They were dreaming when they broke stuff; forgive them if they went astray. The riotous kids of Woodstock ’99 are all pushing 40 now, and maybe they’ll pour a little extra lighter fluid on the grill this weekend in memoriam (they can come back, baby – rap-rock never forgets). Twenty years ago, perhaps not unreasonably, they tore shit up in the wake of a loud, ugly, pointless gathering of fans and bands and rappers and DJs who had nothing in common with each other and no real reason to gather, except to enrich the organizers and the people selling them bottles of water in 100-degree heat for four bucks each. By the time they got to Woodstock, it sucked.
I was there, reporting for the now long-defunct website SonicNet, trudging back from distant stages to the press’ designated plane hangar to file report after report that no one at the festival could actually read, with smartphones still thoroughly nonexistent. Two decades on, my actual memories of the event are an impressionistic mess, despite the fact that I spent a year afterwards working on what would become an award-winning investigation of the flaws in its planning with my colleague Chris Nelson. Some of my recollections are just wrong – turns out Fred Durst was wearing a dark blue baseball cap, not his usual red one (to be fair, I was also on hand for the filming of the “Nookie” video in Long Island City that year, and the two events have blurred.)
There was music at Woodstock ’99, yeah, and not all of it bad. I stood in the back of a field and watched an ocean of kids bludgeon each other, sometimes to the point of fracturing bone, as Korn unleashed something undeniably powerful – a sound that seemed apocalyptically new back then and is now vaguely ridiculous, which is how it goes. Limp Bizkit – that was another story. A guy in a baseball cap urging a huge crowd of white people to indulge their worst impulses – what could go wrong? I missed a lot of music I might have wanted to see – Metallica, DMX, James Brown, countless others – while I was typing away in the hangar about other sets. I managed to interview the Who’s John Entwistle after he played a hilariously ill-placed set on an emerging artists stage, possibly hitting a higher decibel level than any of the nu-metal dudes – and learned he was almost entirely deaf.
Most of all, I remember the journey back from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ set. I watched as huge fires bloomed throughout the field during the performance; some activist group had cleverly passed out a bunch of “peace candles” beforehand. I was trying to rush back to the press hangar to file a story on the looming chaos, but my high-top Converse couldn’t survive the trench of sewage, leaked from the porta-potties, along the way. I ditched my shoes and socks, rinsing my feet off with two dollars worth of water from a half-empty bottle someone left behind, and used discarded plastic bags to cover my feet. (I do remember a couple of bleary-eyed shirtless dudes applauding the ingenuity of this maneuver – thanks, bros.)
I trudged to a soon-to-be-looted merch area, bought myself a pair of boots, and finally made my way to the press area, where my editor yelled at me for disappearing. I filed a poorly written story about Flea’s nudity and the moment Anthony Kiedis asked for used tampons to be thrown onstage and, oh yeah, all the fires. Later, I went back into the riot, watching a group of kids trying to turn over a tractor trailer; they eventually succeeded, breaking someone’s leg in the process. I saw a creepy, silent line of cops in riot gear; I smelled enough ambient pepper spray to make my eyes tear. There was fire everywhere, distant screaming in all directions; it felt like the end of something.
It was hard to blame the kids for rebelling against the nihilistic pointlessness of the event and the blatantly exploitative conditions. But what was inexcusable was the blatant misogyny in the air, the shouts of “show your tits,” the casual groping of female crowd-surfers – sexual assaults captured again and again live on pay-per-view. One young woman I interviewed called it a “big guy-event,” and a lot of women were justifiably concerned for their safety. Fred Durst explicitly defined himself onstage against Alanis Morrissette, who dared to “mellow out” the crowd earlier. Personally, I had a much better time at Lilith Fair a couple years earlier; Fiona Apple was transcendent, the Cardigans played “Lovefool,” and the bathrooms were pristine.
All that aggression could not stand. Pointless white-guy anger revealed itself as insufficient artistic fuel. Rock itself never really got much bigger and louder than Korn that night – that was pretty much it, the high-water mark: none more loud. Rock & roll has had many deaths, and it will have many more. It will, in some form, outlive us all. But it’s hard not to say that some part of the rock dream died in those fires, or just revealed its falsity. It couldn’t keep growing – it had to shrink, and people who didn’t look and sound anything like Fred Durst had to find their place in it.
It was, in all, a weird pre-echo of the future, maybe: hot and dry and violent and desperate. It hinted at the WTO riots that November, and a century of unrest to come. Some of the same kids who said “fuck it” and burned it all down no doubt said the same and pulled the lever for an obvious con man 17 years later. The “garden” of Woodstock ’99 was actually a hideous decommissioned Air Force Base baking in the heat – it also turned out to be a SuperFund site. The Woodstock dream proved itself to be nonsense; in this still relatively new century, the country that spawned it is still grappling with the rest of its delusions.