Welcome to OBSESSED, in which I provide you a reading list / media consumption list that speaks to my primary hobby: doing obsessive amounts of research into a singular topic or story for no reason. This week I watched two (2) documentaries about Woodstock ’99: Netflix’s just-released Trainwreck: Woodstock 99 and HBO Max’s 2021 document Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage. Then I read a million articles about it and here we are.
Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 Netflix Documentary Tells The Story of “The Day The ’90s Died”
The new Netflix documentary about Woodstock ’99 tells the true story of a semi-catastrophic music festival that a lot of people enjoyed and others barely survived. A lot went wrong at Woodstock ‘99, according to myriad sources including the Netflix documentary: It was hosted on a former Air Force Base with no shaded areas in 100-degree summer heat; the showers and latrines malfunctioned and attendees were rolling around in feces-infested “mud” and drinking feces-infested water; clean water cost $4 a bottle; everybody was drunk and on drugs; security was untrained; the lineup attracted a crowd of rowdy, entitled, angry white men; women were sexually assaulted in broad daylight and outside of it and all-night raves following full days and nights of concerts encouraged attendees to forego sleep and thus grow increasingly insane.
Finally, a surprise unexpected musical guest who was buzzed-about all weekend turned out to not exist, capping off a weekend of thwarted expectations, which led into a night of festivalgoers tearing everything apart (including murals painted by local children!), lighting everything on fire, and unleashing well-publicized fury of violence and chaos. The cops showed up eventually, and, as one concertgoer said in the HBO documentary: “We’re a bunch of 20 year old white kids so when we start burning a bunch of stuff down and like stealing from ATMs and just burning this whole thing down, the riot police come in, you know, very polite, and just move people out. Talk about white privilege…” Ten state troopers and two state police supervisors were demoted or suspended for their behavior at the festival. One prison guard who attended the festival was arrested for sexual assault.
The Woodstock ’99 Lineup
I remember the dispatches from Woodstock that summer from MTV News — the fires, a tower tipping over, that kind of thing. It was 1999, I’d just graduated high school, and we all watched MTV pretty much all the time. The reports mostly functioned to reinforce my belief that Limp Bizket fans were categorically insufferable.
Like many of my generation raised by politically progressive hippies, I’d grown up steeped in Woodstock ‘69 mythology — the legendary event that allegedly promoted love, peace and happiness, in which thousands of anti-war hippies gathered to be regaled by musicians like Joan Baez and Jimi Hendrix.
Woodstock ’94 had been successful, and people seemed to enjoy it, but the promoters, who didn’t make money in ’69 or ’94, were focused on profit when they planned Woodstock ’99.
During the second summer of Lilith Fair, Woodstock ’99 had only had three female acts on its main stages, one per day: Jewel, Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morisette. Some of the bands were bands I liked at the time — Dave Matthews Band (sorry), Red Hot Chili Peppers, Counting Crows (again, sorry), The Roots, George Clinton, Wyclef Jean, The Offspring.
And then there were a bunch of other bands popular at the time: Korn, Kid Rock, Limp Bizket, Rage Against the Machine, Creed, Insane Clown Posse. These bands’ fans tended to be college-age white men who considered MTV playing too much pop music to be a serious social problem. (We all had really stupid ideas of what Real Problems were in 1999!) Gathering a bunch of these men in one location unsuitable to human life and creating capitalistic circumstances that enabled them to believe that they were somehow being gravely wronged and mistreated did not turn out well for anybody!
How Many People Died at Woodstock 99?
Three people died at Woodstock ’99.
A 44-year-old who’d also attended Woodstock ’69 and had heart surgery 11 days prior to the concert “succumbed to the heat” on the first day of the festival.
The second death was 24-year-old David DeRosia, who collapsed in the Metallica mosh pit after his exhausted friends had gone back to their tents. Emergency medics assumed he’d overdosed and treated him for what they thought were seizures — in fact he’d not done any drugs or drank the entire weekend and had passed out from hyperthermia and heat stroke. He died in the hospital.
The last was 28-year-old Tara K. Weaver, whose car broke down as she was leaving the festival, leaving her to be hit by two different cars while she was walking along the road.
Many others were injured — 5,162 medical cases related to the festival were reported by the New York State Department of Health. This included the World War I era infection of “Trench mouth,” from consuming water infected by feces. A doctor who worked in the medical tents said the numbers of fans treated for medical issues on-site was likely in the 8,000 to 10,000 range. Another tragic development was when a van carrying seven concert-goers flipped on their way home from the festival when the driver fell asleep, which left two teenagers in critical condition, although they did eventually recover.
Two people died at the original Woodstock ’69: One was run over by a tractor and the other by a drug overdose. In general, it’s not unusual for there to be drug overdose deaths at music festivals. Mass casualty events at concerts are usually caused by fire, terrorism, crowd stampedes, or a structural failure or accident. Woodstock ’99 is legendary for the sum total of its disasters rather than for its death toll.
