If you haven't listened to it a hundred times, you may not remember that "Alice's Restaurant", folk-singer Arlo Guthrie's 18-minute countercultural ballad, actually takes place not in a restaurant, but in a church. Laura Lee recounts the history of Trinity Church, center of Episcopalian life in the village of Van Deusenberg, Massachusetts, until the parish's decline forced its sale in 1963 to a beatnik couple who made it a gathering place for disaffected youth. The resulting battles between town burghers and church bohemians have slowly waned as Guthrie's famous song has made the church a valuable landmark.
Nowadays the building houses the Guthrie Center, a museum-cum-community arts center. Guthrie, who runs it, insists the Center's not exactly a religious place, but his own Hindu-inflected pan-spiritualism infuses it. For Lee, the transformation from strait-laced Episcopal institution to hippie crash-pad to New Age non-religious center is full of ironic spiritual continuities. This is an interesting bit of cultural history, but the many unedited reminiscences, press releases and mystical web postings from Guthrie and company that Lee reprints rival "Alice's Restaurant" itself in their long-winded meanderings.