Woodstock '99 is remembered as a violent, fiery disaster. The media blamed the bands for the mess, but did they really cause the riot? In his new podcast Break Stuff, author and music journalist Steven Hyden tries to find out.
Woodstock '99 was meant to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the world's most iconic music festival.
Held at a former Air Force base in upstate New York, the festival featured bands including Limp Bizkit, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, and Fatboy Slim.
Approximately 400,000 people attended the event, which was marred by oppressive heat, poor facilities and violence. The festival was later dubbed, "The day the '90s died."
Music journalist Steven Hyden told RNZ Music how the chaos unfolded.
1. A military base is no place for a festival
The original Woodstock was famously held on a peaceful farm owned by the generous and thoughtful Max Yasgur.
The 30th anniversary concert was held at a decommissioned Air Force base.
“The idea of having it in a military base was so that people didn’t gate crash like they did at Woodstock ’69 … where people showed up, didn't pay and just barged their way in,” Hyden says.
But the site was a flat, open space with no trees, providing very little shade from the burning July heat.
“It was basically just asphalt and barbed wire, and it was really hot that weekend, people were really uncomfortable.”
2. Water was expensive and hard to get
“One of the things that people always talk about with Woodstock ‘99, is that they still remember that water was $4.”
That’s more than NZD$9 in today’s money and given the heat (temperatures reached 38° C) and the packed crowd, attendees would have needed to consume a lot of it. Those $4 would have added up quickly.
There was free water on site, but it was very difficult to access, and not just because of the queues.
“There were these really crummy water fountains where the water barely came out of the spout, so you had to put your mouth right up on it if you wanted to get any water. They were also right by the porta potties, which were not emptied and were overflowing,” Hyden says.
The positioning of the fountains wasn’t the only problem.
“There was also this issue of the mud people.”
Mud-covered punters are a cliché at any rock festival, but at Woodstock ‘99 it took on a more sinister feel.
“It was this tribe of people who broke the water main going to the fountains and sent water spilling everywhere. They’d cover themselves in it.
“Sometimes they’d even cover themselves in the brown stuff that oozed out of the porta potties, I'm afraid to say."
The “mud people” would throw mud at other festival-goers, accosting them as they approached the water fountains, “trying to get them to join the mud people”.
“The people I interviewed talk about these mud people like they’re zombies or something. It was scary to see these people,” Hyden says.
3. There were too many dudes
There were numerous reports of sexual assault at the festival and an infamous riot that took place on the last night.
The media were quick to blame the nu-metal bands on the lineup, namely Limp Bizkit.
“I think it's what people remember the most, that Limp Bizkit played ‘Break Stuff’ and then all these people sort of like broke stuff.”
The truth is that violent and misogynistic behaviour was taking place long before any band took the stage at Woodstock ‘99.
“It was constant from the beginning,” Hyden says, “People showed up, wanting to act a certain way, and no one was going to stop them.”
Although it wasn’t necessarily the bands that caused the violence, the festival lineup did little to change the overtly macho atmosphere.
“There were only three women out of more than 50 acts on two stages, over the course of three days. It was Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette and Jewel. And otherwise, it was men.”
It was also predominantly white men, playing for a predominantly white, male audience.
“That was, in a way a hindrance … it was a bunch of people that were the same, which made them a little too comfortable to act out … they felt like they could take over and not be respectful of other people.”
4. The security sucked
One of the main questions that was asked after the chaos of Woodstock ‘99 was, “Where was the security?"
Security was present, but it was ineffectual at best.
“They had this security force called the ‘Peace Patrol’, and based on the reporting we've done, they didn’t hire the best and the brightest.”
Security guards were housed in dilapidated conditions and there were stories of some trashing the accommodation.
“A lot of them were fired before the festival even started because they were intimidating other guards. There were stories about guards stealing from other guards in the barracks.”
Festival organisers didn’t have a proper security plan, which meant the guards were unprepared for what turned out to be an aggressive crowd. They also had no way of getting to the stages.
“There was no plan for security. The guards couldn’t really do anything around the stages at all. The ones we talked to said it was way too chaotic by the stages for them to even go down there.”