The Darkest Moments Of Woodstock 99

Ah, yes … Woodstock. That radiant, bright demonstration of peace, love and non-violent protest against human-made conflict. Psychedelia, Jimi Hendrix, and hippie folk galore. The essence of counterculture rising smilingly against the U.S. war machine.

Oh, wait. Not that one? You mean the Woodstock with all the sexual assault on pay-per-view? The fires, looting, mayhem, and ocean of plastic trash (per Rolling Stone)? The 1,200 people treated at medical facilities (per Insider)? The jingoistic star-spangled bottle-throwing towards non-U.S. acts? And perhaps worst of all, Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit?

Yes, Woodstock 99, aka “the day the Nineties died,” was, as an eyewitness wrote for Rolling Stone, a senselessly cruel rebellion against the “nihilistic pointlessness of the event and the blatantly exploitative conditions” of its creation. It might have held the occasional moment of earnestness and musical acumen, but in the end, it was a day when “pointless white-guy anger revealed itself as insufficient artistic fuel.” On Comedy Central, “The Daily Show,” headed by comedic vanguard Jon Stewart, did a satire where fake on-scene reporter Beth Littleford exaltingly said, “This has been the most amazing experience of my life … A lot of people have been talking about these fires. But it’s so much more than that! It’s violence! And looting!”  

This isn’t an exaggeration — it’s a mild take. Woodstock 99 wasn’t just a mess of a musical festival; it was a disgusting display of the worst humanity has to offer.

Rampant misogyny and sexual assault

Top of the list of truly “dark” things that happened at Woodstock 99 was the disturbing, revolting, horrifying pervasiveness of sexual assault. And we don’t merely mean the constant, “Show us your t***!” mantra shouted by festival-goers, as Rolling Stone recounts. We also don’t mean Dave “Crash Into Me” Matthews commenting on stage, presumably while hunched over his guitar and squinting, “Today, there’s an abundance of t******.” We mean, in all seriousness (and with full apologies): actual, public rape and sodomy with little to no accountability or consequences. 

On The Ringer, unassaulted Woodstock 99 survivor Stephanie Frizzel describes the festival’s “frat type of vibe.” She and her friends sensed danger right from the get-go, decided to stick in a group, and “didn’t dare venture outside of their tents.” There were gang rapes and beatings of women in and around mosh pits, such as during Korn’s set, and, most notoriously, after Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst egged on the crowd during “Break Stuff.” One particular police report said that a 24-year-old had been assaulted with fingers, then “some type of foreign object,” and then penetrated. Shockingly, the official Woodstock website also posted pictures of topless festival-goers without their consent.

At one point an organizer got on the mic and implored, “Please, there are people hurt out there. They are your brothers and sisters.” Adam Horovitz, aka The Beastie Boy’s Ad-Rock, later spoke up about the need for “safety of all the girls and the women.”

Not so much kindling the fires of love as kindling actual fires

This entry falls in the category of existentially, tragically, dark and empty. Over the course of Woodstock 99, folks had been generally “setting fires all over the grounds throughout the weekend,” as The Ringer puts it. Why? Cue quintessential Gen-Xers Beavis and Butthead chuckling while watching footage of tattered and smoldering dreams of peace.

Journalist Brian Hiatt, who covered Woodstock 99, reported being told by festival-goers, “We’ll burn anything. You can’t stop us. If you stop us, it’ll start somewhere else.” Violence piqued by the time the Red Hot Chili Peppers got on stage, as did the fires, including a giant bonfire across the grounds (footage on YouTube). Chili Pepper’s frontman Anthony Kiedis said into the mic, “Holy s***, it’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ out there. Make way for the fire trucks!” 

This didn’t stop the show, though. When the Chili Peppers started their cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire,” one of the most remembered touchstones of the original Woodstock, everything turned Mad Max. As Rolling Stone says, “Vehicles were flipped and set ablaze. Vendor booths and merch tents were destroyed and used as fuel. Eventually, the New York State Troopers and local law enforcement were able to diffuse the riots, but Griffiss Air Force Base still ended up looking like a bomb hit it.”

