With a new HBO documentary revisiting the infamous Woodstock ’99, a new generation is learning about one of the most calamitous festivals of all time.
Woodstock ’99 was supposed to celebrate the 30th anniversary of “peace, love and happiness.” Instead, the Rome, New York festival earned the infamous distinction of “the day the Nineties died.” There were tons of contributing factors that made the fest the anti-Woodstock: Organizers trying to wring every last dollar from festivalgoers from exorbitant ticket prices to costly water bottles, a festival site built atop hot tarmac in late-July heat, a poorly curated and scheduled lineup and an angry, aggressive crowd that left a charred festival site and sexual assaults in its wake. We revisited the disaster at Griffiss Air Force Base to break down the 19 worst things that happened at Woodstock ’99.
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1. The Water Problem
With about 220,000 people in attendance and another 10,000 working the festival, Woodstock ’99 temporarily made the festival site the third most populated city in New York state. Now imagine turning off that city’s water supply. With temperatures hovering from the high 80s to, in some accounts, hitting the 100s, water became a necessity. Unfortunately, most festivalgoers didn’t heed the warning to bring an adequate supply themselves. When people went to purchase water, they were met with a $4 price tag per bottle. There were some free fountains, but the lines to use those often resembled a Disneyland ride. Some were smashed in frustration, causing minor flooding in the area. The situation was so bad that, after the festival, lawyers for some festivalgoers threatened to sue organizers for negligence.
2. Hot Tarmac
If the late-July heat was absorbed by greenery like at most fests, the temperature wouldn’t have been as much of an issue, but much of the Griffiss Air Force Base was tarmac and concrete — materials the sun’s rays just bounce off of. On top of that, there was a 1.5-mile walk between the festival’s two main stages, so festivalgoers had to trek across these boiling runways in upper-80s weather. The Baltimore Sun reported that halfway through the weekend, “More than 700 had been treated for heat exhaustion and dehydration.” Deactivated hangars provided some of the only shade, so huge crowds gathered at the “Emerging Artists” stage and had to endure sets by artists like Bijou Phillips simply to escape the sun.
3. Insane Clown Posse’s Money Giveaway
Insane Clown Posse created a little mayhem during their set at Woodstock ’99. Performing on the East Stage on Friday night before George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic, ICP was the first act to incite the crowd “by throwing $100 bills into the audience and watching gleefully while a melee ensued,” the San Francisco Examiner reported. Considering how expensive water was at the fest, and how personal pan pizzas were $12, it’s not surprising those Benjamins created such a ruckus.
4. Kid Rock’s Recycling Program
While much of the chaos at Woodstock ’99 came on Saturday evening, Kid Rock planted some seeds of aggression during his early-afternoon set. Sandwiched between slots by the Tragically Hip and Wyclef Jean, Kid Rock took to the stage and, according to the San Francisco Examiner, “demanded that the kids pelt the stage with plastic water bottles,” perhaps making a statement about the high price of hydration.
5. The Constant Shout of “Show Your Tits!”
The horndog ratio in the Woodstock ’99 crowd rivaled only that of your local Hooters. Whenever a woman walked onstage, whether to emcee or perform, they were immediately greeted with demands to “Show your tits!” When Rosie Perez took the stage to introduce DMX, the crowd shouted their request, and the actress dropped probably the funniest, most memorable line of Woodstock ’99: “$3.99, Blockbuster, go rent Do the Right Thing.”
6. Dave Matthews: Hornball
The amount of flashing in the audience during the Dave Matthews Band’s set inspired their namesake singer to remark, “Today, there’s an abundance of titties.” Yes, Dave Matthews said that out loud, into a microphone, in front of thousands and thousands of people. Somehow he topped the ridiculousness of the “Too Much” lyrics: “Ooh, traffic jam, got more cars than a beach got sand.”
7. America, Fuck Yeah! The Tragically Hip Get Shouted Down
When the meathead crowd wasn’t hectoring ladies on stage, they were getting their xenophobia on. When long-running Canadian alt-rockers Tragically Hip started singing “O Canada,” the same crowd that cheered when Rage Against the Machine lit an American flag on fire was somehow patriotic enough to shout back with “The Star Spangled Banner” (and also, according to SPIN, throw rocks and bottles).
8. Verne Troyer
Where Woodstock ’69 had Abbie Hoffman and Wavy Gravy, Woodstock ’99 had Austin Powers‘ “Mini-Me” serving as emcee on Saturday. Woodstock ’99 was full of odd casting, and it also served as a master class in how to not schedule a festival lineup. Take for instance the East Stage lineup he was introducing on Saturday, where the mellow trifecta of Counting Crows, Alanis Morissette and Dave Matthews Band was slotted right before Limp Bizkit.
9. A Truck Randomly Driving Through the Audience
Yup, it happened during Fatboy Slim’s set in the festival’s rave area under an airplane hangar. As MTV reported, “The set was stopped momentarily after someone accidentally started to drive a truck into the area. After a 10-minute delay, Slim playfully threw on a 45-second snippet of Carl Douglas’ 1974 disco hit ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ before returning to his own dance music.”
10. Runaway Cops
Who watches the watchmen? Even though the crowd wildly outnumbered the law enforcement presence — roughly 500 New York State Troopers plus local PD — the authorities were supposed to have a little more support courtesy of volunteer security recruited from New York City. However, many of those volunteers unceremoniously walked off the job by wandering off into the audience, leaving the police severely shorthanded when things got out of hand.
There are few more un-self-aware breaches of crowd etiquette worse than crowd-surfing during Alanis Morisette’s performance of “Ironic.”
