Woodstock 99 (or; How I Ended Up On VH1 In My Underpants) [Part 1 of 2]

Disclaimer: There will be brief mentions of sexual assault, some of the videos may have nudity, and I’m going to take some pot shots at the recently deceased Michael Lang.

So, I guess since everyone was bored over the pandemic, everyone put out their Woodstock ’99 documentaries, listicles, and podcasts. Well, throw this one on the pile, too. I’m not so jazzed on the stuff that came out recently about it, but it’s better than what a lot of the media at the time was reporting. But we’ll get there when we get there.

What Was I Doing?

At the time, I was working for a big box retailer, a typical wage slave. I was 23 years old, and a recent college grad (after dropping out for a year and a half). While big box retail is not ideal, it was still the 90s, the company was younger than most, and they had really taken care of us. The concert was held July 22-25, but I can’t remember when it was announced. It was really pretty close to home for us, so why not? There were a group of us that all worked together who decided to go, and shockingly, we all got the whole weekend off (and the following Monday). I’m sure the other people who had to work all weekend were pissed at us.

Nine of us went (only 5 of us worked together), four guys and five gals. I’m not sure if we knew we could get hotel rooms and come back day by day, but honestly, hotels were booked up anyway (and more expensive for retail wage slaves), and with the heat as it was and several bands we may not have cared about, it would’ve been a waste of a $150 (plus Ticketmaster surcharges, those fuckers) for us to stay in the A/C and not have to suffer through Jamiroquai.

I had a tent already, but in the back of my mind, I think I was already preparing for the worst. I took only my least favorite, well worn-out clothes and shoes. I bought brand new, plain white t-shirts… I’m not sure why I did that, and brand new (cheap) boxers as well… which were ugly. It didn’t matter, I wasn’t getting laid anyway. Did I have a premonition that things would go sideways and not to take anything I cared about? I doubt it. Even then, I knew what people were like.

Woodstock as a Brand

Woodstock, the film, is a prime piece of propaganda. And you know what? It worked. Sometime in the early 90s, I had taped it off of A&E… back when they showed things other than reality TV.  I had bought the vinyl soundtrack at a yard sale for next to nothing, so I was intrigued. Pop and Country existed, and whatever rock music was what I discovered myself. So, this was largely foreign territory. I was enamored with the musical performances, the rest of it not as much… with the exception of the two old white men arguing about the “hippies”, where one says all they do is sit around and smoke dope all day, and the other one says [paraphrasing], “if it gets us to get out of the Vietnam War, maybe we all should try it.”

But here’s the thing, there were 2 deaths at the original, not mentioned in the movie. The movie shows the National Guard coming in, but really downplays the amount of people who were just starving and did not have adequate shelter. All negative aspects are smoothed over in favor of the “Peace & Love” narrative.  Michael Lang gets a fair amount of screen time as the “organizer”, but he’s not a magical festival Peter Pan. Joel Rosenman is a co-creator, John P. Roberts fronted the money, and Artie Kornfeld arranged the artists. Lang was just the motorbike riding, shirtless fringe vest wearing front-man. The movie also leaves out the 80 lawsuits filed against the organizers, or the changes in laws in Bethel, New York to prevent another one of these “mass gatherings”. To be fair, those aren’t very riveting for movie audiences.

In 1979, there were two concerts set up to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the festival. There was Woodstock ’79, which was billed as “Celebration: Ten Years Later” and was held at Madison Square Garden on August 24 and 25. Then there was Woodstock Reunion 1979, which was held September 8 on Long Island. Both events had Woodstock alums Richie Havens, Country Joe McDonald, and Stephen Stills.

There was also a Woodstock ’89 on the original site, which was only promoted by word of mouth. It started with a single folk guitarist until other people showed up with food and other supplies. It featured Wavy Gravy, Jimi Hendrix’s dad Al, and Savoy Brown. It sounds interesting in theory: a bunch of people coming together to just hang out and put on a show. But the fact that it is dubbed “The Forgotten Woodstock” means if was boring as shit.

