Woodstock Co-Promoter John Scher Blames Mayhem On 'Deranged' Fans
ROME, N.Y. — Less than a week after looting, vandalism and fires brought an end to Woodstock '99, co-promoter John Scher continued to maintain that the mayhem was the work of "deranged" concert-goers, and that the prices at concessions run by a company tied to Scher played no role in fomenting unrest.
He also raised the possibility that the riot may not have been a spontaneous revolt. "I am hearing, but not officially, that in some way this was an organized group, a cult, a club or something like that," he said.
"The ugly stuff that happened was caused by people who have a problem," Scher said late Thursday afternoon from his Manhattan offices. He echoed the sentiments he expressed in the early hours of Monday morning as piles of burnt trash still smoldered.
"If you're raping women, setting things on fire, looting, in my estimation that's someone who's deranged," he said. "Nobody does those kinds of things because a hot dog is $3 instead of $2.50."
Syracuse's Post-Standard newspaper quoted security staffer Andrew Czarniewicz as saying there were rumors after 5 p.m. Sunday that vendor tents would be ransacked after dark. But investigators have found no evidence that the uproar was organized, state police Capt. John Wood said Friday (July 30).
"They weren't by demeanor or dress united. Basically this was a mob that rioted," he said.
Police are investigating reports of four rapes that allegedly took place during the July 23–25 concert, which was held on the grounds of Rome's decommissioned Griffiss Air Force base. After funk-rockers the Red Hot Chili Peppers closed the show Sunday night, attendees set fires that burned 12 trailers. They also stole food, drinks, T-shirts and other goods from on-site merchants and tore down a 20-foot concert production tower. About 500 state troopers in riot gear were called to the scene to quell the uproar.
Thus far, seven people have been arrested in connection with the riots. Many questions are still unanswered about factors contributing to the troubles that brought the much-hyped Woodstock '99 to a disastrous conclusion.
Since the melee, many festival-goers, workers and volunteers have said that high-priced concessions (including $4 bottles of water), insufficient security staff and portable toilets overflowing with human waste all contributed to a climate of resentment that came to a head Sunday night.
Scher denied those elements fueled the riot. Asked Thursday why he portrayed operations as generally trouble-free at press conferences during the concert, Scher refused to answer the question directly.
Rather, he said police and local officials made similar assessments. He also asked why reporters didn't pose concerns about sanitation and safety at the press conferences during the concert, although in fact several did. During those press conferences, he responded to questions about nudity and injuries at the show by berating the reporters who asked them and laughing off the concerns or denying the allegations.
On Friday, however, Scher, his partner Michael Lang and their financier, Ossie Kilkenny, issued a statement about the sexual abuse, their first since reports began to surface nearly a week ago.
"We're shocked and dismayed by the allegations of sexual abuse and we're
doing everything we can do to help the investigation, including handing over all the video tape and any records that we have. If the alleged perpetrators are caught, we hope that they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," the statement read.
A 20-year veteran of the concert trade, Scher has several ties to Woodstock.
Scher runs the concert's production company, Woodstock Ventures, with Lang, who founded the original '69 festival as well as this one. Scher also is president and CEO of Metropolitan Entertainment Group, which produced the concert's pay-per-view cable television program. Metropolitan, in turn, is half-owned by Ogden Corporation, whose entertainment division directed concession sales at Woodstock.
"Ogden is one of the biggest concessionaires in America," Scher said. "It just happened to be convenient that they were a part of [concert operations]."
Both companies were expected to bring in the money to help offset the $38 million organizers have said they spent to put on Woodstock '99.
While the loudest complaints about food prices came from music fans, vendors, too, expressed outrage. Bill Salamone, owner of Sully's Pizzeria in Frankfurt, N.Y., said Ogden charged him $75 each for 24-bottle cases of soda and water, and set the $4-per-bottle sale price. Another Rome pizzeria owner who did not work at the concert said distributors usually charge restaurants $5.99 per case.
Scher said that $3 hot dogs were competitive with prices at other sports and music events. But numerous concert attendees said hot dogs cost $5 at Woodstock.
"If we were providing free water, what else was I to do?" Scher asked.
But while communal sinks and showers provided water at no cost, all water was not free at Woodstock. Surveying the trashed remains of the site Tuesday, 30-year-old Salamone pointed across the landscape at hundreds of empty red containers that once held the bottles.
"See all those cases? That's all money for Ogden," he said.
Rome Public Works Commissioner Robert Comis said Thursday that all the free water stations he saw during the concert were in working order, although he could not say how many stations were on the grounds.
During the concert, numerous music fans complained that some drinking stations were broken. A tour of the site after the riot revealed at least three stations spay-painted with slogans such as "No H20, Break It!"
At a city council meeting Wednesday, "Peace Patrol" supervisor Art Reid said it was evident before Woodstock started that the squad's numbers would not be enough to maintain control in a crowd that at its peak numbered 225,000. But Scher denied the event had fewer security guards than were necessary.
"We had several hundred more than plans called for," he said, adding that forces never dwindled below 1,100.