Sixteen years ago, followed by violence, rape and unequivocal chaos, Woodstock Festival went down in flames.
On July 22, 1999, what was supposed to be a sort of 30th anniversary tribute to the original Woodstock ’69, digressed into a chaotic hellhole that harboured violence, crime and nightmare-like mayhem. Woodstock ’69’s whole quintessential agenda was ‘love, peace and happiness’ which was promptly obliterated in the ’99 edition of the festival.
How it began.
It all started with John Scher, the festival promoter who’d lost his money courtesy Woodstock ’94 telling the reporters, “You can have a Woodstock, and it can be a safe and secure environment. We’re going to try and make a profit on this one.”
There are several factors that contributed to the imminent decomposition of the festival that year – poor organization that resulted in despicable and barbaric behavior being a substantial one. It is said that the festival was held on hot tarmac ground in late-July heat – temperature running over a 100 degrees Fahrenheit – with potentially no shaded areas, there were alarmingly low number of toilets, the festival crew/security was low-paid, the lineup sets were poorly scheduled and the anonymity that comes with being in a crowd let the now sweaty, angry, aggressive festival goers out of hand, resulting in not one, but several sexual assault reports and even a few lawsuits.
“Suddenly, we saw some activity a few feet in front of us. A bunch of people were gathering up some garbage in a big pile. We looked at each other. We knew what it meant.” says Jeremie Romain, a Woodstock ’99 survivor, in this article.
The shit hit the ceiling when the Red Hot Chili Peppers unleashed a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” during their festival-closing set. This ensued an array of adrenaline driven tools to light bonfires on festival grounds by burning garbage. Vendor booths, personal belongings stolen from tents and even vehicles were set on fire and used as fuel for the lit bonfires. This was when all hedonistic hell broke loose, when the already blurry line between the acceptable and the inexplicable dissipated altogether.
And while Red Hot Chili Peppers inadvertently riled up the crowd, the same can’t be said about Fred Durst, Limp Bizkit’s frontman. Durst, quite thoughtlessly, we might add, to an already wild crowd proclaimed, “People are getting hurt. Don’t let anybody get hurt. But I don’t think you should mellow out. That’s what Alanis Morissette had you motherfuckers do. If someone falls, pick ’em up. We already let the negative energy out. Now we wanna let out the positive energy”
The stampede and the literal shit-fights.
“The mud pile that was created the day before by festival goers breaking the water pipes next to the port-a-potties had turned into a battlefield. People were throwing mud left and right. When my friend got hit in the back and we got a whiff of it, we knew it wasn’t mud.” says Jeremie Romain.
Overcrowding was one of the biggest reasons for the downfall of the festival. And given the unfriendly festival environment, it was no surprise that even the attendees not displaying aggressive behavior were thoroughly frustrated with how the festival was progressing. Once the fires started, there was chaos everywhere.
People struggled through the gargantuan mass of other people to get to their tents, only to find most of them robbed. Around this time is when the overflowing port-a-potties were turned over, thrown into fires, and we witnessed the boneheadedness people now speak of as shit-fights were instigated.
The sexual assaults.
“At one point I saw this girl, a very petite girl, maybe 100 pounds, who was body-surfing above the crowd and either fell in or was pulled into a circle in the mosh pit,” David Schneider, 28, told MTV after the festival in ’99. “These gentlemen, probably in the 25–32 age range, looked as though they were holding her down. They were holding her arms; you could see she was struggling. You could see he was violating her. Then it looked like he passed her off to his friend next to him.
“It looked like a clear gang-rape to me, where he was just passing her on to at least one other person. At some point, it appears she gave up struggling.”
A minimum of four confirmed rapes were reported after the festival was over. What was even worse were the sexual assaults that went unreported.
“It turned into complete and total anarchy by the second night of the festival. And that gang rape in the pit during Limp Bizkit’s set wasn’t the only gang rape that happened at that fest.” says a festival attendee on a Reddit forum.
What compelled seemingly normal, festival attending individuals to commit such sadistic acts? The combination of heat, readily available drugs and alcohol, and the lack of food and sleep is the “perfect breeding ground for sexual assault” says crisis services director of the YWCA, Rosemary Vennero.
Or is it simply the invisibility provided by such a large crowd, which deems an individual unrecognizable? As disturbing as the thought is, it may be a viable explanation for unlikely crowd behavior seen in many such cases. Explore more about rape culture and music festivals here.
State police said 44 arrests were made during the three-day festival weekend. Woodstock organizers said about 1,200 people were treated each day at on-site medical facilities. Rome Memorial Hospital would not release information on specific cases but reported that it treated 123 Woodstock attendees.
Apart from this, numerous sexual assault reports came up, along with lawsuits filed by attendees that were injured and/or involuntarily swallowed up in the madness during the festival. The legacy of the greatest outdoor music festival that essentially propagated peace and love was literally burned down to ashes thirty years later with an abominable, apocalyptic tribute infested with anarchy, arson and riots.
We suppose Woodstock ’99 will always be considered one of the greatest tragedies in music festival history. Now you know why.
Also, click here to view The Sherp’s list of cringe-worthy festival disasters, including Woodstock ’99.