You can’t have Woodstock 50 because we killed the whole thing in 1999

photo by Steve Charzuk

There’s so much talk of generations lately. Perhaps it’s a way to make sense of the chaos we’re feeling. We pit Baby Boomers against Gen X and Millennials, with Generation Z bringing up the rear and wading through the garbage left in the wake of the previous generations. Sorry about the catastrophic climate change, kids. Mind your step now.

Earlier in the year, there was talk of a massive festival to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, that pivotal moment in the American counterculture of the 1960s. In 1969, some guys got together and decided to put on a music festival at a farm in upstate New York. You know the legend. Love, peace, music, brown acid. Hendrix ripping up the National Anthem. The Who. The Grateful Dead. A gloriously pregnant Joan Baez. And, of course, who could forget: Sha Na Na.

In 1994, it struck again. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the original festival, another one was put on, this time a little further down the road at a different farm. There was mud! Lots of mud! And Nine Inch Nails! And Bob Dylan! And Green Day! And Jackyl! Oh, it was a fun mess and everyone loved it and wasn’t that great? But no one can leave great enough alone.

So 2019 will mark 50 years since the first Woodstock. The previously announced festival has now been cancelled. Perhaps the Fyre Festival still loomed large in the minds of potential backers. Perhaps there just wasn’t the interest. Either way, the fact is that you can’t have a Woodstock 50 because we killed the whole thing dead in 1999.

When I heard about the Woodstock 50 concert, I closed my eyes and shook my head. The smell of overflowing portable toilets and stale pizza boxes flooded my senses. It felt like the skin on my nose was burning in the moist sun. I desperately needed a shower. I am a survivor, you see. I lived through the shit show that was Woodstock ‘99, and I want to share my experience with you as not only a cautionary tale, but as a cultural mile marker to help us make sense of where we are and where we’re going.

In 1999, I was into the whole garage rock revival thing, my hair dyed an aggressive and brittle black. But that’s not important. Well, not entirely. I was young and working at Mother Jones magazine as the Special Projects Manager. I am not sure how I wrangled that position, what with a BA in English and an open disdain for marketing and sales. My job was to go to gatherings like book festivals, concerts, and green energy gatherings, set up a booth, hand out magazines, and try to get people to buy subscriptions. Marketing and sales, essentially.

1999 was also the thirtieth anniversary of Woodstock: Original Flavor. To commemorate the occasion, promoters launched Woodstock ’99. The now legendary lineup was an amalgam of rap-rock, seething with testosterone, angst, and chain wallets. And as standard-bearers of non-profit investigative journalism, Mother Jones certainly had to be there. Isn’t that what Mary Harris Jones would have wanted?

Woodstock ‘99 was peak capitalism. Bomber death planes were not turning into butterflies above our nation. They were displayed as monuments to the military industrial complex within sight of Limp Bizkit fumbling sweaty through their junior-high-kid-has-a-cafeteria-meltdown set. We didn’t feel like stardust, nor did we feel golden. We felt like shit and smelled like it, too. We — the audience, the participants, the sponsors, the instigators — were all waste creating waste while wallowing in waste (quite literally).

Woodstock ‘99 was held at a decommissioned Air Force base, a Superfund site no less, in upstate New York. Rome, to be specific. As this was more of a trek than heading down to the LA Times Festival of Books to duke it out with the Scientologists over booth territories (their bilingual “Scientologica?” pitch is especially demoralizing), I was able to select a crew of three to accompany me. I thought perhaps my coworkers, fellow UAW members, would jump at the chance to attend, allowing me to dispense the assignment like some Lady Bountiful handing out golden backstage passes. Nope. I got the IT guy and two interns. I did, however, pull off a bit of a switcheroo with the organizers. We had vendor passes, as we would be stationed with other non-profits in a vast area by the West Stage. But I also managed to get us all press passes, a detail that became more and more valuable with each moment we spent there.

If you are so inclined, you can read our dispatches from the event HERE. It wasn’t a planned coverage. Our group emails back to the home office in San Francisco reporting our misadventures and retelling witnessed horrors became popular, so the web editor at the time, Brooke Shelby Biggs (a stellar human being, by the way), gave us a platform. “Us” became our IT guy (who now works, I believe, for the State Department). He took on a very patriarchal role (right down to the pseudonyms) and sort of hijacked the narrative. What follows are my anecdotes, sweetened with the wisdom of time and sobriety.

There were no ins-and-outs for us at Woodstock ‘99, and festival goers weren’t allowed to bring food or drink into the venue, so we smuggled in some groceries, water, and booze in repurposed magazine boxes. This was perhaps my wisest move. We arrived at our assigned vendor spot and set up camp. Holy shit, it was hot. And muggy. But we were young and excited and it felt like an important moment. It was, but not in the way I’d imagined. There was so much we didn’t know then. Not about George W. Bush or 9/11 or fucking Donald Trump becoming president. It was the end of a musical era, the fading days of an industry that was about to transition and transform and break a lot of hearts and spirits along the way before expanding out into the palm of everyone’s hand.

