Netflix’s new three-part series about the absolute horror show that was Woodstock ’99 opens in suitably dramatic fashion. “Is this Bosnia?” asks a festival-goer as they look through the wreckage of the three-day event that was less “peace and love” and more “violence and arson.” The air is thick with smoke from recently extinguished fires. Upside-down porta-potties sit among the ashes. Gigantic lighting rigs lay flat on the ground. If you thought the scene at 6am at Glastonbury’s Stone Circle was messy, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 describes an event that seemed poised for disaster from the start. Michael Lang, who organized 1969’s original Woodstock festival when he was just 24, was never too keen on doing another one. A 25th anniversary event in 1994 was a bust, with lax security and two deaths at the scene. In an interview filmed before his death earlier this year, aged 77, Lang admits he thought it was impossible to recreate the free and easy spirit of the late Sixties, when young people came together in the wake of Vietnam, to show that there was a kinder way of doing things. It was actually another disaster that convinced him to revive the festival – the Columbine school shooting in April 1999. Lang’s ambition was to bring young Americans together and show them a world free of violence, and that a peaceful way was possible. Unfortunately, the chaotic scene that unfolded appeared to be as much the fault of the festival organizers as the punters. Now, 23 years later, they still refuse to accept the blame.
Woodstock ’99 was a perfect storm of pissed off, wild kids, oppressive heat and a production team that cared little for the welfare of the 250,000 people who had bought tickets to the three-day festival. Unlike the bucolic 1969 version’s rolling grassy hills, Woodstock ’99 took place in the rather scenic surroundings of a military base in Rome, New York in July 1999. Although temperatures in excess of 100°F (38°C) were predicted for the weekend, water and food was taken by the participants when they arrived at the venue. The base – a paved airstrip – also severely lacked shade. “Oh my God, there’s a lot of asphalt,” recalls one of the production crew after seeing the location for the first time.
Also wildly different from the original festival was the line-up. Where Woodstock ’69 had the folksy stylings of the Grateful Dead, The Band and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Woodstock ’99 offered the mosh pit chaos of Limp Bizkit, Korn and Kid Rock, all playing under the slogan “It’s not your parents’ Woodstock”.
Look at Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 has a peculiar familiarity. Although I wasn’t there, a month later I was at my very first festival. Reading 1999 hosted many of the same bands, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Offspring, and while there certainly wasn’t much horrific violence, clips of teenagers running amok after dark definitely rang the bell. As mentions of fumbling in the middle of the audience. Recording swirling mosh pits took me right back to that dirty weekend in Berkshire 23 years ago, and made me glad to now be old and confident enough to tell errant hands in a crowd where to go.
Sheryl Crow was one of the first acts at the ill-fated Woodstock reboot and already an aggressive element in the crowd was making itself known, with men shouting at the star to “show us your tits”. This escalated over the weekend, with many sexual assaults and four reported rapes. Add to this the lack of trained security – a lesson festival organizers should have learned from, but which last year’s Astroworld tragedy proves they haven’t – and the young crowd was as dangerous as it was vulnerable. One of the most harrowing moments in the new documentary comes when we are told of an incident during Fatboy Slim’s set where a truck is commandeered and driven into the crowd. Some then chillingly describe seeing a passed out and naked young girl in the back of the van, a man looming over her and unbuckling his trousers.
Many women were groped in the crowd, and we are shown gruesome clips of them having to physically remove the hands of strangers from their breasts. Festival organizer John Scher does a terrible job of taking responsibility for such abuse. “There were a lot of women who volunteered to take their tops off, you know,” he says with a shrug. “And then you get into a mosh pit, you get crowd-surfed – could someone have touched their breasts? Yes, I’m sure they did. What could I have done about it? I’m not sure I could have done something.” How about getting security to throw the men to blame, John?! How about a zero tolerance against sexual harassment? Try harder, John.
By the final night, players had become so disaffected with conditions—drinking fountains were contaminated with water from the toilets, causing cases of trenchmouth, and the price of bottled water had risen to an outrageous $12—that full-scale anarchy was on the cards. When a rumored secret Prince/Bob Dylan/Guns ‘N Roses closing festival failed to materialize, Woodstock ’99 began to eat itself. One hundred thousand candles for an anti-gun vigil were distributed without the knowledge of the fire department, which were used to start large fires in the crowd. Trucks and tankers were also set on fire.
The mob mentality quickly subsided and goods stalls were looted, lighting rigs were pulled down and ATMs smashed to pieces. As the production staff barricaded themselves into their office, state troopers arrived with batons and shields to shut down the festival.
What is interesting is, despite the failings of the staff, most of the players interviewed Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 had a nice time. A great time, indeed – something they say was heightened by the sense of chaos. I’m sure the girl in the van and those who were harassed wouldn’t give the same answer, but for some of these kids, their first taste of freedom was eye-opening. Nevertheless, there is still no excuse for the festival organizers refusing to take responsibility for what happened at Woodstock ’99. And with Michael Lang dead and John Scher still convinced there was nothing he could do, it seems a proper apology will never materialize.
‘Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99’ is streaming on Netflix now