12. No Vacancy
Anyone looking for an escape from the relentless heat and the riots and the overpriced water were shit out of luck: Virtually every hotel room in upstate New York was booked months before Woodstock ’99 — but not by festivalgoers. Instead, rooms were filled by attendees of the Baseball Hall of Fame ceremony in nearby Cooperstown, which took place the same weekend. According to one account, a motel in Rome, New York was forced to turn away Alanis Morissette, Howard Stern and George Clinton because there were no vacancies.
13. The Emerging Artist Stage
With apologies to Muse and Ben Lee, did any of these artists truly “emerge”? 2 Skinnee J’s, 3, American Pearl, Big Sugar, Cyclefly, DDT, Gary Durdin & The Clay Pinps, Mike Errico, F.o.N., Full Devil Jacket, Gargantua Soul, Chris Glenn, Beth Hart Band, Immoral Fibres, Indigenous, Sherri Jackson, Liars Inc., Moe Loughran, Chris McDermott, Old Pike, John Oszajca ,Chris Pérez Band, Bijou Phillips, Pound, Pushmonkey, Johnny Rushmore, Linda Rutherford & Celtic Fire, Serial Joe, Simmi, Sticky Pistil, Stormy Mondays or Sugar Daddy? Despite the lack of big-name talent — besides The Who’s John Entwistle, who inexplicably performed a solo set on the Emerging Artists stage despite being only one of two artists at Woodstock ’99 to have performed at Woodstock ’69 — the Emerging Artists stage was frequently packed, if only because the airport hangar that served as the venue was one of the rare shade providers at the festival.
14. Woodstock.com Goes Wild
The official website took a break from peace, love and rock & roll to post photos of topless festivalgoers. Considering how rife the festival was with sexual assaults, it was downright grotesque that the Woodstock site would post photos of females without their consent. Even the captions — “Nice pair” and “Show your tits” to name a few — were tasteless. Women’s groups immediately criticized the site’s webmaster, and even Woodstock ’99 co-promoter John Scher called Woodstock.com’s actions “repugnant.”
Many problems plagued Woodstock ’99, and some severe overcrowding exacerbated them all. In an era before microchips were placed in wristbands, thousands of people flooded the festival site with fake passes in order to avoid paying the fest’s then-steep price of $157. (The weekend pass ballooned to $180 the day before Woodstock ’99 began.) According to the Syracuse Post-Standard, “Security guards said they were confiscating fake passes at the rate of 50 an hour at just one gate.” Although the festival didn’t sell out — the amount of tickets sold were capped at 250,000 — it’s impossible to know how many festivalgoers snuck in and how that tampered with what organizers planned logistically.
16. Wyclef’s Horrible Hendrix Impersonation
Perhaps no one tried to conjure up the spirit of Woodstock ’69 as much as Wyclef Jean. Unfortunately, he failed miserably. In addition to performing a “Jailhouse Rock”-like improv about Woodstock, Wyclef also spent much of his 35-minute set doing a really awful Jimi Hendrix impression, from noodling with a guitar behind his head to trying to light that guitar on fire. (Okay, that was a nod to Jimi’s famed Monterey gig, not Woodstock, but still.) However, Wyclef’s attempt at recreating Jimi Hendrix’s celebrated guitar rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” from Woodstock ’69 was an act of desecration almost on par with Rage Against the Machine burning an American flag.
17. Creed Let It Roll, Baby Roll
Of all the lame musical moments at Woodstock ’99, this had to be the low point. Creed, voted by our readers as The Worst Band of the Nineties, played the festival’s penultimate set on Sunday night. For no other reason than singer Scott Stapp’s obsession with Jim Morrison, Creed brought out the Doors guitarist Robby Krieger for a brutal rendition of “Roadhouse Blues.” Maybe it was an attempt to bridge the gap to the 1969 fest — only Krieger and the Doors didn’t play at the original Woodstock.
18. Multiple 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,” volunteer David Schneider told MTV. “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.” That gang rape occurred during Korn’s set. According to reports, even more sexual assaults took place during Limp Bizkit, after Fred Durst infamously incited the crowd with “Break Stuff.” A police investigator told the Washington Post that two men cornered a 24-year-old woman from Pittsburgh in the mosh pit, “assaulting her with their fingers and ‘some type of foreign object’ before one of them raped her.” The police report read: “Due to the congestion of the crowd, she felt that if she yelled for help or fought, she feared she was going to be beaten.” The men were never apprehended. While only a handful of sexual assaults relayed to law enforcement, many more went unreported. In the bedlam following Limp Bizkit’s set, from the stage, someone — an emcee or organizer — pleaded, “Please, there are people hurt out there. They are your brothers and sisters. They are under the towers. Please, help the medical team get them out of there. We can’t continue the show until we get these dear people out of there. We have a really serious situation out there,” a stark contrast to “the brown acid that is circulating around us isn’t too good” announcement 30 years earlier. Of the 44 people arrested at Woodstock ’99, only one was charged with sexual assault.
This is where Woodstock ’99 devolved fully into Lord of the Flies. When the Red Hot Chili Peppers unleashed a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” during their festival-closing set, it was meant as a tribute to the guitar hero’s legendary performance at the original 1969 fest. However, following a weekend of extreme heat, overpriced vendors and general bad vibes, “Fire” was the flint that ignited the crowd. We all know what happened next: Bonfires broke out throughout the crowd. Vehicles were flipped and set ablaze. Vendor booths and merch tents were destroyed and used as fuel. Eventually, the New York State Troopers and local law enforcement were able to diffuse the riots, but Griffiss Air Force Base still ended up looking like a bomb hit it.
[Editor’s Note: A version of this story was originally published in July 2014 and has since been updated.]
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