When Rome Burned: A Behind-The-Scenes Look at Woodstock ‘99

Lord Of The Flies
– Lord Of The Flies
Woodstock 99, the 30th anniversary of original Woodstock, seemed to have little in common with the three days of peace and love promoted in 1969.

When original Woodstock co-promoter Michael Lang, Metropolitan Entertainment’s John Scher and financier Ossie Kilkenny started to plan Woodstock ‘99 they wanted to resolve the main issue that plagued the original Woodstock and Woodstock ‘94: unsecured perimeters that allowed thousands to attend for free, causing each outing to lose millions. 

Seeking a place with impenetrable borders, Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, N.Y., a defunct military site that closed in 1995, was chosen due to its existing infrastructure. The 3,552-acre site possessed empty buildings for production and staff to run the festival July 23-25, 1999. There was running water, indoor plumbing, electricity and plenty of space for parking and camping. What it lacked was grass and shade.
Rome needed an economic boost as the base’s closing had resulted in over 10% of its population becoming unemployed. Woodstock ‘99 would be an enormous financial boon for the area, although some local businesses and residents were wary of the potential crowds.
Lois Najarian O’Neill, SVP, Susan Blond, Inc.: We were hired to do PR for the festival. There was definitely a big campaign to get the town of Rome on board. There was a lot of massaging to happen on the local front so the town didn’t feel like they were going to be overrun by something terrible.
The turnout would indeed be massive, since Woodstock ‘99 had no competition. Back then, multi-day rock festivals did not exist in the States on today’s scale. The first incarnation of Lollapalooza ceased in 1997, and touring festivals Lilith Fair and Warped Tour only stopped in cities for a day at a time. Radio festivals were still one day affairs. By 1999, Tibetan Freedom Concert was a one-day festival held in four different cities worldwide. Coachella launched in October 1999. If you wanted to rock out for three days, Woodstock ‘99 was your only option.
Working for Island Def Jam Music Group’s (IDJ) marketing department in 1999, I was part of a team comprised of survivors of the recent PolyGram-Universal merger. (IDJ was an amalgamation of Mercury, Def Jam and Island Records, along with their subsidiaries.) Combining these labels meant IDJ had 13 artists performing at Woodstock ‘99, the most of any record group. Promoting our artists to a quarter-million people was just another day out of the office.

Friday, July 23, 1999
After spending hours in traffic worsened by the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony occurring an hour away in Cooperstown, N.Y., that same weekend, we parked behind the monstrous main stage (the East Stage). Two-hundred-fifty-thousand attendees amassed in front of the stage on tarmac as far as the eye could see.
Enclosing the festival site, and protecting the backstage, was a perimeter of 12-foot tall, one-inch thick wooden planks (dubbed the “Peace Wall” by Lang) propped side-by-side on hollow metal poles. They also protected the various front-of-house production towers. Lang commissioned artists to create murals leaving blank boards for attendees to express themselves. Their offerings included “Show Us Your Titties” and “Profit$tock.”

