The Hippies Ruined Woodstock 99


For a brief moment in time, the coolest new scene in America was embraced by red-assed frat boys, shit kicking burnouts, and basement-dwelling nerds. I counted myself among the latter in 1999, the year some bold capitalists decided to stack the biggest bands in Nü Metal on a megafestival bill alongside Dave Matthews Band and Counting Crows. Almost half a million fans attended. They were there to rap. They were there to rock. Above all, they were there to see some fuckin’ titties, man. It ended in literal flames.

It didn’t have to be this way. The group responsible for the Woodstock ’99 debacle also organized Woodstock ’94 and the original Woodstock Music & Art Fair. Of the three, only one of them wasn’t an utter disaster. Their incompetence destroyed Woodstock ’99.

To see the carnage of Woodstock’99 firsthand, to fear for your safety amid the looting and fires, to thirst for water and a usable port-a-potty… you’d have to ask someone that was actually there. In 1999 I was 12 years old and glued to the television as FOX presented a two-hour special of highlights from the festival. A wise adolescent, I had the foresight to tape the broadcast so that I could watch performances by Limp Bizkit and KoRn over and over and over. For months, I’d rewind the tape and watch my favorite 30-something white trash musical heroes rap about the cruelty of girls and parents as I flipped through the latest copy of Musician’s Friend catalog and pined after the 7-string guitars, my lack of which was surely a young man’s lone barrier to Nü Metal stardom.

I’ll have these performances burned into my mind until the day my memory finally gives out. I can see future Michigan congressman Robert James Ritchie taking the stage in a pristine white fur coat before delivering a throat-shredding, “My name is Kiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiid” and kicking into the bounce riff of “Bawitdaba”. I picture Fred Durst crooning George Michael‘s “Faith” while riding a discarded piece of plywood. I hear Rage Against the Machine‘s Tom Morello shredding the raddest fucking Nintendo guitar solo ever on “Know Your Enemy”. FOX took great care to highlight some of the best performances across the entire festival. (I’ve since watched untold hours of footage from this festival via the official VHS Woodstock ’99 release and, now, almost every full show on YouTube.) Tacked on at the tail end of the broadcast was a minute or two of somber reflection on the chaos that upended everything. The reason Woodstock ’99 is remembered beyond the fond Nü Metal memories of aging weirdos like me, is because the entire festival eventually got torn apart by attendees.

As KoRn and Limp Bizkit performed, witnesses reported seeing women being sexually assaulted. Later in the fest, as the Red Hot Chili Peppers covered “Fire” by Jimi Hendrix, an inferno swallowed an audio tower. Soon after, kids started additional fires with piles of discarded trash, eventually tearing apart fences, looting vendors, and ransacking toppled ATMs. Riot cops eventually came in and cleared out the festival grounds.

There was an immediate rush by the media to decry obscene rap/rock performers for riling up the hoodlum attendees and whipping them into a criminal fury. To this day, I see Woodstock ’99 held up as proof of the creative and moral rot inherent in youth culture and aggressive music. But it is incredibly lazy to place the whole of the blame for this disaster at the DC Shoe-wearing feet of Limp Bizkit fans. A group of worthless rapists certainly victimized innocent women, an inexcusable crime, but property destruction at the festival was result of a dangerous environment that was entirely the fault of Woodstock ’99s organizers.

Conditions were awful for festival-goers. After purchasing high-priced tickets, attendees were not allowed to bring in food nor water, instead forced to buy $4 bottles of water or stand in long lines for one of the few working water fountains. Temperatures reached 100 degrees during the day and there were no shady areas to cool down. Toilets and showers were woefully insufficient and quickly rendered unusable. Security was understaffed for an event hosting almost 500,000 people. Despite these negligent oversights, organizers made to sure to secure plenty of corporate sponsors and vendors, all eager to grab another dollar or two.

Most egregiously amid the media uproar was the chorus of professional scolds disdainfully remarking that Woodstock ’99 had somehow sullied the legacy of the original Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Yes, Woodstock ’99 was a shameless cash grab thrown together by greedy organizers. In that sense, it could not have been more similar to the first festival.

Nostalgia-addled Baby Boomers love to point to the original Woodstock as a peaceful Happening to celebrate love and anti-war sentiments. In reality, it was a FEMA-grade shitshow put together by a trust fund kid and a Capitol Records executive. The pair, alongside their two buddies, set out to make a few bucks off of hippies in the burgeoning counter cultural movement. The organizers willfully lied to the community about the size of the concert by selling 250,000 tickets for a space designated for 50,000. A total of 500,000 people showed up. After running out of food on the very first day of the festival, the Catskills community had to pitch in to make sandwiches for hundreds of thousands of hippies without food or water. It was delivered, alongside performers, via air lift from the nearby Air Force base. Hippies intercepted a food truck that was en route to the festival and looted it clean. Three kids died at the festival, and lord knows how many people were assaulted given the predatory nature of many during the “free love” era. None of these facts matter much to Baby Boomers, of course. Moralizing and self mythologizing tend to get in the way of genuine reflection.

Festival co-promoter John Scher blamed the chaos of Woodstock 99 on “an organized group, a cult, a club or something like that”.  I suppose reckoning with the reality that extremely fucked up things happen when hundreds of thousands of people are crammed together in awful conditions is much more difficult than simply blaming Fred Durst for causing the Nü Metal Altamont (The Altamont disaster, if you will recall, occurred mere weeks after the original Woodstock).

Woodstock ’99 was both the apex and nadir of Nü Metal. This new, dangerous amalgamation of rap and metal burst forth to headline the biggest festival of the late 90s. Once there it immediately shit the bed. The blame lies on Michael Lang and his fellow organizers for being so fucking bad at their jobs. Had they cut fewer corners we might still see festival lineups with Jewel and Insane Clown Posse side by side. Now we’re left with cookie cutter LiveNation and iHeartRadio festivals, each with damn near-identical lineups of buzzworthy rappers, DJs, indie rock, and a sprinkling of washed up reunion acts. Inexplicably, the Red Hot Chili Peppers will be at all of them.

This piece originally ran in Street Fight #5. You can find a physical copy here

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