What a riot

Diary of a Woodstock 99 survivor.

Published July 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

8 p.m. Friday

The main stage at Woodstock 99 in Rome, N.Y., looks like something between a pop art rainbow and a massive arts and crafts quonset hut. The stage is at the far west end of the sprawling festival site, a former air base with military industrial charm, located 100 miles away from the farm where the most famous festival in music history took place 30 years ago. The sun is starting to drop, and the crowd, supposedly numbering around 200,000 looks pretty bad. They've paid $150 per ticket, weathered the first day's heat, escaped mud slingers and now have to clear trash just to sit down on the matted grass or hot concrete. There are three nights in front of them, and those who stick around through Sunday night will witness -- or maybe even participate in -- something resembling a riot.

The stage is flanked by two camera platforms on each side and a huge light tower smack dab in the center, blocking out any unimpeded long-distance views and forcing anyone beyond the tower to watch one of two Jumbotron video screens. A gully runs perpendicular to the stage, back about 400 yards or so, with sets of speakers on the right and left.

Right now, the crowd is pretty thick, lined up in throngs and waiting for the Offspring, the L.A. pop punk band that mines the Social Distortion catalog for sound and the teenage anguish of the Descendents and Suicidal Tendencies for storytelling content. It's a completely disassociative moment when the band hits the stage. From about halfway down the gully you can see the faces or hands on the huge screen, but it's so far away that there's a lag between the picture and the sound. Up on stage, the scrubbed and hairsprayed stars appear in fine threads. Down below, cavorting in the mud and dirt and garbage, the dirty, sunburned schlubs pump their fists in the air and sing along.

8:02 p.m. Friday

Someone throws a plastic bottle. Someone else retaliates. Within seconds, the entire valley is popping with 20 ounce soda bottles, like a plague of plastic grasshoppers leaping from one blade of grass to another. Offspring front man Dexter Holland smiles in awe. It's an impressive spectacle, even more frenzied than a cup fight at a sports arena. The only thing that I can think of as the bottles rain down on me is that each one cost $4 at the concession stands.

8:45 p.m. Friday

Cardboard sign: "Show me your tits."

9:12 p.m. Friday

Jimmy doesn't look so good. He's fighting to keep his head up, but gravity is besting him. He exhales out a quick, violent stream of vomit into his lap. His wife pats his back. "There you go," she says. A few minutes later, Jimmy feels much better. He's up on his feet and lip synching the words to the Eddie Grant song playing on the P.A. system: "We're gonna rock down to Electric Avenue/And then we'll take it higher."

9:30 p.m. Friday

My neighbors in the nearly impenetrable chaos of tent stakes and tarps in the "campground" include eight Korn fans from Boston, two Korn fans from Connecticut and two more Korn fans from Indiana. They huddle in a tight scrum in a small circle cleared between their pup tents and dip into a seemingly bottomless bag of weed, recounting Korn shows they've seen in the past, what the new Korn record will sound like, what Korn might do at Woodstock and what bands sound like Korn. They're here to party and see only a few bands, the heroes of the "Korn Family Values" tour. They're young, around 19 or 20 mostly. "Hey, listen," he says when Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)" echoes over a P.A. system. "It's that song from "The Wedding Singer."

"ARE YOU READY?" the massive crowd chants along with Korn the moment the set opens, an hour or two after my neighbors and I leave the camp. Fists pump in the air and 100,000 or so heads crane to look up at the video monitor. Front man Jonathan Davis wears a rubber shirt with studs running down the arms and what looks a lot like a kilt bought in a bondage shop. The kilt makes a little more sense later on when he marches out with a set of bagpipes.

The rest of the band hunches over their instruments, rocking. I'd always thought that raw sound was the essence of most Korn songs. The California five-piece does essentially the same thing with rap that Nine Inch Nails does with old industrial, melding cheap angst and emotional trauma to a cathartic mix of metal riffage and sonic crush. Turns out there are a surprising number of singalong, or shoutalong, moments. "I don't know you/So what? Let's fuck," is a big one with the crowd. So is "All day, I dream about sex," repeated ad infinitum.

Korn have been in the studio recently, and bravely debuted two songs from their new record, split by their singular radio hit, "Freak on a Leash." I'm proud to be the first to report that the new stuff sounds exactly like the old stuff. "It's going to be awesome," my Korn-fed neighbors tell me later.

