Part 10: 1999: By the time we got to Woodstock 99 …

Part 10: 1999: By the time we got to Woodstock 99 …

“It’s worth noting throughout history, kids come around the corner to a multitude of casualties.”—The Hold Steady, “Multitude Of Casualties”

In late July 1999, I found myself in the midst of a temporary civilization, a new land with its own laws and mores. It was formed by pilgrims seeking refuge from an outside world that couldn’t comprehend them. These people had traveled hundreds of miles to arrive at this place. For them, months of eager anticipation had finally culminated. It was my job to make sense of it all for curious onlookers, and it wasn’t going to be easy. I was now an outsider among outsiders.

Of course I’m referring to EAA AirVenture, the annual aviation convention presented by the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

EAA AirVenture is one of the biggest tourist draws in northeastern Wisconsin; more than 700,000 people come every year to stare at airplanes and camp at EAA’s Camp Scholler for a week. In summer 1999, I was working as an intern for my hometown newspaper, The Post-Crescent, applying the skills I had learned in journalism school to get to the bottom of every county fair, strawberry festival, and drill team car-wash fundraiser in the tri-county area. If you were idly attending a community gathering in my town and expected to duck a thorough interrogation about whether you were enjoying your corn-on-the-cob, you had another think coming, mister. I considered myself a top-flight practitioner of sunburned-foot-and-sandal journalism. 

As I prowled the grounds of the camp in search of the appropriate quotes to fill out 18 column inches in tomorrow’s afternoon edition, I introduced myself to a nice-looking middle-aged couple from Northern California. Let’s call them Jann and Janis. After a few stock questions about AirVenture, my conversation with Jann and Janis veered toward another mass gathering that had wrapped up a few days earlier about 1,000 miles away in upstate New York. 

Woodstock 99 ended up being a much bigger news story after it ended than in the days and weeks leading up to the second sequel to the iconic late-’60s rock festival. People were still talking about how the three-day event starring some of the biggest names in rock music at the time—including Korn, Limp Bizkit, Rage Against The Machine, and Kid Rock—had ended with fires, looting, and riots. The Washington Post wrote, “the festival site resembled a surreal war zone,” the result of unabated chaos where festival-goers ransacked vendor trucks, demolished ATMs, and knocked down any portable toilets that weren’t already falling over from an excess of human waste. It took an hour for around 700 New York state troopers outfitted in riot gear to finally descend on the melee and—according to at least one eyewitness account later disputed by authorities—start beating on kids with clubs for stealing CDs and other offenses. “Such images suggested a different time and a different place,” the Post observed. “It almost seemed that both sides were playing out roles that had been written by a previous generation.”

Jann and Janis were members of that previous generation, and they were absolutely disgusted by what had transpired at Woodstock 99. To them, Woodstock was a beacon of utopian idealism—a sacrosanct emblem of the good their generation had wrought so many years ago. They were dismayed that these kids had come along and ruined everything. As far as Jann and Janis were concerned, it was outrageous that the current crop of young people apparently couldn’t handle ingesting illegal drugs and swapping bodily fluids in substandard living conditions for three days without going a little nuts. After all, they had done it and it worked fine for them. Clearly, times had changed for the worse. Still, there was no reason to return the receipt on the Woodstock myth just because it went horribly wrong this time. 

The most commonly cited moment for when Woodstock 99 officially went off the rails came during the festival-closing set Sunday night by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It began when an anti-gun activist group passed out candles that were supposed to be lit once the band performed its biggest hit, “Under The Bridge.” People had already been setting fires amid the mountains of garbage that had accumulated on the grounds of Griffiss Air Force Base throughout the afternoon, so handing out objects intended to be flammable must’ve seemed like an invitation to really light the place up. Then the Chili Peppers played a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire,” and the rest, as they say, is history. 

The guy in the video trying to talk 200,000 people out of burning Woodstock 99 to the ground is one of the festival’s promoters, John Scher. If you think he looks uncomfortable in this clip, you should’ve seen Scher in Woodstock’s ashen aftermath, when he and the other organizers were intensely scrutinized for their perceived greed and callousness.  

After losing money on the first Woodstock sequel in 1994, Scher told reporters at Woodstock 99 that he was determined “to try and make a profit on this one.” Organizers were later criticized for charging $150 a ticket ($180 at the gate) and $5 for beer, though those prices now seem comparable to festivals of similar size and stature. Less excusable was how decisions vital to the functionality of Woodstock 99 were made according to the tightest of tightwad standards. According to an exhaustive on-site report by Spin, Scher and his partners dutifully cut every corner to save money. Vendors weren’t provided with proper plumbing, so they were forced to create their own makeshift set-ups. Teenagers hired to pick up the garbage quit after the first day when they weren’t given water; the detritus rapidly overflowed out of trash bins when nobody was hired to replace them. Worst of all was the site itself, a former toxic waste dump located about 200 miles from the original Woodstock site. Griffiss was a stark, treeless, triangle-shaped terrain composed mostly of concrete and formed by two runway strips lined with junk-food stands and corporate hawkers of youth-oriented crapola. 

