Bonfire of the Vanities: A Look Back at Woodstock ’99

Michael Lang still can’t shake the spectre of 20 years ago when “3 Days of Peace, Love and Music” devolved into something worse than Altamont

Woodstock ’99 – the calm before the storm

As we rapidly approach the third decade of the 21st century, and 50 years removed from the original Woodstock, music festivals have become embroidered into the fabric of our lives as fans.

Events like Coachella and Bonnaroo in the U.S. and the Download Festival in the U.K. have become old hat, offering up a diverse menu of music and related activities and attracting tens of thousands of attendees. There are so many of the damn things these days that festival memories often fade beneath the clamor of rapidly-changing pop culture unless something goes horribly wrong. 

It wasn’t always like this, however – music festivals came of age during the restless decade of the 1960s, when a generation of youth had the leisure time and disposable income to support the promotion of massive events. The Newport Jazz Festival, founded in 1954, is perhaps the granddaddy of them all, still running and vital to this day. England’s legendary Reading Festival was launched in 1961, the promoters adding a second event in Leeds in 1999 that runs concurrent with the older festival. These are outliers, however, the vast majority of ‘60s and ‘70s-era events like the Monterey Pop Festival (1967), the Miami Pop Festival (1968), the Atlanta International Pop Festival (1969), or the Goose Lake International Music Festival (1970) were all one or two-time affairs that temporarily made a big splash only to be eclipsed by the next big event.  

 

VIDEO: The Stooges at the Goose Lake International Music Festival 1970

The most notorious festival of them all, however, is the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, held in August 1969. That historic event celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, with the festival’s co-promoter Michael Lang trying in vain to hold a 2019 event to rival the original. Ambitious even by the expectations of the era, the festival was held on Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York – some 40 miles south of the actual town of Woodstock. Nearly 186,000 advance tickets were sold, and promoters expected a crowd of around 200,000 souls. When over 400,000 young music fans showed up, most without tickets, choking off the highway, busting down the meager fencing surrounding the field and taxing the resources of the festival staff, Woodstock was proclaimed a “free festival.”

On top of the logistical nightmare of the event’s overpopulation, torrential rains interrupted the music, delayed performances, and made the field a muddy mosh-pit. In spite of the festival’s drawbacks, it’s fondly remembered as a historic cultural event. A total of 32 acts performed, launching talents like Melanie, Arlo Guthrie, and Crosby, Stills & Nash to stardom while cementing the legacies of artists like The Who, Jefferson Airplane, and Jimi Hendrix. Although the promoters took a bath on the actual festival, they staved off bankruptcy with the profitable release of the Academy Award-winning Woodstock film and a pair of best-selling soundtrack albums. 

 

VIDEO: Woodstock ’69 footage

Lang and his co-promoters have attempted to recapture the magic of the original Woodstock several times since, including a 25th anniversary festival held in 1994. Billed as “2 More Days of Peace and Music,” the festival poster mimicked the design of the original, as did the weekend’s weather. The three-day event, held in Saugerties, New York, was plagued by storms and larger than expected crowds, much like the 1969 event. Some 164,000 tickets were sold at $135 per, but an estimated half-million people showed up for the event, creating many of the same headaches as the first Woodstock. The music was provided by a mix of classic rock artists like Bob Dylan, Country Joe McDonald, and Joe Cocker and contemporary rockers like Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Blind Melon. 

 

VIDEO: Nine Inch Nails perform “Head Like A Hole” at Woodstock ’94

 

Undaunted by the meager success of the 1994 event, Lang et al went for another bite of the apple in 1999, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the original Woodstock with a festival held in Rome, New York. Prepared, somewhat, for the 400,000 people that showed up for the event, the promoters seemed to have learned the wrong lessons from their previous fiascos. The festival was held at the former Griffiss Air Force Base, an environmental disaster that was named a ‘Superfund’ site due to the presence of hazardous chemicals. To prevent gate-crashing, promoters erected 12’ plywood and steel fences to keep out interlopers, and 500 New York State Police troopers were hired for security…nope, nothing could go wrong there. 