11:25 p.m. Friday

An hour or so into their set, George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic are working their way through their fifth song over on the west stage, which is flanked by huge scaffolds and brightly lit Roman columns with an inflatable Woodstock peace dove resting atop one of them. (Both main stages run simultaneous programs and it's nearly impossible to walk back and forth between them to catch two bands in a period of 50 minutes.) There are about 30 members on stage, in diapers, a yellow jumpsuit, a Chinese guard jacket, a batiked mumu and cowboy leathers. Bootsy is there. Bernie Worrell is there. Digital Underground's Humpty Hump is there for a few songs. Clinton's job is to look crazy and conduct his freaky orchestra on a trip though funk's past. Two band members have thick markers and write messages to the audience on white tablets. "Long-ass song, huh?"

1:17 a.m. Saturday

After Bush's set on the east side closes, throngs of fucked-up sweaty guys still high on Korn begin jamming into the airplane hangar housing the nightly 1 a.m.-to-sunrise raves. The DJ on the side of the room is working a serviceable techno warm-up for Moby, but right now the stage is empty and the fucked-up sweaty guys are looking for a focal point. Two women climb atop some broad shoulders and peel off their tops. The men swarm toward them, shine their flashlights on their breasts and stare as if they've never seen a naked woman in their lives. They'll pull out their cameras and click a few frames. And then they'll stand there and stare some more. The women appear to enjoy the attention.

1:30 a.m. Saturday

In the dance music world, Moby, the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim are considered boring frauds who have dumbed down and corrupted a thriving underground scene. That might be true for the kind of people who hunt down white label vinyl and listen to Squarepusher and Photek, but in the pop world, all three are adventuresome geniuses. Their rhythms are complex, their beats are constant and they're all willing to push beyond traditional pop song structures. All three employ elements of rock -- the break-beats, bridges and refrains -- but none of them lean on three-minute three-chord monte.

Moby, backed by a three-piece band that includes a bassist, a live drummer and a keyboardist, shifts from old-school rap samples in "Bodyrock" to soulful African-American spirituals in "Honey" and pretty disco in "Feeling So Real." He's good enough to successfully distract the tit gawkers for his entire set.

Part of the problem that electronic music enthusiasts have with Moby is that unlike their beloved DJs, he's willing to stand up and command a crowd. They hurl their ultimate epithet: rock star. Moby, who's really a contrarian if anything, appears to embrace the insult, ending his show with a perfect rock star gesture. He dismisses his band for the last song, punches a few numbers into a computer. As the beats grow faster and faster he hoists himself atop his keyboard, standing tall and raising his arms into a Jesus Christ pose. Any club kid would have spit out a hit of acid in disgust. The Woodstock ravers ate it up.

11:29 a.m. Saturday

The Independent Film Channel is sponsoring a series of art house standards in a large hangar adjacent to the rave building. During the day, it's hot and woozy inside, but outside it's absolutely torturous; the roof at least cuts out the mean sun. The floor is filthy and splattered with all sorts of people crashed out, some resting their heads on sleeping bags, others on pizza boxes. On screen, Sueleen Gay had just stripped in front of the lecherous bar crowd in "Nashville," nervously removing her bra and stepping out of her panties before scrambling off into the wings. "This is the worst movie ever," I overhear one kid tell his friends. "It's so long and nothing ever happens."

12:12 p.m. Saturday

Cardboard sign: "Ladies: Ask to see my ring."

12:45 p.m. Saturday

On the pavement outside the rave stage and the movie building, a dozen kids have overturned metal garbage cans. They beat on them with sticks with a pulsing, arhythmic clang. One guy is clearly motivated by the drang. He's shirtless, and has a braided leather belt cinched around his neck. His black hair mats to his forehead and blood, sweat and filth smear across his torso. Beltless, his shorts are falling down, exposing at least four inches of vertical crack. He circles around the drummers and picks up a garbage can and slams it into the pavement, baring his teeth and grinning like an overgrown toddler enamored with a rubber ball that won't bounce. He continues this for 15 minutes straight, chasing his lump of tightening steel around the circle. A crowd gathers to watch his feat of stupidity. At least they're using the garbage cans for something, I think.

1:13 p.m. Saturday

There's a "Superhemp blowout" in the counterculture mall called the East Village. "Lowest prices @ Woodstock," the sign reads. Other items for sale: "killer beads," glass beads, plastic bongs, glass bongs, metal pipes, aluminum one-hitters, floppy hats, bajas, butterfly pullovers, jeans "100 percent kind," silk prices, lace camisoles, Indian bed spreads. It looks like someone set off a bomb on Haight Street in San Francisco and the debris landed in one mess of giant mass of shade tents and bearded vendors.