Beyond the cheapskate charges, the people behind Woodstock 99 were accused of negligence when it came to addressing instances of sexual assault. Among the festival’s most shameful statistics—which included 44 arrests and a staggering 10,000 people receiving medical treatment—were reports that eight women had been raped, often by multiple people in the middle of mosh pits that raged as bands performed. Two weeks after Woodstock 99, the National Organization For Women staged a protest outside of Scher’s New York office, asserting that he and fellow promoter Michael Lang intended to “deny the rapes occurred, to dismiss their importance, and to blame the victims.” Spin reported that a Woodstock employee had told NOW that “security, production staff, and promoters knew about the rapes” as they occurred during the festival and “refused to alert law enforcement because of the ubiquity of drugs on site.” 

Scher denied the claims, insisting instead that the ugliness of Woodstock 99 reflected a larger moral chasm in the souls of the attendees. “I think, in some respects, the generation was irresponsible and they gave me and themselves the finger,” Scher told Spin. He wasn’t the only one who felt that Woodstock 99 amounted to a big “fuck you!” from legions of incorrigible kids. More than one writer likened Woodstock 99 to The Day Of The Locust, the 1939 Nathanael West novel about wanton sin and alienation in Los Angeles that ends with mob violence. 

Others rushed to blame the bands for pushing the audience to commit random acts of depravity. “What caused this powder-keg to blow, unlike its sister festival 30 years ago?” asked the San Francisco Examiner’s Jane Ganahl, nudging heavily in the direction of “the worst perpetrator,” Limp Bizkit, who was widely pilloried in the press for playing songs like “Break Stuff” as fans were dismantling the 12-foot security fence circling the grounds and crowd-surfing on the plywood pieces. “Irresponsible: There’s no other word for Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst” Salon.com’s Jeff Stark wrote. “He’s goading the crowd, pumping them up, higher and higher. It’s beyond working them into enjoying the show. He’s encouraging the pit, working them into a frenzy.”

In all of the criticism that came down on Woodstock 99, what never seemed to be questioned was the original Woodstock itself. Ganahl was typical in steadfastly refusing to take off her rose-colored glasses, insisting that the 1969 festival was marred only be “a few bad LSD trips and injuries mostly sustained from excessive love-making.” Actually, it was a little worse than that. Two people died at the original Woodstock; one from a drug overdose, the other from being run over by a tractor. And the grounds were reduced to such squalor that New York governor Nelson Rockefeller declared it a disaster area. 

Nevertheless, considering what could have gone wrong given how anarchic the festival was, Woodstock was a considered a sort of happy accident, if not a full-fledged miracle. In a video commemorating the 40th anniversary of Woodstock produced by that famed counter-cultural rag The Wall Street Journal, Scher and Lang speak moonily about how “no one ever imagined that mass of humanity gathering in any one place for anything” and how “we were grabbing freedom in every direction we could.” While Woodstock 99 understandably wasn’t mentioned in the celebratory video, grabbing freedom in every direction was very much a part of that festival, too. “Letting it all hang out” was Woodstock’s raison d’être: It was a sloppily constructed sphere where everybody could do anything to anybody, and nobody was held responsible. The idea that this could be replicated (or should be replicated) suggests that Woodstock 99 wasn’t so much a reflection of soulless contemporary youth, but of overcooked ’60s romanticism taken to its inevitably extreme and destructive conclusion. Of all people, rap-folkie Everlast seemed to be the only Woodstock 99 participant to understand this at the time. “All those people are nostalgic for something that happened 30 years ago,” he told Spin. “I don’t think anything real came out of that first experience—it was just three days of sex and drugs and ‘Oh, the world is such a great place!’ Then they went home, became yuppies, and fucked the whole country up.”

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Initial media reports about Woodstock 99 focused on the violence on the festival’s final night. But lawlessness ruled at the festival from the very beginning. The organizers had originally committed to a “Peace Patrol” force of 1,200 security guards, but it’s unclear if the detail ever came close to that amount. By Saturday morning, only 175 guards had signed in, and it’s likely at least some of those workers quit in the middle of their shifts. (Reports of guards shedding their uniforms and joining the party were not uncommon.) Security staff began quitting almost as soon as they were hired. Cheap labor had been rounded up at the local unemployment office, but public assistance was preferable to security work at Woodstock 99, where guards were given low pay and two meals a day in exchange for back-breaking shifts that lasted up to 14 hours. Organizers were so desperate for help that they eventually recruited 40 prison guards from local jails to look after the prisoners of the Woodstock asylum. 

