Woodstock '99: Rage Against the Latrine

Rob Sheffield's report from the New York fest that went up in smoke

Woodstock 1999
Joe Traver/Getty Images
Woodstock 1999
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As the flames climbed high into the night, to moonlight the sacrificial rite, I saw Kid Rock laughing with delight. Maybe it only seemed that way, but it sure makes a handy metaphor for Woodstock '99 to go up in smoke: the Red Hot Chili Peppers covering Jimi Hendrix's "Fire," fiddling while Rome, New York, burns. On TV it must have looked like Conquest of the Planet of the Apes with louder guitars. But whatever else Woodstock is – commercialized, dangerous, full of good music and stupid fun and casual cruelty – it's also a recurrent part of American history, dredging up what's ugliest about our culture as well as what's exciting.

 Flashback: Rage Against the Machine Burn an American Flag at Woodstock '99

Sunday night's violence didn't produce many serious injuries (one broken leg) or arrests (seven). But the trouble was brewing long before the looting and burning. The promoters were outrageously clueless about the physical toll that the Griffiss Air Force Base would take on the kids who paid to party there. And the fans were ridiculously clueless about the laws of self-preservation, skimping on sunscreen and earplugs while accepting lethal drugs from strangers. The sheep mentality inspired routine mob violence, not to mention Hacky Sack.

Musically and politically, Woodstock was the triumph of the bullies, with the fighters winning out over the lovers. Rapmetal gloried in its new clout as the sound of mainstream American youth. But the bullies weren't the only fans who had fun: 200,000 kids decided they had to be there at the love-in. They did it all for the nookie. They raged against the latrines. They looked for somebody to love in the pit. And when they got there, they found that they had to live with each other, which was more than many of them could handle. They weren't the first Woodstock generation to fuck up this lesson.


On Friday, the first thing you learn about Woodstock is that the Griffiss Air Force Base is the least rock & roll venue imaginable. It's a grim and depressing Cold War relic, a slab of concrete and barbed wire designed as a home for nuclear warheads. Staging Woodstock here is supposed to represent the swords-into-plowshares victory of peace, love and music – you know, jet fighters turning into butterflies above the nation. But it's a creepy place, especially since military jeeps keep buzzing around as if the Russians are still Soviets and Ike still has a 2 handicap. The National Guard is drilling here this weekend – what a coincidence.

It takes for-fucking-ever to walk from one stage to the other: a mile as the crow flies, an eternity as the rock & roller wades through the sewage. In between, you can find hemp nachos, henna tattoos, a $1,500 blown-glass bong and a $30 Darth Maul bong. There's also mud, due not to rain but water from the sinks and leakage from the toilets. Stop, hey, what's that sound, smell that sewage on the ground – whatever's going down, it's not the bodily waste of the Woodstock Nation, which makes the air pungent and the mud toxic by Friday afternoon. You pick up mud everywhere: random hugs from strangers, the shove of the crowd or the girl at the Saturday-night rave who keeps falling asleep on my shoulder, even though we're standing up.

At Woodstock, you can sign the anti-gun Pax Petition or sign up for a Woodstock Platinum MasterCard. There's an Action Lounge for dirt bikes and a beer garden for throwing up. Hey, there's a real hippie! A grizzled, bearded guy in a headband and tie-dye, handing out fliers for the revolution! Well, actually, the fliers say, Wal-Mart Su-Percenter Welcomes Woodstock '99!

The Common Grounds Cafe represents the Twelve Tribes, a Christian commune. Their fliers explain that Jesus' real name is Yahshua because there's no J in the Hebrew alphabet. The Emerging Artist stage is in a massive hangar, and despite the appalling suckiness of the artists, who would be lucky to emerge from a bathtub, the hangar is a popular hangout because it's the only shade on the whole site. Yahshua, Miriam and Yoceph, it's hot out there!

Friday's music is uninspiring: Jamiroquai remind you what a fine job Stevie Wonder used to do, while the Offspring remind you what a fine job the Offspring used to do. DMX charms the pants off everybody with his dirty mouth. But all anyone talks about is the breast situation. The nudity is already off the hook, as the video screens focus on the many topless female fans. The photo tent does a brisk business in disposable cameras. During Buckcherry's set, I see one boy take a snapshot of the breasts up on the video screen, even though the topless girl herself is right behind him. The guys take up a three-day chorus of "Show us your tits!"

