Be Careful What You Read Into Woodstock '99

When it comes to rock anomalies, Woodstock '69 was the real surprise

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"So why be so sure that that the Woodstock lightning that struck in Bethel and in Saugerties won't electrify Rome this time around?"

Those were the hopeful words that closed my column last month about the bright prospect of the Woodstock festival that was about to kick off. I didn't realize how literal that lightning strike would be and that fires set by rampaging fans would scorch the festival grounds and plunge the entire event into chaos.

Of course, the lightning I was talking about was metaphorical. I was hoping that music, the natural environment and a sense of community would overwhelm the shameless marketing of the event. Unfortunately, that proved not to be the case. Not by a long shot. Everyone who cares about popular music was horrified by the fires and all the reports of violence and even rapes. The hand wringing has begun and will no doubt continue. Politicians and right-wing crackpots will exploit the controversy for their own cynical ends. In New York City, just to cite one example, the police commissioner cancelled a rave scheduled to take place on the Brooklyn pier. The reason given was crowd safety, but many people, including me, believe the specter of Woodstock was the real cause.

Beyond the bullshit and the media posturing, are there any real lessons to be drawn from what happened at Woodstock? Well, some of the lessons that people want to draw from it are just plain wrong. There is no evidence, for instance, to support the idea that this generation of young people is any more violent than the counterculture crowd that packed Yasgur's Farm thirty years ago. (Statistics show, in fact, that violence among young people has been declining significantly in recent years, but that's another story.) Commentators back in the day routinely attacked students for participating in antiwar and civil rights demonstrations that turned violent. It was not at all uncommon for university buildings to be set ablaze, and political bombings by the Weather Underground and other radical groups were an established, if heatedly controversial, part of the tumultuous cultural landscape.

And, as far as music festivals are concerned, the peace-and-love vibe at Woodstock was an anomaly even in its time. When more traditional events like the Newport Jazz Festival began inviting rock groups to perform in the late Sixties -- for many of the same commercially driven reasons that motivated the Woodstock '99 promoters -- riots by rowdy fans triggered plenty of consternation. Concerts by groups like the Doors and Sly and the Family Stone often incited melees. (The naked revelers dancing in the flames at Woodstock were obviously acting out a scene from Oliver Stone's film, The Doors.) And does the word Altamont ring a bell with anyone? Gimme shelter, indeed.

That doesn't excuse the vandalism and sexual predation that took place at Woodstock -- and it doesn't explain them either. Both of those aspects of the weekend are debased versions of elements that at least seemed more innocent at the original festival. If the gate crashers in '69 were at least partly motivated by anti-capitalist idealism, the rioters this year were truly enacting the Yippie credo of revolution for the hell of it.

And if nudity and sexual freedom have become part of the Woodstock myth, the '99 versions were far more titillating and threatening. At least from the evidence of the pay-per-view telecast, taking your clothes off was more about attracting the attention of the cameras than striking a blow for a more liberated vision of sexuality. And with bands like Metallica, Korn, Limp Bizkit and, despite their progressive politics, Rage Against the Machine setting the festival's macho tone, women who went naked were viewed as sexual marks, freely available for groping and worse.

On a more practical front, confiscating the food and (non-alcoholic) drink of people who were about to spend one-to-three days in oppressively hot weather, as the Woodstock promoters did, is a sure way to put folks in an extremely foul mood. Especially when those people have already shelled out hundreds of dollars for transportation, tickets, lodging and camp sites. Then selling food and drink back to those people at insanely inflated prices was a true recipe for disaster. Combine all that with an understaffed security force and you get the results that you got.

Marketing and greed played an enormous role in what went wrong at Woodstock. That's a reflection of the culture at large, in which everything is for sale, all value is measured in monetary terms and even great music becomes just an excuse to sell you another product. No one could have foreseen the debacle that Woodstock became -- and it's nanve and self-serving on the media's part to suggest that anyone could. But that doesn't mean its worst aspects couldn't have been prevented. Viewing the audience as something more than revenue generators might have been a good start. The bands on stage could have helped cool things out. The people in the audience showing more respect for each other might have made things even better.

"We've got to get ourselves back to the garden," Joni Mitchell sang many years ago. It's an ideal to strive for. But we clearly haven't gotten there yet. And, in the wake of Rome burning, we're obviously not going to be arriving any time soon.