Thursday, July 25, 2019

The last night of Woodstock '99 was the longest night of my life. I wish I had spent it alone.


Note: I wrote this a few days after July 25, 1999, the last night of Woodstock ’99. Yes, things really were that bad there. Indeed, at the time this originally appeared online, I did not yet know how much worse it had been for some other folks.


Maybe it was the time of night. Or maybe it was the sound of sirens. But as I sat in the darkness of my tent during the final hours of Woodstock ’99, while my son tossed and turned in dream-plagued slumber, I couldn’t suppress the occasional shudder. 

Outside – a goodly distance away, perhaps, but not nearly far enough – several hundred hellraisers had no interest in getting back to the garden. Instead, for reasons never considered by Crosby, Stills and Nash, they had decided that the night was for burning.

And as the noise of their riotous misbehavior intruded upon the eerie stillness of our campground, I found myself wondering: Just how will I protect my child from the fire?

It had seemed like such a great idea last spring, when I impulsively purchased tickets during a late-night web surf: A graying baby-boomer – too young to have attended the first Woodstock Festival, too disinterested to have bothered with the second – would bring his 12-year-old son to Woodstock ’99 for three days of music, adventure and cross-generational bonding.

Right from the start, I assumed the event wouldn’t have the same sociological and iconographic significance for my son’s generation as the original Woodstock had for mine. Even in my worst imaginings, however, I couldn’t foresee that Woodstock ’99 might come perilously close to degenerating into his generation’s Altamont.

For George, my son, the decision to go was a no-brainer: Many of his rap-rock fave-raves, such as Korn, Limp Bizkit and Everlast would be on the bill, ensuring a terrific time. (Better still, George immediately recognized, he would be the envy of his friends and classmates for attending the mega-hyped affair, even if he went with someone as terminally uncool as Dad.) For his father, other acts – Alanis Morisette, The Brian Setzer Orchestra and George Clinton & The P-Funk All Stars – had an equally irresistible appeal.

Both of knew we likely would skip some of the lesser attractions. But, then again, we had to sleep sometime, right?

The good news: Throughout the first two and a half days, George and I vacillated between blissed-out pleasure and sunbaked exhaustion, pretty much fulfilling our most optimistic expectations. Indeed, the only real disappointment was the tardiness of our arrival: The “luxury tour bus” from Queens, N.Y., our point of departure after flying in from Houston, left nearly three hours late. We missed – damn! – the electrifying funk of James Brown, the official opening act of Woodstock ’99, and the sassy sensuality of Sheryl Crow (who, I must admit, never ranked very high on George’s must-see list.)

On the other hand, we arrived to find our accommodations were great, thanks in no small measure to the kind of pre-planning that’s greatly under-valued, and occasionally mocked, by most 12-year-olds. It helped a lot that Dad had e-purchased camping equipment from Ace Hardware, which had the material available for pick-up on the festival grounds. (For George, this was Life Lesson Number One: When you’re making a journey that might entail a long walk under a summer sun, pack light.) It helped even more that, because the e-purchase totaled more than $100, father and son could pitch their tent on a grassy, fenced-in campsite operated by Ace a few hundred feet to the right of the West Stage area. You could wander up a conveniently located hill within Camp Ace, and savor an unobstructed view of the immense stage and, more important, the humungous video monitors that offered close-ups of the performers.

Despite his youth, George fully appreciated the irony that Woodstock ’99 – which, like it two predecessors, employed a dove of peace as a registered trademark – was set in the 3,000-acre environs of the former Griffiss Air Force Base. (Festivalgoers were greeted by a memento of the decommissioned military outpost -- a hulking gray B-52 bomber -- just outside the gates.) And, like his father, he was cynically nonplussed by the high prices that appeared to outrage so many people. Four bucks for a bottle of water? Five bucks for chicken tenders? Twelve bucks for a 12-inch cheese pizza? So what? Didn’t you pay just as much, if not more, at movie theater concession stands?

If George was disturbed by any of the darker undercurrents trickling through the festival – the brazen bartering for drugs, the ubiquitous beer-drinking by under-age hard-partyers, the obvious evidence that many folks had ignored the restrictions against bringing fireworks and alcoholic beverages (i.e., glass bottles of wine and whiskey) inside the gates – he kept his uneasiness to himself.  Fortunately, he was sound asleep while, late on the first night, a spirited drug deal was consummated by what sounded like bad B-movie actors – “Yeah, man, this is primo stuff!” – right outside our tent.

Just as important: George was too busy being pumped up by the kick-ass aggressiveness of his favorite performers to complain much about the heat or the overpriced T-shirts or the foul-smelling, under-attended portable toilets.

(This probably is as good a spot as any to remind you that, for 12-year-olds, certain music-festival phenomena are not unalloyed delights. And, no, I’m not talking about Jewel or Sheryl Crow. Each time George saw any of the many bare-breasted young women who happily flaunted their charms here, there and everywhere, he instinctively averted his eyes – and then, after mustering up a little courage, stole a few furtive glimpses. The first time I noticed this, I teased him, and he responded with a sheepish grin. But he didn’t smile the second time I teased him, and so that was the end of that.)  

