HBO documentary recalls the horrors of a disastrous music festival
The 1969 Woodstock festival holds a rose-colored place in American cultural memory. By now we know all the stories, seen the epic Scorsese-edited concert film, and heard Jimi Hendrix’s apocalyptic version of the Star Spangled Banner. The concert had accrued such a patina of utopian ideals and nostalgia that thirty years later it seemed like a good idea to try it again. As the new HBO documentary Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage shows, Woodstock 99 was a disaster on pretty much every level; more like a late millennium version of Altamont than the original festival’s promise of “three days of peace and music.”
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
The documentary takes us through the different levels of how and why everything went to hell, beginning with the lunkheaded choice of location, on the asphalt of a former military base in upstate New York during a heat wave. Then there was the self-congratulation of the organizers and local politicos, with badly organized sanitation facilities and indifferent security staff. At the time, people widely panned the blatant corporatization of the event, with four-dollar water bottles and perpetual merchandising, as a blunt example of how the Baby Boomers’ hazy utopian memories turned shamelessly turned the counterculture into a cash grab.
The festival stuffed the lineup with brutishly raunchy acts like Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, Creed, and Korn. Maybe this was what the average (white male) teenager was digging on at the time, but the documentary makes clear how this indulgence of adolescent white male rage and entitlement, along with the concert’s already shaky structural issues, helped push things over the edge. Moby describes the instant wave of hostility and bad vibes he sensed once he got to the venue. At times, the film strains a bit too hard to underline its point about the dangers of toxic masculinity, but it’s not as if Woodstock 99 didn’t offer plenty of evidence.
The unrest roiling in a lot of white males in the late 90s, stoked by aggressive talk radio raging against PC culture and the right’s no-holds-barred position during the Clinton years, came roaring out in front of thousands of haggard attendees. Kid Rock came out dressed like a pimp and at one point decided to proclaim that poor Monica Lewinsky was nothing more than a slut. He also praised Bill Clinton for being a “pimp.” Using the slang term “pimp” as a term of approbation doesn’t fly anymore, but definitely wasn’t unheard of in the late ‘90’s.
The film also reminds us that Limp Bizkit, a sleazy, rap/metal hybrid that combined the worst instincts of both genres into songs about breaking stuff because you’re pissed off, was at the time an MTV darling. That says a lot about the zeitgeist, and it’s not hard to imagine what an already hungry, filthy, sleep-deprived, and dehydrated crowd did in response. As one journalist points out, “why wouldn’t it happen?” It’s mind-boggling that anyone thought that passing out free candles to a huge, rowdy crowd was a good idea, even if it was a well-intentioned memorial to the Columbine massacre which had happened three months prior.
By the third day towers were being knocked over and hand-painted walls were ripped down, giant fires were burning, and assault of the women in the audience was everywhere and either being excused or ignored by the powers that be. Rolling Stone journalist Rob Sheffield explains in a voice-over that at one point he decided to sleep on piles of pizza boxes because it was easier to determine whether or not they’d been soaked in urine.
Perhaps the film’s most touching moment is when we hear the daily diaries of 24 year old David Derosia, who didn’t even bring any illicit substances, and was just there with his friends to see some of his favorite bands in the flesh. We see his excited, exhausted scrawling as a voiceover explains in his own words how psyched he is to see Metallica. When his friends recount how worried they were once he went missing, going from annoyed to desperate once he doesn’t wander his way back, we find out that the poor kid died of hyperthermia. He wasn’t the only one.
Derosia’s tragic story is an encapsulation of what made Woodstock 99 so horrific. It’s not enough to put on a big outdoor concert, assume there will naturally be mutual cooperation and unified purpose, and let the chips fall where they may. Selling a pre-packaged product and assuming that everyone will happily consume it is crass, even if plenty of innocent people were just there to have a fun day out.
Jewel, one of Woodstock’s few female performers, insightfully points out that a festival that doesn’t take its attendees into consideration and lacks a clear sense of collective purpose won’t work. The jacked-up creeps who caused mayhem were obviously looking an opportunity to chug booze, paint their faces, and hunt down women to assault, shouting out the festival’s name like a rallying cry at a frat party.
In a certain sense, the documentary indicates a different kind of cultural shift. In 1969, there was a very sharp distinction between the hippies and the squares, the long haired freaky people versus the buttoned-down orderly types who scowled at the libertines letting it all hang out. Now these roles have, in some ways, reversed.
These days it’s the left who worry about proper social manners, functioning institutions, and general equality. The right are the ones who are all about self-indulgence, shaking off annoying regulations, and being outrageous for its own sake. In 1969, people were rather naively holding Woodstock up as a model for the ideal harmonious society; 1999’s America gleefully tore that idealism down, offering nothing to replace it but hormones, fire, and filth.