Sometimes you get lucky and find yourself in the middle of a historic moment, like, say, Grant Park on the night President Obama was first elected.
And then sometimes history lands on you and the results are, well, kind of gross and messy and pretty disturbing. That was the case 15 years ago this week when I drove onto the site of the place where, legend now has it, “the music died”: Woodstock ’99. The third edition of the legendary hippie gathering was troubled from the start. It took place on a forbidding slab of concrete, a decommissioned Air Force base in Rome, New York, that was a Superfund site where hazardous materials had been stored.
You see, once the 250,000 attendees got there, they were trapped in a summer inferno, forced to pay $12 for a pizza and $4 for a bottle of water on sprawling festival grounds where everything was for sale to the highest corporate bidder and free water was in short supply — if it was available at all. In other words, the furthest thing from the 1969 original’s hippie ethos.
In addition to the horrific conditions (as well as reported sexual assaults), a dark, negative vibe and not-so-chill headliners like Insane Clown Posse, Kid Rock, Buckcherry, DMX, Metallica, Korn, Limp Bizkit and Rage Against the Machine riled up the already agitated crowd on day three, bringing the boil-over of 72 hours of frustration.
During the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ set, concertgoers started destroying portions of the sound tower, lighting at least six huge bonfires and inciting a riot that ended the event.
I was there and what I witnessed was like nothing I’ve ever seen before — or since. Kids who had earlier been passing one around during Willie Nelson’s set were suddenly surrounded by looters. Those rogue festivalgoers smashed and set fire to vendor carts and semi-trucks, tearing down the 12-foot painted plywood “peace wall” set up by organizers to keep out gatecrashers while a menacing wall of riot-geared police advanced like something out of a futuristic end-of-days movie.
Instead of running the other way, I decided to plunge into the chaos and stay in the middle of the riot all night, dodging swinging police batons, puddles of “mud” around the overturned port-a-potties and bandana-wearing looters running rampant with armfuls of T-shirts, soft pretzels and anything else they could carry.
I spent the night talking to exhausted police and frightened, disillusioned kids who were angry and disappointed that some of the people they’d spent two nights camping right next to would cause this kind of destruction.
And then, the sun came up and I stumbled on a group of kids in a prayer circle, holding hands around a giant peace sign made out of flattened, discarded $12 pizza boxes. I know, right?