The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Riots, deaths, sexual assault: Maybe Woodstock was always a nightmare

Rock music fans relax during a break in the entertainment at the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair in Bethel, N.Y., on Aug. 16, 1969. (AP) (File/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Depending on your birth year, the word “Woodstock” probably conjures vastly different memories.

For children of the 1960s, it’s often synonymous with peace and love, spiritual vibes and Utopian, antiwar sentiment. For those of the 1990s, it may summon visions of war itself, with its broken sewage mains, man-made fires, assaults and general anarchy. For some, it sounds like a joke along the lines of Fyre Festival — just another troubled production that never occurred.

Although there have been several iterations of the Woodstock festival, there are only three that matter: the original in 1969, memorialized in Michael Wadleigh’s documentary and sung about by Joni Mitchell (who didn’t attend); the boisterous, disastrous one in 1999; and this year’s, which imploded before coming to fruition.

So how did we go from a festival dedicated to good vibes — an event considered one of the most relevant in modern culture — to ones deemed disasters both literally and financially?

It is both easy and lazy “to say we were peace and love in the late ’60s, violent in the ’90s and now in 2019, too cynical to allow Woodstock to happen,” said Steven Hyden, a cultural critic who chronicled the 30th anniversary of the festival in the Ringer podcast “Break Stuff: The Story of Woodstock ’99.” “In reality, there’s a lot more similarity between these festivals than there might appear.”

In late August 1969, about half a million hippies gathered in Bethel, N.Y., for that first festival — the brainchild of Michael Lang, Artie Kornfeld, Joel Rosenman and John P. Roberts — to take drugs (but “avoid the brown acid”) and listen to music from Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez and the Band.

The event was rife with problems: Bands performed hours after they were scheduled (the Who went on at 5 a.m.); an anarchist group tore down the fencing so fans could attend free; two people died (one was run over by a tractor). And there were the near-misses: At one point, the main feeder cable supplying the fest with electricity became worn and exposed. With pools of rain drowning Woodstock, it opened the possibility for “mass electrocution.” Although the founders managed to avoid a catastrophe, the festival was one spark away from being remembered in a much darker light.

The Woodstock 50 anniversary music festival planned for August was canceled on July 31, with organizers blaming a series of "unforeseen setbacks." (Video: Reuters)

Yet it gained the reputation of being a joyous, blissful experience, a myth that Andy Zax, who produced the upcoming, 38-disc “Woodstock — Back to the Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive,” called a “fairy tale.”

That misconception largely comes from Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary, which permanently embedded an idealized version of Woodstock in the cultural consciousness and possibly led to decades’ worth of attempts to re-create it. “Everything we consider to be a real, canonical Woodstock moment … is from the film,” Zax said. “It’s a very constructed version of Woodstock.”

“I don’t think there would be a ’94 or a ’99 without the movie,” Hyden added. “A lot of people felt like because they saw the movie, they felt they were there. … It sold a version of that festival that was only partially true, but people took it as fact.”

Perhaps no anecdote better encapsulates the illusion of ’69 vs. its reality than John Fogerty’s experience. He arrived by helicopter for Creedence Clearwater Revival’s set and remembers seeing the sea of attendees from the air. “It was overwhelming,” Fogerty told The Washington Post, adding that it took his “breath away."

Things, though, felt different on the ground. “As soon as the chopper landed, I went and walked out among the people to see what this feels like,” Forgerty said. “I noticed somebody selling water … the idea that somebody was selling water really triggered something in my own mind. I thought, ‘That kind of sucks.’ It seemed so commercial.”

Make no mistake: He and his fellow musicians fondly remembered the festival; Fogerty’s former bandmate Stu Cook called it “one of the high points of my generation.” But it wasn’t just an idyllic, hippie wonderland.

“That festival was declared a disaster area by the government, but that’s been papered over by all this mythology that’s been created over the years,” Hyden said. “There was this idea that if you put together a festival at the last minute with not a great infrastructure and sort of a chaotic environment that you’re actually gonna have a beautiful event. That it’s going to be this generation-defining sort of epoch for people that they’re gonna remember for years after. And at Woodstock ’99, we saw the faultiness of that thinking. If you don’t plan very well, unless you’re extremely lucky, things will go wrong. And that’s what happened.”

When Lang, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Post, attempted to re-create the troubled festival three decades later, things only got worse. This time, the festivities took place in Rome, N.Y., at Griffiss Air Force Base, which was a Superfund site. Laid-back artists such as Willie Nelson, Guster and Jewel played, but the bill also included aggressive nu-metal bands such as Korn, Limp Bizkit and Rage Against the Machine.

