Three decades after 1969’s legendary Woodstock music festival, an attempt to recreate the magic of the original peace and love-preaching event would end in a violent eruption of chaos and anarchy.
Woodstock ‘99, held within the walled confines of the former Griffiss Air Force Base across three days in July 1999, is regarded by many as one of the most disastrous music festivals of all time.
Dubbed “the day the music died,” the special event saw more than 220,000 rock enthusiasts descend on upstate New York to watch the likes of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine, Metallica, and Limp Bizkit perform, The US Sun reports.
But what followed next was several days of carnage, as water shortages, price gouging, filthy conditions, broken toilets and other significant infrastructural oversights began to take their toll on the exhausted, dehydrated attendees.
The event’s chaotic legacy would also be forever marred by a series of sexual assaults, three deaths, and a full-blown riot that erupted on its final night.
Radio towers were also torched, garbage was set ablaze, and a van was driven into a crowd during a packed Fat Boy Slim DJ set.
Now, a new three-part Netflix docuseries, Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 attempts to uncover how it all went so horribly wrong, through the eyes of attendees, workers, talent and original Woodstock founder Michael Lang.
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One attendee, Drew Auman, told The US Sun that the Griffiss Air Force Base resembled something closer to a “war zone” than the site of a music festival by the end of the weekend.
The then-22-year-old had travelled from Ohio to cover the event for the local press with his brother Chris.
Auman recalled how the festival’s infamous riot was sparked shortly after Woodstock organisers started handing thousands of candles out to the crowd during the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ closing set.
“The final day of Woodstock ‘99 was perfectly fine right up until the Red Hot Chili Peppers went on stage,” said Auman, now a 45-year-old software developer.
“There were a ton of candles passed out – tens of thousands of them – and I think they were meant to be used in the final moments of the festival.
“But they started passing them out quite early, even before the band took to the stage, I think.
“And everything started out pretty normally, people were forming hearts on the ground with the candles lit and doing a bunch of other things with them.
“But now the festival workers had literally put fire in people’s hands … it wasn’t long before fires started to erupt throughout the property.”
‘Fire in their hands’
The candles mentioned by Auman were passed out by Woodstock organisers in a shortsighted attempt to revisit the spirit of the festival’s original 1969 incarnation with a vigil against gun violence.
The vigil was planned to coincide with the end of the Chili Pepper’s set, during which the band spontaneously decided to cover Jimmy Hendrix’s song Fire – a rather ironic choice in hindsight.
“I remember there were these semi trucks scattered throughout the property with goods in them, and [the crowd] started lighting the stuff inside on fire because they literally had a flame in their hands,” Auman said.
“That’s when the chaos started, because everyone was like, ‘well, let’s light this place of fire’.
“So everyone started joining in on that and more fires started erupting.”
Auman said he believes the tensions finally boiled over among the crowd on the Sunday night after thousands spent several days caked in mud out in the sunshine, without ready access to drinking water, a decent bathroom, or shade.
Attendees also weren’t allowed to bring their own beverages to the event, including water.
Instead, they either were forced to fork over $US4 (equivalent to $US7 today) for a bottle from one of the concession stands or line up in colossal queues to drink from communal fountains, many of which didn’t work and were not sanitary.
As the crowd became more unruly during the final night, Auman was watching the pandemonium unfold from a press box to the right of the main stage.
He said he remembers vividly looking down to see a group of people “dragging” a Mercedes Benz through the mud and “tipping it over on its side and destroying it.”
“That’s when I was like, ‘okay, this is not going well. This is a problem’,” he said.
“It turned into a kind of war zone, with fires, smoke, people breaking things and flipping cars and stuff. It was mayhem.”
Violence and assaults
As the bedlam escalated, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were hauled from the stage and Woodstock ‘99 was brought to an abrupt end.
But the destruction and violence lasted long into the night, with the pillaging fans burning and destroying everything in their path.
State troopers were eventually brought in to quell the riot, but much of the damage had already been done.
By the end of the weekend, more than 1200 people had been injured, 44 people had been arrested and at least four women had reported being sexually assaulted.
The accusations of assault sparked an investigation by New York State Police, but numerous other instances of rape and assault are believed to have gone unreported.
David Schneider, a rehabilitation counsellor who worked as a volunteer with the social-service program Family of Woodstock during the event, witnessed one frightening assault first-hand from afar during the band Korn’s set on the Friday night.
He told MTV in 1999: “At one point I saw this girl, a very petite girl, maybe 100 pounds (45kg), who was bodysurfing above the crowd and either fell in or was pulled into a circle in the mosh pit.
“These gentlemen, probably in the 25–32 age range, looked as though they were holding her down. They were holding her arms; you could see she was struggling.”
Standing around 6m away, and unable to intervene, he added: “You clearly could see that one of the guys was pulling her pants down — her top was left on. You could see he was violating her.
“Then it looked like he passed her off to his friend next to him,” he continued.
“It looked like a clear gang-rape to me, where he was just passing her on to at least one other person.”
‘A war zone’
Security and other concertgoers eventually came to the woman’s aid, though it’s unclear if the incident was ever reported or whether anyone was punished for the assault.
Only one of the 44 people arrested was charged with a sexual offence, according to reports from the time.
