Woodstock '99 Boasts a Bundle of Contradictions

Anthony DeCurtis dissects Woodstock '99 as countdown to version 3.0 begins

Don't trust anyone over thirty -- that was the mantra of the Sixties counterculture. That imperative, however, has taken on a new irony as plans proceed for Woodstock '99, the thirtieth anniversary celebration of the original Woodstock Music and Art Fair. The people marketing the festival would have you believe that three days of music in Rome, N.Y., will rekindle the supposed magic of those halcyon days of peace, love and granola. Cynics, on the other hand, are convinced that the festival is nothing but an overpriced scam, yet another insufferable effort by the Boomer brigade to pawn off their dewy memories for a tidy profit. The truth, as always, lies somewhere between those two extremes.

No doubt, it's pretty easy to be suspicious about Woodstock '99 -- just as it was five years ago for Woodstock '94. For starters, this year's event is being held at a decommissioned Air Force base, hardly the most promising site for consciousness expansion. The military buildings will be "camouflaged," event organizers have assured the media. Maybe the conceptual artist Christo can wrap them. Then there have been inspiring messages such as this one, which appeared in Pollstar, a music business publication. "Promoters promise the gate-crashing that was so prevalent during the '94 event will not pose a problem this year," the magazine dutifully informs its readers. I know that certainly put my mind at ease; I couldn't bear it if the promoters didn't make all the money they hope to.

"Remember," event organizer John Scher explained in the article, "that this was built as an Air Force base that had literally hundreds of millions of dollars of very sophisticated, very, very expensive, complicated military equipment that was built not for people to come in and mess around with. So, the physical structure of this building is somewhat impregnable."

"Additionally," the story continues, "a twelve-foot-tall, steel-reinforced wooden fence -- decorated with paintings and murals -- will surround the concert site perimeter."

Ah, there's nothing like that Woodstock spirit of freedom. Definitely makes you feel ready to rock, doesn't it? With exquisite irony, that wall -- built to ensure that unless you spring for a $150 ticket (excluding service fees) you'll have to honor the anniversary of Woodstock in your own, private way -- will be known as the "Peace Wall." On it "decorative messages of support and peaceful graffiti designed by people from around the world will be posted in support of victims of the Balkan crisis," says a press release for the event. A former Air Force base certainly seems like an appropriate place for such messages. Anybody read the papers lately?

All that said, I'm personally convinced that Woodstock '99 is going to be a blast. People were equally sure that the 1994 version of Woodstock was going to suck, but everyone I know who went had a great time. Images from Nine Inch Nails' ferocious set and of Green Day gleefully engaging in a mud-slinging contest with the audience have become classic. As for all the marketing gambits, corporate sponsorships and price gouging both inside and outside the festival site, that sort of thing has been out of control for the past twenty years. It may be the devil, but it's the devil we know. Your local club is probably as guilty of it as the Woodstock promoters are.

What Woodstock '99 has going for it is the music -- remember that? The line-up is strong and varied -- ranging from the Chemical Brothers and George Clinton to DMX and Jewel. You can bounce from Alanis Morissette to an all-night rave. Upstate New York is beautiful and, the Air Force base notwithstanding, a spectacular setting in which to hear music.

As the first two Woodstock festivals have proven, something indefinable happens when a few hundred thousand people get together to listen to great music in an inspiring outdoor environment. There are too many variables at such times for even the most obsessive organizers to control. Sometimes the weather doesn't cooperate -- and that only seems to help. Sometimes the gatecrashers don't cooperate -- and that only seems to help more.

Rightly or wrongly, the fact is that both fans and the musicians themselves come to Woodstock with expectations of something special, and that brings the best out of everyone. The original Woodstock has taken on a symbolic glow over the years, and symbolism can sometimes come to be more important than history. Back in 1969, Altamont came along in a few short months to make whatever Woodstock represented seem like a fantasy. But thirty years later, Woodstock still resonates with meaning and possibility. It may not mean anything as grand as the beginning of a new age. It may be tainted by greedy people's desire to make a buck. But terrific music, the uplifting beauty of nature and a chance to lose yourself in a huge crowd of people being swept away by the same emotions you're feeling can all make for an unforgettable experience. So why be so sure that that the Woodstock lightning that struck in Bethel and in Saugerties won't electrify Rome this time around?

(July 1, 1999)