Trainwreck or Clusterf#&k?: Unpacking Woodstock ’99

A new Netflix docuseries uncovers the controversial festival that serves as a disturbing sign of the times

Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 poster (Image: Netflix)

Last week, the second Woodstock ’99 doc in two years dropped, taking another look at the famously disastrous festival.

Last year, we had Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage on HBO Max, and now we have Netflix’s take on the festival, Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 (the original title was “Clusterfuck”). Both of these docs look at how the festival devolved into a Lord of the Flies type disaster.

 

VIDEO: Woodstock ’99 HBO Doc Trailer

It’s something that I’ve wondered about in the years since. I attended Woodstock ’99 and its much less newsworthy predecessor, Woodstock ’94. To be fair and in the name of full disclosure, my experience was different from most attendees at both. In ’94, I was interning at both a record label and a company that managed one of the day one performers. I camped in the press area, and even had a backstage pass for day one. 

In ’99, I was literally between jobs: I’d left my job at a radio company a few days earlier, because I was starting at MTV a few days after the festival (and right after I started, I was happy to not have been part of the crew onsite, for reasons that are clear to anyone who watched either documentary). Additionally, my girlfriend and I left Friday night to attend a family function Saturday afternoon, but we returned that night to catch Rage Against the Machine and Metallica. We slept in a bed in the media bunker. 

The main controversy in 1994 was era appropriate: is the Woodstock brand “selling out?” After all, the tickets were expensive for the time, and so was food, drink and merch (at least by 1994’s standards). Was this really the spirit of Woodstock? 

And then there was the artist lineup: while the original had early hard rock and metal influences like Jimi Hendrix, the Who and Mountain, the ’94 lineup was considerably more aggressive: Nine Inch Nails, Metallica, Cypress Hill, Rollins Band, Primus, Green Day and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Those bands hardly fit in with the “hippie dream” of Woodstock. 

The thing that ’69 and ’94 may have had on common – other than Joe Cocker, Crosby Stills & Nash, Santana, the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, and a few others, was that lots of people went to have a good time and see music, and that’s mainly what it’s remembered for (as well as, of course, NIN and Green Day’s muddy sets, both of which cemented them as legends).  Woodstock ’94 may have had a closer eye on the bottom line, but that was to be expected. 

 

VIDEO: Green Day at Woodstock ’94

But it was wild to me how different ’94 and ’99 were – how different they felt – even with a number of acts in common: Metallica, Live, Sheryl Crow and the Chili Peppers played both years. A big part of that difference can be laid squarely at the feet of the promoters and organizers. As you can see in both documentaries, John Scher and Michael Lang both seem to dodge any blame for the violence, sexual assault and destruction in ’99. One even questions why they would sit for interviews in both: neither of them do themselves any favors. 

The ‘94 festival took place on Winston Farm, near Saugerties, New York, 70 miles east of the original (tickets were $135 for the weekend, hard to believe that that seemed like a lot). Meanwhile, ’99 took place at Griffiss Air Force Base, which had been decommissioned, in Rome New York, about 100 miles away from the original (and tickets were $150).  

Being on an Air Force Base was a vibe, to be sure. But as a more practical matter, there was little shade, and not even that much grass: It was a festival that took place mostly on concrete. In July. On top of that, the promoters outsourced a lot of resources. Security was lax, water was too expensive, particularly given the heat, and prices rose as the weekend went on. You can watch either doc for the details, but when concert goers tried to replicate the muddy fun of ’94, they were surely not aware that they were playing in a combination of mud and feces. And that wasn’t even the worst part of the unsanitary conditions: One woman in the Netflix doc notes that she got “trench mouth” from drinking from the “free” water fountains. I’d never heard of that condition; feel free to Google it. It’s gnarly.  

 

VIDEO: Acute Necrotizing Ulcerative Gingivitis (aka Trench Mouth)

I remember getting there on Friday thinking, “This is waaaaay different than five years ago.” Culture had changed a lot. As the HBO doc points out, a new series of DVDs called “Girls Gone Wild” had influenced the behavoirs of a certain type of young man. 

Music had also changed a lot in five years. The HBO doc mentioned that in ’94, Michael Stipe and the already-late Kurt Cobain were huge cultural figures. But 1999 was a new, and uglier day. The Netflix doc notes that the big draws for the festival in ’99 was KoRn and Limp Bizkit, and that’s a very different kind of icon. As Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello remarked in the book Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, that he and his peers (Tool, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana) “were artistically forward-looking, combining elements of arena rock with artistry and punk. But they all had qualms about playing the same arenas that Poison was playing.” 

