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Woodstock '99: Riots, Rapes and the Razing of the Alt-Revolution

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It was around 3 a.m. when a moment of surreal beauty unexpectedly burst forth from the grotesque chaos that marked the final day of Woodstock '99, soon to be re-dubbed "the day the music died."

After far too many hours of fiery, rampaging lawlessness, the authorities had finally reentered the decommissioned Griffiss Air Force Base which was hosting this third (and final) Woodstock festival. A fire truck had put out a torched bus, and the acrid smoke now hung low on the grounds, mixing with the tear gas, adding eeriness to the ugliness.

The few hundred remaining rioters -- mostly men, mostly naked -- had formed a line to confront 500 or so state troopers in paramilitary riot gear. A few beat on flipped over metal garbage bins like a perverse inversion of a hippie drum circle, providing a tribal rhythm that kept the wasted youth jacked up.

Then a glowing green streak flew threw the smoky air, bouncing off a riot cop's plastic mask. Then another, an orange one, bounced off another cop's shield. There was a pause, and then a barrage of bright lights flew from the riot side for several minutes, piercing the smoke like a Star Wars fire fight and smacking against the police line.

Apparently the rioters had looted a glow-stick stand earlier in the night, using their plunder to provide a sadly perfect punctuation mark to the '90s.

Woodstock '99
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Cultural decades are rarely temporally accurate. What we consider the '60s, for example, really began during 1967's Summer of Love, reached its peak at Woodstock in the summer of '69 and then collapsed amid the violence of Altamont a few months later.

The 1990s were a little more on schedule, though, with the alternative revolution igniting at the first Lollapalooza in 1991 before burning to the ground amid the riots and rapes of Woodstock '99.

Maybe all cultural movements end in disaster and disappointment but that didn't make it any easier watching the utopian ideals of the 1990s end with a pitched battle between feral bros and storm troopers on a smouldering, garbage-strewn and corporate branded airfield.

Perhaps Woodstock '99 was pressing its luck, having achieved a surprisingly successful 25th anniversary edition in 1994 despite (or because of) fans tearing down the fences and entering for free. Even the rain couldn't damper the positivity -- has Trent Reznor ever looked as happy as when Nine Inch Nails performed completely covered in mud?

But Woodstock '94 had the benefit of being staged at the peak of the alt-era. Yes, it came in the wake of Kurt Cobain's suicide, but the multi-faceted and Manic Panic'd alternative nation remained unified. That year's Lollapalooza was one of the most powerful, too.

Fast forward five years, though, and youth culture had fractured. Freak-friendly grunge had given way to rapacious rap-rock while the outsiders had fled over to the rave scene. Woodstock '99 tried to appeal to both groups and the former couldn't handle the sleepless hedonism of the latter.

But that was only part of the fuel that made the place go full Lord of the Flies.

Woodstock '69 was billed as "three days of peace, love & music" while Woodstock '94 was "2 More Days of Peace and Music." However, Woodstock '99, which ran from July 22 - 25, replaced that idealism with commercialism and was quickly dubbed Profitstock thanks to the $150 tickets, $4 water, $15 bags of ice and $7 slices of pizza.

The site was even surrounded by an imposing wooden "Peace Fence" to keep out the gatecrashers that had made the previous two editions money-losers. Corners were cut everywhere, too, with not enough port-a-potties or showers or employees. In hindsight, the ingredients for the disaster recipe were there from the get-go.

The 30th anniversary was a big enough deal that my newspaper at the time, The Ottawa Sun, sent 23-year-old me and a photographer down in a new-school Volkswagen Bug, but we had no idea how newsworthy it would become.

A couple hundred thousand people showed up and Woodstock quickly went off the rails. The temperature soared to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit with little shade, drugs and alcohol flowed like a spring river and because the rock shows gave way to all-night raves in an airplane hangar, there was little, if any, sleep to be had.

Soon the toilets were overflowing, the garbage stopped being collected and the overwhelmed, underpaid security staff started walking off the job. People were tired, hungry, dehydrated and increasingly angry at being exploited, even before Rage Against The Machine helped crystallize their discontent.

Everything was spiralling out of control. Everything and everyone.

The toplessness that began innocently enough as a nod towards hippie era exhibitionism soon devolved into frightening hordes of bros surrounding girls and chanting "show us your tits" until they did so. And then it got much, much worse. There were countless sexual assaults and eight reported rapes during the festival, most horrifically a moshpit gang-rape of a crowd-surfer during Limp Bizkit's set on the Saturday.

Limp Bizkit was also ground zero for the violence, as frontman Fred Durst's exhortations during "Break Stuff" was taken literally and the crowd, which had already infected the community-building moshpits of the early '90s with scarily violent machismo, began trashing the place, including the tower where MuchMusic was broadcasting live.

People were being pulled out of the pit on stretchers at an alarming rate, much as they had the night before during Korn. Others were crowd-surfing on pieces of plywood. Durst's attempt to quell the chaos was half-hearted at best: "People are getting hurt. Don't let anybody get hurt. But I don't think you should mellow out. That's what Alanis Morissette had you motherf--ers do."

Between the moshpits and the heat, 10,000 festival-goers would require medical treatment.

It wasn't all negative energy, though. Across the base the Chemical Brothers had attracted the rave community and the "small" crowd of about 75,000 were dancing their heads off as a lightning storm lit up the sky. At one point the music cycled down and one of the brothers asked to lower our hands for safety, which naturally prompted everyone to throw their hands in the air and primal scream just as the beat dropped and a welcome thunder shower suddenly drenched us.

It was a brief, beautiful respite from the anarchy.

Moby and Fatboy Slim played similarly powerful sets in the rave hangar. At one point an armoured car tried to get through the crowd to replenish the ATMs and the ravers clamoured aboard, dancing on the hood and roof like they were starring in a music video.

Sunday began with a chill Willie Nelson noontime set that provided a counterpoint to the chaos that would soon follow. In early evening I filed what I thought was my final story to make the paper's first edition and headed from the media camp back onto the site to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Only people kept running past us the opposite direction, some bleeding, all freaked out.

As we got closer, we saw the fires starting to burn.

In one of the most colossal fuck-ups in pop culture history, a group called PAX had handed out "peace candles" to light up during "Under The Bridge." But, in another nod to the original Woodstock gone wrong, as the Chilis played a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Fire" the crowd started using their candles to set the mountains of garbage alight.

Soon they started looting the stands for more fuel, eventually tearing them down to create towering bonfires. Tents were soon being torched in the campground, too, and tractor-trailers began exploding. Oh, and that Peace Fence? It got pulled down to feed the fires. The riot continued for hours, growing ever more insane as people danced in the fires, climbed the speaker towers and destroyed everything they could, until finally the police made their move.

That was 15 years ago today.

For those who weren't young in the '90s, the era was just plaid shirts and phat pants, grunge rock and rave beats. But for those of us who were, it felt like so much more. The alternative movement had used punk ideals to fight back against the yuppie commercialism of the 1980s and raised the underground into the mainstream by banding fringe subcultures together. It was marked by the riot grrrl movement at the beginning and the rave scene's PLUR mantra of peace, love unity and respect in the middle.

But in the end, we lost and Woodstock '99, with its corporate exploitation, grotesque misogyny and free-floating anger, was not just our Altamont but our Waterloo, too.