Riot and revolt at Woodstock '99
On the afternoon of the second day of Woodstock ’99, the festival’s film tent offered a screening of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. Julie Wiskirchen had already seen it, but since there were no good bands on at the time, she decided it was a better option than standing outside in the heat — not to mention the smell. ‘I remember wanting to retch the first time I saw the Worst Toilet in Scotland scene,’ she wrote in her diary. ‘This time, that toilet looked pretty good compared to some of the overflowing porta-potties I’d seen that morning.’1 The festival’s promoters appeared to have seriously underestimated the number of toilets required for a three-day event with almost a quarter of a million people camping on-site. There weren’t nearly enough, they weren’t emptied often enough, and they were all in one place — which, for those who’d missed out on a prime camping spot, meant a long walk in the heat, and a twenty-minute wait when they got there. By the Saturday, many people had decided it wasn’t worth the effort, and elected to go behind their tent, or behind someone else’s tent — or wherever they happened to be standing. Showers were also a problem; there were only a hundred heads on the whole site, which meant more long queues. To make matters worse, they’d been installed in an area with no proper drainage, on a patch of slightly elevated ground near the main campsite. The water ran straight down the hill over the faeces-strewn ground, and by Saturday night, the tents were awash in rivers of mud and human waste.
These were just the worst of a series of indignities that had confronted festival-goers at Griffiss Air Force Base. The ticket information came with a warning that guests were not to bring their own food or drinks ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼(because the organisers were worried about ‘spoilage’). So having spent $150 on their tickets, patrons were obliged to pay another fifteen for a slice of microwaved pizza, five for a beer, and four for a bottle of water. It was almost forty degrees Celsius that weekend, so people bought a lot of drinks, and their money was spent in no time. There were fourteen ATMs on site, but these ran out of cash on Saturday. Many simply stopped drinking, and let dehydration run its course. Tired and exhausted, they found themselves even less inclined to attempt the kilometre-long walk to the toilets or showers which, considering the filthy state of the ground and the site in general, meant that the festival-goers soon resembled the dun-coloured subhumans in the Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Bullet with Butterfly Wings’ video clip. Tired, hungry, thirsty, dirty and somewhat degraded, the social conventions that usually guided their behaviour soon broke down. This state of affairs suited the rapists and sociopaths in the crowd, who felt they had no reason not to do what they liked with people who appeared to be somewhat less than human.
The next morning, Wiskirchen woke to an ugly sight. ‘The field was covered in garbage,’ she wrote, ‘plastic bottles and pizza boxes everywhere. A river of muck ran down the middle of the field and people had assembled a trash bridge to cross it.’ Many people, she noted, had decided to go home — tired, hungry, dirty, and sick of being ripped off, they elected to cut their losses and miss seeing that night’s performance by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But Wiskirchen decided to stick it out, because she’d heard a rumour, which had been since confirmed by the organisers, that there was a ‘secret headliner’ scheduled to appear after the Chili Peppers. The names being thrown around — Bob Dylan, Guns N’ Roses, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince — were tantalising enough to convince her to put up with the heat, the smell, and a fairly lacklustre afternoon of performances by Creed, Jewel and Godsmack.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers appeared on stage at 9pm. John Frusciante — who had rejoined the soul circle following his rock star epiphany of 1998 — sported very long hair and a beard, Kiedis wore a silver wig and a school uniform, while Flea had dyed his hair turquoise for the occasion, but otherwise wore nothing but his bass.
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼As the band played ‘Under the Bridge’, festival staff passed candles out into the crowd. By the end of the song, these had been used to light some of the garbage piles, and soon the field was scattered with bonfires. Fragments of the ‘Peace Wall’ — the perimeter fence around the site — were torn down and used as kindling, and a corner of the stage also started burning. Kiedis looked out into the crowd and saw naked, mud-covered people dancing around bonfires while others beat on upturned bins. ‘It looks like Apocalypse Now out there,’ he said. The band closed with a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Fire’, which, by a strange coincidence, they’d been asked to perform by festival organisers — as way of leading into a ‘video tribute’ to Hendrix, which ended with a synchronised laser display.
