Woodstock's burning legacy

Aftermath: The festival can't seem to shake its history of calamities as three days of peace, love and music end in arson and violence.

July 27, 1999|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

ROME, N.Y. -- After three days of generally peaceful behavior, Woodstock '99 ended in a near-riot of violence and flames, leaving organizers and attendees shaken by the incident.

"My sense is that this was a mistake," concert promoter John Scher said yesterday morning, rejecting the idea that the destruction was willful. "These kids definitely didn't intend this. They weren't thinking of the consequences."

But Scher neither forgave nor excused Sunday night's violence. "It's shameful," he said. "These kids' parents should spank them."

Officials had no clear sense of what sparked the incident, which began not long after a festival-closing video tribute to Jimi Hendrix. Youthful concertgoers started setting fires, overturning vehicles, looting vendor tents and destroying some concert structures.

Nor did officials know precisely who was involved. Seven people were arrested, including four charged with second-degree riot and two with disorderly conduct.

The destruction was less alarming than initial television reports suggested. Only one person was seriously injured (a broken leg), and officials reported no damage to permanent structures at the festival's site, Griffiss Park.

Michael Lang, one of the festival's promoters, was blunt in his assessment. "There was a very small group of people intent on screwing this [festival] up," he said yesterday. "Maybe 50 to 100 people." He added that the vast majority of concertgoers "were horrified at what these kids were doing."

Local officials also stressed that only a small number of the estimated 225,000 attending was involved in the melee.

Oneida County Executive Ralph Eannace tried to put the incident in perspective by describing it as "efforts to cause trouble by one-half of 1 percent of the crowd, for three hours out of 96."

They may have been horrified, but some of those attending Woodstock offered some understanding for the violence. Quite a few fans bristled at the festival's high prices ($4 bottles of water, $7 sandwiches) and profit mentality. "They charged so much for everything here," said David Digler, 19, of Boston, as state police began to move concertgoers away from the site of a canceled rave party. "This was just getting even."

Woodstock has had a history of calamities. The first festival, in 1969, was so ill-prepared for the hordes who attended that the concert site was declared a disaster area. Woodstock II, in 1994, almost ground to a halt as heavy rains turned the festival grounds into a near-impassable sea of mud.

Until late Sunday, Woodstock '99 looked as if it might break that pattern. The fact that it didn't has left people in Rome wondering whether they would want to play host to the next Woodstock in 2004. Eannace said it remained to be seen if Griffiss Park would be used for another festival.

"I said from the stage that I wanted the people who were there to come back," the county executive told reporters. "The punks who did this are not welcome."

Even Scher is not sure he'll be involved in another Woodstock, although he co-produced this and the '94 festival. "I wouldn't want to do it again unless there was a way that we could be completely confident that this could never happen again," he said.

Ironically, there had been much greater concern about potential violence Saturday, when the East Stage offered performances by the popular and aggressive rock bands Limp Bizkit, Rage Against the Machine and Metallica. Even though those bands played to some of the largest crowds of the festival, there was only one minor disturbance, when some fans during Limp Bizkit's set tore wooden panels from a concert control tower to use for crowd surfing.

Sunday's bill, by contrast, consisted mainly of quieter acts such as Elvis Costello and Jewel, and was expected to bring the largely peaceful festival to a peaceful end. A Boston-based anti-war group called PAX had even distributed several thousand "peace candles," urging concertgoers to light them during the Red Hot Chili Peppers' festival-closing set.

But more than candles were burning. Several fires started during the Chili Peppers' set, as three days of garbage and debris were ignited near the East Stage. None of the fires was deemed a serious threat during the concert, but a large fire began raging not long after the music stopped at 10: 40 p.m.

At that point, state police entered the picture. "We assessed that the fire was of a danger to the crowd," Superintendent James W. McMann said yesterday. Police hoped to move the crowd away from the conflagration, but some people responded to the police presence by throwing bottles and garbage.

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