Ed Kowalcyk, lead singer, Live (which along with Sheryl Crow, Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers, played Woodstock ‘94 and ‘99): It was a consensus that, even if it was unspoken, was kind of like, “OK, this is odd. This is an odd location for this festival. It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel like Woodstock.”
Despite the strange surroundings, the excitement was palpable as James Brown opened the festival. In typical fashion, Brown stepped on stage 20 minutes after his band started playing. But The Godfather of Soul always delivered and everybody was still in a good mood and, most importantly, hydrated.
As the day progressed, so did the heat, bouncing off the tarmac and giving attendees a rotisserie chicken feel. It made performing a stamina test for fan and artist alike.
Kowalcyk: It was one of those shows where about halfway through it ceases to be a musical event and more of an endurance contest.
DMX was IDJ’s first artist to perform. 
Not only did he make it to Griffiss, but he was on time. This was perhaps the only miracle to occur that weekend. IDJ artist Tracy Bonham attended the festival last minute, having 
being shanghaied from the label’s Manhattan headquarters by Lyor Cohen, then co-president.
Tracy Bonham, singer-songwriter: I ended up being the fourth person in the Seagram’s helicopter with Lyor and these two other guys flying in to Woodstock. The first person I ran into [backstage] was Sheryl Crow. We gave each other a hug and she’s like, “This is horrendous. I don’t want to be here,” and I was like “Oh my God, I feel it too.” 
And then I went to the side [of the main stage] to watch DMX. 
As actors Stephen Baldwin and Rosie Perez introduced DMX, the mostly white male audience started chanting “Show us your tits!” at Perez (Her response: “You wanna see ‘em? $3.99 at Blockbuster. ‘Do the Right Thing.’”)
Bonham: I’m looking out at this sea of what looked to me like mostly angry white males. And the energy was so wrong. I just felt like there was too much aggression so I started to cry cause I couldn’t handle the negativity.
DMX’s performance showed there were plenty of Ruff Ryders living in the suburbs. We soon learned that’s where juggalos resided as well, as the team drove to the West stage (the second stage) for Insane Clown Posse. Using a van we had that entire weekend, we quickly covered the 2.3 miles between stages. For any fan who wanted to walk to see both DMX and ICP, it couldn’t be done. 
ICP’s set was their standard fare (spraying the crowd with Faygo, men streaking) until they threw rubber balls into the audience announcing each had $100 and $500 attached to them. Everyone surged, shoving and knocking each other over to get the cash. Inciting this fracas was the only newsworthy moment of their performance.
Though Bush were the headliners, it was Korn, a band that had recently been swapping the No. 1 spot on MTV’s “Total Request Live” with the Backstreet Boys and ‘NSync, that held more anticipation. Before Korn started, aggressive groping commenced for the first time that weekend. 
Female crowd surfers swatted away men who tore at their tops. Flares were launched from the audience as if to signal the distress that was about to happen. 
As Korn singer Jonathan Davis growled “Are you ready?” to launch “Blind,” the place erupted into moshing so forceful the crowd’s motion could be felt by those on stage.
Jason Pritchett, Artist Development Coordinator, IDJ: The stage started shaking when they started. That was frightening.
Davis goaded people, yelling, “I want to see how many motherfuckers out there can get naked. This is Woodstock, goddamn it!” A gang rape reportedly took place in the mosh pit during Korn’s set, and it wasn’t the festival’s last.

Saturday, July 24, 1999 

Kid Rock
Kevin Mazur / WireImage
– Kid Rock
Bawitdaba: Kid Rock getting pelted with water bottles during his Woodstock ‘99 set.

The vibe backstage Saturday morning was relaxed, although it was clear FOH production endured far more than anyone else, hanging a sign reading “The Alamo” from the sound and lighting tower. 
Shannon McSweeney, Manager, Artist Development & Touring, IDJ: I walked out first thing Saturday morning and it was like, “OK, this is cool.” It wasn’t hot yet and it wasn’t angry yet.
