If Woodstock ’69’s signature song was Jimi Hendrix’s rousing revamp of America’s national anthem, Woodstock 99 may be remembered by an anthem of a different stripe: Limp Bizkit’s anarchic ”Break Stuff.”
Sadly, that ode to the joys of destruction aptly evokes this latest incarnation of Woodstock. Sure, many of the 225,000 or so who made the pilgrimage to Rome, N.Y., for three days of ”peace, love, and music” might disagree, contending that the mayhem that marred the festival’s last night — when hundreds of audience members took part in rioting, looting, and arson — was an aberration that shouldn’t overshadow the positive aspects of the bash. Some may claim they had a grand time roughing it at Griffiss Park, a former Air Force base, with their like-minded brothers and sisters, united by a determination to get a groove on. Others will point to galvanizing sets from Kid Rock, Korn, Rage Against the Machine, the Roots, or Buckcherry and argue that in the end, it was the music that mattered.
Still, let’s be real: The frightful images of Rome burning on Sunday, July 25 — the night the utopian dream of a new, pre-millennial Woodstock Nation went up in flames — are the ones that will last. (Ironically, some of the fires were set by ”peace candles” that were distributed to the crowd.) Already, the memory feels more pernicious than any horrific flashback induced by the original Woodstock’s infamous brown acid.
How did things get so out of hand? Some attribute the rampage to frustration at the overcrowding, squalid living conditions, and exorbitant costs for food at the site. Indeed, each $150 ticket guaranteed three days of music, heat, and extreme discomfort: The stench from the overflowing Porta Pottis was inescapable, garbage collection virtually nonexistent, and free drinking water harder to find than a spot in the shade. Small wonder some were miffed. ”You screw people out of $4 for water and $10 for a burrito, it’s gonna come back and bite you on your fat greedy gluttonous a– ,” read one post on Woodstock’s website the day after. ”I hope we did as much damage to you as you did to us!” ran another.
Promoter John Scher lays the lion’s share of the blame on ”200 to 500 knuckleheads,” dismissing the ”Monday-morning quarterbacks” who would paint the festival as a wall-to-wall disaster. ”I admit the ending was awful, and I will forever be sorry about that,” he says. ”But no one got seriously hurt and no permanent damage was incurred. It makes a dramatic story to show pictures of these bonfires, [but] that isn’t what happened for the overwhelming majority of the weekend.”
Scher’s spin doctoring notwithstanding, MTV News commentator Kurt Loder says he felt the troubling vibes from the moment he arrived and looked out on ”this semi-abandoned Air Force base baking in the sun between a mental facility and a prison. You just got this bad feeling about it.” Loder says he caught the first whiff of real danger on day 2 of the weekend event, during Limp Bizkit’s ferocious early-evening set. ”There was a hateful, hostile [feeling] coming off the crowd in waves — kids were throwing bottles at each other and at security guards and stagehands. It was just ugly and out of control, and [Bizkit frontman] Fred Durst just exploited that and jacked it up.”
Certainly Bizkit’s roiling performance, liberally sprinkled with provocative exhortations from Durst (”Let’s all start some s–t!”), did feel like a flash point. Durst declines to comment, but his failed attempt to surf the crowd on a sheet of plywood ripped from the stage by vandals must rank as one of the festival’s defining moments of foolhardiness.
According to a spokespeople for the event, two men died (one of a heart attack, the other, heatstroke); 3,500 others received medical care (for ailments from heat exhaustion to broken bones); and 44 were arrested. State police superintendent James McMahon says that during Sunday night’s melee only seven people (including two state troopers) incurred injuries, all but one minor. Seven others were charged with criminal mischief and/or reckless endangerment. Loder recalls standing by the festival’s medical tent and seeing, out of the view of TV cameras, ”a steady stream of stretchers being carried in.”
Of course, most of the TV crews were busy seeking bare flesh. If nothing else, the numerous male and female bodies in various stages of undress made open-air nudity seem dirty again, tainting the proceedings with a combination of free-floating lust and smarmy exhibitionism. Even the hired help succumbed to an unseemly lechery. ”I came here to see some [breasts],” one middle-aged medic remarked. ”You think with all these girls all f—ed up on drugs and whatever, one of them will have sex with me?”
Though Scher dodges the question of whether he and his partners will mount another Woodstock (”It’s only two days after the last one!”), it’s probably time to retire the franchise. Yes, rock has always been about rebellion, breaking rules, flirting with anarchy. But rock alone didn’t cause the Woodstock 99 youthquake any more than did Durst or Scher, or greedy concessionaires, or lack of rain, or the presence of TV cameras. As Loder says, the real villains were ”everybody who profited from it, everybody who took part in it. It’s like any disaster — there’s plenty of blame to go around.” For our part, the words of the Clash’s ”White Riot” — ”White riot/I wanna riot/White riot/A riot of my own” — have forever lost their allure.