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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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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.

 

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