The Roots give the afternoon's finest set, stretching out long solos like a hip-hop jam band until the crowd goes apeshit to one of the festival's few drum solos. Erykah Badu comes on to sing "You Got Me" and urges us to "make some noise for the Creator!" God gets some noise, but not many breasts. Insane Clown Posse get even fewer; it's practically a De-Mammarized Zone.

Korn are tonight's big name, and their gig is one scary sight. It's not about "Show us your tits" here – it's "Show us your internal organs." The pit erupts as the Peace Patrol security guys whisk one kid after another to the emergency tent. The medical crew keeps ripping open new packages of disposable cardboard stretchers. Korn are not healthy for children and other living things. No wonder children like it: The brutality is the show.

Bush are unlikely headliners, sending the Korn fans fleeing from the newly blond Gavin Rossdale. But Bush are the first band all day to bother with sex appeal, and the crowd is starved for some libidinal energy. I see a couple up by the south wall trading hand jobs to "Machinehead." The girl standing on the trash barrel screams, "Take your pants off, Gavin!" When Rossdale ventures out to the crowd so a fan can kiss him, it's like an orgy scene from The Bacchae. He removes his shirt. The day's most uninhibited making out commences all around me as couples explore their orgasmic options to "Glycerine." It's a relief to see Gavin getting the collective Woodstock knickers in a twist; for an hour or so, sex holds a slight lead over violence.

Saturday morning, yesterday's rampant nudity inspires talk about "Titstock" and "Boobstock." One woman hangs around one of the head-shop tents with pot leaves painted across her bare breasts, flashing the peace sign for the boys who take snapshots and hoot at the sheer naughtiness of it all. "God, this is just like being at work," she sighs to nobody in particular. "It is?" one of the boys asks. "Yeah," she says. "I'm a go-go dancer." Nobody says anything. End of the innocence, dudes. By now, I'm wondering how many of these topless girls-next-door are pros bused in for the occasion. There are always two or three girls posing for photos outside the body-painting tent, passing for hippie chicks despite their suspiciously high heels. Every time one joins the group, another one goes on break. My favorite has the Rolling Stones' tongue logo painted over her crotch.

Along the south wall, two dozen shirtless goons sit on top of a trailer. These are not cool guys. They point out girls in the pedestrian gantlet and chant, "Show your tits!" Goon accomplices on the ground find these girls and surround them. Other goons walking by join the huddle with their cameras. The goons on the trailer chant, "Pick her up! Pick her up!" Two short girls with backpacks are surrounded by a mob of about sixty guys. As the "Pick them up" chant gets louder, the girls undo their bra tops, the cameras flash and the trailer guys spot another target.

The girls take this opportunity to slip away. I catch up with them and ask whether the experience was scary. "Yes," they say in unison. "There was no way out," the brunette tells me. "It was either show 'em or you don't get out." "There was no choice," the blonde says. When I ask whether they plan to report this to security, they look at me like I'm from Mars. We start to chat and they tell me that they're nineteen, but they get distracted by a sight behind me. One of the guys up on the trailer has dropped his boxers. "Nice ass," the blonde yells.

The bulls on parade have picked up another girl, who shakes her head. The boys boo her. "Aw, come on," one yells. "This is your fifteen minutes, kid." This is sexual assault, and it's about power, not pleasure. Though the next girl willingly whips her bikini top open, she snaps it back up before everyone has had a chance to photograph her, which makes the boys very angry indeed. They push her onto the shoulders of a guy twice her size. A few hands reach up and unsnap her top, while other hands reach into her shorts. The big guy lowers her so everyone can grope her. The Peace Patrol finally arrives on the scene. They're here only to get the goons off the trailer – somebody might get hurt – but the mob quiets down.

The girl still sits on the big guy's shoulders. "Can I get a beer?" she asks. Someone hands her a Coors, and the mob heads to the beer garden. But there's a problem: The girl doesn't have ID, so she can't get in. The big guy lets her climb down. The goons take pictures of each other, posing with her breasts in their hands or mouths. She smiles patiently for the camera and asks through her teeth, "So do I get another beer or what?" She gets her beer.

The scene is friendlier over at the West Stage, where a couple of state troopers stand behind the barrier. One of them nudges the other and nods over at a topless girl. The trooper walks over to the girl – is he going to make her cover up? Nope. He Woodstock just pulls out his disposable camera, and she flashes him a warm smile. He heads back grinning to his partner, who hands him a Jägermeister Frisbee.

