Friday, August 5, 2022

We learned little from the horrors of the disastrous Woodstock ’99

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NEtflix’s new three-part series on the outright horror show Woodstock ’99 begins in a suitably dramatic fashion. “Is this Bosnia?” asks a festival-goer as he peers through the rubble of the three-day event that was less about “peace and love” and more about “violence and arson.” The air is thick with smoke from freshly extinguished fires. Upturned porta pots lie among the ashes. Huge lighting installations lay flat on the ground. If you thought the 6am scene at Glastonbury’s stone circle was chaotic, you haven’t seen it.

Train wreck: Woodstock ’99 describes an event that seemed doomed from the start. Michael Lang, who organized the original 1969 Woodstock festival when he was just 24, was never keen on doing another. A 25th anniversary event in 1994 was a bust with lax security and two on-site fatalities. In an interview filmed before his death earlier this year at the age of 77, Lang admits he found it impossible to recreate that free and easy-going spirit of the late 1960s, when young people came together to Vietnam to show that there was a kinder way of doing things. In fact, it was another disaster that convinced him to relaunch the festival — the Columbine school shooting in April 1999. Lang’s goal was to bring young Americans together and show them a world free of violence, and that one peaceful way was possible. Unfortunately, the chaotic scene that unfolded seemed as much the fault of the festival organizers as it was the weather. Now, 23 years later, they still refuse to take the blame.

Woodstock ’99 was a perfect storm of angry, wild kids, sweltering heat and a production crew who cared little for the welfare of the 250,000 people who bought tickets to the three-day festival. Unlike the rolling, grassy hills of the idyllic 1969 version, Woodstock ’99 took place in July 1999 in the rather unspectacular setting of a military base in Rome, New York. Although temperatures in excess of 38C were forecast for the weekend, water and food were taken away from participants when they arrived on site. The base – a paved airstrip – also severely lacked shade. “Oh my god, there’s a lot of asphalt,” recalls one of the production team after seeing the location for the first time.

The line-up was also completely different from the original festival. Where Woodstock ’69 had the folksy styles of the Grateful Dead, The Band, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Woodstock ’99 featured the mosh-pit mayhem of Limp Bizkit, Korn, and Kid Rock, all playing to the slogan, “It’s not your parents’ Woodstock.

Watch after Train wreck: Woodstock ’99 has a special intimacy. Although I wasn’t there, a month later I was at my very first festival. Reading 1999 played host to many of the same bands, including Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Offspring, and while there certainly wasn’t that much horrific violence, clips of teenagers running wild after dark definitely rang a few bells. As are mentions of groping in the middle of the crowd. Footage of swirling mosh pits brought me right back to that dingy weekend in Berkshire 23 years ago and made me glad I’m old and confident enough now to be telling wayward hands in a crowd where to go.

Sheryl Crow was one of the first acts in the ill-fated Woodstock reboot and already an aggressive element was making itself felt in the crowd, with men shouting at the star to “show us your tits”. This escalated throughout the weekend with numerous sexual assaults and four reported rapes. Add to that a lack of trained security staff – a lesson festival organizers should have learned from, but last year’s Astroworld tragedy proves they didn’t – and the young audience was as dangerous as they were vulnerable. One of the most harrowing moments in the new documentary comes as we are told about an incident during Fatboy Slim’s set where a truck is impounded and driven into the crowd. Someone then frostily describes seeing a passed out and naked young girl in the back of the van, a man towering over her, his pants buckled.

Countless women have been groped in the crowd and we are shown horrible clips of having to physically remove strangers’ hands from their breasts. Festival promoter John Scher is doing a terrible job of taking responsibility for such attacks. “There were a lot of women who would voluntarily take their tops off, you know,” he says, shrugging. “And then you get into a mosh pit, get surfed by the crowd – could someone have touched her boobs? Yes, I’m sure they did. What could I have done about it? I’m not sure there’s anything I could have done.” How about security throwing the culprits out, John?! How about a zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment? Try harder, John.

By the last night, bettors were so upset with the conditions — drinking fountains were polluted with water from toilets, causing Trenchmouth cases, and the price of bottled water had risen to an outrageous $12 — that anarchy reigned in full the Cards. When an alleged secret tip from Prince/Bob Dylan/Guns ‘N Roses didn’t materialize at the end of the festival, Woodstock ’99 began to eat itself. 100,000 candles for a gun violence vigil were distributed without the firefighter’s knowledge, which were used to start huge bonfires in the crowd. Trucks and tankers were also set on fire.

The mob mentality quickly plummeted and stalls were looted, lighting fixtures torn down and ATMs ripped to pieces. While the production staff barricaded themselves in their offices, state police officers arrived with batons and shields to shut down the festival.

It is interesting that despite the shortcomings of the staff, most of the players interviewed in Train wreck: Woodstock ’99 had a good time. A great time indeed – something they say has been reinforced by the sense of chaos. I’m sure the girl in the van and the molesters wouldn’t give the same response, but for some of these kids, the first taste of freedom was an eye-opener. Still, that’s no excuse for the festival’s organizers refusing to be responsible for what happened at Woodstock ’99. And with Michael Lang dead and John Scher still convinced there’s nothing he can do, it looks like a proper apology will never materialize.

Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 is streaming now on Netflix

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