospect, I think there was something tragic about Ray Brock. I believe he and Alice were long divorced. They were –based on semi-reliable sources — married in Greenwich Village and first lived in a desacralized little white Stockbridge church. How delightfully counter-cultural! How Sixties!
Alice owned a series of restaurants after the one where Arlo visited her. She was, according to Wickepedia, born in 1941. I find no record of her death. She’d be 90.
File this ramble under one man’s (meaning my) life’s trivia.
For purposes of this blog, I’ll file this memory under — “moments.”
I’ve tried to find Bill Greville recently. A long, deep internet search suggests he left public relations (which came after newspapering) and did some acting around New York City. I think the very last time I saw him was at the Williams College Alumni Club in Manhattan — many years ago. I’ve made phone calls and sent emails trying to reach him. No luck.
If you read this, Bill (unlikely), know I’m looking for you. We can talk about some of those “moments.” Or maybe you’d just as soon forget them — and have forgotten me.
Life moves on.