This article was originally written for Esquire US in 2021 to mark the release of HBO's Woodstock ’99: Peace, Love and Rage. Since then, Netflix have released its very own documentary, Trainwreck: Woodstock ‘99.
There was chaos and carnage, faeces and fire at Woodstock ’99, but what still triggers me twenty-two years later is the little tiny variety cereal boxes.
The audience at the festival, as you will learn from Garret Price’s excellent documentary Woodstock ’99: Peace, Love and Rage , was massive and largely male. These guys were mostly white, and these white guys were mostly angry. Angry at the August heat, angry at the lack of shade on the festival grounds, angry at the absence of tap water and the price of bottled water. They were also angry at MTV for leaning briefly away from rock music and toward boy bands and Britney Spears, this being 1999. I know this, because I was there covering the festival for MTV, so I served as an unofficial complaints department.
This is what I remember: Kellogg’s was handing out cereal samples—those little boxes you’d get at summer camp—to the festival-goers who had slept in tents on site. But nobody really brings milk to an event like this, and to wash some Corn Flakes down with a $4 12-ounce bottle of water probably felt like a waste of money, so those little mini cereal boxes became projectiles. Weapons launched at me and my crew as we tried to get some man-on-the-street footage. The corners on those boxes are unforgiving, and some of these dudes could throw. I still can’t look at Snap, Crackle and Pop the same way.
And this was all 36 hours before the proper rioting began.
“I watched it on pay-per-view,” Price says of the three-day rock festival that will almost definitely be the last to capitalise on the Woodstock brand. He was in college at the time, consuming all the Limp Bizkit he could handle. “At the time, I had more of a sense of FOMO. It was all my favourite bands, and on TV, it looked like controlled chaos.” His assessment was half right. And then he started reading up about the event. “It wasn’t until years later, when I started going down the rabbit hole, that I said: wow, there were some real issues there.”
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There sure were. The festival took place on a former Air Force base, largely concrete that radiated the summer heat. The music never stopped; after the aggro rock ended on the main stage, the thumping techno began in the side tents. Water could only be purchased— at a markup—with the cash you couldn’t get out of the broken ATMs. The kids were not alright; by Sunday night, camera towers had been torn down, port-a-potty stations had turned into vast oceans of sewage, and the candles a well-meaning non-profit had handed out in hopes of leading a silent candlelight vigil had been used to burn the place down. Security was, shall we say, lax. Woodstock ’99 remains the only live music event from which I have been evacuated.
“The worst part was waking up at 7 a.m. in 100-degree weather, realising we have no water, realising how expensive it would be to get water, having no access to shade, music is blasting already,” Mike Elling, a concertgoer who appears in the documentary, tells me. “The situation exacerbated hangovers that were bad already.” He’s lucky he escaped with just an enhanced hangover: “I think this happened in multiple areas, but someone burst a pipe in our bathroom area, so the sinks weren’t working. People got into the sinks, trying to use tooth-brushing water for showers. It was just a clusterfuck. People looked drained.” Young rock fan Elling finally had to forfeit that final day of music on that $157 ticket. “Normally, I’d stay to the very end, but this one…it was time to go.”
Andrew LichtensteinGetty Images
It is tempting to blame the music, as was popular in our post-Columbine moment. And for sure, it was an angry time in rock, dominated by the witless white-boy fury of Limp Bizkit and Insane Clown Posse. But the organisers did themselves no favours, booking only three women—one per day—on the main stage and putting Limp Bizkit, Rage Against The Machine, and Metallica, all in a row, at the end of a scorching hot Saturday. Anger, hyperthermia, dehydration, and the festival organisers’ apathy were a toxic mix. “I was surprised by how easy it is to get caught up in all of the madness,” Price says. “I was talking to a kid who on day one was a mild-mannered college kid, and by the end it was like Lord of the Flies, he was participating in the chaos. When you’re not taken care of, the energy can just really turn.”
Few of the bands on the bill had played for a crowd this size, and nobody was going to tell them to calm down. (To his credit, Dexter Holland of The Offspring did call out a groper in the crowd, but this is just after he’d gotten rapturous applause for taking a baseball bat to five mannequins dressed as N’Sync.) Few people in the crowd had been in a crowd this size either. “It was an ocean of people bouncing, which was cool,” Elling says, “but also terrifying.” A Rage fan, Elling got into the mosh pit for their set, which to hear him tell it, was like a meteorological event. “Usually a mosh pit is five, 10, maybe 20 feet in diameter. This was like hundreds, and you couldn’t get out of it, and it was 10 degrees hotter than the regular temperature, which was already super hot. I had fun for a minute and then I was like: wait, I could actually die.” He had to crowd-surf, just for air. “I said ‘put me up,’ and I kind of had them move me to the front so I could get out and go around and find my friends.”
Frank Micelotta ArchiveGetty Images
Peace, Love and Rage is a broad look at turn-of-the-millennium culture through the lens of one specific moment, and as with last year’s Framing Britney Spears, which took a similar approach, we might not like what we see there. “Like, how did we start the ‘90s with the idealism of Nirvana and end it with the nihilism of Limp Bizkit,” Price asks. “I’m really hoping to pull people in with nostalgia, and then make them take a look at how they or their friends might have behaved back then.”
What jumps out at me, 22 years after my one weekend as a war correspondent for MTV, is that despite it all, a lot of people still had a pretty good time. Price says, “I had multiple people on this film who were there, and up until we made this and really got into it, they said it was one of the best weekends of their life. They’d just forgotten about some of the toxic elements of this thing.” Elling agrees: “Do I sound like I hated it? I really didn’t. I just think they did a shitty job taking care of people.”
We have evolved in the intervening years. The festival’s organisers have gone on to produce much safer events. Limp Bizkit is playing Lollapalooza this summer. And the trauma of the weekend has made for a thoughtful documentary.
And as for me, I’m an oatmeal guy now.
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