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.

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.


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