On paper, it sounded like a great idea: let’s recreate Woodstock to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the peace and love music festival that sat at the epicenter of the hippie movement. Groovy.
What followed was four days of carnage. The event was marred with deaths, rapes, assaults, violence and arson and will go down in history as one of the worst music events ever to take place. It all but set fire to the legacy of the original gathering in ’69.
Now, as a three-part Netflix documentary is set to cover the chaos of that long weekend in Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99what actually happened to make it such a horrific disaster?
The back story
Five years prior to ’99, there had been a Woodstock ’94 festival that also ended in catastrophe. Storms meant that the site was turned into a huge mudbath, more than double the attendees expected turned up (estimated around 350,000) meaning that the crowd could not be safely monitored and two people died. Elsewhere at the event, the lead singer of the band Jackyl burned a stool on stage, attacked it with a chainsaw and fired a gun during their performance; some bands were pelted with mud on stage.
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The writing was on the wall (or maybe it was just the mud) that a second re-enactment of the Woodstock festival was probably not a good idea, given the troubles that came with the first event. But the organizers and promoters plowed on, seemingly oblivious to the heat generated from Woodstock ’94.
Woodstock ’99 was held at a former air force base in Rome, upstate New York. The mainly concrete and asphalt space was the worst location for a music festival, especially when the two main stages were a two-mile walk from each other. The weekend of July 22 to 25 was set to welcome a heatwave, too. Over 400,000 people bought tickets.
There were very few trees or areas of shade, and campers were forced to put up tents on the tarmac. There was serious fencing all around the site, not only stopping people from breaking in, but later on, from escaping. The organizers hadn’t made enough facilities available for their guests, and the toilets and showers were soon overflowing in the heat.
Despite the festival arising from the peace and love ethos of the ’70s, this ’90s event was commercialized to the hilt. MTV sponsored the entire festival, running a pay-per-view of the entire weekend for $60. The four-day party was covered by many corporate sponsors and on site there were pop-up shopping malls and ATMs all over, which would have been handy as punters would be losing money faster than Lehman Brothers in the banking crash. Burritos cost $10, a pizza $12 and most importantly, while customers baked in the searing heat, bottled water was being shilled at $4 – the equivalent of $7/£6 in today’s money.
As the temperatures rose, so did the aggression in the bro-heavy festival line-up (as The New Yorker noted, only three solo female musicians performed over the whole weekend). By the time Limp Bizkit hit the stage on Saturday night – egged on by lead singer, Fred Durst – some of the audience began tearing wooden panels from the walls during their song Break Things. During their set, Durst said: “It’s time to let yourself go right now, ’cause there are no motherfucking rules out there”. The mosh pit was out of control, but afterwards in an interview, Durst denied encouraging it: “I didn’t see anybody getting hurt. You don’t see that. When you’re looking out on a sea of people and the stage is twenty feet [6 m] in the air and you’re performing, and you’re feeling your music, how do they expect us to see something bad going on?”
The Red Hot Chili Peppers followed Limp Bizkit, and a nice idea by the anti-gun violence organization PAX to get everyone to light candles they had distributed during the song Under The Bridge instead added to the terrible situation. The candles were used to start bonfires and empty bottles were set alight. After the set, the crowd were told not to panic, but there was a “bit of problem” – one of the audio towers had been torched and was set alight.
As the feral atmosphere continued, things got even more dangerous. ATMs were pushed over and broken into, merch stalls were looted and robbed, the site was destroyed and numerous objects set alight.
According to Billboardthere were “five rapes and numerous cases of sexual harassment and assault” during the weekend, and as reported by MTVtwo women were allegedly gang-raped in the crowd during Limp Bizkit and Korn’s sets.
One festival goer, David DeRosia, collapsed in the crowd at the Metallica performance and later died, believed to be from “hyperthermia, probably secondary to heat stroke”. According to Syracusehis mother then sued the festival promoters and the doctors on site because they were “negligent by not providing enough fresh water and adequate medical care for 400,000 attendees”.
There were protests by the National Organization of Women against the sexual violence women endured at the festival, and then the official site, Woodstock.com posted topless pictures of attendees without their consent, captioning them with quotes like “nice pair” or “show us your tits.” VH1 reported news that the promoters were being sued several times for “distress and dehydration.”
As San Francisco Examiner journalist Jane Ganahl wrote at the time, it was “the day the music died”.
Is there going to be another Woodstock festival?
In short: probably not. At the end of HBO’s 2021 documentary Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage, the late Michael Lang – who organized the original festival as well as those that came after it – was asked if he thought there would be another Woodstock, given the carnage that unfolded at the turn of the millennium. He said that, at his age, he’d learned not to rule anything out, but it’s not looking likely any time soon.
The legendary promoter passed away in January of this year at the age of 77, from Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In the years after Woodstock ’99, Lang had found success writing about the original festival (his 2009 book, The Road to Woodstock, became a New York Times bestseller) and even tried to stage a fiftieth anniversary festival in 2019, which was ultimately cancelled. Set to be held in Bethel, New York (after being moved from Watkins Glen International racetrack) it suffered a number of blows before organizers pulled the plug: it was first reduced from three days to one, financial and legal difficulties emerged early on, and many headliners – including Miley Cyrus, Jay-Z, Santana and Dead & Company, among many others – canceled their appearances due to the chaotic production process.
The festival was officially canceled on 31 July 2019, and Lang laid much of the blame on Japanese investment firm Dentsu Aegis, who had expressed concern over the amount of money being spent on artists, for pulling out of funding the festival. Lang planned to hold a small fundraising event at Merriweather Post Pavilion in the same year, but it didn’t happen, and Lang didn’t live to see the festival realized again.
Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 streams on Netflix from 3 August.
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