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Woodstock at 40: Arlo Guthrie Reflects on Wilder Days

Arlo Guthrie, folk singing scion, was a mere 19 years old when he took the stage to perform at Woodstock.

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Arlo Guthrie

Arlo Guthrie

Photo By Barry Z Levine/Getty Images

Folk singing scion Arlo Guthrie, son of Woody, was a mere 19 years old when he took the stage to perform at Woodstock and famously announced to the massive crowd, “The New York Thruway is closed, man.…Lotta freaks.” His brief set included his hit “Coming Into Los Angeles,” but, surprisingly, not his famous antidraft anthem “Alice’s Restaurant.” “I thought I did ‘Alice’s Restaurant,’ but it’s not on any tape and no one’s got it. So my memory’s kind of faulty,” says Guthrie, now 62. “I do remember getting [to Woodstock], and then it gets a little fuzzy.”

Fans can listen to a different, previously unreleased version of the song, “Alice — Before Time Began,” on Guthrie’s latest album, “Tales of ’69,” a Woodstock tribute featuring recently discovered live performances from that year.

The singer spoke with WWD from his Washington, Mass., home, where he is prepping for an Aug. 22 performance near the Woodstock site in Bethel, N.Y., with the Boston Pops Orchestra, and a seven-month U.S. tour, “Guthrie Family Rides Again,” with his son, three daughters and his grandchildren.

WWD: First of all, how did you find the lost tape that became “Tales of ’69”?
Arlo Guthrie: We were digitizing tapes that had been sitting around the house for the last 40 years. [When this one came back], my kids called me and said, “Pop, you gotta come to the studio.” So I went and they’re on the floor with tears in their eyes, laughing. They said, “We have to put this out, it’s too funny.” And I said, “This is not ready for prime time, I don’t even know what this is.” [But] they convinced me.

WWD: Did you have any idea that Woodstock would be so crazy?
A.G.: I had no idea at all, and I don’t think anybody else did. It was just a spontaneous combustion.

WWD: Did it freak you out? Were you considering leaving?
A.G.: There was no choice. First of all, you couldn’t get out, so it wasn’t like you were going to go somewhere. We were all stuck. And the National Guard was camped right down the road, waiting for orders to come in because everybody assumed when you got 50 or more hippies together there’d be a riot. Instead, everybody decided that we were all going to make the best of an awful situation.

WWD: What was your personal Woodstock experience like?
A.G.: I was under the impression I was going to perform on the second day, so I was doing what everybody else was doing. At some point, I had a serious case of the “munchies” and I was looking for something to eat and drink. I went out into the crowd and it was muddy and rainy and there was nothing to eat and nothing to drink. So I went backstage looking for something to eat and all they had backstage were 147 cases of Champagne. I don’t know how many cases I was personally responsible for [drinking], but between that and the other stuff we were doing, it came as a big surprise when someone said that I had to perform. I said, “Wait, I’m coming tomorrow!” They said, “Richie Havens has been up there playing for hours. There’s nobody else and you’ve got to play now.”

WWD: How did it go?
A.G.: I learned a few things that day. First of all, never be self-indulgent with chemicals before a performance. That was the last time I ever did that. It was a double-edged sword: I was not prepared to be in public, and yet there I was performing for the biggest crowd I knew I would ever play for in my life. So I have conflicting memories of it, you know what I’m saying?

WWD: Did you realize at the time that Woodstock would be so influential?
A.G.: Everybody knew that this was a historic event, just by the proportions. It’s documented now that they had closed the [Canadian border], and that the New York State Thruway was really closed, like I said. These are amazing things even by today’s standards….It was [also] a moment of people without boundaries. Generally, we’re told to be frightened of those kinds of things — that when you remove the constraints of government, it becomes a free-for-all. But there were enough promoters who said, “I don’t need the money, let’s just make everybody safe.” There were enough cops who said, “Let’s just let things be.” And there were enough people who shared whatever resources they had. So nobody got hurt, nobody got robbed and nobody got ripped off.

 



WWD: Since everything was shut down, how did you get out of Woodstock?
A.G.: I left on the second day. They were able to drive us out to the car that we had left at [a nearby] motel.

WWD: Speaking of government, is it true you endorsed Ron Paul in the last election and are now a registered Republican?
A.G.: I am. I really am. Though I haven’t been invited to any Republican clambakes this summer. [But] I haven’t had to change my view in order to become part of the party. Less government interference? I’ve always been for that. I’m more of a Libertarian, now that we’re talking about it….It’s not like I agree with everything the Republicans do or say. I’m more concerned when one political party is in complete control, as the Democrats are now, and you don’t have a strong and loyal opposition. We’re in a time when we need to have some opposition to legitimately question everything and to make sure that the things we’re doing are the best we can do.

WWD: It’s true that there isn’t much of a counterculture anymore. It’s been absorbed into the mainstream.
A.G.: I think to never be confronted by challenging thoughts makes you stagnant. It’s unhealthy for you as an individual and it’s unhealthy for a nation. [But] I don’t think of myself as a political activist, I mean, I’m a folk singer. That doesn’t mean that what I have to say is any less important than anybody else. It’s not any more important either — it’s just another voice. One of the things my dad used to say all the time was, “If everybody gets a chance to speak their mind, then I think we end up all being healthier for it.” So I get involved in things from time to time, not because I want to enter the political arena, but there are people infringing on my freedoms and liberties. I’ll change my mind tomorrow if someone convinces me I’m wrong. I don’t have an ideology, but I want to be heard and have people listen to what I have to say.

WWD: What do you think of the music industry these days?
A.G.: When I started in 1967, the entertainment industry was run by people who knew how to make records and films and TV shows. Now it’s run by people who love money. I think the arts have suffered greatly, because the entertainment industry now has corporate giants looking over their shoulders. And they didn’t used to! When Warners was Warner [Brothers], that was one thing! Then it became “Time Warner,” then it became “AOL [Time] Warner,” then it became something else. They’ve killed it.

WWD: Do you feel hindered creatively because the industry is more corporate?
A.G.: To be honest, I left the industry more than 20 years ago. In 1983, I got back an entire catalogue of records from Warners. They said, “Arlo, we don’t know how to market folk music anymore. Disco is king.” So I started my own company, Rising Son Records. I don’t have power lunches. I don’t have a dozen secretaries and people running errands. No one’s telling us what songs to sing, where to go, what to say on TV, no one is dressing me. It’s great!

WWD: Do you ever wish you were back in the mainstream music scene?
A.G.: I remember when I was 20 years old, the movie “Alice’s Restaurant” had come out, and I couldn’t walk down the street without people wanting stuff and taking pictures. I couldn’t live like that. Don’t get me wrong, I recommend that to anyone who’s 19. But you don’t want that as your life. I’m thrilled [that now] I get to be me. I get to go shopping, and nobody knows me and it’s fabulous. And when I walk out on stage [everyone says] “It must be him.” It works out.

WWD: You have a tour coming up as well as a performance in Bethel. Are you looking forward to returning to the Woodstock site?
A.G.: I’m going back with the Boston Pops, so I’m bringing the biggest band this time. But one of the problems we had is there’s no orchestrated version of “Coming into Los Angeles.” So the Boston Pops put together an arrangement that is so freaking funny. I’m dying — I cannot wait to play it.

WWD: What about “Alice’s Restaurant”?
A.G.: No. I only do “Alice’s Restaurant” on the 10th anniversaries of having written it. The next time it’s due on the concert menu is 2015. There’s no way I can do the same half hour of my life every night and not go crazy.