If the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival was the “Summer of Soul,” Woodstock ’99 was the “Summer of Soullessness”

By: Steve Pulaski

Before Fyre Fest was even a thought in the narcissistic mind of Billy McFarland, there was Woodstock ’99: a mosh-pit of sweltering heat, unchecked testosterone, and violence.

Comprehensive in its coverage, but most importantly, insightful in its dissection, Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage chronicles the misbegotten festival that kicked off July 22nd, 1999 in Rome, New York. Michael Lang and John Scher, organizers of the original Woodstock and the subsequent Woodstock ’94, wanted to cap off the 90s with a festival that promoted the same mantra of its predecessors: “peace and love.” Instead, what ensued could reasonably be summed up as “The Day the Nineties Died,” as looting, vandalism, and unbridled chaos overtook the event with the likes of Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock serving as the soundtrack.

Woodstock ’99 took place on a former Air Force base. Heat indices that weekend exceeded 100 degrees, further amplified by the body heat produced by some 200,000 concertgoers along with pervasive asphalt surfaces. Food was outrageously expensive, a bottle of water was a whopping $4 (dangerously priced the same as beer), and alternative water sources were difficult to find. Couple that with a legion of bands such as Korn, Limp Bizkit, Rage Against the Machine, and Megadeth, who spoke to an angsty crowd of twentysomething males, and you have the makings of an unmitigated disaster.

The greatest irony within Woodstock ’99 was that it was Woodstock in name only. There was no central cause for protest, as Jewel, one of the performers at the event, points out. No one who attended was even alive in 1969, so artists’ callbacks to the 30-year-old event fell on deaf ears. Compounding matters was the presence of MTV, who took control of the event for TV and Pay-Per-View audiences, spotlighting the rampant female nudity as if it was a Girls Gone Wild spring break special.

If the original Woodstock’s message was progressive thinking, Woodstock ’99’s message was aggressive acting.

By the time Limp Bizkit took the stage on Day 2 of the event, the venue was filthy, with portable toilets overflowing with feces, people bathing in water fountains, and the “Peace Patrol” security team was overwhelmed. Sexual assaults were happening, ATMs and property were smashed, and fires were eventually lit thanks to a non-profit handing out candles intended to serve as a vigil for Columbine (which occurred just months before the event). The final report? 1,200 injuries, 44 arrests, and four alleged sexual assaults. Take the over on the actual numbers.

Woodstock 99 doesn’t solely provide an oral history, but rather an analysis for the how/why things got so out of hand. A plethora of attendees, journalists, and music critics offer their takes. One opines about how the oft-angry, charged lyrics/sound of nu metal followed the promise of progressive rock and grunge, which had a shorter-than-expected shelf-life due to massive commercialization. Furthermore, MTV’s presence was met with widespread criticism from festivalgoers due to the fact the network was less a beacon for counterculture and more a platform for teen pop superstars that hijacked a lot of the music video slots once reserved for pioneering rock acts. For any music fan, it’s thoughtful analysis.

Couple this with the violent, sexualized culture of the time (made more mainstream with the impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton), lax security, and a myriad of oversights at the event, and you have the makings for a devastating display of young, male-led lawlessness. Maybe most shocking is the persistent lack of remorse for the event by Lang and Scher, who still refuse to assume much, if any, responsibility. Sure to be a sticking point is Scher saying the onus of the ensuing sexual assaults should at least partially be on the women, who were ubiquitously naked throughout the event. One can bet he couldn’t even tell you the names of the women assaulted at Woodstock ’99, nor even recognize them in photos.

If one thing drags Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage down, it’s the holier-than-thou attitude of some of the journalists, who occasionally sound like the same people who make Twitter the insufferable political hotbed it’s become. One writer comments about the problematic nature of a predominately white crowd rapping along with DMX during his set that fits the assertion that we have become overly sensitive as a society. However, the analysis is kept rich and rightly critical enough that it downplays these moments.

Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage marks the first of several planned HBO documentaries under the newly formed Music Box label. It was created by Bill Simmons, the co-creator of the massively successful (and entertaining) 30 for 30 documentary series for ESPN. It’s off to a grand start with this long overdue examination of the last Woodstock. If the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival was called the “Summer of Soul,” Woodstock ’99 was the “Summer of Soullessness.”

NOTE: Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage is now streaming on HBO Max.

My review of Jagged
My review of DMX: Don’t Try to Understand
My review of Listening to Kenny G
My review of Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss

Grade: B+

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h62RmIsx6MA [/embedyt]