Trainwreck Woodstock 99: Why It Was Such a Disaster

Trainwreck Woodstock 99

With Netflix set to release their Woodstock 99 documentary today, we thought it would be a good time to look at the festival and what went wrong with it. Check out the full story below


While Woodstock 99 is mostly remembered for what happened on the final day of the festival, there were problems from the beginning, starting with the planning of the whole festival. Woodstock 99 happened over four days from Thursday July 22nd to Sunday July 25th. The original woodstock was held on a farm with lots of foliage and greenery which offered protection to attendees from the elements and those who wanted to camp. Woodstock 99 was held at a decommissioned airforce base in Rome, New York, In fact with nearly a quarter of a million attendees, Rome would be the third largest city in the state for that one weekend. The airforce base proved to be an awful location to hold the festival Music Journalist Steven Hyden would tell RNZ music what went wrong with the location revealing


“The idea of having it in a military base was so that people didn’t gate crash like they did at Woodstock ’69 … where people showed up, didn’t pay and just barged their way in,” But the site was a flat, open space with no trees, providing very little shade from the burning July heat. It was basically just asphalt and barbed wire, and it was really hot that weekend, people were really uncomfortable.” On top of that  you also had attendees having to walk 1.5 miles between the two main stages. Given the lack of shade, the walk between the stages was unbearable on the hot tarmac. Many cases of dehydration and heat exhaustion would be treated at the medical tents. 


Also unknown to the attendees was that the airforce base was a superfund or toxic wastesite including having groundwater and soil contmaintion. However there was one article we found that indicated the concert goers weren’t on the part of the site that was contaminated. 

Even weeks before the festival was set to take place there was trouble with security preparations. Spin would report that weeks before the festival happened the promoters were in violation of a 1970 law that was passed after the first woodstock to avert any repeat of the chaos that took place.  The original woodstock saw a lack of toilets, food, water and medical facilities. The County as reported by the new york times were looking to levy fines in upwards of 1.5 million against the promoters. The New York Times would report a few weeks before the festival took place and i quote “The County Executive, R said yesterday that most of the violations were not serious, but concerned late submissions of engineering plans, parking plans and a payment to New York State for repairs it had made to the Gov. Thomas E. Dewey Thruway for the anticipated influx of 200,000 to 300,000 people.” the article would state that unless the fines were paid woodstock 99 could have been cancelled, but Spin would report that the promoters skirted the fines and promised to hire, 1,200 security guards. The guards hired by the festival themselves would be paid $12/hour while the sub-contracted security guards would be paid $6-8/hr. They would be promised two meals a day and a living quarters for the weekend, but the promoters were so short on time to find security they hired mostly from a nearby unemployment office. The security on site which was known as the peace patrol was about as effective as the afghan army.  No joking. One peace patrol officer told a syracuse newspaper and i quote ‘it was like sign the sheet and you’re certified security.” There were even issues amongst the security guards thsemselves with reports of some security guards intimidating other staff and stealing their belongings. 


The first night of the festival saw nearly 100 members of the peace patrol quit in disgust. The next night the peace patrol officers were deployed outside the gates to stop weapons, drugs and outside food and drink from coming into the grounds. But even if concert goers were caught with drugs, some in the peace patrol would let it slide provided they were bribed, while women complained of being singled out for body searches that felt more like assault. One security guard who spoke to spin told the magazine that the promoters instructed security personnel not to care about drugs recalling ‘they said in an orientation that there will be nudity and drugs and you’re going to to turn your head  Turn you head unless somebody is hurting someone else…That’s what led up to Sunday.’ 


