A less peaceful Woodstock generation

Analysis: Why the 30th anniversary celebration was no love-in.

July 30, 1999|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

What really happened at Woodstock '99?

We know that, for the better part of last weekend, some 225,000 music fans congregated on a former Air Force Base in upstate New York for a 30th anniversary reprise of "three days of peace, love and music." We also know that, after the festival-ending performance by the Red Hot Chili Peppers Sunday night, some portion of that crowd began to riot, overturning vehicles, burning trailers and looting vendor tents. And we know now that there was sexual violence as well, including four reported rapes.

What we don't know is how or why Woodstock went from high-profile music festival to blazing inferno.

Over the last week, a number of Woodstock theories have been proposed. Some blame the flames on everything from the "peace candles" distributed to the crowd to the overabundance of intoxicants; others ascribe the violence to anything from the vulgarity of contemporary music to the sorry state of kids today.

None, however, offers a completely satisfactory answer to the question: "What really happened?"

In truth, we will probably never know for sure how or why the festival went wrong. But having been on hand to observe both the fun and the fear at Woodstock '99, I'd like to offer a few observations.

Let's start with the name of the festival itself. What made Woodstock newsworthy in the first place had less to do with the list of bands playing -- it's hard to imagine an editor at CBS News saying, "Limp Bizkit's on the bill? Dude, I'm there!" -- than with the cultural legacy the Woodstock brand-name carries.

Woodstock, after all, is synonymous with the whole peace-and-love side of hippie serendipity. The original festival was a disaster logistically, with too many people and not enough support services to keep them clean and fed. Yet instead of collapsing into chaos, the festival seemed to epitomize the peaceful cooperation of the youth culture's "Let It Be" philosophy.

As such, some people remember the '69 festival as being totally tranquil, forgetting its occasional moments of violence -- for instance, when guitarist Pete Townshend clocked activist Abbie Hoffman after the Yippie tried to take the stage during the Who's set.

Peace and love aren't the only thing that first Woodstock is remembered for, however. The festival was also famous for sex, drugs and rock and roll -- naked couples cuddling beneath blankets, emcees warning against "the brown acid," and Sly & the Family Stone wanting to take us all higher.

Unfortunately, modern Woodstockers seemed more interested in embracing the hedonistic side of the Woodstock legacy than in practicing peace and love. Many arrived with hidden stashes of drugs and alcohol and acted as if they thought the phrase "Let's party!" meant "Let's get as high as humanly possible."

Compounding the crowd's self-indulgence was the sniggering sexism of festival emcees, who regularly and repeatedly encouraged women in the crowd to bare their breasts. Granted, it appeared that no one forced these women to expose themselves, and a number of them seemed to enjoy the attention the display brought. But that constant objectification, however consensual, lent an ugly undertone to the event, making the festival feel less like a concert than some oversized, out-of-control frat party.

In this light, it is shocking not just that reports have surfaced of rapes and sexual assault -- New York State Police are investigating four rape complaints -- but that the ugliness they allege wasn't more widespread.

Hand-in-hand with the crowd's boorish sexual behavior was its unremitting selfishness. It wasn't just the lack of concern evidenced by the garbage that carpeted the concert site, with water bottles, sandwich wrappers and discarded pizza boxes stretching as far as the eye can see; the audience's me-first attitude was apparent even in the way it listened to the music.

Watch the film of the first Woodstock festival, and one thing that stands out about the audience is that it's seated. Even right up front by the stage, people were able to lounge on blankets and absorb the music leisurely and comfortably. Being able to hear seemed to matter more than being within spitting distance of the bands.

Not these days. For the many in the crowd at Woodstock '99, the best way to experience the music was in the teeming crush of the mosh pit, where jostling and shoving were as much a part of the concert experience as clapping and crowd surfing.

To a certain degree, this close proximity added to the enjoyment of the music, emphasizing the physicality of the music through the sweaty momentum of bodies in motion. But at the same time, it also fed a mob mentality, turning several thousand individuals into a groping, sprawling organism, hungry for entertainment and sensation. To hear that women were groped or -- as one witness has alleged -- raped in the pit is depressing, but, sadly, not surprising.

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