The shabby security can be chalked up in part to the cheapness of the whole Woodstock 99 operation, but it also reflected a laissez-faire attitude that was an indelible part of Woodstock’s history. When pressed for answers about Woodstock’s disastrous closing night, Scher admitted to Spin that he assumed the crowd would “to some degree police themselves.” As it turned out, even the security guards were stealing from one another at Woodstock 99. (“We chipped in to have our own security person,” one guard told Spin.) At the gates, the focus was less on safety than on keeping out carry-in food and beverages. Some guards bartered with attendees trying to sneak in drugs; $20 was said to buy entry for mushrooms. 

Once fans were past the gates, security became much less visible. Guards were instructed to look the other way when it came to sex and drugs; they were only supposed to step in to stop violence, though that proved to be easier said than done. Organizers had provided the space and the bands, but it was up to the people to create the life-altering orgy of physical and chemical delights that constituted the real Woodstock experience. It was time for a new generation to create their own fodder for future Woodstock retrospectives, inhibitions (and common decency) be damned. 

Stories of what occurred inside Woodstock 99 range from ridiculous (like the one about the stolen Mercedes Benz that somebody somehow snuck through the gate and drove to within 80 yards of the stage) to salacious (like how the desert-like temperatures made naked body parts more mundane on the grounds than cargo shorts) to depressing and flat-out terrifying. 

Sexual domination by the strong over the weak was as casual as a peck on the cheek at Woodstock 99, and seemingly so pervasive that the eight reported rapes seem like only the tip of a pitch-black iceberg. Rock critic Rob Sheffield observed as much while covering the festival for Rolling Stone. At one point Sheffield comes across a group of guys sitting on a trailer and aggressively encouraging every woman passing by to expose themselves: 

They point out girls in the pedestrian gantlet and chant, “Show your tits!” Goon accomplices on the ground find the girls and surround them. Other goons walking by join the huddle with their cameras. They goons on the trailer chant, “Pick her up! Pick her up!' Two short girls with backpacks are surrounded by a mob of about 60 guys. As the “Pick them up” chant gets louder, the girls undo their bra tops, the cameras flash, and the trailer guys spot another target.

Later Sheffield catches up with the women to ask if they were frightened: 

“Yes,” they say in unison. “There was no way out,” the brunette tells me. “It was either show ’em or you don’t get out.” 

“There was no choice,” the blonde says. When I ask whether they plan to report this to security, they look at me like I’m from Mars.

Sheffield’s experience reads like a cute flirtation among photogenic would-be lovers in an Amy Adams romantic comedy compared with the horrors of the Woodstock 99 mosh pits. Some of the most hellish experiences happened during Korn’s Friday night performance; Spin estimated that people were carried away on stretchers every three minutes, mostly because they kept ODing. But Dave Schneider, who was working at Woodstock’s Crisis Intervention Unit, kept his eyes fixed on the front of the stage. From Spin:

Suddenly, Schneider saw a crowd-surfing woman get swallowed up by the pit; when she re-emerged, two men had clamped her arms to her sides. “She was giving a struggle,” said Schneider. “Her clothes were physically and forcibly removed.” Yet no one nearby seemed to react. Schneider said that the woman and one of the men fell to the ground for about 20 seconds; then, he said, she was passed to his friend, who raped her, standing from behind. “The gentlemen’s pants were down, her pants were down, and you could see there was clearly sexual activity,” he said. Finally, the woman was pulled from the pit by some audience members, who handed her to security.

Schneider told Spin he witnessed five other women similarly assaulted during Korn’s set, though he couldn’t say for certain that they were all raped.

Korn and Limp Bizkit took the most heat for the acts of sexual degradation that took place during their Woodstock 99 performances. But women were also assaulted during female-friendly acts like Alanis Morissette, including the person who recounted the following to Spin

“I don’t know how they got me,” she said. “There were about three guys on each arm and each leg, and then three or four right inside me with their hands. One guy put his hand inside my anus. Another guy was yelling, ‘Rip her apart!’”

Because it was Woodstock, and it was the end of the ’90s, there was already so much baggage affixed to what happened at Woodstock 99 that commentators couldn’t resist tying the event’s laundry list of crimes and casualties to some grand generational statement. But grasping for meaning in the festival’s structural and emotional wreckage proved to be fruitless. Rolling Stone’s Jenny Eliscu was among those who whiffed: “It’s a picture of a generation that might answer the question, ‘What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?’ with a punch in the nose,” she wrote.