At the photo booth, a long trailer, guys line up to buy film and disposable cameras. Women stand on top of the trailer, stripping away their halter tops and tiny T-shirts. Down on the ground, the guys back away from the trailer to snap a few shots with disposable cameras. The trailer provides one-hour photo processing, so they can examine their amateur nudie pix on site.

1:25 p.m. Saturday

I'm melting.

2:03 p.m. Saturday

In the span of one tune, Kid Rock namechecks Heidi Fleiss and riffs "Sweet Home Alabama." The song has something to do with cowboys. Before his last number, the foul-mouthed metal rapper from Detroit introduces a special guest, his sidekick, a midget. "Ladies and Gentlemen, little Jimmy," he says. The sidekick wears a large afro wig and an American flag. Rock's guitarist hits the electric notes to "The Star Spangled Banner." The sidekick flings off the flag. He's wearing a T-shirt. "I am not a fucking midget," it says. Which makes him what? A mascot?

2:42 p.m. Saturday

The Woodstockers don't look happy. They wander with their eyes on one place or another, trudging between stages or the concessions or the beer gardens. They clear away piles of trash to sit on the ground. They fall over in the heat. Girlfriends stroke their boyfriends heads, passed out in their laps. The only thing that earns big screams and healthy smiles every time is the camera crane at the side of the stage when it dips down over the audience. I wonder if they look happier on pay per view.

3:04 p.m. Saturday

Wyclef Jean, of the Fugees, plays "The Star Spangled Banner," tosses down his guitar, and lights it afire. The sun is far more intense.

3:57 p.m. Saturday

"People are really giving us a hard time," one of the blue-shirted medical team tells me. "I'm stationed down there by the light tower. They throw shit at us, steal our stuff. We had to take a woman out yesterday. I'm pretty sure her neck was broken. You can tell because her hands were starting to curl up. Her heart rate was almost non-existent and she was hardly breathing. Her boyfriend didn't want to let her go. I can't wait for Metallica tonight," he says dryly.

5:21 p.m. Saturday

Dave Matthews might be the most intelligent frat-rock band to ever fill a summer shed. His music is full of complex tempos and more or less unique instrumentation. But in the middle of "All Along the Watchtower," I realized that it's really just bland frat rock jazzed up with an electronic violin. And his voice bugs the hell out of me. Despite the crowd's enthusiasm, I'm apparently not alone. I'm standing next to a reporter from MTV radio, who is communicating to a small team covering the event. "I just want to be clear," a voice crackles over her walkie-talkie at the end of Matthews' set. "I fucking hate that guy."

6:27 p.m. Saturday

Alanis Morissette is prowling the stage in a skirt/pants combo, a long braid down her back. Canadian flags unfurl. Somewhere in the middle of "Hand in My Pocket," I look around and every single woman I can see is singing along and in a synergistic moment, they all raise peace signs in the air. The boys look uninterested, complacent next to their girlfriends.

8:35 p.m. Saturday

Irresponsible: There's no other word for Limp Bizkit front man Fred Durst. He's goading the crowd, pumping them up, higher and higher. It's beyond working them into enjoying the show. He's encouraging the pit, working them into a frenzy. He wants people to "smash stuff." "C'mon y'all, c'mon y'all," he shouts. Below him, the pit is a war zone, a sweaty, dirty, roiling mass of vicious guys knocking the fuck out of one another. It's not a fun scene. It's nasty, and people are getting hurt -- bad. Bodies on cardboard stretchers emerge from the audience a couple of times per song.

After the last metal-rap hybrid song, the MC comes up onstage to make an announcement. "Please, there are people hurt out there," he pleads. "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 few minutes later, the crowd parts. The kids are hauled off. Tomorrow, at the morning press conference, the staff will announce that 10 people were taken away in ambulances with head injuries. I'm shocked that no one died.

9:27 p.m. Saturday

Overheard from some big beefy guy: "Dude, you figure [the pit is] the closest thing to assault and battery that you're going to get without getting arrested."

9:39 p.m. Saturday

Rage Against the Machine opens. They work through a set of ideological anti-songs and burn the American flag at the end of their set. Some guys get pissed.

10:05 p.m. Saturday

Cardboard sign: "Tits big or small, show all. Will work for sex."