After that, nothing happened. No Axl Rose, no Artist Formerly Known As, no Dylan or Doors or any of the other legends of rock whose names had been bandied about as potential secret headliners. Just a hundred thousand exhausted, dehydrated people standing in a smouldering, rubbish-strewn field, staring at a blank screen and an empty stage. In what seemed like no time at all, the final remnants of the Peace Wall were broken off and fed into the bonfires, as was much of the main stage. A mob capsized the sound tower, while others attacked the merch and food stands, looting T-shirts and CDs and freely distributing drinks and pizza among the crowd. More fires were lit, trailers exploded, and the on-site MTV crew fled the scene, fearing for their lives.
On Monday morning, TV news crews arrived at Griffiss Air Base and interviewed some of the vendors and stallholders about what had happened the night before. ‘This is a war zone,’ said a thirty-eight- year-old man named Michael Sozek. ‘You didn’t get this with the old Woodstock crowd. This new rock and roll is all about a bunch of butt- heads.’ A younger man with a shaved head and a pierced eyebrow told of how he’d tried to fend off looters with a piece of broken pipe. ‘It really bothered me,’ he said, ‘because this is supposed to be about peace, and it was destruction for no reason.’ Festival promoter John Scher told the Washington Post that he was ‘bummed big time. I don’t know if we’ll ever know why these kids did this.’ But even those who blamed the kids felt that Scher was at least partly at fault. Sozek said he thought the ￼￼￼￼promoter had been ‘too greedy’. Another vendor, Bill Hemsley, said he thought the violence was a case of ‘haves versus have nots. They were trapped in here. When they ran out of money, they took what they wanted.’ Tom Morgan, of the festival security consultancy Crowdsafe, had no doubt that Scher and the festival board were entirely to blame. ‘It’s the organiser’s responsibility to protect people,’ he insisted. ‘You cannot blame the victims for an environment they can’t control.’
In an article published in the New York Times, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello took the media to task for what he described as ‘the frenzied demonisation of youth’ in the wake of Woodstock ’99, insisting that the real problems with the festival had nothing to do with young people and their angry music — which after all had not resulted in a bloodbath at Ozzfest or the Family Values tour — but with a badly organised event. But he went on to strike a more hopeful note, suggesting that the kids who rioted at Woodstock ’99 had simply got fed up with being exploited, and had effectively taken the festival over. This, as he pointed out, was far closer to the real ‘spirit of Woodstock’ than the popular cliché — which for most people simply meant ‘peace and love’ and kids sitting in the dirt with flowers in their hair. Many of the festival-goers interviewed in the early hours of Monday morning had seen the riot in similar terms. One girl said the violence was ‘a way of getting back at them. They took advantage of us.’
It wasn’t hard to see why this idea would appeal to Morello — festival capitalism breeding the forces of its own destruction. But it seemed to some a little too hopeful; the violence at Woodstock spoke more of desperation than revolution. If there was a collective spirit at work, it was not so much that of Paris ’68 or Woodstock ’69 as the ‘Woodstock for the eighties’ envisaged by J. D. in Heathers — a final, self-destructive act as an ‘ultimate protest against a society that degrades us. Fuck you all!’ There was also, as Anthony Kiedis noted when he looked out into the crowd, something apocalyptic about it — as though the kids, having realised the end was coming, had simply decided that all bets were off and anything goes. In any case, it was hard to ascribe any lofty goals to the actions of people who had simply been pushed until they snapped. And yet this, as Morello knew, was how revolutions got started. Not with songwriters or intellectuals or ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼ideologues, but with masses of angry, frustrated people burning trash and looting stores.
At Woodstock ’99, Perry Farrell — who had curated the festival’s Rave Hangar — witnessed the realisation of something he’d hoped to see at the very first Lollapalooza in 1991. At the end of that show, he’d stood on the edge of the stage and demanded a riot. Nothing had happened because, as he told David Fricke, the kids were ‘too happy with life’. They were being entertained, and the entertainment was good. They had rock and roll and beer and drugs and a ride home. What incentive could they possibly have to take up arms against their oppressors when they didn’t feel oppressed? The following year saw the beginnings of Lollapalooza’s commercial success and the end of its revolutionary goals. It was the year that Farrell taught corporations that there was a serious market for youth culture. ‘That’s the bad news,’ he said. Woodstock ’94 had been an ironic, second-hand experience for exactly this reason; the ‘us versus them’ feeling which had made the 1969 festival meaningful was gone, because there seemed to be no adversary, nothing to complain about. People paid to see good bands, the good bands appeared. Everybody had a good time, but left feeling as though nothing had really happened. Woodstock ’99 was different, because it was a bad festival. In 1991 and 1994, the kids had been too happy with life to cause trouble. In 1999, they were made just unhappy enough to want to tear the place apart.