Then there was Woodstock ’94, powered in part (or perhaps in whole) by MTV. I wanted to go to this one so badly, but I was newly 18 and a high school graduate. I did not have $135 per ticket, and they were selling only in blocks of 4. Of the people I knew were interested, I couldn’t think of 3 that I could spend an entire weekend with and not strangle them. That probably says more about me than it does them, however. Two people died at this one also, and the fences were torn down just like the original.

So, you see, Woodstock is not a very good name brand at making money.

Thursday, July 22, 1999

Tickets in hand, the nine of us loaded in two cars and headed up early Thursday morning. Rome, NY is up near Utica (of Steamed Hams fame), and it should’ve been a little less than a two-and-a-half-hour drive. It should’ve been. Obviously, the infrastructure was not set up for this influx of traffic, so out in the wilds of Upstate New York, we were at a standstill. So, everyone got out of their cars like it was an R.E.M. video, but instead of being sad, people played Frisbee. The locals were already pissed at us all and it probably wasn’t even noon yet. People in big trucks revving and driving on the shoulder and just flat out in the grass to get home and away from the gridlock.

We got to Griffiss Air Force Base later in the afternoon on Thursday. It was kind of a set up day, and they had some local bands playing while people set up “camp”. We arrived to long lines for security. They were still trying then, I guess. A tall, bald dude shook my bottle of water several times trying to determine if it was illicit in some way. We didn’t attempt to bring in food because we already knew it was verboten.

The camping area was partially under the trees, but there was also just an open meadow. All of the camping was at the North end of the area, kind of forming the point of a triangle, with the other points being the East Stage and the West Stage. In between the stages were all the food vendors, and the vendors for all of the nonsense garbage people charge you way too much to buy. More on that later. In the camping area were very wide trails made of wood chips. I suggested we set up our three tents and the intersection of these trails so we would be easy to find later. We set up, Dungeon Master (my then roommate and still best friend to this day) and Demon Knight (a guy Dungeon Master went to high school with, the three of us were in a band together briefly) shared a tent, the other guy had a tent with his girlfriend (they were the only couple on this excursion), and the remaining four young ladies shared the third tent.

After we were set up, we wandered around the shops and food vendors. There was constant music, all the time, but you didn’t mind so much. One place had a giant tent that was nothing but tie-dyed clothes of every type. Demon Knight put on a tie-dyed suit jacket and it looks so damn stupid, it would have been worth buying if our band had survived, and he would actually wear it. We were pretty shocked at the food prices. I knew they would be high, but Christ on a cracker, $5 for a bottle of water ($8.37 in 2022 money). I don’t remember fussing about it too much at that time. Eventually, probably Friday or Saturday, I said, “I will never complain about the prices of food anywhere ever again”.

Most of everyone went back to the encampment, but Demon Knight and I and two of the ladies wanted to check out the “Rave”, but it wasn’t going to start for a few hours yet. I think they started at 9-ish that Thursday. Now, this is some back story. One of the ladies, Angie Gibraltar, I had a crush on back around 95 or 96. She liked someone else, but we actually became very good friends. Eventually, she dated Demon Knight, but the split up. I told her he was coming, and she said that she would be fine. It was a little awkward, but to their credit, they were well behaved and occasionally engaged in small talk.

Anyway, while we were wandering, we realized suddenly that George Clinton was playing on the local artist’s stage. It was his birthday, and he just felt like it, I guess. It started out as this weird Bernie Worrell side project, but they kept bringing people out until it was full on P-Funk All Stars. Now, Wikipedia has it listed as P-Funk All Stars for both Thursday and Friday, but I swear to God, it was advertised as a full Parliament / Funkadelic reunion for Friday… more on that later.