Kid Rock gave a surprisingly strong performance, culminating in the rap-rocker commanding the audience to throw things at him. (“But nothing that could hurt each other!”) The crowd obliged, showering Rock with plastic bottles.
The temperature increased to a sweltering level, but sets by Counting Crows, Dave Matthews Band and Alanis Morrissette were well received.
Then came Limp Bizkit, another “TRL” rap-metal darling. Stepping on stage, lead singer Fred Durst announced, “Let’s see if we can’t get this motherfucking place stirred up a little bit.” He wasn’t kidding. Any idea of crowd control was gone. Violent moshing and whirlpools broke out everywhere. 
Paul Dellafiora, VP Artist Development and Tour Marketing, IDJ: I walked off the stage [during Limp Bizkit] where the medical triage was. I honestly never saw so many people coming through the doors with injuries. It looked like a lot of broken arms and legs.
The tarmac was full of toxic masculinity. Halfway through Bizkit’s set, a Peace Wall panel appeared floating across the crowd with men surfing on it. “Mellow out, you insane, crazy motherfuckers,” Durst half-heartedly told them.
Thirty-five minutes in, guitarist Wes Borland started “Break Stuff.” Like the leitmotif from “Jaws,” his two-note riff signaled impending doom. The crowd took this as permission to destroy everything. More panels – particularly around “The Alamo” – were ripped from their moorings and passed towards the stage. 
In a desperate attempt to quell the insanity, production cut Durst’s mic after “Break Stuff.” A roadie approached Durst telling him to tell everyone to “calm the fuck down.” Instead, Durst announced, “I want to let everybody know that I’m doing all this shit for the nookie.”
McSweeney: [Durst] was like a stupid punk who didn’t understand what was happening and either deliberately or mindlessly encouraged it to go to the point of no return. We knew, and it was like, “What is wrong with you?! This is going to be a riot. What are you doing?!”
Multiple floating panels were visible and, in what may be the first public example of FOMO, Durst ordered one to the stage so he could surf too. The set mercifully ended as Durst screeched “Faith” while panel surfing. 
Amazingly – and this is not an overstatement – no one was killed during Bizkit’s set, although another gang rape reportedly took place in the mosh pit. (It was one of eight sexual assaults reported to authorities that weekend. Only one arrest was made.)
Immediately after Bizkit’s performance, Durst told any outlet that would listen that the mayhem was “not our fault.” Given that he started a near-riot the month before at a Live 105 show at Northern California’s Shoreline Amphitheatre, after telling the audience to rush security and the stage, his claims of innocence were dubious. Durst did not respond to an interview request.
There was a brief respite before Rage Against the Machine, but any sense of normalcy from the audience had disappeared. As much as Rage wanted to inform them about the world’s injustices, the crowd was in no mood to be enlightened. They’d rather throw elbows. 
“Bulls on Parade” brought next-level chaos. Building to the climax of their final song, “Killing In The Name,” bassist Tim Commerford set fire to an American flag draped over his amps. Given the destruction that took place during Limp Bizkit’s set, this was met with a shrug.
By the time headliners Metallica arrived, there were probably agnostics and atheists who had found religion, praying that the stage would remain upright. The veteran heavy metal band offered a master class in crowd control as lead singer James Hetfield tried to harness the audience’s energy towards him instead of each other.
McSweeney: Hetfield did everything humanly possible to roll that back. They saw what Fred Durst had done and they were worried. They knew they had to do something. And they tried so hard but it was just so far gone.
Concertgoer David DeRosia collapsed during Metallica’s set. Medevaced to University Hospital in Syracuse, N.Y., DeRosia lapsed into a coma, dying two days later from hyperthermia, with a body temperature of 107 degrees.
Sunday, July 25, 1999
There was an overwhelming sense of weariness backstage. The excitement had gone; the feeling instead was “let’s just get through this.” Some ventured out to see the damage caused by Saturday night’s events.