Early on, however, I began to feel a little queasy about the mood encouraged by the music. At the risk of sounding like those censorious fogies of the 1960s who thought the Rolling Stones plumbed new depths of decadence with “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” I must admit that, somewhere around the 15th or 25th time I head someone on stage screaming “Fuck you” or “I don’t give a fuck” or “Smash their fucking heads in,” I lost my taste for the distinct charms of the more belligerent rap-rock performers. And I began to worry about the cumulative effect of so much high-decibel belligerence on a large crowd.

Late on the second day of Woodstock ‘99, I questioned George about what I interpreted as full-throated roars of rage from Korn and their ilk. “They’re just expressing their emotions,” my son patiently explained. Then, with a flash of his most mischievous smile, he admitted: “And sometimes, they express their emotions with fuck you.”

Well, maybe. Early on the final day, however, I repeatedly noted telltale signs that, at least for some festivalgoers, the broiling heat and the roiling testosterone might be having a toxic effect.

As we strolled along the former Air Force runaway that served as a kind of carnival midway, we saw volunteers aboard a small vehicle passing candles to the crowd. “Bring them to the East Stage tonight,” they emplored passers-by, “for a peaceful protest against handgun violence.” For a rowdy twentysomething in a golf shirt, this was too much. He ran alongside the vehicle for several feet, yelling – no, I’m not making this up – “NRA! NRA! NRA!” The volunteers responded by tossing a few candles to him. (Or at him – it was hard to tell.) The heckler responded by grabbing a box of candles from the vehicle and tossing it several few away. As he dashed away, the volunteers stopped their vehicle and retrieved the candles.

(Ironically, these were the sort of candles eventually used by the rioters to light the fuse of their conflagration near the East Stage. Chalk it up to the law of unintended consequences.)

During our extended afternoon stint near the East Stage, George remained quietly unimpressed during an exhilarating set by the Brian Setzer Orchestra – rockabilly and big-band bop simply isn’t his bag – but responded with surprising ardor to a lazily amiable performance by Willie Nelson. I suggested to George that maybe, just maybe, Nelson’s songs about heavy drinking, chasing loose women and being too drunk to recall a concert might not be so very different from the odes to self-indulgence sung by his favorite “modern” acts. George warily nodded in half-hearted agreement.

Then came Everlast, the only rap-rock artist George and I enjoy with virtually equal enthusiasm. He and his self-proclaimed “white boys” were at the top of their game, especially during their dead-serious, high-energy cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man.” (George seemed astonished that his father could actually sing along with an Everlast number.) Unfortunately, this is when things got ugly.

For starters, there was this balding, middle-aged fellow standing behind us. (To get the right image in your head, imagine that father who’s always yelling at his kid when the youngster strikes out during a Little League game.) Midway through Limp Bizkit’s set, I saw the guy shoving my son. So I shot him a dirty look. Not being a complete imbecile, he could see he’d been spotted, and indignantly sputtered: “Hey, I just wanted to keep my space here. You guys moved in front of us.” I shot him another dirty look, and he backed away, more embarrassed than genuinely intimidated. Whatever his reason, I was happy to end the confrontation without resorting to violence – particularly since, being a head taller and a foot wider than me, he very likely could have drop-kicked me into a different zip code. But I must confess: I barely refrained from laughing out loud when the guy was kicked in the face by a boisterous party animal who was being passed from hand to hand over the crowd.

Then everybody began to toss their plastic bottles into the air, making it appear that a swarm of economy-size locusts was hovering overhead. Fine and dandy, until Everlast noticed glass bottles also were being tossed. “Hey, stop that, you guys!” he extolled the crowd. “Act like ya mudders raised ya!” It was not entirely surprising that, after Everlast left the stage, an announcer asked the crowd to make way for emergency vehicles to tend to the injured near the stage.

By the time George and I schlepped back to our campsite, some ineffable but obvious bad vibe was in the air. We were surprised to note that a few tents already were gone, that our numbers were significantly diminished. And we were more than a little annoyed that, as early as 6 p.m., the water had been shut off. But we didn’t start to worry until some people on the other side of the fences began to engage in vandalism as a team sport.

Looking back, I have to say that George and I were lucky: The “rioters” near us had to be among the most stupid would-be hooligans at Woodstock ’99. In one corner, we had 10 or so knuckleheads who thought it would be a cool idea to topple a thick wooden flagpole used to mark their campsite. When they couldn’t muster the muscle to budge the pole, they attempted to burn it down, using scraps of plywood torn from another fence to build a bonfire. That didn’t work, either. They did succeed, however, at frightening the folks camped on our side of the fence – the sporadic bursts of wind could have easily carried something ablaze over to one of our tents. Fortunately, a fire truck arrived before things got of hand. And the fire fighters, despite being pelted with a few plastic bottles, quickly extinguished the blaze. After they left, the knuckleheads once again tried to topple the flagpole. After a while, however, they lost interest and wandered off to other misbehavior.

