Burning Woodstock: Why the 1999 Festival Turned Into a Violent Free-for-All

Woodstock ’99 took place on a airbase in Rome, New York on July 22-25.

Two years ago, I wrote about how I didn't get to Woodstock in 1969 (because I was too young). I later attended Woodstock '94, the 25th anniversary fest, which was a messy blast. The poor organization and corporate approach to the event were signs of what was to come if they tried it again five years later.

Garret Price's Woodstock '99: Peace, Rage and Love tells the story of that ill-fated event. I had a hunch it would not go well, so I decided not to cover it in-person for High Times like I did in 1994, and watched it on Pay Per View instead. As I scanned a parade of Show Us Your Tits nitwits harassing women and many complying (they were seriously outnumbered), it was clear that things would deteriorate as the crowd became increasingly restless and violent. 

The movie wrestles with why Woodstock '99 turned into Altamont '69, which became violent with an attendee being stabbing to death near the stage. The bloom was suddenly off the Woodstock rose. 

In 1999, Columbine happened. Pres. Bill Clinton was impeached for having sex with a White House intern. Y2K had people frazzled about the future of the world. Kurt Cobain was dead and NIrvana had been replaced by angry nu-metal bands who merged hip-hop with hard rock. Most of the Woodstock '99 crowd was young men, characterized as frat boys, looking for a good time. Many were out of control all weekend, preying on young women, some of whom were assaulted and raped. 

"The movie wrestles with why Woodstock '99 turned into Altamont '69."

The explanation for such bad behavior was the event itself, the location and poor planning just like in '94 and '69. What producers Michael Lang and John Scher thought they could get away with 25 years later was huge mistake. The location was an Air Force base in Rome, New York, not exactly an ideal setting. The tarmac radiated heat, causing many to suffer from hyperthermia. A shortage of potable water (bottles sold for $4 each), lousy food (mostly pizza) and overflowing portable toilets stoked the massive crowd, leading to charges of greed by the event's organizers.

Scher blames the riot that eventually ensued on Day 3 on Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst who encouraged people to "break shit" during their set and the Red Hot Chili Peppers who sang Jimi Hendrix's "Fire" as the site was being blazed down. But the fault was all Scher and Lang's, both clueless about the calamity happening around them. In several press conferences, a testy Scher shouts down reporters asking questions about the lack of security and the dangers on the concert field and in the campgrounds. He even jokes that MTV's Kurt Loder described the event as war zone. On Day 2, the MTV crew pulled up stakes and left the base.

On Sunday, the crowd raged against the machine, tearing down the concert fences, setting fires and looting the remaining food in the concession trucks. State troopers and fire trucks had to come in to stop the mayhem. In all, 44 arrests were made.

Woodstock ’99 attendees burned down the house. (Image via AP)

Considering that we've just gone through an insurrection, the events of July 22-25, 1999 were an indicator of what was to come. How many of these "knuckleheads," as Scher called them, barged into the Capitol on January 6? Maybe none, but what happened was a warning that Americans are capable of anything, especially when they feel mistreated and lied to.

Thank goodness Lang was stopped in his tracks when he tried to organize a 50th anniversary Woodstock event in 2019. After 1999, Lang and Scher should've disappeared, never to be heard from again. But no, at the end of the film, an aging Lang hints he'll never say never about another Woodstock.

Woodstock was once a great notion. It's now lost in time, caught between then and now. There should never be another Woodstock, ever again.

Woodstock 99: Peace, Rage and Love is currently streaming on HBO Max. It's alo available at HBO On Demand. Go to Series and look for Music Box.


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Steve Bloom

Steve Bloom

Publisher of CelebStoner.com, former editor of High Times and Freedom Leaf and co-author of Pot Culture and Reefer Movie Madness.