And he notes that “I’m quite confident that at the same time, record company executives in boardrooms across the nation were saying, ‘If only we can find a Rage Against The Machine that would make five videos per record.’” And, while he didn’t mention it, they probably would have preferred the bands not to have any political leanings at all; raging against mom and dad and your girlfriend is much easier to understand (and sell) than raging against the machine. 

KoRn and Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock (all of whom played ’99) were likely the exact types of bands that the labels hoped for. They thrived on MTV’s TRL and didn’t seem to have many qualms about doing anything to sell tons of records. They may have liked Nirvana, but Cobain’s issues were probably quaint to them. Or worse, irrelevant. When Kurt Cobain wrote in the liner notes to 1992’s Incesticide, “If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of a different color, or women, please do this one favor for us – leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.” He was likely talking to a lot of the bros who went on to become Limp Bizkit or Kid Rock fans. They were the dudes who liked Rage Against the Machine “but not the political stuff.” And, as we saw in the Netflix doc, they were marching around looting the vendor areas on Sunday night chanting “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” 

I was at the Sunday morning press conference, which was tense: things had gotten out of hand during Limp Bizkit’s set, and a lot of blame was being aimed at their frontman, Fred Durst. The media felt that Scher, Lang and their team had been totally negligent about everything. In the Netflix doc, both men admitted to knowing very little about some of the bands, or who their fans were. One staff member, who was 22 at the time, notes in the Netflix doc that he tried to warn them about the audiences of some of the bands, only to be ignored. 

Scher has, in recent years, put a lot of the blame on Durst. For Durst’s part, he told Variety, “Limp Bizkit is an easy target so bring it on. It’s easy to point the finger and blame [us], but they hired us for what we do — and all we did is what we do. I would turn the finger and point it back to the people that hired us.”

 

VIDEO: Limp Bizkit at Woodstock ’99

My girlfriend and I were determined to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers on Sunday night (I’d left in ’94 before they played, which I’d regretted). During their set, things were getting a bit wild, but when someone somehow drove a car onto the field, and the crowd flipped it and started throwing anything on fire on the car… we were like, “Time to go; we’ll see the Chili Peppers again.” 

Even having been at most of the festival, and seeing the HBO doc, I had no idea of how bad things got, until I watched Netflix’s. I knew that it was ugly, and that MTV’s crew left earlier than they’d planned to. I’d seen the video taken Monday morning of the aftermath. But the Netflix doc was horrifying on a whole new level. 

Could you ever replicate Woodstock? Of course not: it’s like saying that a guitarist is “the new Jimi Hendrix.” The conditions that led to Hendrix no longer exist. His instrumental guitar cover of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was a radical political statement in 1969. Today, professional sports teams invite members of Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to perform their own versions. There was never going to be a “new Hendrix,” a “new Dylan” or a new Woodstock. After the 1969 festival, it was a brand name. It was a brand name that was dented a bit in 1994, and it was a brand name that was tarnished in 1999. Both documentaries are interesting, in their own right, even as they made some weird choices: for one, a journalist in the Netflix one claimed that Fight Club was an influence on the rioters in ’99. In fact, it didn’t hit theaters until months after the festival.  Another dubious choice: even if they were in their legal rights to show footage of naked women at the festival, was it really the moral choice to do so? Especially as some of those women many have been assaulted at that very festival? 

To me, the more interesting question would have been, what changed so drastically in the five years between 1994 and 1999? 

Weirdly, Netflix also debuted another ‘90s throwback – Sandman – last week. The footage of Sunday night’s fires were eerily like how Sandman depicted Hell. There were a few other things that the footage reminded me of. The “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” rioters brought back memories of tiki-torch racist mob that chanted “Jews will not replace us!” in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017. 

It was also impossible not to notice the similarities between the mostly white Woodstock ’99 rioters and the mostly white domestic terrorists of January 6, 2021, furious that their guy lost a presidential election. Many people of color on Twitter have correctly noted that, had that been a festival with a mostly Black audience, the results would have been much different (something that many noted about 1/6 as well).

The more interesting – and probably more useful – documentary would have been to explore the differences between ’94 and ’99. Or, maybe even more useful would be to examine the parallels between Woodstock ’99 and January 6th, and figure out how many people were at both.

 

VIDEO: Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 Trailer

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David Seville

David Seville is a music enthusiast and journalist who has done time at MTV, VH1, SiriusXM and Loudwire, among other places.

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