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Woodstock ’99: Remembering the Chaos 20 Years Later

Woodstock’s stalled-before-it-started 50th anniversary celebration has taken over much of the news cycle this summer, but some of us haven’t forgotten the disaster that was Woodstock ’99, which kicked off its main stage 20 years ago today.

The planned 30th anniversary of the most famous music festival in history started with good intentions, but quickly descended into chaos as an angst-ridden generation was pushed to the limit.

Back in 1999, I was a production associate for the MTV Radio Network, a syndicated radio news outlet. Woodstock ’99 was the first music festival I covered as a radio reporter and budding journalist. I went with a team of three co-workers, who are to this day still close friends (twenty years later we still joke that we smell like fire). I also worked with members of the MTV News team throughout the weekend sharing content, stories and news to help bolster our coverage of the event.

The festival was held at the decommissioned Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York. It coincided with an oppressive heat wave that saw temps near 100 degrees each day. With little shade from the sun, long lines for water fountains and a hefty price tag of $4 for a bottle of water and $12 for a personal pizza, fans began to lose their patience soon after the gates opened. Promoters were clearly using the “Woodstock” brand to fleece the hundreds of thousands of people, who paid $150 per ticket.

As a credentialed journalist, I had access to water and somewhat clean bathrooms backstage, but outside the press tent there was little escape from the blazing sun. Everyone on site battled heat stroke, dehydration and sheer exhaustion.

The first day of the event was considered a “Pre-show” with the likes of The String Cheese Incident, Vertical Horizon, G. Love and Special Sauce and 3rd Bass performing only on the West Stage and the Emerging Artists stage. The main stage wouldn’t host an act until day two.

Jeff Cornell
CREDIT: Courtesy of Jeff Cornell

The second day of the festival was fairly uneventful as ’90s bands like Lit, Buckcherry, Insane Clown Posse, Jamiroquai, Live, The Offspring and Bush performed. Korn was at the height of its popularity at the time and delivered an incredible set, which the band calls its best show ever.

As night two turned into day three, things took a dark turn. Garbage and plastic bottles piled up all over the grounds and the portable toilets were already approaching unusable. Large mud pits began to emerge from frustrated knuckleheads destroying free water fountains. For fans, the overwhelming heat, and making the mile-plus walk on the tarmac from the East stage to the smaller West stage, started to take its toll.

Kid Rock tapped into the crowd’s frustration over the conditions and inflated prices during his early afternoon set. Towards the end of his final song “3 Sheets to the Wind (What’s My Name),” Rock told the unruly crowd: “Now when we kick this beat in for the last time, I want to see every possible thing flying through the f–ing air, but nothing that can hurt each other. Plastic bottles, let’s have some fucking fun.” When the band kicked in plastic bottles began flying above the crowd. It looked amazing from afar, but not a lot of fun to be in the crowd or on stage when being pelted with bottles. As the plastic piled up into a mound, Kid Rock and his Twisted Brown Trucker Band left the stage pretty quickly.

Wyclef Jean, Dave Matthews Band and Alanis Morissette followed Kid Rock, before the head-banging trifecta of Limp Bizkit, Rage Against The Machine and Metallica closed the East stage on Saturday night.

In July 1999 Limp Bizkit had the No. 1 album in the country with “Significant Other.” Along with Korn, the group was taking turns with Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys for the top spot on MTV’s daily countdown show “Total Request Live.” When the hard rock took the stage, I was standing on a platform on a production tower with some fellow MTVers and talent including Chris Connolly (who earlier in the day was berated by a fan live on MTV about how the channel played too many BSB videos). The sheer size of the crowd — more than 200,000 reportedly attended — was breathtaking. I’d never seen that many people in one place before or since.

We were just to the left of the main soundboard and lighting controls. About halfway through their set, Bizkit covered Ministry’s “Thieves.” It was then that fans began to tear sheets of plywood off of the many delay and production towers scattered across the former Air Force Base. By the time they launched into the next song “Stuck,” there were sheets of plywood being passed over the crowd and fans began dangerously climbing up and surfing and jumping off back into the masses. When the group finished “Stuck,” Durst actually tried to calm down the audience saying, “Mellow out you insane crazy motherf–ers.”

People climb on top of a tower that was torn down at Woodstock '99 near the end of the three-day event on the former Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, N.Y. Sunday nightWOODSTOCK 99, ROME, USA
CREDIT: Stephen Chernin/AP/Shutterstock

Once they launched into “Break Stuff,” things got worse. The crowd was so riled up that people used tarps as makeshift trampolines propelling people incredibly high in the air as others stood and jumped off the many pieces of plywood floating through the audience. It was around this time our delay tower began shaking as we were pelted by an endless barrage of plastic bottles. Following Kid Rock’s lead earlier, fans learned the bottles flew further with more liquid inside. I remember being hit in the head with a half-filled bottle of Mountain Dew and thinking it’s time to get out of here.   A few minutes later, I got a call on the walkie-talkie for all MTV employees to immediately get out of the crowd and seek safety backstage. There were about eight of us who quickly tucked our all-access passes into our shirts and formed a human chain by holding hands and navigating through the thick crowd while Limp Bizkit was chugging along nearing the end of its set. After we safely made it behind the East stage, friends and co-workers checked on us as if we have survived a war and then I learned about the surge in the number of injured fans seeking medical attention from the violent mosh pits.