In fairness to Eliscu, it was only obvious in hindsight what Woodstock 99 really signified, which was the end of the conceit that a rock festival could actually be a metaphor for what an entire youth culture represented. Today, grouping hundreds of thousands of people together to enjoy live music is hardly a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon; it’s not even a once-a-year phenomenon. It would be silly to look at Coachella, Bonnaroo, or Lollapalooza as anything more than enjoyable (or possibly just overrated) entertainment events. These festivals come around at the same time every year, they stick around for a several days, and then they disappear until a similar amalgam of bands appears somewhere else a few months later. 

There was a paradigm shift in ’99, but it didn’t grow out of the piles of mud and shit at Woodstock. Instead, it started that January with a freshman student at Boston’s Northeastern University, who was inspired to buy a programming book because he wanted to write easy-to-use software for exchanging digital music files between two (or exponentially more) hard drives. By December, the Recording Industry Association Of America was in court filing suit against that student, Shawn Fanning, and the company he created, Napster. But by then, Napster was quickly growing into something far larger than Woodstock, Woodstock 99, and every other rock festival put together. In January 2000, Napster had just over 1 million users; by August, it grew to 6.7 million. By the end of 2000, Fanning would tell Rolling Stone that Napster had an “info base” of 38 million people.

Napster motivated anyone who wasn’t already on the Internet to hop online and join the gravy train. Why have only three days in the pleasure garden when you could now live there? Suddenly, the idea of paying $150 just to harass women into doffing their tops or perpetrate violence on strangers in unfriendly and aesthetically displeasing surroundings seemed like an unnecessary chore, if not out-and-out archaic. Now naked breasts in all shapes and sizes were instantly accessible at a moment’s notice, for free, in the privacy of your own home. And Internet anonymity made verbal violence against millions an ideal (and fingerprint-less) way to virtually “break stuff,” so to speak. 

In the first Whatever Happened To Alternative Nation? column, I wrote about being glad in retrospect that “I was just an ignorant kid stuck in a nowhere town where nothing cool seemed to happen” when I was 13 back in 1990, because there’s a certain allure to having to search for what you want rather than have it handed to you, unearned. That’s how I feel now, but at the time, I would’ve regarded the advent of the Internet as a dream come true. When I was a kid, I had this fantasy about having a room in my house where every album ever made was stored. Little did I know that this would not only come true for me by the end of the ’90s, but for anybody with a high-speed Internet connection.

It makes sense that having greater access to music has made me love music more and more as I get older. I’m not just talking about technological access; I also mean the personal access I have to all the songs that have meant something to me as I’ve moved in and out of the stages of my life. I’ve never loved more bands and albums than I love right now, and I’ll certainly discover more to love by this time next week, next month, next year, so on. Through the music, I’ve dialogued with past versions of myself, taking stock of what I’ve learned, what I’ve forgotten, what I’ve gained, and what I’ve lost. At its core, Whatever Happened To Alternative Nation? was as much about getting reacquainted with the person I used to be as the bands I once obsessed over. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from sifting through the sands of my past, it’s that the music I liked can’t be extracted from my experiences and judged on its own terms. It’s like trying to take a bass line out of the context of a song, and expecting to make sense of it without looking at how it communicates with the other parts of the whole.    

I’ve found that if a particular artist or album didn’t age well for me, it was at least partially due to a particular period of my life not aging well for me. Grunge, in particular, instantly conjures a version of myself I’d just as soon forget. That guy was horribly awkward, shy, self-centered, petulant, and wracked by low self-confidence. He didn’t have any real friends, and suspected that girls would never come around to liking him. He had no real concept of how the world worked, and his opinions on most subjects were trite and embarrassing. He spent way too much time feeling sorry for himself when he should’ve been investigating more effective means of disguising the various odors emitting from his body. 

I’ve gotten to know that part of myself again over the course of this series, trying my best to understand him without judgment. In the process, old CDs that I bought almost 20 years ago seem fresh again. Sometimes, I take them off the shelf and just stare at them; everything else my 13-year-old self owned is gone now. Only the music remains. 

Many readers have commented on how grunge was a corporate marketing construct intended to trick gullible teenagers into buying into a fabricated alternative rock “revolution.” They’ve said grunge didn’t last more than a few years, and therefore isn’t important or worth discussing. I might have said the same not that long ago. But I now know those people are wrong. My own personal history tells me so. Grunge set me off on a journey I’m still on. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and their peers used rock stardom as a vehicle for exposing gullible teenagers like me to parts of life that were previously obscured or hidden from mainstream view. Records, movies, books, ideas—all it took was a casual reference to something you’d never heard of an in interview or an album’s liner notes to point you toward another avenue to explore, which then led to more avenues. These bands don’t matter? My God, if you were like me, they gave you the world.

This music changed me. It was important to me. I guess it always will be.

Filed Under: Music, Best Of 2011

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