Ice Cube delivers a shticky, crowd-pleasing West Stage set, bringing Jonathan Davis onstage and proclaiming, "Inglewood-stock." A couple of Hell's Angels from New Hampshire bob their heads to "F--k tha Police," and while I don't see the state troopers hanging out anymore, the Peace Patrollers, virtually the only black guys here, know all the words. Over at the East Stage, after a dull Alanis set, the crowd is pumped for someone to cut through the afternoon torpor, awaiting a triple-header of Limp Bizkit, Rage Against the Machine and Metallica.

When the Bizkit take the stage, the pit explodes, and I push up the hill for breathing room. Dudes crowd-surf on pieces of wood. What none of us know is that the wood has been torn from the production towers, exposing deadly wires.

"People are getting hurt," Fred Durst says. "Don't let anybody get hurt. But I don't think you should mellow out. That's what Alanis Morissette had you motherfuckers do." People who watched this on TV tell me it looked like Durst was trying to incite a riot, but I beg to differ. In the pit, where people go to fight and nothing else, the violence has gotten out of hand, and a rape is later reported. But the violence has not spread to the rest of the fans at the front of the stage. When Durst says, "If someone falls, pick 'em up," he seems genuinely concerned.

"We already let the negative energy out," Durst announces. "Now we wanna let out the positive energy." The crowd knows what's coming, and they scream for "Nookie." The two naked girls behind me jump up and down in sync, both playing air guitar and chanting the chorus. Nobody hassles them. For "Faith," Durst asks the ladies in the house to get up on the guys' shoulders so they can see him. He doesn't tell them to show their tits.

After Limp Bizkit's set, the mood gets bad. Some guy comes onstage and makes an announcement about the tower, giving us all the impression that fans have been killed by falling debris. He instantly panics the audience, and that's when I get terrified, especially when he announces that if we don't settle down, they're going to cancel the Rage and Metallica shows – now there's effective crowd control.

Word starts to spread of carnage happening during the Bizkit set. For the rest of the weekend, kids trade stories about how many fans got killed; one even tells me that hundreds of kids perished. In fact, nobody got killed tonight – broken wrists, cracked ribs, but no deaths and no collapsing tower (that'll come on Sunday night). Still, the threat of a riot feels so heavy that I'm actually happy to hear Rage Against the Machine.

I'm still not sold on Rage's records, or on the political self-congratulation of a band whose musical mission is to set white-guy testosterone free to do its thing; at least Limp Bizkit's politics address the sexual imperialism here at the show. But the Ragies kick ass tonight. Tom Morello flaunts the guitar heroics that the crowd is jonesing for. Up on the grass, I see two couples having sex in the sewage. Shaking it down to Rage – either whiny thrash metal puts them in that special mood, or they just really, really like each other. For the grand finale, Zack de la Rocha torches the American flag the way Van Halen's drummer used to set fire to his gong. The kids eat it up.

After Rage finish, I trudge to the Chemical Brothers; the mud has gotten so foul that everyone walks single file on makeshift plywood steps. I start hearing "Hey Boy Hey Girl" half a mile away, and the closer I get to the Chems' stage, the more the euphoria builds. Some in the crowd look like a CIA experiment on how much ecstasy Bizkit fans must be fed before they start moving their hips when they dance. But even those of us straight-edging it this weekend are swept away as "The Sunshine Underground" takes off like a free bird.

A voice on the speakers announces, "Woodstock, a storm is forecast." The message warns us to stay away from metal objects in the event of lightning, which I guess means the girl over there with the pierced nipples. But as we feel the first drops of rain on our 60,000 bodies, a cheer shudders through the crowd. The dance floor melts into mud under our feet, and we randomly turn to each other and giggle at what a perfect moment it is, while the DJs keep bringing the beat back until the rain passes and the music stops cold. At that moment, the Chemical Brothers are the unchallenged kings of Woodstock.

I run to get a burger before the all-night rave in the hangar. Outside the Common Grounds Cafe, a hippie folk group from the Twelve Tribes sings about how much they're looking forward to Judgment Day. "The unjust and filthy will be condemned/So there will be love and peace once again," they warble as a small crowd nods out to the harmonies. Back at the hangar, the unjust and filthy jump to Fatboy Slim. I've been on my feet almost continually for fifteen hours now, but Fatboy has me fucking in heaven. The drug use is open: pot, 'shrooms, Special K, ecstasy, nitrous. One guy carries a three-foot bong, inviting anyone to take a hit.