In another corner, a frightfully huge and obviously inebriated dunce was leading his smaller but likeminded companions in the systematic demolition of the plywood fence that separated the West Stage area from the campsites. Have you ever seen Full Metal Jacket? OK, remember the thick-witted recruit played by Vincent D’Onofrio? Then imagine that guy’s bigger, dumber and more undisciplined younger brother. That’s what the fence-smashing dunce looked like. When he finished with the plywood, he wandered over to the chainlink fence surrounding our campsite. As soon as he tried to rip it down, however, someone in a tent near ours shouted, “Hey! Don’t do that! Get outta here!” Miraculously, the dunce stopped dead in his tracks, turned and staggered away.

After all of this, I decided it might be a good idea to alert our campsite’s non-uniformed security enforcers -- who, until that point, had remained conspicuous by their absence. At the front gate, I talked with a guy who explained that most of the peacekeepers employed for Woodstock ’99 were busy handling far more serious disruptions throughout the festival. (Keep in mind: This was before sunset, hours before the full-scale rioting began after the festival-closing set by Red Hot Chili Peppers.) So I asked: “Well, if the water has been shut off, should I leave my son here and go buy some bottled water before the sun goes down?” He replied: “You want my advice? Pack up and leave. Now.”

Uh-oh.

When I told my pessimistic adviser that we couldn’t leave – our bus back to Queens wouldn’t arrive until the next morning, we had no other means of transportation, we really had no idea where the hell we were or what was between us and nearby Rome, N.Y. – he was sympathetic but unhelpful. “All I can suggest,” he said, “is that you get your food and water, go back to your tent, and just lie low.”

And that, for better or worse, is what we did. George and I trudged up the hill to watch the last West Stage attraction, a performance by Megadeath, mostly to distract ourselves from our worst expectations. (Not wishing to unduly frighten him, I said nothing about the “pack up and leave” advice.) After that, we returned to our tent. Fortuitously, George quickly fell asleep. I remained awake, steeling myself for a sudden invasion of rioters fueled by booze, drugs and all-purpose rage. I felt like Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs, suddenly confronted with a primordial test of my manhood. Trouble was, I didn’t have a bear trap or any of the other devices at Hoffman’s disposal.

Sometimes, I felt very scared. (If festivalgoers had managed to sneak whiskey and fireworks and even large dogs past the security guards, who’s to say they didn’t also bring along handguns?) More often, however, I felt ashamed and angry because I felt I had recklessly placed my son in harm’s way. And, worse, I feared I probably wasn’t bad-ass enough to do him much good if push came to shove.

Well into night, I could hear the insistent beat of people pounding on metal trash drums and other improvised percussion instruments. (Until I banished the image from mind through sheer force of will, I thought of the terrified documentary filmmakers huddled inside their tent during The Blair Witch Project.) Frequently, there were screams and sirens. Sporadically, there was something that sounded like a distant explosion. I told myself the latter merely was the sound of thunder. I also told myself that things couldn’t be as bad as I feared. I told myself that a lot.

Early the next morning, we awoke to a dim sunlight obscured by mist. (Or – gulp! – smoke from charred ruins?) George and I wandered past the trashed fences and the smashed pay phones, past scatterings of young people – many of them not so much older than George – who had passed out in the mud. We did not yet know about the torched trucks and toppled towers, about the looted tents and ransacked ATM machines. We didn’t know about the few hundred festivalgoers who were cheered by thousands of their fellows as they set fire to trucks and overturned portable toilets and “liberated” pricey food and beverages from concession booths. But we could see dozens of state troopers in riot gear directing the departing toward exit gates. And we knew this was not a good sign.

“Geez,” George marveled. “Something really bad must have happened last night.” And then, later, after we reached the main gate: “Boy, some people try to ruin things for everybody else.” Even so, neither us was sad or mad. Just relieved. We actually smiled when an oddly cheery unshirted teen-ager asked us to sign his Woodstock ’99 T-shirt. “It’s a souvenir,” he told us as his female companion handed a black marker to us. “This way, we’ll have something to show people years and years from now, to prove we all had a great time.”

What went wrong at Woodstock ’99? Not nearly enough for the festival to qualify as a total disaster – remember, there were those two and half great days before the long dark night – but more than enough to encourage op-ed writers and social commentators to manufacture scores of plausible theories. George and I agree that the root causes for the rage of the rioters were heat, high prices, heavy drug and alcohol consumption, and the non-stop, wall-to-wall inconvenience of having to walk so far to get anywhere. But I would also include another factor: The spirit of the music of the age. You really shouldn’t be surprised when, after three days of hearing so many swaggering rockers spew so much foul-mouthed venom about “ripping someone’s head off” or applying unauthorized anal probes, a few impressionable types warm to the idea of mob madness for fun and profit.

George, of course, doesn’t think the music had anything to do with it. And, frankly, I would be amazed if he thought it did. He does concede that festivalgoers might have acted a bit differently if they had spent three days listening to the likes of Ricky Martin or The Backstreet Boys. But, hey, Dad -- who would want to do that?

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Came across this article when searching for information on the festival. It's nice to get a well-written personal account of the experience. Great post!