Guest Post: ‘Woodstock ‘99 Peace, Love & Rage’ Doc Shows Just How Far We’ve Come

Let Me Not Stand Next To Your Fire:
Andrew Lichtenstein / Sygma/ Getty Images
– Let Me Not Stand Next To Your Fire:
On July 25, 1999, the final day of Woodstock ’99, attendees lit huge fires following Red Hot Chili Peppers’ closing set.

After viewing the new documentary “Woodstock ‘99: Peace, Love and Rage” by Bill Simmons’ new docuseries venture Music Box now streaming on HBO Max, I am reminded of something that Oprah Winfrey has said repeatedly over the years: What is your intention? 

While the original Woodstock in 1969 was a gathering of a half-million countercultural hippies protesting “The Man,” the Vietnam War and so much else, Woodstock ‘99 had no such unifying cause. The only mission set by festival organizers Michael Lang and Metropolitan Entertainment’s John Scher was to prevent the gatecrashing that took place in 1969 and its 25th anniversary in 1994, causing both festivals to lose money.
Determined to make a profit for the ‘99 version, a retired air force base was chosen in Rome, N.Y., specifically because it had infrastructure and a secure perimeter. No thought was given to the fact that more than a quarter million people would be herded into a concrete compound with next to no shade to bake in the July heat. (Tellingly, when Lang discusses the choosing of the festival site in the documentary, he sits in a very defensive body posture with his arms crossed).
As any concert promoter would do, they booked some of the most popular acts at that time in order to attract the biggest crowd. Unfortunately, this included Korn, Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit (how we’ll explain this period of music to our children, I’ll never know).
With the location in lockdown and the luxury of being the only three-day festival happening at that time, the crowds were practically guaranteed. The intention was set: make a profit by any means necessary.
As someone who attended Woodstock ‘99, albeit with an all-access pass, I witnessed firsthand the results of these intentions.
Viewing the majority of the performances from the safety of the side of the stage, it was clear that if you were a female crowd surfer, your chances of getting groped or worse were extraordinarily high. Women could be seen desperately clinging to their tops and bras as they were pawed at by multiple men at once. This started the very first day. As shown in the documentary, the only male artist to admonish the gropers was Offspring lead singer Dexter Holland, whose remarks gained cheers from women in the audience but stopped nothing.
The first eruption of mass frenzy was Friday night at the start of Korn’s set on the East stage. The moshing was so violent it caused the stage, which was the size of a football field, to move. The first reported gang rape of the festival took place during the set, one of eight sexual assaults reported that weekend. It was clear from the start that Woodstock ‘99 was not a safe place for the women in attendance. It was also clear that the organizers didn’t seem to care. The intention of profits over people had taken hold.
What was truly surreal to witness from the side of the stage was Limp Bizkit’s set. It was mayhem from the start, but with the opening chords of “Break Stuff” and singer Fred Durst’s inability to “read the room,” everyone on the side of the stage was practically begging the band not to play that song. The crowd turned on the production towers, tearing off the thin wooden panels that were put in place to separate the sound crew from the masses. In response, production cut Durst’s mic after the song to try to stop the insanity. It didn’t help. Limp Bizkit finished with two more songs but no one in command said a word afterward. None of the organizers came on stage and said, “Don’t attack the production towers. Not only is it not safe for you but these guys are working really hard in this heat to bring you this show.” Nothing was mentioned, again seeming to set the intention of profit over production’s safety. 
On Sunday morning, the organizers were still talking about what a wonderful event it was and how they planned to return to Griffiss Air Force Base every five years. At that point, they were still making a profit. 
Don’t Drink The Brown Water:
– Don’t Drink The Brown Water:
“Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage,” which premiered on HBO on July 23, is directed by Garret Price and executive produced by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons, whose new documentary company Music Box is exploring pivotal moments in the music world.
The resulting violence on Sunday night didn’t really come as a surprise to anyone there. Members in the crowd had been violent all week. Now, they just had candles to aid with the destruction. True, not all the attendees rioted, but the overwhelming feeling was that they had just been had. Every possible dollar was milked from them. Hell, you could apply for your official Woodstock ‘99 Mastercard for future fleecing. This was Johnny Rotten’s “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” in festival form. 
What is remarkable to see now, however, is just how far the festival industry has improved over the past 22 years. Barriers that split the crowd and are further back from the stage (and surround production towers) are now standard. Multi-day festivals that launched since Woodstock ‘99 slowly built audiences instead of cramming some 250,000 people into an area and seeing how it panned out. (When Coachella launched in 1999 the attendance was 25,000. In 2019, it was 99,000 per day. Delaware’s Firefly Festival launched in 2012 with 30,000 attending and has since grown to 90,000.) 
Clean-up crews are brought in overnight to remove garbage and empty or restock portable toilets. VIP sections and glamping have become standard – Coachella partnered with Marriott hotels in 2017 to offer luxury tents that had premium bedding, private restrooms, air conditioning, full breakfasts, parking and concierges – so it’s now possible to attend festivals and never break a sweat. (That is, if you have the means.) Most importantly, lineups are curated to attract diverse crowds. These festivals are run by professionals who have turned them into well-oiled machines that operate on an annual basis. There’s no 5-to-25-year lapse in between, and it shows.
Debacles can still happen, as we saw with 2017’s ill-conceived Fyre Festival. (There’s something about the concert industry where amateurs with access to money think, “Gee, wouldn’t it be neat to put on a show and hang out with rockstars?” Anyone who thinks this has neither put on a show nor hung out with rockstars.) The choice of a remote island with no running water or electricity boggles the mind in its stupidity. 
The difference with Fyre is that we saw the disaster play out in real time on social media as the poor suckers who decided to 
attend tweeted their woes. One thing that would not have stood at Fyre with the rise of the #MeToo movement, that happened repeatedly at Woodstock ‘99, were the sexual assaults. 
Which brings me to John Scher and his comments in the documentary regarding the women who were sexually assaulted that weekend. 
Scher: “There’s no question that a few incidents took place. But if you go back in the records of the police and state police and stuff, we’re not talking about 100. Or even 50. We’re talking about 10. I am critical of the hundreds of women that were walking around with no clothes on, and expecting not to be touched. They shouldn’t have been touched, and I condemn it. But you know, I think that women that were running around naked, you know, are at least partially to blame for that.”
If I may, for a moment, address Mr. Scher directly. You failed to provide a safe space for the women attending this concert. Period. Yes, there were women walking around with their tops off – which is legal in New York state – as the heat index was over 100 degrees each day. But 10 is not an OK number; zero is the only OK number. And 10 is not an accurate number either. The reality is dozens of sexual assaults took place that weekend, the majority of which didn’t get reported because the people in charge did not care. 
To place blame on the victims who decided to attend a festival that you booked and promoted is abhorrent. There were men walking around naked. Insane Clown Posse had naked male backup dancers. Flea performed his headlining set with the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the nude. Were any of them sexually assaulted? If they had been, would it have been their fault? Your “what was she wearing” reasoning is a decades-old excuse that men have used to allow for their unacceptable behavior when it comes to the treatment of women. You ignored the safety of these women from the start, and that is unforgivable.
With the debacle of the three Woodstock festivals, culminating in the riots in ‘99, it’s no wonder Woodstock 50 never got off the ground.  Woodstock’s legacy – all three versions of the festival and the one that didn’t happen – has been one of poor planning. But the difference with Woodstock ‘99, and its final outcome, was that it was the result of poor intentions. 
Christina Smart is a freelance journalist. Pollstar welcomes guest posts from across the live industry, which can be submitted to [email protected].