“To expect that by calling something ‘Woodstock,' people would then show up and be groovy, man? That’s a real stretch,” Zax said, zeroing in (as many do) on Limp Bizkit and its song “Break Stuff.” “No one at Woodstock ’69 wanted to break stuff without purpose."

Like its predecessor, the festival was loosely planned. As its opening day approached, local officials considered shutting it down entirely: Security was lax, infrastructure nowhere near ready, staff underprepared and untrained. Once it began, the July heat was incredible, but many festivalgoers found the price of bottled water too high to pay. Meanwhile, water fountains barely worked, and those that did were guarded by “Mud People,” an aggressive group of attendees that slathered themselves in the brown stuff — which may not have been only mud, as there were problems with the toilets, as well.

In the aftermath, Spin magazine delved into the extent of the mess: “At least 100 kids dove into a shallow mud puddle near the row of Port-a-Sans closest to the East Stage, largely unaware that they were slathering themselves in human waste. Men who encountered backed-up stalls relieved themselves in public. … Meanwhile, the Mud People, who quickly tired of hugging passersby, picked up chunks of mud and violently hurled them at the people drinking expensive warm lager in the adjoining beer garden.”

One young man, David DeRosia, died after suffering “hyperthermia, probably secondary to heat stroke” while in the mosh pit during Rage Against the Machine’s set. And sexual harassment and assault were pervasive throughout the weekend.

“Guys would surround a girl and aggressively chant for her to flash them,” said Rolling Stone reporter Brian Hiatt, who co-wrote an award-winning investigative piece about the festival with Chris Nelson for the now defunct SonicNet.

In his write-up of the event for Rolling Stone, Rob Sheffield described a hectic scene as several shirtless men sat on top of a trailer, yelling to women below: “They point out girls in the pedestrian gantlet and chant, ‘Show your t---!’ … The goons on the trailer chant, ‘Pick her up! Pick her up!’ Two short girls with backpacks are surrounded by a mob of about sixty 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. The girls take this opportunity to slip away. I catch up with them and ask whether the experience was scary. ‘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.”

One attendee told The Post at the conclusion of the festival that he had witnessed five guys raping a girl: “I saw someone push this girl into the mosh pit, a very skinny girl, maybe 90 to 100 pounds. Then a couple of the guys started taking her clothes off. … They pulled her pants down and they were violating her, and they were passing her back and forth. There were five guys that were raping this girl and having sex with her.”

The final day descended into riots, with attendees tearing down scaffolding and setting fire to everything in sight.

“The riot was really about violence against the festival,” Hyden said. One attendee he interviewed told him that he felt safest during the riots because there was a real sense of camaraderie. “ ‘We’re gonna set fires, we’re gonna steal pretzels, we’re gonna steal T-shirts because it’s gonna hurt the people we feel have been taking advantage of us for these past three days.’ ”

And although it became common to blame the angry music, particularly that of Fred Durst’s Limp Bizkit, for the event’s problems, reporters who covered it placed most of the fault on the organizers. “There’s a direct line from how ineffectual the security was to all these women who were either harassed or groped or in some cases raped,” Hyden said.

So why did this disaster happen in 1999, if the 1969 festival faced the same organizational issues? One key difference to Hiatt was that in ’69, “people felt they were there for a reason.”

“In ’69, the young people were viewing unspeakable horror. But it was removed. It was over in Vietnam or lynchings in the South,” Fogerty said. “It was there but it was on television. I think kids really wanted to change that. I think we felt that we could change the world, and we had the ability to do that.”

In contrast, Hiatt said: “It didn’t feel like that at Woodstock ’99. It didn’t feel like people were gathered for any reason at all or that anyone had anything in common with each other or anything.”

“You fundamentally can’t repeat the unrepeatable,” Zax said. As Cook pointed out, “There was so much magic in the original Woodstock. You can’t expect that to happen now. Now it’s just more of a financial venture.”

Or perhaps it’s nothing at all. At the end of July, after a series of financial problems, venue changes and artist dropouts, Woodstock 50 was killed. Tickets for the festival had not yet gone on sale when it was officially canceled a little more than two weeks before it was set to take place.

“Woodstock 50, to me, represents the end of that brand meaning something,” Hyden said. “Everything has an expiration date. I think Woodstock passed that a long time ago.”