See, digital was about to blow a hole in the structure of the music industry. It was also a really angry, toxically masculine time in music. Nu-metal was stomping around with its little dick out. So many acts at Woodstock ‘99 were the absolute antithesis of the original Woodstock. And not in an aggressive vs. peaceful thing. That’s bullshit. Original Woodstock acts ripped it up (and can we take another moment to appreciate that Sha Na Na played the original Woodstock?!?) and there was a doomy undercurrent to the whole scene. A good number of the Woodstock ‘99 acts were basically capitalism set to music and they were stoked to be a part of something so manufactured. Exempt from this list: Saint Willie Nelson (keeper of my heart).

Sure, festivals are sold experiences. Promoters develop the soundtrack, the vibe, the aesthetics, the mission. And we buy it. The Warped Tour, Bonnaroo, Coachella, Lollapalooza, Glastonbury, Woodstock. (Okay, and Fyre). The thing is, Woodstock wasn’t really practicing truth in advertising. Woodstock in 1969 was ernest and optimistic. There was a true desire to gather and uplift through all sorts of music (like Sha Na Na). Woodstock ‘99 was mercenary. It was greedy. It was exploitative. It took the imagery and nostalgia and perverted what could have been.

It’s like this: Woodstock 1969 was vinyl. Woodstock 94 was a CD. Woodstock 99 was a pirated mp3 download that took 15 minutes and may or may not contain the entirety of the song in the file title. Woodstock 50 would have been that stream of a song on Spotify that you’ll never really own, but that will somehow use your personal information as a commodity.

I am not sure how the chosen line-up for Woodstock ‘99 related to the feel of Woodstock as an aesthetic. I think the idea was to riff on the anti-establishment thing, but let’s take a look at what we were working with.

The East Stage was the main venue, so we’ll focus on those acts that wound down the days there. I am guessing acts like The Offspring, Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Rage Against the Machine were meant to be seen as anti-establishment by the organizers. These were the angry boy bands. The bands that got the white frat bros all fired up. Bush, the Dave Matthews Band, Sheryl Crow, Counting Crows, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Creed were the money makers, the crowd pleasers. Metallica was the corporate contribution. We were still a few months shy of Napster’s debut and the ensuing download frenzy and subsequent Metallica lawsuit, but Metallica was already corporate. That happened when Bob Rock produced the Black Album. Back to the lineup. Of the main stage artists, the only women were Sheryl Crow, Jewel, and Alanis Morrissette. That was it.

Having been on the vendor side of festivals with the magazine, I had a good eye for what made for excellent organizers, competent ones, and nightmares. From the jump, the whole Woodstock ‘99 set-up screamed nightmare. The paperwork was thin. the logistics were clumsy. And when we got on-site, it sped quickly downhill from there. The staff had a really aggressive and militaristic vibe immediately. No one was friendly and no one seemed happy to be there. This was supposed to be Woodstock Revisited. It was Woodstock Reloaded.

Let me give you the bullet point anecdotes:

In early Fyre Festival style, they never came to pick up the garbage or empty the port-o-potties. For six days. It was hot and humid and it fucking STANK. There was garbage everywhere. We gave up on the portable toilets near us and hiked over to the press tent whenever nature called. I was reading Irvine Welsh’s Filth at the time, but only made it about a third of the way into the book. The main character was disgusting and grimy and I was disgusting and grimy and it all became too much. I left the book in the nightstand of the motel we stayed in after fleeing the burning venue, hoping someone who had showered more frequently than I could take the ruminations on poor hygiene. I could not.

They sold carnival food at inflated prices. There were stale pizza crusts all over the place, as most people seemed to survive on personal pizzas and bottled water. We smuggled in two loaves of bread and peanut butter and some snacks and made it all last as long as we could. I paid $10 for a black market bag of ice someone threw over the fence after we slipped the ten through to them. We’d smuggled in a bunch of booze and I needed the ice for a gin and tonic.

In order to tolerate the situation, you had to be drunk. I got a glimpse into what it must be like to be a functioning alcoholic. I woke when the sun came up at 5 or so in the morning. I was irritated with everyone and not in any way able to chat with the public and sell subscriptions. Oh, man. I just remembered I had one of those old school credit card swipe machines with the carbon receipt that would make an imprint of the front of the card. Wow, that was a long time ago. Anyway, at around 10 or 11 our irritation and foul moods would reach a breaking point, at which time we’d start making cocktails. I would drink gin and tonics (and later gin or vodka and whatever mixer, and later still just warm gin) out of my Nalgene bottle throughout the day. I made sure to drink some water every now and then, as it was a million degrees and the air was sweating it was so humid. This carried on until about 3 in the morning when I would climb into my tent within a tent and pass out. Then start all over again the next day. (When we finally escaped and boarded our flight from Newark to San Francisco, we were all humming with waves of alcohol seeping from our pores. I didn’t drink gin for years after that.)