Three attendees also died, including 24-year-old David Derosia who passed away from heat stroke while watching Metallica.
Derosia’s family went on to file a lawsuit against the Woodstock 99 organisers and six doctors who worked at the festival, accusing them of negligence for failing to provide enough fresh water or adequate medical care for the 200,000 fans gathered.
Other attendees who died during the festival included a 44-year-old man at the campgrounds who had a pre-existing medical condition, and one person also died in a car crash travelling home from the event, miles from the site.
But Auman said he never felt in fear for his safety during the chaos of the final night.
He and his brother Chris walked back to their tents and got a full night’s sleep.
They awoke the next morning to see Griffiss Air Force Base engulfed in a cloud of thick smog.
“There was still this eerie fog over the entire place, so it made it even eerier because of what had just happened the night before,” Auman said.
“But it was great for pictures and video,” he added with a laugh.
‘A profound experience’
Despite the anarchy of the closing night, Auman said he headed back to Ohio grateful for having attended Woodstock ‘99, calling it a “profound experience.”
He was shocked to return to a frenzy in the news, painting the event as a drug-fuelled cesspit of crime, violence, and otherwise feral behaviour.
Though he had witnessed the riots with his own eyes, Auman says the destructive end to the seemingly doomed event only told part of the story.
“I thought it was an awesome experience,” he said, “it was a great weekend and probably one of the top 5 experiences in my life.
“I know there were some things that were really bad that happened at that place … but I still see it as an awesome experience, and I feel that it’s gotten such a negative tone to it, that it’s really ruined the legacy of Woodstock for future generations.
“For the large part, 99.8 per cent of what happened there was positive … a few people committed some awful crimes but when you have that many thousands of people in one place, people will take advantage of certain situations and a certain percentage of bad things will happen, unfortunately.”
Auman said he was shocked and sickened to read news reports that several young women had reported being sexually assaulted in the crowd.
He called the acts “horrible”, adding: “It’s one thing to steal from a major corporation who is making money of the event and setting fire to their stuff, but it’s another thing to take advantage of an individual and sexually assault them.
“It’s just absolutely horrible that it happened. My experience leaving there was really positive so it was unfortunate to hear that something like this had happened to others.
“They tried to do a 50th-anniversary event [in 2019] that completely failed and, I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that really tarnished Woodstock’s reputation and may have been part of them not doing another event after the 30th.”
Challenging the narrative
The crimes that unfolded across a few days in upstate New York tarnished Woodstock’s cultural reputation for years to come, with an article published in the San Francisco Examiner dubbing it, “the day the music died.”
Even now, more than two decades on, Woodstock ‘99 is still considered one of the darkest and most shameful moments in recent pop culture history.
But much of the negativity about the event, Auman says, is perpetuated by people who weren’t even there.
“I don’t feel like I need to set the record straight or something,” he said, “but I really feel that the mention of Woodstock ‘99 has become so negative that it’s really ruined it for future generations.”
From his perspective, Auman said from the Wednesday he arrived through the evening of Sunday that everything was “relatively orderly.”
“And it wasn’t until the final act on Sunday night that caused all this [chaos] and the media just took it and ran with it,” he added.
“For the most part the people that attended largely had a good time.”
Reiterating that his own Woodstock experience was “profound”, Auman continued: “I’ve been to a lot of concerts over the years and nothing has had the effect that one had on me.
“It was profound and it wasn’t just all negative as the media had people believe.”
A digital time capsule
Before Auman and his brother headed to New York to cover Woodstock ‘99, the siblings set up a website to upload photos and blog posts about the ongoings inside the event.
The website, Woodstock1999.com, is still in operation today and remains almost completely untouched from when the Auman brothers first designed it 23 years ago.
In addition to archives of photographs and links to news stories, the site also features articles written by Auman and his friends throughout the festival’s duration as they described having the times of their lives.
“I can’t wait til the next Woodstock and you better believe that we will be back here again, giving you the best coverage around,” Auman wrote in his final entry, posted on July 27, 1999.
“Keep a watch on this website as more photos, commentary and stories get posted. We still have a lot in store for you.”
Auman says he has no plans to ever take down the website, insisting it costs him next to nothing to keep it online.
Instead, he hopes to preserve it as a kind of digital time capsule, an online place for other attendees with fond memories of Woodstock ‘99 to visit and relieve the glory days of their youth.
Remarkably, a few years ago, Auman was able to reunite two friends who had met in the crowd at Woodstock and parted ways at the end of the festival.
He received an email in his inbox from a woman who had spotted herself in one of the photos on his website and asked for his help to identify the man in the picture next to her.
“I met this guy at the show, we spent a bunch of time together, but my girlfriend threw out his contact information, do you know how I could get a hold of him?” Auman remembered the email reading.
The author of the email then posted the photo on Facebook and remarkably was able to reacquaint herself with her long-lost friend two decades later.
“That was pretty cool,” he mused, “that the website was able to bring these two people back together.
“It’s kind of out of sight and out of mind for me, for the most part, but over time it’s like, I’ve kept it going this long, I might as well keep it going.
“So I’ll continue to keep it alive for anyone who had a good experience and wants to relieve those moments.”
This article included work from the New York Post and originally appeared in The US Sun and was reproduced with permission