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Woodstock '99: a diary from the death of the '90s

Jesse Kinos-Goodin

Over four incredibly hot days in July 1999, an estimated 200,000 people descended on an airfield in Upstate New York to watch more than 100 bands perform. It was the 30th anniversary of Woodstock, a monumental aquarian celebration that took place more than 300 kilometres away, geographically speaking.

Spiritually speaking, it might as well have happened on another planet. While the original Woodstock was rightly billed as "three days of peace and music," Woodstock '99 was its antithesis: four days of excess, violence and corporatization. It came to symbolize the end of an era — the death of the '90s — from the $10 bottles of water and overflowing latrines to rampant drug use, rape and, inevitably, riots.

At the time, CBC Music’s Jesse Kinos-Goodin was a not yet jaded 19-year-old who was glad to shell out the $150 for a ticket (at the time, an extraordinary price for a festival). Had he kept a diary, this is what it would have entailed. Plus, of course, the added benefit of 15 years of hindsight. 

All illustrations by Samantha Smith.

After a five-hour drive in my grandma’s minivan, we arrive at Woodstock '99 in Rome, New York. 

There are six of us in total and as soon as we arrive things are looking good. For starters, we can’t bring food but security has no problem allowing us to bring two coolers stocked full of beer and other booze. Good thing, too, because bottles of water are $4 each.

As soon as we get in we run into some other friends from high school, whose tent is pitched not far from ours. We set our tents up in a nice little circle, then spend most of the day just walking around and looking at all the different people. Some random girl has dressed up as a mummy using toilet paper, so we pose with her for a picture. There is a naked dude walking around, so we pose with him, too (although with him safely in the background).  

Music highlight

The day-one lineup was pretty thin, but Jack Johnson affiliate G Love & Special Sauce was a highlight, I guess?

Music lowlight

G Love & Special Sauce. It’s the only act we bothered to watch.

In hindsight

Not even inside and already the first sign of trouble: no food allowed, but they turned a blind eye to the alcohol. Eventually, as bottles of water ran low and prices were hiked to $10 (bags of ice were $20), we stayed hydrated mostly with warm beer, as did, I’m sure, most people there. What could go wrong?

Also, G. Love & Special Sauce? Even for the '90s that's bad.

When we went to bed we had a nice little tent circle setup with room to stretch out. When we wake up, we’re practically sharing tent pegs with our neighbours. Also, our neighbours look like they were rejected as Trainspotting extras for looking too strung out.

I’ve never seen anyone smoke opium before except for, say, Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, but these two guys are nothing like that. They're super friendly, sure, and seem genuinely excited to see Jamiroquai, which may be the only time they leave their tent. The only plus side to this is sneaking up behind their tent and drawing on the walls with my fingers. Everybody watches as these two dudes' minds are completely blown.

We also notice a gaping hole in the security fence, a.k.a. the "peace wall," where people are freely entering, which makes us feel pretty dumb about spending so much on tickets.

Music highlight

James Brown kicked off day two, and even though it was the very first performance of the day, he absolutely killed it. He was dressed like a bedazzled Grimace, spinning, sweating, hollering and exhibiting a command of the stage and his players like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Legendary.

Another highlight is watching the Roots play to a far too sparse crowd. Jill Scott, or "Jilly from Philly," as they keep calling her, fills in for Erykah Badu’s part on "You Got Me."

Music lowlight

The second-to-last acts on both the East and West stages are Korn and Insane Clown Posse, respectively. Good time to head back to tent city.

In hindsight

Two of the most aggressive, testosterone-fuelled acts of the '90s playing at the same time? This was destined to turn violent from the start.

Today, the festival really is starting to feel oversold. The outhouse lineups are insane, and even after waiting all that time, the toilet paper is long gone (where is that toilet paper mummy when you need her?). In a strange feat of human persistence, there are literally pyramids of feces overflowing from the outhouses, officially making a hole in the ground more dignified than an actual toilet.

Rumours of rape have started to circulate, and drug dealers have brazenly set up alongside the pathways advertising ecstasy for sale.

Our British neighbours are still heavily sedated.

Music highlight

The Tragically Hip play the very first spot of the day to a sea of Canadian flags. It's only about 10 a.m., but a good amount of people in the audience are already half-drunk. I overhear two Americans who have no idea who the Tragically Hip are, obviously showing up early in order to secure a spot at the front of the stage, asking, "I guess these guys must be Canadian?"