After some flag-burning, some casual flag-waving jingoism

You might think that an act like the supremely politically-driven Rage Against the Machine would engender an incensed sense of indignation at the wrongs suffered by people at the hands of a rhetoric-stuffed, military-and-slogan-filled hegemony. This, you might conclude, would lead to greater harmony, co-existence, and tolerance of all peoples, as the values the original Woodstock attested. Or, you know, just ignore all of that and focus on the “rage” part of Rage Against the Machine. Then toss in some good old blind-eyed flag-waving.

This is exactly what happened when Canadian rockers The Tragically Hip performed. During their set, as Rolling Stone says (which started with some Canada-bashing from the MC, as YouTube shows us), they launched into a rendition of the Canadian national anthem, “O Canada.” And what did the crowd, who cheered when Rage Against the Machine torched an American flag on stage, do? Naturally, they started shucking bottles at The Tragically Hip and shout-singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” As the CBC says, some festival-goers even allegedly threw rocks. Remember at this point that this festival was dubbed “Woodstock,” as in: universal harmony of humans.

And yes, even though political protest and wide-open free speech is more than a part of Rage’s oeuvre, the flag-burning part of this tale is sure to upset some folks. But really, it’s the all too-human, cognitive dissonance that makes this vignette truly dark.

A cesspit of waste, heat, and $4 water bottles

Let’s pull back and take in an entire portrait of Woodstock 99. As Rolling Stone says, we’ve got around 220,000 attendees plus 10,000 workers smooshed into an abandoned air force base in Rome, New York, making it the “third most populated city in New York state” for a weekend. There was little-to-no shade in 100-degree-plus weather and little access to water except from vendors who hiked the price of a small, individual bottle to $4 (this is over 20 years ago, remember). Some folks couldn’t afford it, or make it through the insane ATM lines, so they broke open city pipes, which created mud pools throughout the grounds. Scarce, clogged toilets then overflowed into the whole mess. Insider and BuzzFeedNews have pictures and details, and it’s all horrific, depraved, and insane.

Vulture, citing the forthcoming “Woodstock 99” documentary, described it as a “swirling vortex of human waste and angry white men” and an “orgy of poor planning” mixed with a “fundamental misunderstanding of the nu metal fanbase” about the purpose of the festival. This isn’t at all an excuse for anyone’s behavior, but it at least helps cast some of the more absurd, “apocalyptic” elements (as Insider puts it), into a clearer light. The aftermath, ridiculously so, looks like a battlefield of wrecked facilities and thousands of slain plastic bottles.

And you know who actually foresaw it all? Our favorite bald-headed, vegan electronic music man, Moby, who actually performed at the festival, himself. 

Who watches the watchers?

As if things couldn’t get any more grim and shocking, some of those individuals responsible for “keeping the peace” wound up getting involved in the mayhem. There were riots at Woodstock 99, we know. One attendee on Rolling Stone reports how participants flipped over a tractor trailer and broke someone’s leg. There was relentless violence, assaults, and fires dotting the landscape while a “silent line of cops in riot gear” stood and watched. “I smelled enough ambient pepper spray to make my eyes tear,” the eyewitness said. 

Among those conscripted to maintain order were 500 New York state troopers and “volunteer security” from New York City, as another Rolling Stone article states. Most of the volunteers simply walked off the job and vanished into the vastly overwhelming-in-numbers crowd. And the state troopers? They didn’t only stand idly by, or even tend to their duties. Some of them waded into the madness and participated.

As the NY Post reports, at one point the troopers were supposed to be escorting people away from the base. En route, they “coaxed the women into lifting up their shirts and posing for pictures.” Two others, specifically, “surrounded two young women during the looting, arson and raping July 26 and asking them to show their breasts.” All in all, 10 state troopers and two of their supervisors were suspended and demoted, among other penalties. No word on whether or not they faced criminal charges.

The documentary “Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage” streams on HBO Max beginning July 23; the trailer is posted on YouTube.

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