Woodstock '99, a sprawling three-day festival marking the '60s counterculture's epic celebration of peace and love, ended badly.
During the Red Hot Chili Peppers set Sunday night, concertgoers lit fires, vandalized the food trucks, set a vending area on fire and pulled down one of the sound towers near the East Stage.
Initially the fires seemed to be just another of the dozens of spontaneous celebrations occurring offstage, starting small as concertgoers ignited scraps of cardboard, pizza boxes and plastic bottles. They grew into bonafide conflagrations when sections of the wooden "Peace Fence," erected by promoters to keep gatecrashers out, were added to the flames. A vending tent was torched and people began looting, taking T-shirts and distributing them throughout the crowd. Twelve tractor-trailers were set ablaze, their contents of soda and merchandise stolen. Police in riot gear arrived to protect the vendors' remaining property.
Even as the potential for serious injury increased, a festive atmosphere prevailed. At one point, a merry prankster's voice came over the loudspeaker: "Please pick up all garbage and throw it into the fire." Soon after came another announcement: "Woodstock is now under martial law. Anyone here who has a good time will be shot. Anybody with a Woodstock MasterCard will be spared"--a reference to the commemorative credit card being peddled during the festival.
Police were vastly outnumbered by the thousands in attendance, and not all the concertgoers were pleased by the turn of events. "I hate it. I don't want Woodstock to be remembered for this. Up until now, this was peaceful--no fights," said James Baker, 20.
Even before the fires, the festival seemed characterized by belligerence. If the essence of the 1969 original could be distilled into a single gesture--the two-fingered peace sign--Woodstock '99 might be best represented by a raised middle finger.
The thousands of people amassed Saturday to hear Detroit metal rapper Kid Rock greeted him with his customary one-finger salute. During Everclear's set, frontman Art Alexakis sent out "a big [expletive] you to the people who tried to make this a commercial venture." But Limp Bizkit vocalist Fred Durst best summed up the spirit of Woodstock '99: "This is 1999 . . . . Stick those Birkenstocks up your [expletive]."
Still, there was more to Woodstock '99 than expletives and ashes. The festival, which drew more than 200,000 people to a former air base now known as Griffiss Park, offered a wide range of music: the testosterone hip-hop of DMX, the girlie folk of Jewel, the neo-swing of Brian Setzer, the electronic wizardry of the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim.
There was also a wide array of drugs to choose from. "Basically, you have all the food groups represented here," said one emergency medical technician. "Marijuana, acid, mushrooms, crystal meth. Ecstasy seems to be very big. And hallucinogens--a lot of hallucinogens."
Maybe searching for a larger meaning behind Woodstock '99 is an impossible endeavor. The purpose of this installment of the Woodstock festival was not as clear as it was back in '69, when the original, rightfully famous festival at Max Yasgur's farm helped define a generation.
Maybe the meaning of Woodstock is like notions of integrity, God or good manners, concepts that mean different things to different people. The Woodstock '99 experience was largely shaped by what drugs you consumed, what music you listened to, whether you moshed or raved, where you slept, whom you slept with or whether you slept at all. Most people seemed to get what they were looking for, whether it was music, mushrooms or just a good time.
"This is not about peace or anything like that," said Vincent Sainato, 24. "It's one big party."
"We're not here to recapture the spirit. We're not here to redo what they did in '94," said Charlie Saunier, 23, a student at Clemson University. "We're here to make our own mark in the millennium. In a society where all you hear about is murder and death, here's all these people that can get along and have a good time."
Backstage on Friday night, two members of the Los Angeles hard-rock band Buckcherry talked about the meaning--or lack thereof.
"We're really glad to be part of a historic event," deadpanned guitarist Keith Nelson, who clearly didn't mean it. "Seriously--Woodstock is a really good excuse to have a party."
Vocalist Joshua Todd corrected him. "It's just somewhere to sell some acid," he scoffed.
Robbie Bellon, a 21-year-old from Brooklyn, N.Y., took in the all-night rave early Sunday morning. "What does Woodstock '99 tell the world about us? It says we all wanna be naked all the time. It says we're drug addicts. Half of these people are wired," he said.
His friend Nick Terzis, 23, was enjoying a slightly different experience. "I got hit in the head during Metallica's set," he said. "It hurt for a second, but that was it. Then I noticed all these people were staring at me and taking pictures of me. So I had to go to first aid, and I missed the last four songs. But people were really helpful, handing me towels, spraying me with water. That says a lot about the crowd."