11:00 p.m. Saturday

The Chemical Brothers save my weekend. The crowd at the west stage was far thinner since Metallica was playing on the other stage. You could walk right up to the speaker towers. There were women and girls in the very front. The duo opened with "Hey Boy Hey Girl," and nearly everyone from the stage to the light tower jumped up, bouncing together to the beat. The screens behind them and jumbo monitors flashed with quick-cut videos.

Within three songs, the security guards at the front of the stage are dancing, leading the crowd to jump up and down, wave their hands side to side. The relentless beats build into huge crescendos and the exultant audience bursts into one giant bouncing mass. A grizzled hippie dances next to a 16-year-old body-popping to the beat. The rhythm overtakes a stoic guy with slicked back hair and a Hustler T-shirt. His head begins to nod, his knees loosen and pretty soon he's waving his hands in the air with the rest of us. Five kids build a go-go platform out of two trash barrels and a piece of plywood. They dance, and no one pulls them down or rushes their stand. Musically, the old-school futurism plays between big beat and break-beat. Vocal snippets from the Bryds and New Order's Bernard Sumner swirl around and fold back into the mix.

An hour and 15 minutes later, the Chemical Brothers come back to the stage for an encore. As the opening notes of "The Private Psychedelic Reel" ring out, the weekend's first raindrops fall out of the sky. All at once, all arms lift and the dancers let out a collective yowl. The Chemical Brothers, sheltered by the stage and blinded by the lights, can't have any idea what's going on. They drop the song. The audience looks up at the dark clouds and warm rain falls on smiling faces.

1:15 a.m. Sunday

Just before Fatboy Slim went on in the rave hangar you could hear the fireworks bursting above Metallica. Within 15 minutes, the Fatboy Slim set turns into another naked girl woo fest.

10:27 a.m. Sunday

Over at the Common Ground cafe, a bunch of beards are passing out blueberry pancakes with real Vermont maple syrup and hibiscus fruit coolers. The prices aren't ridiculous and they have a guy patrolling the area in front of their shack with a broom and dust pan, which makes their space one of the only areas at the entire festival that you don't have to clear a spot just to sit down. A quartet of folk musicians serenades the line. It's an altogether pleasant experience.

I pick up a small menu on cheap newsprint. Turns out that the entire operation is run by a group called Twelve Tribes, who have 14 "communities" in places like Hyannis, Mass., and Warsaw, Mo. Their literature proclaims Yashua the prophet. "If you are looking for a nice community where you can do your own thing, you would certainly be wasting your time to come here," their literature reads. "But if you desire to live a life of self-sacrificing love, to experience the deep soul satisfaction of doing what you were created for, we invite you to come for a visit."

I get spooked and leave.

11:05 a.m. Sunday

Message on graffiti wall: "Keep corporate hands off our music."

12:42 p.m. Sunday

Shuffling, loose and mild, Willie Nelson is about the best hangover medicine you could ask for on a Sunday afternoon. Nelson tosses off a weak version of "Amazing Grace" and he gets away with it because, well, he's Willie Nelson. His bluesy six-piece band plays old mountain songs, covers of Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt tunes and a couple of numbers off "Teatro." Not surprisingly, he doesn't have much of a draw. Woodstockers are sleeping off the rave, or packing their tents. Nelson doesn't seem to mind.

1:14 p.m. Sunday

A local politician, speaking from the main stage: "Let me tell you. From Oneida County, we love you. Out there, you're making history."

A guy with long, stringy hair and a tie-dye shirt: "We're making you money."

8:30 a.m. Monday

Like at least half the people at Woodstock, I scrammed mid-day on Sunday. I figured it was conceivable that Jewel or Megadeth or the Red Hot Chili Peppers would muster a signature transcendent generational moment, like Hendrix playing the finale in 1969, but I wasn't willing to bet a night of sleep on it. Turns out, I might have missed more than I thought. When I woke up, NPR reported a Sunday night riot, complete with bonfires, overturned trailers and looting at the merchandise stands. I tried to imagine where any Woodstocker would have found the energy for it. And then I thought of the scene in "The Day of the Locust" when the sad Angelenos burn through Hollywood. "Their boredom becomes more and more terrible," Nathanael West wrote in 1933. "They realize they've been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed on lynching, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke ... They have been cheated and betrayed."

By Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

MORE FROM Jeff Stark

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Music Taking Woodstock