We made our way to the tent where they had the “rave”. I keep using scare quotes because I don’t think it can be a pure rave with corporate sponsorship… and I’m not even into that scene, but it didn’t feel right. Anyway, it was pretty cool, I enjoyed it because it was very different than what I was used to, and I like to get out of my comfort zone. Moby was playing, I didn’t know anything he was playing, except he did have a guitar strapped on himself and he covered the first verse of Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise”, which was odd. The thing I remember most was this woman with long brown curly hair, and she was just dancing like her life depended on it. She held her hands together as if she had an invisible Rubik’s Cube, and she was turning it, and moving at around wildly. I must have stared at her for what felt like forever, because I can see it like I was yesterday, and I don’t remember anyone else. Except Moby, because I could have reached out and tugged his pantleg I was so close. I wouldn’t have done that because I wouldn’t want him to mistake me for a 17-year-old actress and have him try to chat me up.

We were finally exhausted, and went back to our tents.

Friday, July 23, 1999

All night long Thursday night was the sound of talking, ruffling, and hammers striking into tent stakes. It was already starting to get into the heat wave that all the documentaries talk about. I was laying on my sleeping bag in nothing but my new, purposely ugly boxers. Demon Knight and Dungeon Master left the tent to go to the bathroom (on a tree presumably), and left the tent open. It was still pretty early, I think, and I could hear footsteps around outside.

Upon getting out of the tent, I discovered other tents stretching on and on, they completely covered the pathway we were planning to use to find our way back. Right next to us, our door facing theirs, was a couple. She was significantly older than he was, so probably as old as I am now. She had a tremendously big dragon tattoo covering her entire back, and she only wore a bikini top the entire time and cut off jeans. I don’t know if they ever left their tent, just hanging out smoking pot for four days straight. More power to ‘em.

Artist’s Rendition

I don’t remember what we did for breakfast, probably nothing. We must’ve done something Thursday night as well, but I don’t remember that, either. More on that later.

The had three stages set up, East, West, and Emerging Artists. East Stage was the more popular stage, and West Stage was the… it wasn’t underground, it was maybe more niche and less mainstream. We spent pretty much the entire day at the East Stage, the people in our crew were more mainstream minded taste wise, which was fine.

James Brown opened the festivities at the East Stage. His backing band played at least 3 numbers before James Brown himself came out. Demon Knight said, “This would be pretty cool without this prima-donna bullshit.” I mean, he was 104 years old at that time (actually 66), so he needed lots of breathers. I’m glad I got to see him.

Next was G. Love & Special Sauce (this asshole again?). They actually played Thursday, and subbed in for Sugar Ray because Mark McGrath was ill. Honestly, I’m not sure Sugar Ray would’ve been an improvement. We didn’t watch G. Love. I would’ve remembered something that bad. Also, we were fairly close for James Brown, and later we were further back, and at a different angle, more stage left for the rest of the day/evening.

We were wandering around for a bit, there were many, many nude folks, both male and female. We did not see anything untoward. However, there was a glaring lack of security at pretty much all times. On Friday, everyone seemed pretty cool and easy going. There was blatant drug use, all out in the open and no one gave a shit. One weird thing I saw was this dude was standing and talking, and frisbee was flying so fast, and it nailed him right on the bridge of his nose. He went, “AHHH!” and grabbed it, but then he just laughed and flung the frisbee back. I remember thinking at that time, that even though there was no security, everything would be pretty ok.

We made our way back to the East Stage for Jamiroquai. I can’t remember if someone in our group wanted to see them, or there just wasn’t anything else we wanted to see. Of course, “Virtual Insanity” video was a big deal. At some point, the singer starts dancing on a dolly on the stage, in like a real cheap ass nod to the video. I’m not sure if this was improved, because there were pro cameras running constantly, or if he just jumped on it when it was moving. The other guy who was with us, Slim Ready, said, “So there’s an escalator on stage, big fucking deal.”

