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My time at Woodstock ’99
In the summer of 1999, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the original Woodstock, a new festival was held in Rome, NY at Griffiss Air Force Base. Instead of mirroring the peace and love of the 1969 festival, Woodstock ’99’s legacy was of fiery violence and greed. I learned this firsthand while working there as a member of a sponsor team for the company FortuneCity.
When I went to work at FortuneCity, it was as part of the Development team. This was at the time the major thrust of hiring at the company. It was an enjoyable place to work. Filled with talented people all trying to help grow the company. In that way, it was very typical of the early dotcom era of companies.
I mention this because I cannot think of another corporate situation where I, as a member of a team that spent all their time writing code, would somehow wind up in the broiling July heat of a music festival. This was the purview of marketing, but in a startup environment, all things were possible. So when an email went out asking for volunteers to help out during a music festival project, I threw my hat into the ring.
Before the Festival
We all went up as a group in a 15 passenger van that we rented. I drove a good amount, and we laughed and joked all the way there. Once we got near Rome, we hit traffic. This was our first indication of the enormity of the event that was about to unfold. The tone of that day could not have been more different than the days that would follow.
People were chatting with each other from their cars. They were exchanging food and drink and blasting music while we crawled towards our destination. It felt like the spirit of the original festival was alive and well.
I would like to note that as Sponsors, we did not sleep in tents like the attendees of the festival. We were put up in military housing on Griffiss Air Force Base. While it was not exactly luxurious, it was a great deal better than what the average ticket holder would need to deal with.
I don’t recall the setup period for our booth. It was in a large tent filled with other tech companies like amp3.com and Silicon Graphics. We were there to sign up new members to the FortuneCity community, a mission which we tried our hardest to accomplish as things started to degrade, and they degraded quickly.
My first hint that something was wrong is when people came into the tent and were overly enthusiastic about our free water bottles. We were giving them away with each sign up, and it was much preferred over our flying discs and other tchotchkes. The thing is, people didn’t just want the bottle, what they wanted, or more accurately what they needed, was for us to fill it for them.
So on day 1, people were already desperate for water to drink.
Sadly, filling bottles is something that we couldn’t do, which led people to either leave them at our table or discard them out on the grounds of the festival. I would spot many while exploring and watching musical acts.
That First Night (The Rave)
Heavy substance abuse was everywhere. On our first night, when we had closed down, we would find people passed out along the edges of the tent. Many in very rough shape with nowhere to go. They gravitated towards our large tent. If I remember right, we had a break-in and some stuff from other sponsors was damaged or stolen.
Unsurprisingly, our flying discs, empty water bottles and sun visors remained largely untouched.
That night, a rave was happening right behind the tent. Unfortunately people decided to use the area between the tent and the rave as a bathroom. That was bad, but when it started to rain, a river of human waste ran into the tent.
We salvaged what we could and took it outside of the tent for Day 2. At this point, our missions to recruit people was over.
It was day 2 that things got rough. We had brought something to the festival that was meant purely as a novelty, but turned into a real commodity, fortune cookies. Meant to be a tie-in with FortuneCity, these cookies were about the only free food available to the 400,000 people in attendance.
When we took them out to distribute them, chaos ensued. People started by grabbing handfuls and then just started walking away with entire boxes. Not wanting any conflict, we decided it was best to just let everyone have what they could carry.
The crowds made short work of the cookies. Realizing what was going on, my boss at the time decided it would be best to just try to feed people rather than hold anything back. At this point, we just put all of our boxes out for people to take what they could.
To people’s credit, after the initial rush of cookie-madness, things got a bit more orderly. In the end, our cookie supply, dozens of large boxes (pictured above), lasted about 15 minutes.
The Great Flying Disc Fight
This same craziness would happen later that day when we were told to go out and “push the Frisbees.” We did this by taking our flying discs outside and lining up the boxes by the tent. In the distance, music was thundering, and our area was clearing out quickly, so a co-worker and I decided to just start throwing the discs towards people and asking them to catch.
This started out nicely. People laughed and played along, but then a group of people grabbed some discs from the boxes and threw them a little harder. Then someone else decided that they should throw a disc as hard as they can into the sky. Where it came down, and on whom, would be completely random.
Eventually, people were just whipping discs skyward or into the crowd. It was getting pretty dark, and it was hard to see the discs as they flew through the air. The giveaway had turned into complete madness as yellow and white flying discs rained down on a heaving mass of sweaty people.
It went on for a while. Discs randomly slamming into people in the darkness. It was at this point that I crept away towards the stages.
I had few breaks from my work up until this point and caught a few bands. I was even punched in the back of the head when Korn took the stage on Friday night, but it was the craziness of Saturday night that set off alarm bells and made us all consider how unsafe things were getting.
When the band Limp Bizkit took the stage, a palpable sinister change seemed to sweep over the festival. I was nowhere near the stage, but fights were breaking out everywhere.
I beat a hasty retreat back to the sponsor tent, but with no one there, I didn’t know what to do. So I went to find the bus that would bring me back to the house where we were staying.
Time to Leave
There we had a meeting. What was going on here? Should we head back to the tent tomorrow? If this is what it is like tonight, how bad will it get tomorrow?
Ultimately, we decided that we were done here. It would be a 5-hour drive to New York City, and longer for those of us in New Jersey. If we left right away, we could be home before sunrise.
It was an easy decision, we bailed. All of us threw our stuff into the back of the van, the majority of people tried to find a way to sleep, and two of us took turns driving all the way home.
When I finally got home, I slept the day away, only to wake up and see what had happened on Sunday. The terrible mess, the fires, the violence. I was relieved to be away, but I felt bad for the people who had remained there.
They paid money to unknowingly put themselves in danger and the organizers of the event were powerless when things went awry. For me, the show was dangerous, but for those who were assaulted, it is a difficult memory that they will carry with them forever.
Whenever I hear that a new Woodstock is being planned. I think, “please don’t.” The original Woodstock was a unique event. A once in a generation happening that helps to define a time. Music festivals, at this scale, are a recipe for disaster. Without the proper planning, attendees are largely on their own, and as Woodstock ’99 proved, at that point nothing good happens.
This is my best recollection of Woodstock ’99. It has been two decades, so I apologize if I got a detail wrong. If you are reading this and happened to be with me that weekend, please send me an email, I would love to hear from you.
Thanks to fellow Woodstock ’99 attendee Chris Radtke for calling me up this morning and giving me details on what actually happened to the tent on that first night. He saw it firsthand. I feel sorry for him.
Thanks to Ernie at Tedium for suggesting I write this piece.