In 1999, a music festival in upstate New York became a social experiment. There were riots, looting, and numerous assaults, all set to a soundtrack of the era’s most aggressive rock bands. Incredibly, this was the third iteration of Woodstock, a festival originally known for peace, love, and hippie idealism. But Woodstock ’99 revealed some hard truths behind the myths of the 1960s and the danger that nostalgia can engender.
Break Stuff, an eight-part documentary podcast series available exclusively on Luminary, investigates what went wrong at Woodstock ’99 and the legacy of the event as host Steven Hyden interviews promoters, attendees, journalists, and musicians. Episode 1 looked at whether Limp Bizkit were chiefly responsible for the rioting and chaos. In Episode 2, Hyden looks back at the original Woodstock festival, which nearly ended in a tragedy that would’ve far surpassed the riots 30 years later.
Below is an excerpt from the second episode of Break Stuff. Subscribe here and check back each Tuesday through August 27 for new episodes.
Woodstock ’99 was a series of seemingly random events, miscues, and twists of fate that, in retrospect, have a kind of terrible logic. When you step back, you start to see that the problems at Woodstock ’99 were set in motion decades earlier, back at the original Woodstock.
It’s worth noting that the song “Woodstock,” Joni Mitchell’s classic anthem about a generation trying to get back to the garden, was written about a festival that was declared a disaster area. She didn’t go to Woodstock; she watched it on TV.
Perhaps it was always easier to love the original Woodstock from a distance. Once you get up close, the romance fades, revealing something darker, scarier, and more like Woodstock ’99.
When I was reporting for this podcast, I came across a piece of Woodstock lore so incredible that I was surprised I hadn’t heard it before.
The story begins on Sunday afternoon, Woodstock’s third day, with two of the organizers, John Roberts and Joel Rosenman. They were about to get some terrible news, as rain storms drenched the festival. Roberts and Rosenman explained what happened on NPR’s Fresh Air in 2009.
“It was a nightmare,” Rosenman said. “It probably was the bleakest moment of the festival for me. We were sprouting walkie talkies from every ear at that point and dealing with a dozen problems every minute or two. And on top of it all, the phone rang—the chief electrician was calling from backstage.
“I asked him what the problem was. He sounded pretty shaky at the time, even for a man who was going through what he was going through. He said with the rain and all of those hundreds of thousands of feet scuffling over the performance area, the main feeder cable supplying electricity to the stage—the musicians, the amplifiers, whatever—have been unearthed. And additional abrasion from these sneakers and sandals may wear away the insulation on these cables.”
Basically, the electrician was outlining a potential disaster of cataclysmic proportions.
“He paused for a moment, and I couldn’t believe that he was searching for the words that he came up with,” Rosenman said. “But he came up with ‘mass electrocution.’”
Let me repeat that. Mass electrocution.
But in spite of the danger, Rosenman and Roberts did not want to cut the power until electricity could safely be rerouted to unexposed cables. Up until that moment, music had been going on at Woodstock almost around the clock. Organizers feared that without constant entertainment, the festival’s three days of peace, love, and music would descend into riots.
So when an electrician suggested that he could maybe reroute the power while the concert continued uninterrupted, the organizers decided to roll the dice.
“For the next 20 minutes, John and I sat there looking at each other,” Rosenman said. “I guess we were waiting, like in the movies, for the lights to dim a little bit, the way they do when they throw the switch in the electric chair chamber. And I think it probably took a hundred years for those 20 minutes to pass. The phone rang, and it was the chief electrician again. He said, ‘I did it, I did it, everything is fine!’”
I first read about this story in Bob Spitz’s Barefoot in Babylon, a book of investigative journalism first published in 1979. Bob says the organizers made a pact during the long wait to hear if someone had died.
“John looked at me and said, ‘We had decided we would commit suicide if that happened. Our lives would be over,’” Spitz said. “And they were dead serious.”
Thankfully, tragedy was averted. And, in the years since Woodstock, the mass electrocution story has been all but written out of history, papered over by countless feel-good vibes.
I want to talk about the mythology of the original Woodstock. I think it obscured the reality of a festival that, in many ways, was just as troubled and rife with problems as Woodstock ’99.
This mythology stems, in part, from the eponymous documentary released after the festival. Woodstock, directed by Michael Wadleigh, became a major hit in 1970. It would eventually gross $50 million worldwide. But it also had a seismic impact on pop culture.
Whatever you think you know about Woodstock probably comes from the movie. It makes the prospect of hanging out in the mud in upstate New York with about a half million hippies seem like a deeply spiritual endeavor.
Wadleigh’s film also takes you deep inside the culture that coalesced around the music in 1969. When the Woodstock generation watched Woodstock the movie, they were really looking at an idealized version of themselves. It was like a monumental selfie shot in 35 mm.
Gina Arnold, a lecturer at Stanford University and the author of Half a Million Strong: Crowds and Power From Woodstock to Coachella, says that the Woodstock movie has influenced how all music fans see themselves at music festivals.
“I think that it allowed people to see themselves in the movie and want to be part of the audience as if they were a character in the movie,” Arnold said.
For Wadleigh, the film’s director, the Woodstock movie was a conscious attempt to make a music festival seem larger than life. He wanted to give Woodstock a timeless, mythic significance. He talked about the movie on a 1994 episode of Charlie Rose.
“I saw this as a sort of back-to-the-land, back-to-the-garden, beautiful sort of event that combined politics and music,” Wadleigh said at the time. “If you look at the film that I edited, virtually every one of the songs has to do with politics or social action from the opening song by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young—‘It’s been a long time coming’—where you see the stage being built, and you hear the lines, ‘Speak out, speak out against the madness. Speak your mind if you dare.’ The whole film then created this kind of mythology, which is maybe what we ought to address—what was the real Woodstock, and what is the mythological?”
For many viewers, the distinction between the real Woodstock and the mythological Woodstock was meaningless after watching Woodstock the movie. The film is what ultimately turned the Woodstock festival into a symbol for the dreams and dashed hopes of wistful baby boomers.
“I don’t know how recently you’ve seen that movie, but I’ve seen it a hundred times. It’s an extraordinary film,” said John Scher, a Woodstock ’99 promoter. “It looked so exciting. It looked like it was so much fun. The music was so phenomenal. That the legend started and it grew and grew and grew and grew.
“Brilliant movies affect people. In this one, as the movie projected, it was just all fun, love, and rock ’n’ roll. So what’s there not to like? And what’s there not to emulate?”
This is where myth-making can become dangerous. The Woodstock movie is a fantasy. The film lulled people into believing that holding a festival with nonexistent security and shoddy infrastructure is actually a beautiful idea. And that’s how you end up with something like Woodstock ’99.
“The promise that’s held out to you is that you’re going to have the best time ever. That you’re going to come back changed, that somehow it’s going to change your life to go to this festival,” Arnold said. “People really, really wanted to join into something that they thought other people were getting something out of—the whole idea that this is supposed to be fun, so I’m having fun, dammit, and then leaving and going, ‘That was so fun.’ You know, when maybe it wasn’t.”
When you take the promise of absolute freedom to its logical conclusion, where do you end up? With a great party … or a great disaster?