The Avocado’s favorite placenta enthusiasts Live were up next. I had seen them on tour for Throwing Copper, and they had Secret Samadhi out in 1997 and “Hold My Head” was a sizeable hit, and “Lakini’s Juice” was a different song for them. They played a new song called “The Dolphin’s Cry” from the upcoming album, and it was garbage. Singer Ed Kowalczyk let the crowd in a chant of “Love”, which I didn’t hear anyone do, but we were very far away from the stage. We could still see it, but we kept a safe distance. Dungeon Master said, “Don’t do it people! It sucks!”

Sheryl Crow was up next. I’m not a fan of her, but she was actually very cool and competent on her instruments, she switched between guitars and basses a few times. She was met with a chant of “show us your tits!” to which she quipped, “You don’t have enough money to see my tits”, which I thought was pretty funny. All in all, she was ok, if a little bland. A lot has been made of their being only 3 female artists on the entire festival, and then each on a separate day. Is it tokenism? Well, it sure doesn’t look good.

DMX came up next. I was never really knowledgeable about him, but a lot is made of how this proved rappers could be rock stars, how it was rap’s arrival and how legendary it was. But really, Ice Cube, The Roots, Insane Clown Posse, Wyclef Jean, were all there as well… and also 3rd Bass. We were really far back, but from where we were at, it seemed like he wasn’t connecting well. Watching the video, however, he was really killing it. Either way, it was really brave of him to be up there in front of hundreds of thousands of people with just himself and his DJ. Slim Ready said, “Poor guy, it’s just not his crowd.” Was it though? Some of the think pieces that have come out in the 20 plus years since posit that it was a great excuse for white frat bros to scream the N-word with permission.

Right on the cusp of being a complete novelty act, The Offspring turned up for an hour long set. “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)” was already out and a sizeable hit, but we’re a year away from the dreck of “Original Prankster”. All of us in our group wanted to see them, and they were really fun, and had great energy. They took time out of their set to knock the heads off of some effigies of The Backstreet Boys. As the time we were all for it, but now it seems kind of lame. We were really so bored that we would care about a boy band we didn’t like? I guess so.

Korn was up next, Dungeon Master, Demon Knight, and myself were into seeing them. I had already seen them twice before. The first time, they were opening for Ozzy in January or February 1995. Their debut album had only been out a few months at that time, I already had because I had heard “Clown” on a CMJ disc. They were practically booed of the stage. I saw them in 1998 co-headlining with Rob Zombie, and they arena was sold out. This show was very close to the 1998 show, but they seemed a little more tired. They were fine.

Bush was closing out the East Stage. They were much more amenable to the majority of our group, being more mainstream than Korn, of course. I thought they were ok, I liked most of the singles, but not enough to buy the albums. The one thing I remember the most is that on the big screens, Gavin Rossdale just looked pissed off the entire set. Or, at least, what we saw. Myself and Dungeon Master and Demon Knight headed off to the West Stage.

The three of us headed over to the West Stage, for the first time. We weren’t really interested in Oleander, moe., Buckcherry, The Roots, Insane Clown Posse, or Lit. One day, the three of us were outside of work and a co-worker drove into the parking lot blaring Lit. When he walked up to us, we said, “Dude, Lit sucks.” He chuckled, and said, “Yeah, I know.” Anyway, we went because I wanted to see Parliament / Funkadelic. Everything I’m finding on the internet is billing them as P-Funk Allstars, but I swear to God, it was billed as a reunion… and they embarked on an actual reunion tour after this. This lineup included keyboardist Bernie Worrell, guitarist Catfish Collins, bassist Bootsy Collins, and… Humpty Hump!! We didn’t see a lot of it, the West Stage was closing down sooner than the East, and we didn’t know that then. So, we caught the end of their set, and it was so good, and heavier than I would’ve expected. Humpty Hump was dancing up on a giant stack of speakers, and Bootsy had his star bass (of course) and he wore a banana yellow tuxedo. What more could you want?

I was tempted to post the entire concert, but it’s on YouTube if you want to watch it. Both Thursday and Friday!

After this, we returned to camp without incident.

Tune in next week for the exciting (?) conclusion…