Spin would end up writing a great indepth article a ort of post-mortem on the festival called ‘don’t drink the brown water’  They would profile a girl who told the magazine upon arriving on the festival grounds and i quote  “it became apparent that the staff from bus didn’t know where anything was. I was kind of disgusted with the staff , but it wasn’t their fault. It was the fault of the people who hired them They hadn’t informed them. ” 


The sweltering temperatures resulted in a sky rocketing demand for water. Another part of Woodstock 99 that was remembered was the expensive price for water – $4.00 a bottle ($7 if you adjust for inflation to 2021). Spin would report that it wasn’t the vendors who were to blame for the sky high concession prices but a company named Ogden Corporation which happened to be co-owned by one of the festival promoters who sold the vendors the bottled water for $70 a case, At that price, each bottle came out to $3 so an additional dollar was charged to attendees. As the festival dragged on some vendors tried to drop prices but the Ogden Corporation threatened ot shut them down or threatened them with fines. 


While there was free water available on site, it was not easily accessible as the fountains being were nearly half a mile from the main stages. The amount of water that came out of the fountains was small. Couple this with long lineups for free water, frustrated concert goers damaged the waterlines to the fountains.  We’ll come back to the water in a sec. The organizers only rented 2500 portapotties for the entire festival grounds and miscalculated how often they had to be cleaned out. It resulted in a lot of the toilets overflowing and mixing with the water from the broken waterlines and mud. A lot of the attendees covered in mud that you maybe remember from the press coverage unknowingly were covering themselves in human waste. 

Surrounding the airforce base was a 12 ft high timber and steel wall named the peace wall. The wall had drawings from artists on it. Soon enough the peace wall bore the brunt of crowd’s anger throughout the weekend, especially the final night and it was knocked over and the plywood was stripped from it. 


Apart from the expensive concession stands, there were other examples of  price gouging. Between the main stages was something called the Extreme Sports Action Lounge, which was literally a slab of concrete that attendees would have to pay $15 to bike or skateboard on. The half-pipe that was planned for this area hadn’t arrived to the festival grounds as planned.. That wasn’t the main reason people were going to the extreme sports action lounge. According to spin magazine the area was full of cheerleaders,, ESPN announcers, and the main attraction nude contests which included rock climbing, wet t-shirt contests and bmx racing. The Action Lounge’s DIrector would tell spin ‘we were cautious to make it more comical & less sexual, but people were getting nude anyways. We just gave them a forum.”

The lineup for Woodstock 99 was a whose who of popular rock music at the time. Included in the lineup were Metallica, Limp Bizkit, Korn, Creed, Live, The Offspring, just to name a few. But even amongst the artists they could sense there was atourble on the horizon. 


The Offspring’s guitarist Noodles would remember the festival in a pretty poor light recalling “we played this festival in Nuremberg. So I’ve literally played a venue that was  built by Hitler It was more hospitable than that airforce bus was’…adding….’You know, the audience was super far away, there were big cameras on tracks that were in between us and the crowd as well,” Noodles says. “So just kind of connecting with the audience was a little bit more difficult.”



The second night of the Festival around 9:30pm Korn performed and the medical tent behind the stage saw countless drug overdoses, moshing with women being swallowed by the crowd and assaulted. Friday saw the first casualty of the day, a 44 year old  who attended the original woodstock had just recovered from heart surgery died due to heat exhaustion. It set the stage for what was to come in the following days. 


Saturday morning opened up with a daily press briefing from one of the promoters who told the press i kid you not “you can have a woodstock and it can be a safe and secure environment. We’re going to try”


The portapotties which were overflowing with sewage by this point in time and had mixed with the mud which travelled down and took over numerous campsites on the grounds. In addition to drug overdoses, assaults, deyhydration, heat exhaustion you now had people who had unknowingly been exposed to human waste resulting in vomiting and upset stomachs.


