Why Woodstock ’99 Lost Its Way

The original Woodstock represented peace, love, and music. Woodstock ’99 represented something a great deal darker.

Woman crowdsurfing during a rock concert

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Ask anyone in Hollywood: it’s easy to make a sequel, but it’s hard to make it work. The list of sequels that equal or exceed the originals is fairly small (The Godfather: Part II. The Empire Strikes Back. Aliens). In 1994, promoters pulled off a successful 25th anniversary sequel to 1969’s Woodstock. The cleverly named Woodstock ’94 accelerated the careers of acts like Nine Inch Nails and Green Day, and reinvigorated others, like Bob Dylan’s. However, the next attempted installment of the peace and music franchise, Woodstock ’99, which ran from July 22 to July 25, would not be remembered as fondly. Though a number of acts and attendees recall have a good time, the public image of the event was a disaster, with fires, vandalism, and sexual assaults casting a very dark cloud over the intended spirit of the show. What the promoters couldn’t have known at the time was that the show was doomed from the start.

Both the original festival and the ’94 installment were held in pastoral areas of New York State with open fields, grass, and trees. Woodstock ’99 took place at Griffiss Air Force Base; the base had been closed since 1995 and was once a Superfund site, meaning that it required government intervention and funding to clean up hazardous waste and materials there. The East and West stages were over two miles apart from one another, with tarmac in between. That would prove to cause major problems for concertgoers once the heat of the week settled in at over 100 degrees. A lack of shade coupled with the tarmac made for very difficult conditions. Additionally, there was a high-security vibe surrounding the affair; whereas the first two Woodstocks had broken down into “free concerts,” the ’99 edition had a high degree of corporate sponsor involvement, tighter metal and plywood fencing, and roughly 500 New York State Police brought in to work security.

The problem of the heat was exacerbated by the fact that water was in short supply. Though there were free drinking fountains, there weren’t enough to support a crowd of thousands, resulting in long lines just for a quick drink. Food vendors at the site were selling water and soda for a minimum of $4 a bottle, making it expensive to stay hydrated. Over the four days, some concertgoers broke open the water fountains to allow free-flowing water. Food options inside the venue were limited; while you could shuttle to nearby Rome and back, food and water prices at the show were exorbitantly high for the time, making general comfort and temperature safety hard to manage. With heat radiating back off of the tarmac at nearly 110 degrees, some attendees ran out of money simply trying to stay hydrated.

Heat, in addition to frustration over food, water, costs, and the inconvenient spread of stages, as well as heightened security, played into rising tempers among the crowd. Rob Sheffield, writing for Rolling Stone at the time, noted the brutality of the crowd when Korn played; he wrote, “The pit erupts as the Peace Patrol security guys whisk one kid after another to the emergency tent. The medical crew keeps ripping open new packages of disposable cardboard stretchers.”  When the band Limp Bizkit took stage on Saturday, there were reports of fighting and vandalism in the crowd; worse, witnesses reported sexual assaults in the midst of the show. Regarding the Limp Bizkit set, Sheffield wrote, “In the pit, where people go to fight and nothing else, the violence has gotten out of hand, and a rape is later reported.” Some observers put the blame for violence in the crowd on Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst; of course, it didn’t help that one of the featured songs in the set was “Break Stuff” which exhorts at one point, “And if my day keeps going this way, I just might/Break your f—— face tonight/Give me something to break/Just give me something to break.”

Korn performing “Freak on a Leash” from Woodstock ’99. (Explicit Language Advisory / Uploaded to YouTube by Korn on MV)

The final night of the show saw things completely break down during the Red Hot Chili Peppers closing set. Playing “Fire” by Jimi Hendrix as a tribute to that original Woodstock performer was a well-meaning idea; however, the rising tension and the fact that an anti-violence group had passed out candles for a candlelight vigil added up into fans starting bonfires. Heaps of crushed plastic bottles were burned as more fires started, one of which claimed one of the audio towers. As the show ended, concertgoers ripped plywood from the fencing to keep bonfires going; other people vandalized vehicles, looted equipment, destroyed and robbed ATMs, and burned vendor stands, trailers, a bus, and portable toilets before police gained control. The police investigated four rapes and one fan died of complications related to overheating.

