Woodstock ’99: A Retrospective Look Back at the Experience of Lifetime
This weekend is the 50-year Anniversary of Woodstock. It started 50 years ago today August 15th, 1969, and ran through the 18th. The concert drew a crowd of more than 400,000 people to a farm in Bethel, NY.
As we celebrate the anniversary this weekend, I can't help but have memories of my experience at Woodstock '99 come to mind. I would not have needed to attend the original in '69 to know that the two festivals could not be more different than one another.
The culture in America had transformed radically in the thirty years that separated the two events. If the two shows were relatives, they'd be distant cousins who have never met in person. All that these two mega-spectacles share in common is a name.
The overwhelming attendance at the original Woodstock was unexpected. In contrast, the thirty-year anniversary show was counting on hundreds of thousands right from the get-go. The music, spirit and tone of the original was one of peace and love, while '99 was quite the opposite. We all know how '99 ended -- with violence and literal flames. If you did not attend Woodstock '99, you certainly read about it and your mental picture of the event may not be a good one.
I was there and while I know terrible things did happen among the crowd of 400,000 people, I witnessed none of them. I had what I consider to be one of the best weekends of my life, despite the oppressive heat and infrastructure issues.
My group left Brewster, NY late in the day on Thursday, July 22, 1999. We piled into two cars -- me, my sister Renee, my buddies Chris, Matt, Brendan, Tony and Pasquale, and headed to the site of the former Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, NY.
The scheduled three-hour car drive actually took six hours. The first three hours got us two miles from the festival site and the last three hours was spent in dead stopped traffic getting into the facility. Once we got inside the gates, it was an exhausting process of locating enough real estate to set up a proper camp. We managed to find a spot, raise the tents and relax for a bit. The plan was always to spend Thursday night people watching, partying and just taking in the scene, and that's exactly we did.
Friday morning rolled around and we all woke early in anticipation of that day's lineup. It was going to be an opportunity to see acts like Live, Sheryl Crow, DMX, The Offspring, Korn and Bush. That was just the East stage lineup and that's the one we had selected for the day. There were also shows that started even before that on both stages. Live was going to be our first big show, starting at 4: 00 PM. From there, we were going to stay the whole time, all the way to Bush's closing set, finishing the night out at 10:30 PM. That was the plan, but it didn't work out that way.
I picked up where I left off Thursday night on Friday morning, and let's just say I was doing a healthy amount of partying. I was asleep in the tent from 1:00 AM to 9:00 AM when I woke to a note on my chest that said, "Couldn't wake you. We will be at the East Stage. When you get up, come find us."
I don't know if you've ever attempted to find six specific people in a sea of 400,000 people before, but I can tell you, it's difficult. I made my way straight to the East Stage, searched for my group for forty minutes, gave up and decided it was going to be a lone wolf night.
I just wanted to see the show -- Korn was on stage at the time, the atmosphere was both sweaty and electric. The noise was like nothing I'd ever experienced but the visuals were even better. Seeing that many people in one place, at one time, with that kind of energy is unforgettable.
I found my way to the front of the stage by the end of Korn's set, watched it and waited for what was next. I knew Bush was closing the night out and I could not wait. At the time, Bush was my favorite band and remain one of my favorites to this day. I know people make fun of Bush. I know their rep and I don't care. They lit the world ablaze that night, and I was there front row. I even made a friend right there in what felt like the center of the world. I met an attractive young lady with a weird name and we made out like our plane was going down. I managed to survive Friday night. It was not easy, but what I didn't know at the time was that Saturday would be worse.
Saturday was flat-out dangerous and would do its best to murder me. On Saturday, it was back to the East Stage and this time, I was not going to get partied out in the morning and miss the shows. The lineup was intense -- Kid Rock, Wyclef Jean, Counting Crows, Dave Matthews Band, Alanis Morissette, Limp Bizkit, Rage Against the Machine and Metallica.
It was bound to be a marathon, with Kid Rock as our first show of the day at 1:15 pm and going all the way to Metallica, starting at 11:15 pm. We did the whole day in 100-degree heat, partying and on our feet the whole time. Not one act was disappointing, Metallica, Kid Rock and Rage were the best of the lineup.
It was during Limp Bizkit's set that things were at their most intense. The band obviously had a narrow world view with songs like "Break Stuff," but at the time, they were one of the biggest bands in the world. For what they were, they delivered and delivered big. By the middle of their set, the sun was setting and the crowd was as thick as any I'd seen the whole weekend.
During that set, I was both euphoric and sensed the danger that was growing all around us. The energy was like nothing I've ever experienced -- the setting sun, the smells of sweat, weed, cigarettes and fire filled the air. It was sensory overload. It was beautiful, but we were all at the mercy of one another and people's attitudes were changing into something aggressive and not all that nice. In the end, my friends and I came out of that night unscathed, but as we know now, a lot of violent incidents occurred at the very same time that I was having my best night ever.
By Sunday morning, my friends and I decided it was time to go, and it was a clean-sweep decision. We had seen, for the most part, what we wanted to see, a lot of things we never thought we would see, and most of the bands we came for. Leaving Sunday morning, however, meant missing the Chili Peppers. We knew how much it would suck to miss the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but we also knew we'd never make it to watch them close the festival out.
Every one of us was back home, showered and in recovery mode by the time we first saw the temperature of the event boil over into a full-on riot. Fires were raging during the show, people were tearing down structures with their bare hands, and we knew we got out at the right time.
We also got to be part of something unforgettable for a short time. Unless you have seen 400,000 people move as a unit under a setting sun, you can't know what that feels like. Imagine trying your hardest to see where the people end and something else begins, and failing at that. I spent more time looking at the crowds than I did the stage, because it was breathtaking.
Romanticism aside, I also got to see my friend emerge from our tent with a poop log in a plastic bag. I also saw some of the funniest homemade drug dealer signs ever. The drug dealers actually made signs, advertising the drugs they were selling, wore them around their necks, pointed to them and screamed "I'm selling drugs." I saw a biker and his old lady smash in a tent next to me with the flap on the tent open. When they were done, they both came out wearing no pants and offering us Doritos. You can't have had those experiences unless you had them.
Looking back, the event is largely considered something that everyone could have done without. I know the reputation of the weekend, the reputation of some of the bands that were popular at the time and that the festival I attended will always be deemed a violent failure. I know those four days will be a moment in time that people will point to as an example that my generation is no good.
I'm happy to say that my friends and I witnessed no real incidents of violence worth writing home about. Sure, we saw a few meathead fist fights, but that was the extent of it, and that type of thing even happens at Lillith Fair.
I won't excuse anyone's violent acts of any kind that weekend. However, I can tell you that the conditions and greed contributed to the rioting and fires directly. It was in the upper 90s - 100 degrees the whole weekend with no rain, no shade and epic price gouging on the most basic items, like water. People were charging $25 for a bag of ice and in some cases, $10 for a bottle of water and this was 20 years ago. There were not nearly enough bathrooms and campsites were right on top of each other. This was a teapot that was going blow its horn eventually, and it did.