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.
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, the movie, at least, a Sixties culture 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. 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 at Thanksgiving time. The song/movie is, more than anything, about, post-dinner illegally-dumped 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 draf.
All in all, it is a so-so counter-culture, anti-Vietnam, anti-regimentation, anti-military celebration of communal hedonism, in my distant sober adult estimate. I did go see it, 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 theater advertising, in huge letters, the feature film, Alice’s Restaurant. Bet a lot of trainees found some deliverance in the dark at that showing before moping back to their barracks for the resumption of their basic training nightmare. 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 by non-A-list actors Patricia Quinn and James Broderick.
So — that day in Stockbridge, all of a sudden, as Bill and I were on our second beers, we’re sitting in the presence of the real Ray Brock. I recall he had an earring and short hair. I recall he was a friendly sort of guy, 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 it gave his ordinary life a soupcon of respectability and fame — although it was not an entirely positive portrayal — that a soul such as this otherwise anonymous and ordinary denizen of Stockbridge might have found irresistible — 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, saying, “if anybody’s going to make a fool of me, in might as well be me.”
Too bad Bill and I didn’t meet Officer Opie that day.
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.
Rest in Peace, Ray. I think Bill and I up-and-went on our way at some point and left Ray with the anonymous friendly bartender for whom he was apparently something of a regular. If I recall, we were bound for Lenox and Tanglewood for some high culture.
So — that was a “moment.”
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. In retrospect, I think there was something tragic about Ray. What was he doing for a living in those last years?
I ought to look and see if Alice Brock is still alive (I think she and Ray were divorced.)
File this under one man’s life’s trivia. Though, for purposes of this blog, I’ll file it under “memories”.
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 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.
So….I planned to devote “a few words” to this meaningless incident, this “moment.” I count a dozen or so paragraphs, excluding this very final, sadly overdue, coda, and goodnight.