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Before Woodstock ’99 Was a Nightmare, It Was One Town’s Dream

Episode 3 of ‘Break Stuff’ investigates how the festival landed in Rome, New York, and some of the early warning signs that something was awry

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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. We’ve already explored whether Limp Bizkit were to blame for the chaos and how the story of the original Woodstock is mostly a myth. In Episode 3, Hyden looks at how the festival landed in Rome, New York, and some of the warning signs that were missed.

Below is an excerpt from the third episode of Break Stuff. Subscribe here and check back each Tuesday through August 27 for new episodes.

While they planned the festival, Woodstock ’99 promoters discovered Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York, a site as secure as any military installation—and one with absolutely zero connection to the counterculture.

“We were on a site which we got criticized about,” says John Scher, one of the festival’s promoters. “But we were on a site and retired air force base in Rome, New York. There was a lot of infrastructure. There were real roads. There were there were hundreds of homes that used to be either barracks or officers’ quarters, so we could we could pretty much have the entire crew be able to live in them.”

Griffiss was located a sprawling tract of land stretching 3,500 acres. It was originally built in the 1940s as a training ground for military aircraft maintenance.

“Well, Griffiss Air Force Base used to land B-52 bombers, which are an enormous plane,” says Glenn Coin, a journalist who covered Woodstock ’99 for The Post-Standard in Syracuse. “So they needed very long runways. I want to say a mile, maybe two miles long. And so you need all that open space to keep trees and animals away.

“They were able to put two stages with full sound systems at either end facing each other. And when you walked from one to the other, you couldn’t hear you couldn’t hear the other one anymore. It was that big.”

While Griffiss had infrastructure and acres upon acres of space, it had little in the way of charm or romance. After all, the original Woodstock was supposedly about getting back to the garden—and the last word you would use to describe any Air Force base is “garden.”

“It was not a not a beautiful or pastoral place,” says Rob Sheffield, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. “Nobody was ever going to say we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden about this place. It was a parking lot. It was a few miles of asphalt surrounded by barbed wire. There were a few patches of grass. But, for instance, if you were looking for some grass to lie down on, you’re not going to lie under a tree or on a hillside. You’re not going to see any flowers. It was a place that was designed to house jet fighters.”

And then there was the fact that in the mid-1980s, the federal government had declared Griffiss a Superfund site. That means it had to be cleaned up for toxic waste after decades of contamination.

This hardly seemed in line with the myth of Woodstock. But Michael Lang—Woodstock’s Willy Wonka, a promoter of the original Woodstock festival in 1969—found a way to spin the staging of the festival in a positive light.

“The Air Force has been incredibly cooperative,” Land said backstage at the festival. “The Air Force is still in possession of the base there. They’re handing it over to the community, but I think it speaks to the fact that even the people who are in power in the Air Force these days were the kids of our generation in the ’60s. So we have infiltrated society in a very real way, it seems, to the point where they are now allowing this facility to be turned into something of a music venue.”

Joe Griffo, then the mayor of Rome, says that the festival’s promoters and city officials had developed a “good rapport and respect for one another. He downplayed stories about rancor between Woodstock promoters and local government officials.

“Let’s face it—when you get into negotiations and you’re across the table from one another, it’s kind of hard-nosed,” Griffo said. “They have an objective, as does the community. And then you negotiate. And it got hard-nosed, and there were several times where it came to close to an impasse.”

As a politician, it’s Griffo’s job to massage the truth into advantageous talking points. But he seems sincere in the belief that Woodstock ‘99 was actually good for Rome. Twenty years ago, Griffo thought the festival was exactly what his community needed—not just economically, but also emotionally. Griffo saw the festival as a morale booster for a town that no longer felt good about itself. He envisioned Woodstock ’99 as a unique chance for Rome to shine on a national stage.

From John Scher’s perspective, the negotiations with Rome were relatively painless.

They’ve got this retired Air Force base that they don’t know to do with and a very progressive, smart mayor knew we wouldn’t invade the town because of all the infrastructure that was out there,” he says. “Got to make some money. Got to have some notoriety. So I won’t say we breezed through the process, but, you know, we had a lot of good people working for us and good partners.”