Giving Peace a Chance Not everyone came to party. Omed--who uses only one name--lives at Basin Farm in Bellows Falls, Vt. He rode the "Peacemaker Bus" here along with other members of his religious community, known as the Twelve Tribes. "We live out the word of the Son of God. The result of living out His life is that there's a place people can live and love each other in a practical way.
"We came here to share the hope that we have with others. The crowd that's here has been degraded a lot in their conscience. They've chosen to live a life that doesn't represent the character of God."
Omed, 31, and his fellow community members worked in a cafe near the West Stage, but they did not enjoy all of the music. When the shock rappers Insane Clown Posse performed, he said, "every word was a cuss word. It was almost degrading to listen to. They've strayed so far from their humanity. But we got through it. We kept our peace."
The tent set up by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals featured videotapes of farmers assaulting a lame sow with a cinder block. Then there were Defenders of Wildlife. Defenders of Mumia Abu Jamal. Defenders of pot smoking. Fight racism! Boycott Home Depot! Drown the Debt!
David Bryden, 31, the community director of Jubilee 2000, an organization devoted to erasing Third World debt, came from Mount Rainier, Md. "Most of the kids who come by the booth are really supportive and sympathetic," he said. "But a few of them are like, 'Oh, just bomb those poor countries!'
"But I think these kids are more active than they're given credit for. The issues of personal freedom that are natural for them to be concerned with are censorship and medical marijuana. In the '60s, there was a focus, there was a war. Just because there isn't a national focus for activism of that kind doesn't mean that activism doesn't happen."
Hundreds of vendors hustled more tangible things--tie-dyed T-shirts, natch, but also tie-dyed tuxedos. Jewelry. An array of hemp products. Clove cigarettes. Rolling papers. So many bumper stickers: "Save the Planet. Kill Yourself." "I Killed Kenny." "A Fool and His Money are Soon Partying."
Festival-goers could also acquire a Woodstock commemorative MasterCard--3.9 percent APR financing, no annual fee. Lewis Lux, 23, of Eugene, Ore., filled out an application. "This is capitalism at its finest," he said. Lux has never had a credit card before. "I don't know if I'll use it. Maybe just for emergencies. Maybe I'll keep it for a souvenir."
Next to the MasterCard booth was a colorful array of bongs.
On a Drumroll
Perhaps the most classically Woodstockian aspect of the festival was "Drumstock '99," a drummers' circle that began spontaneously at around 1:30 a.m. Saturday about halfway between the East and West stages. By midday Saturday, more than a dozen metal trash cans had been co-opted by a ragtag group that banged and thumped with fists, sticks, rocks, plastic bottles--whatever participants could get their hands on. "Some guys just turned over a trash can and started banging on it. Some people joined in, and it just kept going," said Dave Murphy.
At times the ruckus sounded like the amplified pattering of raindrops. Other times, the steady beats suggested a gaggle of jackhammers. Several hundred people were gathered around, jerking convulsively to the deafening rhythms.
Saturday afternoon, Kris Keyes, a muscular member of the band Gargantua Soul, whose body was painted a fluorescent orange, jumped on top of one of the cans and danced. He thrusted his pelvis to the rhythm, his head thrown back, arms lifted. His Mohawk was dyed yellow. Blue flames were painted on his face and along one arm. The drummers banged harder, louder. He danced for maybe five minutes, then jumped on his skateboard and headed toward the West Stage. As he skated off, he removed his bright orange earplugs.
Craig Richard, a 29-year-old PhD researcher from Philadelphia, drummed for several hours dressed in a Santa Claus suit. To him, the beats sounded like "cardiac fibrillation."
"Santa is the ultimate benefactor," he explained, "the ultimate symbol of free love and giving from the heart."
Bosom Buddies Woodstock was not a Utopia. Despite the presence of such hip-hop acts as Jamiroquai, DMX and Wyclef Jean, the festival-goers were overwhelmingly white. Many in the crowd complained that the event and the food were too expensive. By Saturday, the Woodstock wall erected to keep concert crashers out was decorated with graffiti critical of the event: "$150 TOO MUCH," "THE FOOD REVOLUTION. END OF PROFIT$TOCK," "PEACE, LOVE AND COMMERCIALISM."
"People are a little upset about the prices of food and stuff," said Kevin Huston, a 20-year-old welder from Nebraska. Tickets cost $150 plus a hefty service charge. A small bottle of water sold for $4.
"I haven't seen too many blacks or Hispanics here at all, but that may be because of the choice of the music. It may also be a money thing," Sean Saunders, 22, who came with a group of friends from New Jersey.