A girl in a Catholic-school uniform yells at her boyfriend for not paying attention to her. He's wearing an angel outfit and waving two silver pillows over his head. She stomps away, and he follows. A girl in overalls kneels and vomits up something that Insane Clown Posse might wear. She goes back to her boyfriend, but he shrugs and lets her leave by herself. She can do better.

The floor is still packed when the sun rises around six. All over the site, people sleep in garbage and mud. Some make pillows out of pizza boxes or trash bags, while others just sleep wherever they passed out, like the fat guy blocking the sidewalk in front of the hot dog stand, face down in his own armpit. The ground crew is cleaning up the hangar, which means we're all stuck outside, baking in the sun. Ravers with bowling-ball pupils stumble around looking for love in several hundred of the world's wrongest places. A few Peace Patrollers ask if I'm OK, and no wonder: I look like the wrath of Yahshua as I catch a few minutes of sleep at a time wherever I can, on the rancid grass or the already scalding pavement. I've got that not-so-fresh feeling all over my skin, and if I looked any worse I'd technically be a member of Korn.

Back at the hot dog stand, three girls take pictures of each other sitting on the fat guy, who's still lying there passed out. A hairy dude in boxers staggers through the campgrounds, sunburned to a crisp from mullet to toe, making heavy-metal salutes with a big grin. He has no idea that Metallica stopped playing hours ago, but what's really going to hurt is when he remembers that he has skin.

Willie Nelson draws a crowd a few hours later, because we need some Willie love after our long, hot hours of Sunday morning coming down. Everyone's hung over, dehydrated, sleep-deprived and grumpy – today, at least 50,000 fans will head home. Willie soothes our scorched nerves with one of the weekend's best shows, leading his crack band through a country groove and a gospel medley. One of the dudes down front looks familiar: It's Everlast, whom nobody seems to recognize. Mamas, don't let your B-boys grow up to be cowboys.

Jenna Elfman introduces the Brian Setzer Orchestra as "my favorite band of all time," which gets big laughs. Everlast does a bang-up version of Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man," but when Elvis Costello comes out with an acoustic guitar to play the obscure and dreadful "Pads, Paws and Claws," the crowd gets the ominous hush you hear when your nutty uncle shows up drunk for Thanksgiving.

Jewel, or as the Twelve Tribes probably call her, Yewel, is a funfest by comparison, shaking her demurely clothed body just barely enough to keep us awake. I make it to the other stage in time to catch Rusted Root jamming on "Sympathy for the Devil," the song that knocked 'ema dead at Altamont. Someone has TP'd the pines in the campground, and the toilet paper blows softly in the breeze as the Peace Patrollers pose for beefcake photos for the front-row girls. Muddy kids build a giant peace sign and the words one earth out of pizza boxes. Tibetan monks mill about, but people are used to seeing them at rock shows by now; they're the Nineties answer to Spinal Tap's dancing elves.

There's tension in the afternoon air as sleepy mellowness dissolves into sleepy crankiness. The problem isn't the four-dollar water bottles; it's easy to find kids selling water cheaper, and once you have a bottle you can fill it up all day for free at the open sinks. The problem is that there's no shade. The stark Cuban-missile-crisis gothic of the military base gets nastier as the day drags on.

Fortunately, the sun has set by the time the Red Hot Chili Peppers appear. They brim with energy and high spirits, making an excellent case for rehab and naked bass players. Two girls on my left pose for nude photos in exchange for cigarettes, while the kids pass around the candles that have been distributed all afternoon. One group arranges a row of lit candles in a plywood box they've found.

The Chili Peppers close with Jimi Hendrix's "Fire," a finale that the Woodstock promoters have already announced at a morning press conference. "Fire" segues into a special tribute to Hendrix, but instead of top-secret surprise guests, we just get Hendrix over the speakers with silly laser crap on the video screens.

There are also bonfires back on the grass, about a half-mile from the stage. The sweet smell of burning wood fills the air, but it's not a pleasant walk to the exit. I pass a trailer in the grass, much like the one that provided a sexual-assault command base yesterday afternoon. Next to it, a bunch of drunks stand around a parked car chanting, "Flip the car! Flip the car!" There aren't enough of them yet to lift the car, so they try to recruit every male who walks by. I keep my head down and walk past them as fast as I can. In a few minutes, a car will be upside down, a trailer will be on fire, and yet another Woodstock Nation will be wondering why peace, love and music are nowhere near as simple as they seemed.

This story is from the September 2nd, 1999 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 820: September 2, 1999
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