At the other end of the day, Rage Against the Machine put on one of the most intense shows I’ve ever seen. Despite our best efforts, we can’t get closer than about 200 metres to the stage, but even then we are surrounded by mosh pits.

Music lowlight

Limp Bizkit wa equally as intense/angry, although admittedly less about social injustice and more about breaking stuff. Fred Durst performed "Faith" while jumping up and down on a slab of wood that was being held up by the crowd.

This was also the first time I heard of Dave Matthews Band. At my friend’s insistence, I regrettably skip Ice Cube to watch DMB with my friends. I fall asleep on the grass atop a Canadian flag.

In hindsight

It’s pretty clear that by day three, Woodstock had descended into a modern-day Altamont. It was just a matter of what would ignite that spark. There aren't enough showers, water or outhouses for this many people, and everything that cost a fortune on day one has increased in price as days go on, testing everybody's patience. 

Also, it’s worth noting that this was before everyone hated Limp Bizkit. In fact, you could even say the band was still cool, or at least extremely popular. When Fred Durst was standing on that board and screaming out the lyrics to "Faith," it was the coolest Fred Durst would ever be. Peak Durst, even.

The first thing to get pillaged is the concession stand. Mostly shirtless guys are running off with armloads of T-shirts, while other attendees — at this point, let's just call them looters — light a line of tractor-trailers on fire. Security is nowhere to be seen.

This is also around the time that the monolithic sound tower comes down in a symbolic gesture of subversion. Just the way it comes down, the crowd rocking it slowly back and forth until it finally gives way while everyone cheers, reminds me of watching news footage of when governments are toppled and their statues are pulled down by revolutionaries. Except, in this case it’s not revolutionaries, just pissed-off music fans.

The bonfires, fuelled mostly by stolen merch and particle boards that made up the concession stands, have grown to the point where one guy, also shirtless, attempts to jump over it, and he lands right in the middle of the flames.

We decide it's best to leave, as sleep is really no longer an option. Spotting a few tents on fire makes the decision easy. We pack up as fast as we can and make our way out, just as a riot squad — dressed in olive-green fatigues, helmets, shields and carrying batons out — are running into the concert single file.

We spend that night sleeping in the van in a Dunkin' Donuts parking lot. In the morning, we check the local paper to read about the chaos the night before while we make the long, agonizing drive back to civilization.

Music highlight

Yes, there was music. In fact, things were going well right up until Red Hot Chili Peppers closed it down. They were also one of the best acts of the whole thing. Flea started the show by coming out butt-naked before grabbing his bass guitar and ripping into a massive solo. As the sun set, I was front row, crowdsurfing, only to look behind me to see the horizon dotted with little fires. I remember singer Anthony Kiedis asking Flea, "You wanna do it, wanna do it?," right before breaking into Jimi Hendrix’s "Fire" in honour of the late guitarist's seminal performance at the original Woodstock. That's also when hell broke loose.

Music lowlight

Creed frontman Scott Stapp putting a leg up on one of the little speakers at the front and hip-grinding the air to “With Arms Wide Open." No one asked for that.

In hindsight

Over the years, Woodstock '99 came to be known as "the day the music died," which is how one San Francisco newspaper dubbed it. But it hardly deserves the comparison to that infamous day a plane fell from the sky with Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and co. inside. That was a sudden accident that shaped popular music; the catastrophe at Woodstock was entirely human-made and, therefore, avoidable.

Temperatures soared alongside prices — so angry, exhausted and broke attendees rebelled. Things burned. Concessions were looted. ATMs were smashed, as were the pipes that delivered running water to the few fountains that did exist. It was anarchy, fuelled by greed. Worst of all, approximately 1,200 people were treated at onsite medical facilities, with police reporting four alleged rapes — including one gang rape during the Limp Bizkit concert — and 44 arrests.

This wasn’t the day the music died, but it was the day a piece of it came tumbling down, knocked over by rioters. The most shocking thing was that a festival that was supposedly in celebration of peace and love turned into the opposite. You could even say it was less about the music and more about corporations cashing in. Or as Durst would say, "I did it all for the nookie."

Were you at Woodstock '99? Share your memories with Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG