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Remembering Woodstock ‘99

Jason Myles

August 22, 2022

The Woodstock music festival has, at least in the United States, come to define rebellion and the counterculture for the baby boomer generation; an image immortalized, in no small measure, due to a 1970 concert album. In the summer of 1969, some three hundred thousand or more peace-loving, tie-dye-wearing, love children with flowers in their hair and hope in their hearts gathered at a dairy farm in Bethel New York to listen to acts ranging from Janis Joplin to Jimi Hendrix. For these youths (or at least so the mythology that has grown up around this festival tells us), there was a desire to live in a world that differed from the staid conservativism of their parents. Those who gathered in Bethel rejected consumerism, militarism, and reactionary sexual morality.

This picture continues to be perpetuated in the media, the most recent examples of which are HBO’s Music Box: Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage and Netflix’s Trainwreck: Woodstock ‘99. Significantly, both documentaries take as their subject Woodstock ‘99, a festival held on the 30th anniversary of the iconic original. Both forward a similar thesis, seeking to counterpose the “peace and love” vibe of the original Woodstock with the “rage” that defined the 1999 revival, an event that ended in chaos and disorder. In doing so, however, they sustain the counterculture mythology, obfuscating some of the realities that surrounded the history of the Woodstock “brand.”

Bad Business

Whatever its cultural impact, the original Woodstock in 1969 was, in many ways, a disaster, undone by a host of technical and logistical issues, and marred by the fact that three people lost their lives. The organizers were unable to recoup their investment as many attendees got in without a ticket. This financial loss, running into the millions, was further compounded by countless post-show lawsuits. However, the way that Woodstock was imprinted on American popular culture provided opportunities. 25 years later, the festival’s creators attempted to cash in on the resurgent 60s nostalgia with Woodstock ‘94.

Woodstock ’94 paid homage to the original, with a line-up that sprinkled in acts that had played in ’69 with the pop punk and rock artists of the day. However, logistical problems again reared their ugly head. Much like in 1969, a hole in the fence created another free show. Around 350,000 people attended a concert for which only 164,000 tickets were sold. The vast number of attendees created a myriad of problems for the enforcement of show policies regarding bringing in food and beverages, coming and going, and sanitation management. There was also a human cost. There were only two reported deaths in 1994, but thousands of concertgoers were treated for medical issues and eight hundred were hospitalized. The result was another multimillion-dollar loss for promoters. But, despite this, the brand remained solidly implanted in the public mind as the embodiment of peace and love.

Despite the financial failures of the previous two Woodstocks, the 30th anniversary in 1999 provided yet another opportunity for the ’69 organizers to make back their losses. This was aided by an Oscar-winning documentary that helped cement the narrative of Woodstock as a defining moment in music and a major success of the counterculture.

Woodstock ‘99: Third Time a Charm?

Both the recent HBO and Netflix documentaries on Woodstock ‘99 and its infamous riot paint a picture in which Gen X nihilism met hubristic boomer greed. Both present the violence as having emerged from a lost generation of angry and entitled white men. This is framed in almost spiritual terms. There was something about the music that spoke to a pent-up suburban angst that demanded “something to break,” or it would “break your fuckin' face.” This mixed with some Lilith Fair and Grunge music holdovers from the mid-90s made for a turbulent weekend in hot, steamy, and secluded upstate New York.

Despite the attempts of documentary makers to locate the roots of the chaos in ‘99 in the music, past problems were never with the music or the messaging; it was usually infrastructure related. The Woodstock brand had become iconic, but it had not been profitable. Hence, the organizers opted to hold the event at an abandoned air force base in Rome, NY, an ominous background for a festival of “peace and love.” But this venue made sense as it was believed it would solve many of the logistic problems that plagued the promoters in ‘69 and ‘94. This was an infrastructure that could handle the people, the acts, potable water, power, camping, and even parking. However, there was also a prison-like aspect: This was the business end to music festivals. The promoters’ purpose was to lock you in a small city-sized location for three days and engage you in continuous commerce from which there was no escape. Perhaps then the selection of a military base, a manifestation of American imperialism, was a fitting location after all.

The musical line-up in ’99 was filled with an aggressive genre called Nü Metal. Nü Metal was marketed as the antidote to the saccharine sounds of resurgence of teen pop and more traditional rock and country acts. Nü Metal was certainly popular in the late 90s but was hardly hegemonic. In 1999, original Woodstock performer Carlos Santana had one of the hottest albums of the year, Johnny Cash had multi-platinum success, and hip hop was chart-topping pop music, but these weren’t the counterculture equivalent that embodied the Woodstock brand — Nü Metal was.

Was there some reason Woodstock ‘99 wasn't more eclectic with a mix of nostalgia acts such as Santana and boy bands that were so popular at the time? First of all, the teen pop stylings of 'N Sync did not draw a drinking crowd. The purpose of festivals is to sell food, merchandise, and booze. While there are ways to extract coin from 14-year-old girls (or rather their parents), an alcohol-soaked three-day music festival is not one of them. No, the path to profitability that had so far evaded Woodstock’s organizers was to be through young suburban white men and their music, Nü Metal.

“Troglodyte Metal” and Greedy People

To the documentarians of Woodstock ’99, Nü Metal, suburban white men, oppressive heat, and lax security all contributed the outbreak of violence. Bands such as KoRN and Limp Bizkit are frequently blamed for whipping the crowd of approximately four hundred thousand into a violent frenzy. But was it as Moby referenced in the HBO documentary “Troglodyte metal” for entitled suburban young white males that did it? Both KoRN and Limp Bizkit have performed at numerous music festivals, such as Ozzfest and the Family Values Tour, without there ever being a riot of this magnitude. Although their music may appeal to a base sense of “bro” or “frat boy” culture, they have played large shows and festivals worldwide without incident.