Dellafiora: We walked where everybody was during Metallica and Rage and Limp Bizkit. There must’ve been 5,000 single shoes and sandals in a big pile. It stunk. It was like the apocalypse.
We learned that the scheduled opener, Al Green, had canceled at the last minute. You know if a reverend pulls out of anything, things are bound to go wrong. This left Willie Nelson, one of IDJ’s artists, to start the day. He was a temporary balm.
Pritchett: We were all onstage [for Willie] and it was church to me. It was like this crazy, chaotic Saturday night then followed by church service the next morning and it was Willie. It was incredible.
There were examples of brotherhood from the artists. Brian Setzer performed and then loaned his gear to Elvis Costello, whose luggage was lost by British Airways. Creed brought out The Doors’ guitarist Robby Krieger to cover “Roadhouse Blues” and “Riders On The Storm.”
In the media tent, organizers acted as if everything was normal and spoke of having a Woodstock festival at Griffiss every five years.
Heather Kovar, Reporter/Anchor/Producer, WKTV, Utica, N.Y.: It was still daylight when they were having press conferences with then-Mayor Joe Griffo and Michael Lang. They were saying, “You know what, things are under control.”
Backstage, the energy was tense and most artists left as soon as they finished their performances and press. Other artists just arriving felt an uneasy vibe.
Michael Glabicki, lead singer, Rusted Root: As soon as we rolled in there and got out of the bus I was like, “Ooooh, this is not right.” It wasn’t the size of the crowd. It wasn’t the venue itself. There was something in the air. You could feel mass anger happening.
The crowd turned on those who ventured from backstage.
McSweeney: When we were going out [to FOH], they were throwing the overflowing Porta-John mud at people. So we walked five feet out, turned around and came back in. We were like, “Alright, it’s ugly out there. We’re never going out there again.”
In what was the day’s only potentially good news, a rumor spread backstage that Prince would perform as a surprise closing act.
O’Neill: At the time, Prince was one of my clients. I remember the founders of the festival saying, “Can you help leverage your relationship and see if you could get him to be a headliner?” He said “No.”
Beause the van and golf carts were in use elsewhere, the fastest way to get to the Emerging Artists stage, located in a hangar between the East and West stages, was to walk through the crowd. When I hit the perimeter wall, a security guard cautioned, “Hide your laminate. [Members of the crowd] have been tearing them off people who go out there.” 
Heeding his advice, I ventured out and was stunned by the scene. The tarmac was carpeted by ankle-deep trash. Wading through it, I noticed large areas of mud and wondered where mud could come from a tarmac, quickly realizing, that’s not mud. Navigating the trash and the crowd, the mile walk took 45 minutes. 
Approaching the hangar (the only source of shade), I saw hundreds of people passed out on the floor – so many you couldn’t walk in a straight line. With Prince not coming in to save the day, it was up to headliners Red Hot Chili Peppers. Brutal moshing continued, sending even more to the medical tent.
Dellafiora: I remember standing stage left. That was the entrance for the medical crew and I was just dumbfounded. People were just flying by us. A dozen every couple of minutes. That’s when I said, “We gotta go.”
O’Neill: I remember the EMS people and I was like “Oh my God, this is like triage back here.” Things came to a fever pitch toward the end of the concert when the peace candles got handed out.
Passed out by anti-gun-violence group PAX, the candles were intended for a vigil during “Under the Bridge.” Most people did that. Others decided to light up the Peace Wall.
McSweeney: I was onstage standing next to the MTV cameraman. He’s like “What is that?” He zooms all the way out and, at the same time, we’re like “That’s a fire.” Then he scans the crowd and he’s like “Wait, there’s another one… and there’s another one.” And then it was, “We’re getting the hell out of here.” 
O’Neill: We were just about to have our wrap party. I said, “Let me just turn on my walkie one more time” to the channel that John Scher and Michael Lang were on. There was something about “Oh, there’s another fire over here. Call Lois.” 
Kovar: We were told “Nothing’s wrong. They have it under control.” Next thing you know, the [WKTV crew] is calling us saying, “Here’s our latest script because there are fires.”
With multiple fires set, Scher took the stage. 
“As you can see behind you, we have a bit of a problem,” he said. “The Chili Peppers are going to come back. Calm down. We don’t want anybody to get hurt. That fire that you see is not part of the show. It really is a problem.” Scher and Lang did not respond to requests for comment. The Chili Peppers finished their set by keeping a promise made to Jimi Hendrix’s sister, covering his classic “Fire.” The mayhem continued and the remaining security were quitting on the spot. 
(Over the course of the weekend, half of the 1,200 hired security personnel had either been fired or walked out.)
O’Neill: I remember the security guards taking off their shirts and being like, “I’m off duty.” It was like, “Nope. Not wearing that. That is not in my pay grade.”
With little to no security left, the Peace Wall was quickly dismantled.
McSweeney: By the time we got off stage and went back of house, the walls were starting to get breached. The first aid tent was overflowing. It was crazy. Got in the car and when you went through that gate, there were riot police in formation. It was like pulling into a Pink Floyd video.
The riot police were brought in to help calm the Molotov-cocktail-throwing-crowd that had amassed near the hangar. A speaker tower was toppled. Drum circles formed around the bonfires, making a “Lord of the Flies” scenario.
Kovar: A group of people did damage to our satellite vehicle. Thousands of dollars’ worth of damage. Parked nowhere near a stage. In total, 17 fires burned as 100 police and 22 fire trucks tried to contain the situation. 44 arrests were made.
Monday, July 26, 1999
Kovar: I went back [to Griffiss]. We said, “Rome burned.” It stunk. It was smoldering. There was trash everywhere. People had written things on the wall like, “Please piss in the grass,” and made those murals of money.
O’Neill: The New York Post [cover] the next day was a person holding the American flag with a big fire behind it, and it said “WOODSTOCK BURNS.” I think that everybody was just really blown away that it happened. Nobody saw that coming at all.
Michael Lang recently told Rolling Stone, “Woodstock ’99 was just a musical experience with no social significance.” However, it may have marked the first public protest against the music industry itself. 
Record labels, whose sales peaked in 1999, soon felt the brunt of years of consumer dissatisfaction as people stopped buying physical product en masse, opting for free downloading instead. 
But multi-day festivals would flourish as promoters booked non-riot-inciting acts, secured stage barriers that ran perpendicular to center stage to split crowds and protect FOH production towers (Remember the Alamo!) and booked locations that had shade. 
As for Woodstock ‘99, arguably the most brilliant person wasn’t even there.
O’Neill: I remember talking to [Prince] the day after and he’s like, “Oh, is this the show you wanted me to be at?” “Yeah, that was it.” Well, good decision. Smarter than all of us. 

For more, pick up Pollstar’s special Woodstock 50 edition, which also includes: an oral history of the original Woodstock; an in-depth interview with Danny Wimmer Presents’ Gary Spivack, who booked Woodstock 50’s impressive lineup; “When Rome Burned,” an extensive report on Woodstock ’99; an archival photo gallery from 1969, courtesy of the Morrison Hotel Gallery, which is now hosting the exhibition “Woodstock: 3 Days That Lasted 50 Years”; and much more.