It was later in the day that people without tickets were able to make their way into the festival grounds through holes in the fence around the airforce base.. By saturday night only about 10% 175 security personnel showed up. Couple this with more attendees showing up and the ratio of attendees to personnel only grew exponentially. More drugs and alcohol snuck into the grounds setting the stage for Limp Bizkit’s much publicized performance on Saturday Evening. Spin would write about the moments before limp bizkit took to the stage saying and i quote “at this point hurling mud and shoes was amateur pursuit. People moved onto batteries, disposable cameras and rocks the size of hockey pucks.” The MTV tower would be pelted by the crowd with food and debris and they would scrap taping limp bizkit’s set due to safety concerns and instead go live from the first aid area.  One of the defining moments that weekend happened during Limp Bizkit’s set when frontman Fred Durst asked the crowd “how many people have ever woke up in the morning and just decided you’re going to break some shit” before introducing the song ‘break stuff.’ Some commentators put the blame for what happened later that weekend on Limp Bizkit as some in the crowd took Durst’s statement to heart. AN MTV producer would write for variety “The crowd was so riled up that people used tarps as makeshift trampolines propelling people incredibly high in the air as others stood and jumped off the many pieces of plywood floating through the audience. It was around this time our delay tower began shaking as we were pelted by an endless barrage of plastic bottles.


 During limp bizkit’s performance many people in the crowd sustained broken bones overwhelming the medical tents with one person in the mosh pit suffering a fractured spine. An MTV producer would tell SPin “it looked like the mash triage unit”. Limp Bizkit’s show was said to have featured the most assaults and violence against women of the whole weekend.


This set the stage for Sunday, the final night of the Festival. At the sunday morning news conference the promoters told the press that the events on saturday were and i quote “a frat party to a large degree’ with the head of security stating ‘i think the event has been a great success from a security point of view.’ The head of security would go on to work for the afghan army (joke). In reality the security situation was pretty dire, as most of the security that was hired was no longer around or simply melted away into the crowd. Whoever did show up were quickly promoted and focused on fixing the hole in the fence that allowed non-ticket holders to enter the festival grounds. In addition to all the security and sanitation issues there was an enormous amount of trash piling up on the site as the garbage cans hadn’t been emptied. 


To show how out of touch the organizers and promoter were the new york times would write about the festival’s final night “ just as the three-day concert wound down to its final act on Sunday night, John Scher and his partner, Michael Lang, two of the promoters, and Mayor Joseph A. Griffo of Rome were high-fiving each other for what they saw as a virtually flawless weekend, Then, without warning, a Mercedes went up in flames.” So what happened? 


Apart from the vendors, there were also tents from various political organizations including  anti-violence group named PAX. They would hand out candles to attendees who stopped by their tent and asked they be lit while the Chili Peppers played ‘Under the Bridge.’ While some complied with the request, others used the candles to start several massive bonfires in the crowd. The amount of trash and plywood removed from the peacewall created fertile grounds for the bonfires.  Fire officials thought the fires were manageable and let the chili peppers continue their set. As the fires burned the Chili Peppers would play a cover of the Jimi Hendrix’s song ‘Fire.’ While some claimed the Chili Peppers were promoting bad behavior frontman anthony keidis would write in his autobiography that Jimi Hendrix’s sister requested the band to play the song to honor his appearance at the original Woodstock.The Chili Peppers had previously covered the song as well. After the Chili Peppers set, a rumor started in the crowd that there would a be a surprise act coming on stage, but there wasn’t. This further infuriated the crowd who started more fires, looted vendor stands, trailers, robbed atm machines. 

Eventually 700 state troopers dressed in riot gear took control of the site. According to MTV News they would report in early August that 39 people had been arrested in connection with the rioting, at least eight sex related offences, 60 hosptilizations.  and nearly 90 other reported crimes were being investigated. . They would also announce 4 deaths durin he ocurse of the festigal. It was estimated that a several thousand people took part in the rioting. 

The organizers would hold an impromptu press conference  with one of the promoters telling the pressI am mortified that this happened,”. ”Of course we blame ourselves to a degree,” blaming the mayhem on what he referred to as”bad kids.”

The police weren’t free from criticism either as several state troopers were found to have posed with nude fans. Even the woodstock website caught a lot flack in the aftermath for posting nude photos of woman from the festival. 

Then in 2019 Woodstock 50 was announced to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original festival. But the financial backers of the festival pulled out and the festival was cancelled. 

That does it for today’s video guys thanks for watching. Be sure to hit the like button and subscribe and we’ll see you again on rock n roll true stories. Take care.