I figured the best bet was to make nice with security. Which I did. Most of them were Jamaicans from the Bronx. Most of them quit about halfway through because they weren’t getting paid, they were being pushed to clock too many hours, there weren’t enough radios, and the whole thing was a mess. So they split and I don’t blame them. A couple of times a day, I would bring peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or chips or whatever we had over to the security station we passed through to get to the press area. This was the informal information hub. Paramedics gathered at this checkpoint to shoot the shit, too, and that’s where I was told that they’d been instructed to take overdose cases to the next county so they wouldn’t register as coming from the event. I talked to some EMTs who had personally counted six heroin ODs. This was on the third day. None of this was reported. Could they have made it up? Sure, why not. But also, why would they? They had much better stories about treating a sprained ankle in the camping area while a threesome continued unbothered right next to them, or the guy who shit his pants and couldn’t stop crying. They liked sharing crazy stories. The tales they told of drug overdoses were hushed and sad and brief. They weren’t bragging.

The camping area, by the way, was like the right panel in “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” One of my two interns was sucked into its vortex and didn’t materialize again until moments before we fled on the last day. On our second day there, he went over to the camp area to check it out, took some acid, and then was only seen briefly as he would wander by our table, oblivious to our presence, each time wearing one less article of clothing. When we left, he was wearing only red shorts. Good kid. Actually, he did work during the day. He would start petitions about transparency in data reporting by the organizers, get them signed by hundreds of kids, and then present them during the evening press conferences. He was roundly ignored, but never deterred. It was very Mary Harris Jones of him, albeit in the most ridiculous of circumstances. What do we want? Better conditions for frat bros who paid hundreds of dollars to get locked into a Superfund site and run around a mosh pit with an upside down visor on! When do we want it? Eh, soon?

The crowd did seem to consist of mostly males, mostly between the ages of 19–25, mostly white as hell (and eventually lobster red), mostly middle class, mostly crass, mostly entitled. These were the X Games Kavanaughs. It certainly didn’t feel like a safe place to be a woman. I’ve gone to tons of concerts (at enormous venues and tiny ones). I’ve gone to really violent hard core punk shows. I’ve seen skinheads crash a venue and start swinging baseball bats. I’ve also gone to tons of shows by myself. I feel like I can handle myself most places. On the first night of the concert (we’d been there two days already), I headed over to the main stage to check it out. My male coworker was with me, enjoying the music and the atmosphere. It was still sort of fun then. I’m not sure who we saw — I think we watched The Roots on the stage closest to us (West) and then headed to the main stage (East) and caught The Offspring. Maybe Korn? All I know is the music was terrible at the East Stage and the crowd was even worse. Everyone was giving off bad vibes and I felt like it was a thin membrane keeping violence under the surface. I split and went back to our big tent and table and listened to the cacophony of sound waves bouncing between the two stages from the relative safety of my magazine box fortress. That bad vibe, that sense of underlying violence grew out in the venue like a cancer. It permeated more and more of the area until everything was being set aflame on the last night and we realized we were surrounded by dozens of boxes of magazines, which would become super attractive to the firebugs as they made their way from west to east. We were right. We packed our backpacks quickly and gathered what we could and made a run for it. As we scrambled to get to the press area (far, far from the action) and the rented minivan beyond that, we came across two boys of about 10, both shirtless and covered in dirt, one holding the head of a babydoll and the other screaming out that he was “tripping balls.” The kids were not alright.

We killed Woodstock not out of spite, but out of necessity. The Boomer generation created something pure and then the years passed and they opted to monetize it. They didn’t follow through on the promises they made in the original, choosing instead to eventually self serve in that Gordon Gecko finesse to which they so greedily clung from the 80s on. They saw an opportunity to fleece the kids (please note that the lineup was not geared at all toward the generation that went to Woodstock or pretended to in tales told decades thereafter). They handed a bastardized nostalgic dream to jaded youth and were surprised when it blew up in their faces. Gen X were supposed to be the slackers, the collective shrugs. But there’s a nihilism to my generation that runs parallel to it all. And that nihilism saw the flower festival on a military base and raised it an inferno.

Woodstock 50 would likely have been a slick Instagram-ready production, as is seemingly every event these days. It’s doubtful there would be mud pits or free love or even burning destruction. The organizers would still have been effectively picking the concert-goers pockets, but this time they would have given at least the illusion of fun and revelry to accompany it and provide and “experience.” In 1999 they took the crowds’ money and locked everyone in a cage and told them to deal with it. They dealt with it by burning the whole thing down. How very Gen X, indeed.

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