Another wall sign read, "Keep Corporate Hands Off Our Music," an odd sentiment given that most of the acts that performed are signed to major labels. "Some people, like one of the bigger female artists who played Sunday, are complaining about how commercial this is," said Buckcherry's Nelson. "But they're cashing their checks, right?"
Nudity was very big at Woodstock, which made the event a Utopia for some people but not for others.
The crowd was peppered with cardboard signs urging women to bare their breasts. By Saturday evening, Rachel Odessky and Julie Bonner, both 20, had had enough of such exhortations--and of the women who obliged them. "I think it's less about free expression and more about getting attention," said Odessky. "The guys' behavior is bugging me. . . . It's like everyone's regressing."
Odessky shrugged. "I guess everyone is rebelling, but in a different way. Back then, people were rebelling for social problems. Now we're . . . " she paused, trying to come up with the right words.
"Trashing the place," said her friend, Mike Francavillo, 19.
"Yeah, I guess that's about right," she said.
Rage Against . . . What? Saturday night on the East Stage, what many considered the centerpiece of the festival began with metal heavies Limp Bizkit, Rage Against the Machine and Metallica. Halfway through Limp Bizkit's set, the music stopped. Medical personnel ran into the massive crowd and returned with injured fans. The moshers had torn down a barrier around a sound tower, injuring people in the process. Medics told journalists they were treating spinal injuries and fractured ribs before their supervisors herded the press away.
At the following morning's news conference, a reporter from MTV compared the medical tent during Limp Bizkit's set to "a Vietnam triage unit" and criticized what she accurately described as a "violent atmosphere."
"If you indeed work for MTV," snarled promoter John Scher, "you should be more sensitive to the sociological issues around groups like Limp Bizkit."
Whatever that means. When he was finished chewing her out, the assembled press applauded him. Music journalists can be such sycophants.
Let It Rain While Metallica thrashed in the East, a different vibe took hold more than a mile away on the West Stage. During the Chemical Brothers deejay set, dancers scampered around, arms flailing. Huge video screens depicted a stained-glass-styled image of Jesus and two apostles. A powerful gust of wind came out of nowhere, and the iconic images froze on the screen. A soft rain poured down for two minutes, and everyone glistened. They raised their arms, heads tipped back. And then the rain stopped. After the Chemical Brothers set, exhausted but happy dancers trudged toward the Emerging Artists Stage. A thin young man rode a bike in that direction. He was naked, save for the orange traffic cone on his head.
A Long, Strange Trip Dan Burleson, 20, took a bus here from Minot, N.D. He had a long ride, but it was worth the trip. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing," he said. "I can say I've been to Woodstock."
He wasn't disappointed, and yet . . .
"It's a great show, but it doesn't represent freedom like it once did. A lot of the meaning was lost. I guess the '60s was about trying to make a difference. The '90s is just about trying to get away.
"We're trying to get away from the way things are in our society. Everything is just going down. The '90s have metal-detector-at-the-door type stuff. When your president can barely hold standards, that's pretty bad. It seems like all the values in our society don't really mean anything now."
Burleson said the festival lacked a spirit of unity. "Different things separate people now. In the '60s, it was war and race. Now the college kids here are walking around with fat wallets. I came here with barely anything. But I guess that gives me something to grab for."
But he's still not sure what that is. Right now, he works in a hotel, booking room reservations by telephone. He hasn't gone to college. He's not sure if he will. "I guess I'm Generation X. I don't know where I'm going, but I'm here."
"Outcast" is tattooed on his stomach. But when Korn played its thudding, heavy blend of metal and rap on Friday night, Burleson felt different for a little while. The outcast feeling went away. "It was really great. All the people were into it at the same time. It made me feel happy."
The Cops By 2 o'clock this morning, Griffiss Park was an otherworldly phantasmagoria of flames set to a cacophony of drumming and chanting, all under a pall of acrid smoke. State police had secured the western half of the concert grounds; several hundred troopers with batons and rubber gloves stood in a massive phalanx, keeping the remaining festival-goers out. Nearby, scores of attendees defiantly continued "Drumstock" despite taunts from police at the fringes of the crowd. "Why don't you just go home? Go home!" an officer shouted.
"Right now," said 24-year-old Patrick Hurst of Harrisburg, Va., "it's kind of tense with the police line and everybody drumming. I don't know what's going to happen."
Police Lt. Robert Patnaude knew what he wanted to happen. "We want to get them away from the propane tanks in the vending area," he said. "Hopefully they'll just pound those drums till they fall asleep."