It would be virtually impossible for any musical event, no matter how glorious, to compete with the original love-in. Over the past thirty years, looking back through rose-colored glasses has turned that festival into one of the most highly romanticized events of the twentieth century. Trying to replicate something so soaked in nostalgia would be a tall order, almost doomed to negative comparison from the start. In truth, Woodstock '99 will no doubt prove to have been as much of a defining moment for its estimated quarter-million attendees as the first festival was for the half-million hippies that descended upon Yasgur's Farm in the summer of 1969.
Like the '69 event, Woodstock '99 was as much about capturing a moment in rock & roll history as it was about making rock & roll history. The forty-eight bands that played on either of the festival's two main stages comprise a snapshot of modern rock music. From Korn's funk-metal and the Chemical Brothers' big beat to DMX's stripped-down hip-hop and Jewel's sexy folk music, these were the acts that most emblematize what gets our mojo working on the eve of Y2K.
Admittedly, the composite cultural picture drawn by this Woodstock would frighten the folks who came out for the first one. It's a picture of a generation that might answer the question, "What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding?" with a punch in the nose. At this festival, the best measure of how well a band's set was received was the number of injuries sustained during the course of their performance.
Taking rock & roll's visceral aspects to their most extreme, bands like Kid Rock, Korn and their star pupil, Limp Bizkit, generated nearly as much aggression in the crowd as their music displayed on stage. On Friday night, as Korn vocalist Jonathan Davis flailed around the stage in a kilt, stretchers were being passed over the heads of audience members so that kids who had gotten hurt could be strapped down and rushed off to one of the site's nine medical units. During Rage Against the Machine's blistering set, a steady procession of ambulances raced out of the unit closest to the stage, bound for the nearby St. Elizabeth's Hospital.
It was about two-thirds of the way through the Red Hot Chili Peppers' set when the three days' worth of rebellion came to its most destructive end. Despite the on-stage pleas of concert co-promoter John Scher, who noted that "the fire near the main tower is not part of the show," screaming kids began lighting the mass amounts of trash strewn about the site on fire. As the rioting concert goers danced and jumped across the growing flames, others scaled the forty-foot speaker towers and balanced precariously above the melee and echoing explosions. Semi trailers burst into flames, vendors were reportedly looted and, ultimately, riot troops and fire engines poured onto the base to squelch the widening conflagration.
The fires were the logical extension of what had been a motivating force during the entire weekend -- sheer pleasure, at any cost. For some, that meant risking an ankle injury to dance around in the mud. For others, it was ingesting potentially lethal combinations of narcotics. And, as those who tuned into the Pay-Per-View special already know, many Woodstockers just wanted to get naked; some who did suffered sexual assault.
In the end, though, it would be a shame if Woodstock '99 was remembered only for the way it ended, because that's certainly not how people who were there will recall it. Rather, with a set of their very own rose-hued glasses, those who spent the past three days in Rome, NY, will recall Woodstock '99 as the best rock & roll experience of their lives - a musical event so perfectly of-its-moment that replicating it would be just as impossible as replicating either of the other two.
(July 26, 1999)