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard to believe that Rome in any way benefited from its association with Woodstock ’99. It just seems like bad PR, in the same way that Altamont, a racetrack in Northern California, didn’t really benefit from forever being associated with the tragic Rolling Stones concert.

But to this day Griffo believes that Rome needed something to give the townspeople hope—and that something was Woodstock ’99.

Community is not unlike an individual who goes through emotional roller coasters when you have something happen in your life that could have an impact on you,” Griffo says. “And, in this case, we had lost thousands of jobs and people. Even though we had put together a plan for recovery and redevelopment, people begin to wonder, ‘What’s going to happen? What are we going to be like?’ They feel down, somewhat, they get down just like a person might when they have a traumatic experience in their life or they experience some form of tragedy.”

If it sounds like Griffo is giving a stump speech—well, he sort of is.

“So in this case I knew we had to pick the community up again,” he says. “We had to get them to believe in themselves, and to know that we were going to reposition ourselves, we were going to redevelop, and we’re going to look differently, but in the end we’re going to make things happen. So there’s nothing else that we cannot do. If we continue to put our minds to it and work hard.”

Do you remember the mayor from Jaws? The guy who just wanted to keep the beaches open, because he thought it was good for local businesses—even though there was a great white shark in the area, picking off swimmers? That guy kind of reminds me of Griffo. He thought he was doing right by his town. But in the end, the mayor from Jaws probably should have listened to Roy Scheider.

In Rome, hope won out over skepticism. The concerns voiced by some were overruled by the dreams of what Woodstock could do for the town.

In the short term at least, Griffo’s instincts were correct: Woodstock ’99 really did seem to have a positive effect on the local community.

I felt like I couldn’t believe it,” says Nick Rizzo, a Rome native who was 20 during the summer of 1999. “Like, ‘Really? Us?’ No way this is happening to us. You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Rizzo’s family knew someone who worked at the base, so he was able to land a job mowing the acres and acres of grass in the camping areas. He estimates that he worked 47 out of 50 days leading up to the festival, giving him an up-close view of preparations.

There was always stuff that was going on,” he says. “But as time got closer and closer, it felt like, ‘Are we gonna finish all this? Are we going to get done?’

If you look at some of the overhead photos of even just the campground area, what they did was put down wood chips to create roads. And some of them are like roads to nowhere. It didn’t quite all come together. It’s almost like they needed another week to finish everything up.”

Another local man who had a behind-the-scenes view of Woodstock was Jake Hafner. He was 23 and working a retail job in Syracuse in 1999 when a friend called and asked whether he wanted to join Woodstock’s security force, dubbed the Peace Patrol.

But one thing: Hafner had no security, military, or law enforcement experience.

“The only the only experience I’ve had in anything like that is my family owns a bar and restaurant, and just through the course of the years, I’ve broken up a couple bar fights,” he says. “That’s as close as I’d gotten to any kind of security role in my life.”

Hafner’s new summer job required that he drive to Rome and take a training class. Then he was supposed to take a test to become a licensed security guard in New York. He soon learned that the class wasn’t totally on the level.

“In the class I was in, the instructor basically spent the last hour, maybe two hours, going through the test question by question and reading the question to us and us giving the answer, or talking ourselves to the correct answer,” he recalls. “And then at the end of that, he handed out the test, and we took it. Basically, if you could spell your name and were semi-coherent, you got a job working security at Woodstock.”

Hafner remembers the moment when it dawned on him that Woodstock hadn’t exactly recruited the best and the brightest to work security.

“The one thing that stands out to me more than anything about that class was, at one point, they went over the dress code,” Hafner says. “There was gonna be a loose kind of dress code, and they wanted us to wear khaki pants or khaki shorts. And there were maybe 30 to 40 people in this classroom, and there was probably a 20-minute discussion on what color khaki was.

“And that is the one thing I remember more than anything about that class. I mean, it was stunning that, you know, I was in a roomful of people who weren’t quite sure what color khaki was.

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