What occurred was a figurative remake of the film Escape From New York, but without Snake Plissken to save the day. Much as they did with the 1994 festival, MTV offered the weekend’s musical performances on pay-per-view and provided constant live coverage over the weekend to entice homebound viewers to pony up for the whole show. The promoters lined up dozens of corporate sponsors – the “peace and love” ethics of the original festival were three decades past, after all – while vendor “malls” overcharged attendees, with widespread reports of $10 hotdogs and $4 bottles of water. There were too few toilets and showers for the number of concertgoers, and temperatures during the daytime hit 100 degrees or more with scorching sun. 

 

VIDEO: Kid Rock at Woodstock ’99

 

In an interview with USA Today after the festival, MTV’s Kurt Loder described the scene as “dangerous to be around. The whole scene was scary. There were just waves of hatred bouncing around the place…it was like a concentration camp. To get in, you get frisked to make sure you’re not bringing in any water or food that would prevent you from buying from their outrageously priced booths. You wallow around in garbage and human waste. There was a palpable mood of anger.” Fifteen years after the event, writer Daniel Kreps penned “19 Worst Things About Woodstock ‘99” for a July 2014 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, calling the festival “one of modern concert-going’s biggest debacles.” 

In his opening paragraph, Kreps writes “Woodstock ’99 was supposed to celebrate the 30th anniversary of “peace, love and happiness.” Instead, the Rome, New York festival earned the infamous distinction of “the day the Nineties died.” There were tons of contributing factors that made the fest the anti-Woodstock: Organizers trying to wring every last dollar from festivalgoers from exorbitant ticket prices to costly water bottles, a festival site built atop hot tarmac in late-July heat, a poorly curated and scheduled lineup and an angry, aggressive crowd that left a charred festival site and sexual assaults in its wake.”

The moment Woodstock ’99 became Lord of the Flies

In an October 1999 article in Rolling Stone, reporters Steven Mirkin and Marlene Goldman contrasted that year’s Woodstock festival with the inaugural Coachella event, held in the low desert community of Indio, California some 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles. The two wrote that “the promoters studied successful European festivals such as Glastonbury and Redding and took note of the tragic mistakes of Woodstock earlier this year.” Citing more reasonably-priced amenities like $2 bottles of water (plus concertgoers got a free bottle when entering the grounds) and $5 beer, Mirkin and Goldman deemed the “experience was positive from beginning to end.” Sure, the crowds were less than half those in Rome, though still numbering in the tens of thousands, but that was also a positive feature as “you never experienced the claustrophobic conditions that afflicted even one-day events such as Lollapalooza.”

SPIN Magazine November 1999 issue

In the November 1999 issue of Spin magazine, reporter David J. Prince, in his article “Peace, Love, Sexual Assault” wrote “the indelible images of Woodstock ’99 will forever remain the fiery riots and rampant nudity, but an even more troubling picture emerged in the weeks that followed the July 23-25 festival. New York State Police announced they were investigating eight charges of rape and sexual assault that occurred during the event.” Promoters denied the allegations, stating that “the security was sufficient for a crowd of 200,000 and maintain that it satisfied the requirements of New York’s mass-gathering statues.” Still, Woodstock co-promoter John Scher admitted that the event’s security strategy worked on the assumption that the crowd would “to some degree police themselves.” At the end of the article, Scher says of the assaults that “it was and remains devastating that this was taking place,” adding that “I think, in some respects, the generation was irresponsible and they gave me and themselves the finger.” In that same issue of Spin, former frontman of punk legends the Clash Joe Strummer sided with the kids, saying “any schmuck who puts on a festival without good, free drinking water available at a thousand points around the site shouldn’t be in business.” 

When the controversy around the 30th anniversary Woodstock festival finally settled months later, all that was left was the music, a portion of which was collected on a 2-CD set Woodstock 99. With thirty-three bands represented across the two discs, the sound ranges in styles from middle-of-the-road schlock and folk-rock to rap and heavy metal. As with any affair of this sort, there’s a lot of crap floating atop the pop culture cesspool, and a large helping of it can be found on the festival soundtrack. Bands like Lit, Live, Buckcherry, Bush, Limp Bizkit, Our Lady Peace, Godsmack, Creed, and Sevendust should never have been allowed on stage and were seemingly included on the compilation via the intervention of some label exec with a warped idea of “synergy,” in spite of these bands’ truly forgettable performances.