In a Rolling Stone piece by Jenny Eliscu from August 3, 1999, Dr. Paul Ramirez, who served as Director of Psychiatric Service for both the ’94 and ’99 festivals, said, “Throwing psychology aside for a minute, in a crowd this size, there are going to be a certain number of a——s. There are going to be a certain number of people who are like that, whether or not they’re at a concert. And, here, they were kind of given a license to go wild.”

Twenty years later, theories persist about what went wrong. Some have tried to characterize the music itself as being at fault, given the prominence of harder bands and “nu-metal” among the performers, but metal shows happen every day around the world without incident. Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who played at the show, offered his take in the 2013 book Louder Than Hell; he said, “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.’”

Others have laid the blame on alcohol being the drug of choice over the copious amount of marijuana at the original show, but alcoholic beverages were available at the ’94 show as well. What’s most likely is that a combination of a bad location, heat, anger at prices, and agitators in a crowd of thousands provoked a mob-like response that, thankfully, didn’t extend to everyone present. The sexual assaults, of course, were a separate, horrible scourge, perpetrated by predators that may have felt safe in the relative anonymity of a sea of people.

What remains is that the last active show to use the Woodstock name bears the stain of some terrible actions. A 50th anniversary show has been scheduled for August for some time, but the original venue bailed out and the proper permits have been denied repeatedly, as recently as this week. It remains to be seen if the show will actually occur. It’s never been a bad idea to celebrate peace, love, and music; if the new festival does take place, hopefully it will emulate the original in more ways than just the name.

Featured image: A young woman crowd-surfing at a festival concert. (Shutterstock)

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Comments

  1. As a survivor of the Las Vegas shootings myself almost two years ago, I felt both hurt and insulted by your dismissive, insensitive and hurtful replies. Jill made excellent, truthful points, as did Bob before her and John and Dan after.

    Thank goodness there was no ‘Woodstock 50’ this month for all of the reasons they gave that are obvious to most people now, Mr. Brownfield. I hope you never have to go through a mass shooting experience, or your loved ones narrowly escaping death. Seeing and hearing people getting killed, having survivor’s guilt, terrible flashbacks and more everyday is a nightmare; not to mention never feeling safe anywhere. I think you owe your readers here an apology, and also one to your employers at the Post with an explanation, if there even is one. My husband works in publishing, and said he definitely would be re-evaluating you. This poor judgement may fall short of a write-up, but certainly should be notated in your employee file for future reference as needed.

  2. It’s probably best we remember the original Woodstock with the programming being offered on PBS and other sources, from the comfort of our own homes or offices. Hopefully we can agree on that.

    Good points were made in the previous comments. I would like to add that research and data are almost always slanted to put dangerous products in the light of making them seem safe and harmless when they’re anything but. The cigarette industry has done this for many decades as we know. More recently they’ve done the same with the ‘safety’ of vaping which has had disastrous results with teens and young adults and their lungs. This was on the news again, just last night.

    The energy drink industry also has its data showing the drinks are perfectly safe, yet ask any ER nurse or doctor if they are. They’ll quickly tell you how the drinks are causing heart attacks and death. The entertainment industry is no different with the equally toxic products they put out. Violent movies, video games, video game films, the music industry. The terrible truth is extremely clear from the continual mass shootings that they all know how to expertly lie and deny to keep their filthy hands clean. They never have to deal with the consequences either in their mansions and gated communities. The rest of us obviously do as a nation, and will have to continue doing indefinitely.

  3. I was advised of this feature by some friends, and felt it was well researched and written. It was obviously a huge mistake 20 years ago, but would be catastrophic now for many of the same reasons and so many more. Several of those were mentioned in the July 24th comments, before the number of mass shooting has so greatly intensified and accelerated in the past 2-3 weeks.

    I’m sure you are also correct in your reply regarding what research shows regarding this problem, from the source you obtained it. The comments Jill made were definitely not strictly her opinion; far from it. The points she made were very valid. Before America became the Godless, cultural garbage pit it has over the past 30+ years, mass shootings were rather rare, much less daily occurrences. My friends and I have been saying what she wrote for years now, with the points becoming more, not less valid, by the day. Things are so bad now, that even the sound of a car backfiring would set off fatal stampedes if the proposed Woodstock 50 were to have occurred, never mind shootings that are a given now. Either way it would have been yet another tragedy on the ever-growing long list, permanently destroying the word of meaning anything else.