Indeed, it was Rage Against the Machine’s “Fuck You, I won’t do what you tell me” that was quoted by rioters as they burned down the merchandise trailers on the last day of the festival. Moreover, as fires started to blaze during the final act, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the show had to be temporarily stopped. When the Chili Peppers returned to perform their encore, they were asked by concert promoters to try to do something to quell the now savage crowd. Anthony Kedis decided it was a fitting time to play an ode to Woodstock ‘69 legend Jimi Hendrix with his song “Fire.” This choice may seem irresponsible, yet the Chili Peppers are never mentioned in the same vein as Nü Metal acts.

Part of the answer to this lies in musical snobbery. The alternative music of the early to mid-1990s, including acts such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and pseudo-genres such as grunge, was seen as a revival of “important” rock music for a lost generation. In many music journals, the bands of that era were the next evolution of 60s rock rebellion. In this sense, for much of the music establishment, Woodstock ’94, with its mix of grunge and old timers, was seen as a kind of organic evolution of the original Woodstock. In contrast, Nü Metal with its appropriation of hip-hop styles, exemplified by “wigger” fashion and its aggressive sounds, was not only seen as a break but a degeneration. Framing this was metropolitan condescension. Unlike alternative acts who often came from major cultural centers like LA, San Francisco, and Seattle, Nü Metal was provincial: Slipknot were from Des Moines, KoRN were from Bakersfield, and Limp Bizkit were from Jacksonville.

In addition to the pernicious influence of Nü Metal, documentary makers also identify the “greed” of the organizers as being behind the violence at Woodstock ‘99. The budgets for security, sanitation, and potable water were all slashed severely, and, by the third day, vendors were running out of food and water. As a result, those who had stocked up in advance were able to charge astronomical prices. In short, overcrowded porta potties, overpriced food, and accumulating garbage, stoked the frustration that ended in violence. This explanation seems to be both at variance with, and far more plausible than, the “blame the music” approach.

Moreover, it ignores Woodstock’s history of poor organization, logistical failure, and unrest. For example, Trainwreck emphasizes the physical damage done by revelers to the venue in 1999. However, was 1969 really better? The original Woodstock was followed by a week-long clean-up and several lawsuits pertaining to the damage done to local businesses and nearby farms. Why don’t we blame Jimi Hendrix and his dissonant ode to countercultural America for causing hippies to trash the place? At the same time, both documentaries, while condemning the “entitled” suburban culture that spawned Nü Metal, leave out the fact that the hippie culture was itself in many ways a self-centered journey of self-discovery and self-fulfillment.

The reality is that, despite the attempts of documentary makers to mark out Woodstock ’99 as some type of rupture with the past and deviation from the original “spirit” of 1969, it represented a continuation. It was part of an ongoing attempt to commercialize counterculture that had its origins in Bethel in the summer of ‘69. Woodstock was never about bucking the system. The original Woodstock festival was always meant to be a musical means to pay for the construction of a recording studio in Woodstock, New York. Far from idealistic peaceniks, Joel Roseman and John Roberts, the financiers behind the promoters, were budding venture capitalists. Michael Lang and Artie Kornfield were closer to the image of idealistic hippies, but they were still music industry insiders.

Woodstock was always a business proposition. Their problem was that, while they got the marketing right, they failed to translate that success into cold hard cash. They were also lucky; had the original Woodstock taken place in the era of the internet and camera phones, last-minute changes of location, lack of funds, faulty infrastructure, and inadequate planning, might have left the entire affair looking more like 2017’s disastrous Fyre Festival than the cultural landmark it is remembered as. Indeed, the irony is that four months after the original Woodstock, Michael Lang continued on to Altamont, a festival that has a far darker reputation.

From Woodstock to Coachella

The implicit thesis in both Woodstock Music Box: Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage and the Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 is that Woodstock was something transcendent that was ultimately sullied by cultural degeneration and crass commercialization. Yet, to reiterate the point, Woodstock, like most popular culture, was always a business that sought to cash in on “rebellion.” The problem for its promoters was that it was ultimately a multimillion-dollar financial disaster – mitigated only by a large family inheritance and an Oscar-winning documentary. Even then, it took the promoters years to make up for the losses from the original Woodstock concert.

Despite its once legendary status, today, Woodstock’s cache and relevance are increasingly restricted to the geriatric. An attempt to revive the Woodstock brand in 2019 for the 50th anniversary failed. Officially, the reason was production issues and artists backing out, but presale numbers were low. However, this growing historical distance makes it easier for us to see the festival’s real legacy, not as a cultural turning point but rather as the template for the iconic (and profitable) music festivals of today. This is perhaps best illustrated in the example of Coachella, which was an evolution of the Woodstock model. The first Coachella took place just months after the horrors of Woodstock ‘99. However, by learning from Woodstock's mistakes, in particular with regards to logistics, Coachella built upon the imagined dream of the original Woodstock promoters. Thousands of young people are locked inside a 24-hour wonderland of musical commerce filled with beauty salons, morning yoga, barber shops, VIP areas, record stores, merchandise vendors, and bars.

Music Box: Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage and the Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 are ultimately reactionary and nostalgic fairy tales that mourn the passing of an imagined counterculture altruism that never was. They completely fail to observe a more interesting and instructive story, the role Woodstock played in the transformation of the “counterculture” into big business; the way in which it provided a model of capitalist enterprise in the form of the music festival which is now not just an American but a global standard.

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