 

VIDEO: Metallica, Woodstock ’99

 

Here’s what’s good about Woodstock ’99: the set is broken down into two discs, the hard rock red disc and the softer blue disc. Inspired moments from the red disc include Korn rocking the house with a fine reading of “Blind,” Rage Against the Machine turning in their usual incendiary performance with “Bulls On Parade,” and the Red Hot Chili Peppers offering a decent rendering of Hendrix’s “Fire.” Kid Rock, embarrassing in the best of his moments, kicks out a truly reckless live version of “Bawitdaba” while metal veterans Metallica and Megadeth show the young pups how its done with smokin’ performances of “Creeping Death” and “A Secret Place,” respectively. 

The blue disc is where the producers of Woodstock 99 stuck anything that didn’t fit into a hard rock/heavy metal mold – if it’s noisy, it’s on the red disc; everything else is blue. This segregation led to some interesting sequencing, such as Jewel following the Brian Setzer Orchestra or the Chemical Brothers leading into the Roots. Since this version of the Woodstock festival was definitely a testosterone-soaked affair, many of the blue disc artists seem out of place, although a number of them provided exemplary performances. Everclear’s enthusiasm shines brightly on the otherwise insipid “Santa Monica,” the Roots provided a lively performance of “Adrenaline,” and the Chemical Brothers’ techno rave-up “Block Rockin’ Beats” translated surprisingly well onto the stage. 

 

VIDEO: Elvis Costello, Woodstock ’99

 

Elvis Costello’s bittersweet reading of “Alison,” with audience members chiming in on the chorus, might well be the festival’s artistic high point, and Everlast’s haunting acoustic reading of “Ends” is a fine work combining a rap mentality with the talking blues tradition. The bulk of the festival’s line-up of performers was chosen not out of any artistic consideration but rather on the strength of their box office value. This explains the overabundance of hard rock outfits, the genre being the commercial flavor of the moment at the turn of the century. As these things go, Woodstock 99 is an accurate representation of the 30th anniversary festival, warts and all, worthwhile if only for the few true gems hidden so well beneath the mass of mediocrity.

Hoping, perhaps, that thoughts of this horrendous affair twenty years past have faded from the culture’s shared memory, Michael Lang has been trying to put together a Woodstock festival for 2019. The beleaguered promoter allegedly began thinking about the festival’s possibilities as long ago as 2014, and in December 2018 he told reporter John W. Barry of the Poughkeepsie Journal that he had “definite plans” for a 50th anniversary concert with a goal of re-capturing the “history and essence of what Woodstock was.” A month later, Lang announced that the official Woodstock 50th Anniversary Festival would be held in August 2019 in Watkins Glen, New York with some of the same artists who graced the stage of the original event, including Carlos Santana, David Crosby, Melanie, Country Joe McDonald, and Canned Heat.

Poster for Woodstock 50

Sadly, Lang was unable to pull off the hat trick – in April, it was announced that Woodstock 50 had been cancelled by its investors, the Dentsu Aegis Network (the British subsidiary of a Japanese advertising and PR company – it’s a small world after all, innit?). Lang told the New York Times in late April that the show was still going to happen, which he reaffirmed in a June interview with Rolling Stone magazine, in spite of the event’s loss of funding and venue (Watkins Glen cancelling the event, citing a missed payment of $150,000 as the cause). Lang told Rolling Stone that organizers had applied for a permit for Vernon Downs, a combination racetrack, casino, and hotel near Utica, New York which could accommodate as many as 65,000 concertgoers. At presstime, a concert is scheduled for mid-August at Merriweather Post Pavillion in Maryland, though without the benefit of an official lineup as they all bailed.

With his planned anniversary festival less than a month and with no venue, ostensibly no funding, and with no tickets sold, Lang told Rolling Stone that “I’m kind of an optimist.” Concerning the possibility of a festival this year, Lang added “we’ll see…” It’s unlikely that the promoter will be able to pull this rabbit out of his hat, leaving the controversial 1999 Woodstock festival as an unpalatable coda to the generational event that occurred 50 years ago in (relatively) tranquil Bethel, New York.  

 

VIDEO: The aftermath of Woodstock ’99

 

Rev. Keith A. Gordon

RockandRollGlobe contributor Rev. Gordon is an award-winning music critic with 40+ years experience writing for publications like Blues Music magazine and Blurt. Follow him on Twitter @reverendgordon.

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