  4. Jill,

    >>>>Fortunately this ‘Woodstock 50’ was officially cancelled on July 31st, for surely it would have been a terrible carnage scene as well were it to have been greenlighted. Your description of Woodstock ’99 is of something really and truly awful that never should have happened, not the least of which were the acts appearing like Korn and Limp Bizkit performing their explicit lyric garbage. What other outcome would you have expected?<<<>>The man who commented before me, Bob, talked about the reality of mass killings and your response to him was a technicality on the date of the Manson murders? Excuse me? Seriously?!<<>>Newsflash: a week before or after IS almost the same time, just like the killings in Gilroy and El Paso are!<<>>You’re right about the last Woodstock bearing the stains of some terrible actions. It’s a sweet but very naive idea to think a Woodstock 50 would have celebrated peace, love and music. No way. Decades of violent, sick films, video games, filthy music and the removal of God from everything have permanently replaced those ideals with violence, destruction and endless mass killings.<<<

    That's strictly your opinion, and not supported by research. Japan has the biggest video game culture on the planet and has media that contains a great deal of violence, but they do not have the same problem. All of your suggested causes are easily dismissed by the data. We've got problems, but entertainment doesn't radicalize en mass to a certainly; Call of Duty has sold over 250 million copies, Halo has moved 46 million, and Fortnite also has over 250 million registered players. Assuming for a second that even one of the shooters played any of those games, then that's a correlation of . . . one, without even accounting for other factors, like racism, mental imbalance, or drug use. Woodstock 99 was a disaster by all measures, but imposing a pre-set worldview on an event doesn't explain it; that's not deduction and problem-solving, but rather confirmation bias.

    Thank you for reading.

  5. There have been 3 mass shootings since this article I just found was published. The latest one just today in El Paso with 20 people killed and at least 26 wounded. On July 30th 2 killed in a Mississippi shooting, and on July 28th, 3 people killed at a Gilroy, California Garlic Festival of all things!!

    Fortunately this ‘Woodstock 50’ was officially cancelled on July 31st, for surely it would have been a terrible carnage scene as well were it to have been greenlighted. Your description of Woodstock ’99 is of something really and truly awful that never should have happened, not the least of which were the acts appearing like Korn and Limp Bizkit performing their explicit lyric garbage. What other outcome would you have expected?

    The man who commented before me, Bob, talked about the reality of mass killings and your response to him was a technicality on the date of the Manson murders? Excuse me? Seriously?! Newsflash: a week before or after IS almost the same time, just like the killings in Gilroy and El Paso are! You’re right about the last Woodstock bearing the stains of some terrible actions. It’s a sweet but very naive idea to think a Woodstock 50 would have celebrated peace, love and music. No way. Decades of violent, sick films, video games, filthy music and the removal of God from everything have permanently replaced those ideals with violence, destruction and endless mass killings.

  6. Permits have been denied (for a Woodstock 50) as recently as this week. This needs to continue as it’s SUCH a hideously horrible idea. From the great Fortune link you included Troy, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen, thank God.

    Woodstock needs to continue to be denied any further ‘anniversary editions’ the same way the ‘Manson Girls’ are denied parole every so many years when their eligibility for THAT comes up. (I won’t mention that the Tate-La Bianca murders and Woodstock happened at almost exactly the same time).

    Speaking of murders, Woodstock ’99 seemed to stop just short of that. Given the horrendous problem we have in this country with mass shootings, this is not an unlikely scenario at all, unfortunately, if a Woodstock 50 were to take place. Some lone gunman has probably been sizing up the situation for quite awhile, likely to try and ‘outnumber’ the Las Vegas mass killer’s carnage.

    Aside from everything mentioned, Woodstock is something completely out of context now. The feelings of 1969 are LONG gone, and we just can’t get them back. Let it live on in the minds of those to whom it touched originally. Otherwise, let it be, and remain, the faded historical event it is of a half century ago with some semblance of dignity.

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