During their cover of George Michael’s “Faith” (a radio hit for the band that year),  Fred Durst infamously climbed into the audience, stood on a piece of plywood and proceeded to crowd surf on it. The set ended with a fever pitch. After Bizkit walked off there was an announcement from the stage that Woodstock ’99 was getting “a little scary” and that there are “hurt people here amongst you, we have to chill a little bit.” Later we found out about various reports of sexual assault and rapes during Bizkit’s performance. If you watch the band’s set, easily accessible on YouTube, you’ll see many topless women being groped.

People throw debris into one of the many bonfires set at Woodstock '99 near the end of the three-day event on the former Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, N.Y., Sunday nightWOODSTOCK 99, ROME, USA
CREDIT: Peter R Barber/AP/Shutterstock

We were given the okay to return to the audience for the next band Rage Against The Machine. I assumed the crowd would explode when the band took the stage, but thankfully, I was wrong. Rage played at a much lower volume than Limp Bizkit with such a focused energy that the crowd was nothing like they were an hour or two earlier. I tip my hat to Rage, because they could have incited a riot if they wanted to. I think they knew the weight of the situation and handled it perfectly. However, Bassist Tim Commerford did notoriously burn the American flag that was draped on his amp during their last song, “Killing in the Name,” which would probably cause more backlash today that it did 20 years ago. Metallica closed the East Stage with a 90-minute performance and played a powerful set without much incident.

After the trio of Limp Bizkit, Rage Against The Machine and Metallica on Saturday night, the event closed on Sunday with Elvis Costello, Jewel, Creed and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. While the crowd was a bit sluggish in the morning after two days of stifling heat, things began to go downhill when an anti-violence group called PAX — the non-profit has now changed its name to The Center to Prevent Youth Violence — handed out thousands of candles to fans. The idea was for people to light the candles when the Red Hot Chili Peppers performed “Under The Bridge.” Instead people made elaborate art formations on the ground, others outlined their territory, and eventually some began using them to start small fires. As Woodstock ’99 drew to a close about ten bon fires scattered the landscape and one of the production towers went up in flames, right around the time RHCP launched into its encore, the couldn’t-be-more-poorly-timed cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire.”

While the intention may have been to give a nod to the historic original Woodstock performance of that same song, it instead served as one last nudge. Right after the band walked off the stage we got the call that MTV was evacuating the festival. We immediately went backstage to pack up the equipment and get on the shuttle out of Woodstock. At this point the show was over and traffic leaving was nearly at a standstill. Many of us decided to stand outside the shuttle bus as it inched along, since we all smelled like fire. We watched waves of New York State Police march right by us in full riot gear to quell the crowd. By this time, Woodstock had turned into a complete riot with fans destroying 12 trailers, many vendor tents, delay towers, ATMs and more. We eventually got back to our hotel and went straight to the bar.

A New York State Police cruiser negotiates through the debris at the campground of Woodstock '99 in Rome, N.Y., . What began with scattered bonfires near the close of Woodstock '99, as peace candles were being handed out, ended in a destructive melee that was finally quieted early Monday morningWOODSTOCK 99, ROME, USA
CREDIT: Dave Duprey/AP/Shutterstock

When all was said and done 44 people were arrested, four cases of rape were initially reported by the New York State Police, 1,200 people were treated by on-site medical staff and there was millions of dollars worth of damage caused by the destruction.

While Limp Bizkit received a lot of heat afterwards from their crowd-stirring performance, in hindsight they just did their usual show. It was the perfect storm at the height of the popularity of Nu-metal — or active rock, as the radio industry dubbed the genre — combined with the high prices, sanitation issues, lack of clean water, the overwhelming heat and humidity, lax security and the bright idea of candles. The only thing that resembled the original Woodstock, outside of the colorful Peter Max stage art and the topless women that dotted the landscape, were two performers: the late-John Entwistle of The Who played a solo set — strangely on the Emerging Artist Stage — and the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart, who performed with Planet Drum, ironically at the same time Limp Bizkit was on.

It should be no surprise that the state of Woodstock 50 is in shambles, especially looking back at what happened in 1999. Those who witnessed the degradation and destruction have no interest in another Woodstock. More likely, they’d rather forget it.

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