It's not your father's Woodstock

The 1999 version of the legendary music festival won't be about nostalgia -- or losing money

Pop Music

July 18, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

If you're old enough to remember the first Woodstock music festival -- the one held on Max Yasgur's farm in August 1969 -- you're too old for Woodstock '99.

Don't worry. They won't be checking IDs at the gate and turning away everybody over the age of 30. If you're willing to pay your $150 ($180 at the door), the folks at Woodstock will be more than happy to let you spend the weekend of July 23 with the quarter million other music fans expected at the festival.

Still, if you're hoping for a flashback to the '60s sound of the original "Three Days of Peace and Music," you're going to be disappointed.

It isn't just that this Woodstock will take place at the former Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, N.Y., some 110 miles from the town of Woodstock. Woodstock '99 is worlds away from the original in terms of music, organization and culture.

A nostalgia trip it ain't.

Start with the bands. Of the 40-odd acts scheduled to play the festival's two main stages, most consist of musicians who weren't even born when Jimi Hendrix torched "The Star-Spangled Banner" with his guitar. Moreover, some of those groups will be playing music -- hip-hop, techno, thrash -- that the original Woodstock audience could not have imagined in its wildest acid-fueled hallucinations.

But the most telling difference is who won't be there -- anyone from the class of '69. "We did reach out to a couple of '69 artists," says concert promoter John Scher, who, along with Michael Lang, is producing Woodstock '99. "Specifically, we originally had a deal with John Fogerty, who was going to open the festival. He accepted our offer, but then decided not to tour this summer.

"And there were some discussions going on with the Who about them re-forming, but that didn't come to pass, either."

Even so, this Woodstock was never intended as a remembrance of things past. Although Scher says that Woodstock II, the 25th anniversary show in 1994, made "a conscious effort to build a bridge to '69," that's not the case this time. When plans for this show were announced in April, Lang -- who co-produced the original festival -- declared that this Woodstock "is not a retro re-look at 1969."

And there's another difference in attitude: "Woodstock '94 did not make a profit," said Lang, flatly. "We hope to make a profit this time."

Making money has not been a strong tradition at Woodstock. After several hundred thousand kids turned up without tickets at Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel, N.Y., the first Woodstock was declared a free concert. At that point, only 186,000 of the estimated 400,000 attending had purchased tickets.

The promoters lost money big-time. According to reports, Lang and his original partner, John Roberts, were more than $600,000 in the red after the concert (although royalties from the Woodstock film and soundtrack album eventually put the festival in the black).

History repeated itself -- though on a smaller scale -- 25 years later, when Woodstock II was held in Saugerties, N.Y. Tens of thousands of fans flocked to the site. Unable to buy tickets there (the town of Saugerties declined to issue the proper permits to the festival promoters), they tore down fences and went in anyway. In the end, there were some 350,000 people there -- but only 203,000 paid.

Lang and Scher, who were also teamed in '94, have no intention of giving fans a free ride this time. "Anyone who thinks they can get into Woodstock without a ticket is in for a very rude awakening," says Ken Donohue, head of security for Woodstock '99, in an interview posted on the Woodstock Web site (

"People seem to think that this concert site is just some big field, but this is not '94 or '69," Donohue continues. Not only does the Woodstock '99 site have its own fence -- a massive, 12-foot high, steel-reinforced wooden barricade -- but it sits within the defenses of Griffiss Air Force Base.

"We're talking about a former military base," says Donohue. "This place was built to be defended against a full military attack. I think it can keep out a few attempts at gate-crashing." In addition to festival security, Woodstock and Griffiss will be defended by New York State Troopers and Defense Department personnel.

"We have a holding cell on site that can detain over 200 people, and we'll have district attorneys and judges on site 24 hours a day to process any charges," Donohue adds.

Woodstock '99 means business. Where the first festival seemed to revel in the chaos of too many people and not enough support systems, this year's production prides itself on infrastructure. And while some of that planning and plotting may seem to fly in the face of Woodstock's happy-hippy mythology, the truth is that this Woodstock will likely be the better for it.

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