“Show Your Tits”: The Sexual Assault and Harassment of Women at Woodstock ’99
“I am critical of the hundreds of women that were walking around with no clothes on expecting not to be touched.”
– Legendary Asshole John Scher
The “official” number of reported sexual assaults during the festival is eight, but as explained in graphic detail in this Spin magazine article and addressed in the HBO documentary, it was likely many more. “There are likely hundreds of sexual assaults that went unreported,” writes Sara Benincasa in her Medium piece about working the festival, which also recalls a section of the festival that attendees had begun calling “Rape Alley.”
Some of the conversation around women’s nudity at Woodstock ‘99 seems to fit into the pervasive vibe of a few other documentaries I’ve seen recently: Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons, Rich & Shameless: Girls Gone Wild, and White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch. It’s weird to grapple with how deeply I was impacted by those cultural touch points, mostly spearheaded by abusive predators, to know that my peers and I probably would’ve shown our tits at Woodstock ‘99 had we been asked to, not because we wanted to but because we would’ve taken the invitation as both a compliment and an opportunity to display our sexual appeal to straight men, which was a very popular barometer of worth at the time!
No moment of this Netflix documentary, the HBO documentary, or the Woodstock 99 podcast was more grating than co-organizer John Scher claiming women who disrobed were basically asking to get raped and groped. Also in the Netflix documentary he goes a step further, arguing that because 200k people attended the festival, statistically speaking he thinks that is a normal amount of rapes to occur. Truly I could not believe that this man has continued to double down on this perspective! Sir it is 2022, and you still cannot even manage to PRETEND to feel differently?
Where To Read / Listen / Watch More About Woodstock ’99:
“Don’t Drink the Brown Water”: Our Live Report from Woodstock ’99 (Spin Magazine, 1999): This is the only piece to mention the “Action Sports Arena,” and it’s also the most explicit and detailed about the hundreds of people treated in the medical crisis tent and about the rampant sexual assaults occurring throughout the festival. Deeply disturbing stuff.
Woodstock ’99: Rage Against the Latrine (Rolling Stone, 1999): The angle here is the corporate exploitation and definitely has a very distinct tone:
The Common Grounds Cafe represents the Twelve Tribes, a Christian commune. Their fliers explain that Jesus’ real name is Yahshua because there’s no J in the Hebrew alphabet. The Emerging Artist stage is in a massive hangar, and despite the appalling suckiness of the artists, who would be lucky to emerge from a bathtub, the hangar is a popular hangout because it’s the only shade on the whole site. Yahshua, Miriam and Yoceph, it’s hot out there!
Woodstock 99: Peace Love and Rage (HBO Documentary, 2021): This documentary is shorter than the Netflix three-parter and is a good introduction to the topic (it’s the first thing I ever saw about it). It wastes a lot of time drawing unnecessary cultural parallels to things like Napster while failing to answer its own central question. In terms of what it has that the Netflix documentary doesn’t: the specific story of a young man who died of hyperthermia at the festival, more press tent tension, interviews with a different set of musicians and VJs and a section on DMX’s set which saw a huge crowd of white people singing along aka yelling the n-word into the air with abandon. It also contains the best quote that exists anywhere about the whole situation:
MTV: You think that aggro vibe had anything to do with what happened?
Sheryl Crow: Yeah I mean, I definitely think that was what drew that large, young, white, male, frustrated, upper-middle class, “I’ve been given everything but still I’m mad and I’m not really sure why I’m mad” attitude.
I Worked at Woodstock ‘99: On Crisis Intervention and Memory (Sarah Benincasa for Medium, 2021):
When the rioting ensued, many businesses’ supplies were smashed up and stolen by white people who didn’t get their exact way, exactly how they wanted it, at the exact time they wanted it. I doubt they considered the working-class locals who would be tasked with cleaning up what they burnt and crushed.
Break Stuff: The Story of Woodstock ’99 (Luminary Podcast, 2019): The first episode or two of this podcast digs in hard to the mythology around the original Woodstock and whether or not it was as peaceful as remembered. The latter half of the season is often the same story as the HBO Documentary, like it uses many of the same quotes and also spends a similar amount of time on the death of 24-year-old David DeRosia.
Sonic Dot Net: I wish I could figure out how to actually view the contents hiding behind the links on this Web Archived page, because SonicNet did the most thorough investigation of the festival (its cited in both documentaries and the podcast for its work, which is now mostly lost to the sands of the net) and some of those stories look really good!
We’re Still Getting Woodstock 99 Wrong (Vulture, 2019): This review of the HBO documentary suggests we’re still looking in all the wrong places to make points about Woodstock 99, that it has been made to seem “like a confluence of horrors that could only have sprung from the climate of 1999, when in reality, we see a little of its hell every year.”
Finally, this 1999 quote from Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine feels like an interesting place to end the story:
”Perhaps we’ll have to wait until these vandals and pyromaniacs grow up to become the C.E.O.’s of media conglomerates, like their predecessors at the original Woodstock who enshrined and mythologized that event, to see where this concert fits into our history.”