‘I don’t think it was an anti-Woodstock statement,’ said Michael Lang, one of the organisers of the original festival. ‘I think it was an anti-establishment statement.’ Lang’s words pointed to some of the challenges involved in interpreting and understanding Woodstock ’99, and demonstrated how much had changed since he organised the first ‘Aquarian Exposition’ on Max Yasgur’s farm thirty years earlier. In those days, it had all seemed a lot simpler. Taking off your clothes, smoking a joint, listening to Jefferson Airplane — these things could still be seen as ‘anti-establishment’ to a generation that had grown up in a conservative post-war climate. Rock and roll, drugs and festivals represented freedom; parents, the government and the draft represented the enemy. But Woodstock ’69 represented the end of this idea, rather than its realisation. The festival itself was, as Simon Frith has pointed out, one of the most￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼comprehensive and ambitious attempts to exploit the new youth culture for profit to date; its success paved the way for the institutionalisation of rock in the 1970s and 1980s. By the time the children of the Woodstock Generation came of age in the 1990s, the situation was quite different. When older rock journalists spoke of Nirvana and Pearl Jam taking on ‘the establishment’, one had the sense they were using an old word to describe a new problem, just as Lang was when he offered his thoughts on Woodstock ’99. What was ‘the establishment’ at the end of the 1990s? It seemed far less likely that it was the police or Bill Clinton than that it was MTV, David Geffen, John Scher, Limp Bizkit or rock and roll itself. In 1999, an anti-Woodstock statement was an anti-establishment statement.
In the sixties, the counterculture had often used the term ‘the machine’ when it wanted to describe the enemy. This slightly paranoid piece of terminology, borrowed from the Beats, served as a shorthand for the forces of oppression in general, but also referred more specifically to the insidious tie-up between government and industry that kept America at war in Vietnam. Rage Against the Machine retained both the word and its significance, and also inherited many of the problems associated with it. The problem with the machine was its size and complexity, and the extent to which people had come to rely on it, to think of it as necessary to the point where it seemed natural. Now that the enemy was so diffuse, so widespread, and so inextricably tied up in everyday life, the challenge for youth was to find a purchase, something specific to attack, and something to attack it with that could not simply be used — as grunge had — to further exploit them. The members of Rage Against the Machine were never more aware of how difficult this could be than they were at events like Woodstock ’99, where they performed immediately after Limp Bizkit. The energy the two bands stirred up was quite similar — which was no coincidence. Limp Bizkit, like Korn, took their musical template directly from Rage. But where Durst gave his fans easy targets to hit, Rage set themselves the more difficult task of connecting the crowd’s energy to action that could not be resolved at the show; that could only be realised in the wider world.
‘We try to build a bridge between people who get into our music and lyrics, and ways they can get their hands dirty and act,’ said Tom Morello in November 1999. Morello saw no problem with playing￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼‘parking-lot rock’ as long as the riot was not confined to the parking lot. The key was to make something happen. But he also made it clear that he didn’t see the fans as ‘empty glasses’ waiting to be filled with ideas; he sought to provoke them to think, rather than telling them what to do. Morello believed that, by doing exactly this, Rage had already created a culture of free thought within its fan community. ‘Rage Against the Machine fans are intelligent, pissed off, and they’ve got their own ideas about things,’ he said. ‘We’re constantly surprised by what our fans do on their own — whether it’s combating the use of sweatshops or showing solidarity with the Zapatistas or supporting [Native American activist] Leonard Peltier here in the States.’ There was nothing artificial about this process — Zack de la Rocha believed that the fury expressed by fans at a Korn or Limp Bizkit show was symptomatic of wider problems in the world, the very same ones he wrote about in his lyrics. ‘All this alienation has roots,’ he said. ‘It’s not just TV or boredom or bad parents.’ Rage’s task was to connect the dots — to show that Jonathan Davis’s otherwise inexplicable failure to be satisfied by his new silver Adidas trackpants, could be traced, via an invisible thread, to a sweatshop in Manila, and on from there, via a labyrinth of buyouts and mergers, to a boardroom in Manhattan. From this point of view, it became clear why Morello saw fans chasing MTV out of a festival as encouraging. If they weren’t quite attacking the source of the problem, they were at least getting closer.