15 Years Ago: Woodstock ’99 Goes Down in Flames
“This is not the real Woodstock. They messed up. They messed up the whole name of Woodstock.”
Volumes have been written about the disaster that was Woodstock ’99, but if you’re looking for a succinct appraisal of the infamous festival that started out as a 30th anniversary celebration of a watershed moment in American pop culture and ended in blazing riots, the above quote — taken from an Associated Press report filed as the sun rose on the final night’s smoldering wreckage — is pretty solidly on target. Sadly, anyone who’d been paying attention could have seen it coming.
Part of the problem stemmed from motivation. Promoter John Scher, who’d lost money on the Woodstock ’94 festival held five years previous, was determined not to repeat past mistakes. As he told reporters, “You can have a Woodstock, and it can be a safe and secure environment. We’re going to try and make a profit on this one.” To that end, Woodstock ’99 was moved to moved to Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, N.Y. — a questionable decision not only because it lies hundreds of miles from the original Woodstock, but because the grounds were once toxic enough to qualify for EPA Superfund site status. Even more problematic was the fact that trees on the site had been cleared out to increase safety on the landing strips, thus removing any natural shade spots — and given that Woodstock ’99 was scheduled for the weekend of July 22–25, 1999, when temperatures soared over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, concertgoers found themselves coping with sweltering heat.
As it turned out, heat was only one of the potentially dangerous environmental factors that concertgoers were forced to deal with. According to David Moodie and Maureen Callahan’s damning postmortem for SPIN, the promoters cut corners just about anywhere they could, including skimping on plumbing for vendors and installing an alarmingly low number of toilets and showers (which were then situated in the worst possible height and distance from the campgrounds).
Staffing was also a major problem. Moodie and Callahan describe an environment in which low-paid workers, denied water or regular meals, simply walked off the job partway through the festival, leaving trash bins to overflow and letting attendees get away with a long list of alleged abuses that included theft, sexual assault, and rampant, inappropriate pooping.
Adding to the negative energy building over the weekend were the outrageous prices for everything, starting with the $150 it cost for a ticket and continuing through inflated charges for beer ($5), personal pizzas ($12), burritos ($10), bottled water ($4), and bags of ice ($15). As Los Lobos member Steve Berlin, who performed at the festival, later observed, “This is the first generation that’s been branded their whole lives. They’ve been identified as a market opportunity since they took their first breath. And when you take those people and tell them this is going to be culturally and historically important and it turns out to be another commercial, I’d probably get pretty pissed off too.”
That anger was reflected in a substantial portion of the Woodstock ’99 lineup, which included such linchpins of the ascendant nu-metal movement as Limp Bizkit and Korn — both of whom were later lambasted in the press for contributing to (and, in the case of Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, allegedly actively encouraging) a violent atmosphere. Durst seemed to be hoping for some sort of organized, victimless aggression from the crowd during Limp Bizkit’s set, telling the audience, “People are getting hurt. Don’t let anybody get hurt. But I don’t think you should mellow out. That’s what Alanis Morissette had you motherf—ers do. If someone falls, pick ‘em up. We already let the negative energy out. Now we wanna let out the positive energy.”
Unfortunately, very little positive energy was reported at the scene. MTV anchor Kurt Loder later described the festival’s final day as “dangerous to be around” and “scary,” saying, “There were just waves of hatred bouncing around the place. It was clear we had to get out of there.”
Durst disagreed, however. “I didn’t see anybody getting hurt,” he said. “You don’t see that. When you’re looking out on a sea of people and the stage is 20 feet in the air and you’re performing and you’re feeling your music, how do they expect us to see anything bad going on?”
Not that Durst was trying to claim bad stuff didn’t go down at Woodstock ’99 — just that it wasn’t his fault. “Woodstock was about making some money and getting it in the quickest, easiest way they could get it on and down and done,” he pointed out. “A lot of people were hurt. A lot of people were scarred for life.”
The worst of it went down during the Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ festival-closing set, which took place after a peace-promoting group called Pax handed out candles meant to be lit as a sort of mass statement during the Peppers’ performance of ‘Under the Bridge.’ They were lit, all right — just not in the way that anyone intended.
By the time the band reached its closing number, a horrifically, unintentionally ironic cover of Jimi Hendrix‘s ‘Fire,’ the candles had been used to torch everything from the mountains of garbage to sections of the plywood ‘Peace Fence’ erected to keep non-ticketholders from entering, and crowds ran riot over the festival grounds, looting ATMs and destroying vendor tents. When it was all said and done, the law enforcement numbers for Woodstock ’99 were terribly grim: 44 arrests, 10,000 people seeking medical treatment, and eight reported rapes.
If Scher and his fellow promoters had ever entertained any hopes of a follow-up, they’d been firmly dashed by the morning of July 26, as cleanup crews worked to undo the damage and pundits raised a disapproving chorus. Fifteen years on, that chorus continues.
Guitarist Tom Morello, who performed with Rage Against the Machine after Limp Bizkit’s set, initially complained that much of the press coverage of the event was “grossly unfair and youth-bashing and tried to vilify an entire generation because of a couple of idiots there.” More recently, however, he seems to have adopted a harsher viewpoint, summing up the whole mess by saying, “For me, Woodstock ’99 was the low point of nu metal. The rapes in the pit, the trashing of the sites. It just seemed like it distilled the worst elements of metal — the misogynist jock buggery — and the message wasn’t announced as ‘This is a horrible thing.’ It was more like, ‘This is our new Woodstock generation — [a] bunch of idiots.’”