Contaminated water, sexual assault and anarchy: A deep dive into the dark side of Woodstock 99

By Charlie Sawyer

Published Aug 21, 2022 at 09:15 AM

Reading time: 5 minutes


The summer of 1969 is encapsulated as a time of peace, love, counterculture revolution and cheap drugs. It was also the year the first-ever Woodstock Music & Art Festival took place—an iconic weekend-long celebration that’s been regarded as a pivotal moment in global music history. What you might not know is that Woodstock 69 has an even more memorable twin sibling. Netflix’s newest docu-series Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 tells the story of how, over the course of one weekend, greed, violence and toxic masculinity spread like wildfire—quite literally.

The Woodstock concept began as the brain-child of concert promoter and music producer Michael Lang, who had long hoped to host a festival rooted within the ideals of peace, community and, of course, the celebration of music. After the global success of Woodstock 69, Lang decided to revive the festival, with plans to hold the event in both 1994 and 1999.

The 1969 event took umbrage with the Vietnam War and allowed concert-goers to get together, air their frustrations and ultimately amassed a youth movement advocating against the American government and its problematic war politics. Woodstock 94 was then held to commemorate 25 years since the original festival.

As for 1999, America had just witnessed the Columbine High School massacre—hence Lang decided to hold the year’s edition as a direct call to action in regards to gun control. In Trainwreck: Woodstock ‘99, he explained that “the idea was to engage people in the issue and to give that generation an idea of what Woodstock was about. Which is counterculture—no violence.” The reality, however, was far from peaceful.

“Their goal was to make money”

One of the first major problems with Woodstock 99 was its location. In order to cut costs, the festival’s production team decided to host it on an air base. The entirety of the site was covered in hot tarmac and cement, not making for a very comfortable landing post-rave.

According to The Independent, over the course of the weekend, temperatures rose to a stifling 40°C. Over 400,000 people were left scavenging for shade as they battled heatstroke. Oh, and there wasn’t any clean water at their disposal.

Heather, who attended the festival and was featured in the documentary, spilled all of the dirty details concerning the water, or lack thereof. “We were supposed to have places to refill our water bottles, but either the water was gross and running brown, or they were broken,” she revealed.

Public health inspector Joe Patterson recalled travelling to the festival and taking water samples from the site. Even before the lab confirmed that all the samples he had collected were contaminated, Patterson himself distinctly remembers the awful smell they gave off.

On day three of the nightmarish event, Sara—another young kid who had high expectations for her first Woodstock experience—woke up in serious pain. “I had ulcers all over my tongue and my gums and in my mouth. I found out that I had something called trench-mouth, basically from drinking unsanitary water. We packed up our stuff, and I think, by like 1:00 in the afternoon, we were out of there.”

While many attendees decided to accept defeat and simply leave when faced with so many worrying signs, others took the decision to retaliate—against anything and anyone.

“The whole weekend, there was a lack of respect”

In 2021, Rolling Stone published a review of the 99 festival in a listicle format summing up some of the most troublesome takeaways from the weekend. The most notable being the disgusting amount of sexual assault that took place there. Stories of women being groped, violated and verbally harassed during the long weekend were large in number. Out of the 44 individuals who were arrested, only one was charged with sexual assault.

Among the many heartbreaking stories told in the docu-series, one particularly horrifying account stands out. On the second night of the festival, British DJ Norman Cook, otherwise known as Fatboy Slim, was invited to headline the main midnight set held in the ‘rave hangar’.

Cook recalled being fully immersed in the crowd’s energy when all of a sudden, he spotted a set of car lights coasting straight into the middle of the crowd facing him. The van, having been commandeered by drunk festival-goers, quickly became a makeshift dance platform, with dozens of people clambering onto the top of the roof. In order to ensure that no one in the crowd got injured, the vehicle was quickly removed by members of staff.

To the staff’s dismay, when they entered the van they found a young girl, no older than 16, on the floor of the back compartment. The mystery girl was discovered lying unconscious with her shirt pulled up over her breasts and her pants rolled down to her ankles. Crouched behind her was an older male pulling his shorts back up. The young girl was immediately escorted backstage and driven away from the site in an ambulance. Once Cook was made aware of the gravity of the situation, he was visibly shaken and remarked how “that is just hideous to think that in the midst of all those people having fun, and me wanting to make everyone love each other, that was going on literally under our noses.”

The three-part documentary series has understandably had an emotional impact on a number of female viewers. One woman took to Twitter to warn others of the graphic nature of the content, writing: “PSA: if you have any discomfort surrounding sexual situations/discussion, or if you have any triggers involving sexual assault, DO NOT watch Trainwreck: Woodstock ‘99 on Netflix. I started it with my [boyfriend] and had very visceral reactions/trauma responses. It’s not worth it.”

Woodstock promoter John Scher was questioned by Netflix about his opinion on the sexual harassment that had taken place both within the campsites and among the festival’s crowds and mosh pits. His poor excuse was that “there were a lot of women who voluntarily had their tops off—could somebody have touched their breasts? Yes, I’m sure they did. What could I have done about it?”

There was an overwhelming sentiment, from both Lang and Scher, that these assaults were perpetrated by a small group of “assholes” who committed these crimes “in secret” away from security and festival staff. What has become evident from this retrospective is how dominant societal attitudes of ‘not all men’ continue to be. This skewed perspective persists in misdirecting focus from the issue at hand—the fact that there is a crucial systemic problem within male culture.

According to The Washington Post, shortly after the events of 99, the New York Police department investigated four reports of rape that had taken place during the festival. Rosemary Vennero, crisis services director of the YWCA Mohawk Valley, recounted that her organisation’s rape crisis centre had indeed counseled four sexual assault victims.

“This angry mob mentality… it just spread like wildfire”

The planned finale for the weekend was an epic performance from global rockstars, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers. As expected, their set was full of stunts, X-rated language and a naked bass player. The evening was going smoothly and was set to come to a close with a candle lit vigil organised by anti-gun violence organisation PAX, now recognised as Brady. The vigil was intended to memorialise victims of both the Columbine High School shooting, as well as anyone who’d lost their lives to gun violence.

However, what started as a moment of quiet reflection quickly escalated into unruly and aggressive behaviour. Three consecutive days of contaminated water, mudslides and overpriced food—coupled with an overwhelming desire for trouble—resulted in a cascade of anarchy. Fires began to appear throughout the campsite as attendees started to incinerate anything they could get their hands on. TV camera crews fled while festival staff barricaded themselves in their offices.

When recounting the events of that fateful night, production team member Colin Speir told Netflix: “At that point, anything that was Woodstock-related was on these people’s destroy list.”

The damage caused that night left a serious stain, both in Rome, New York where the event was held, and in the minds of those who had witnessed the campsite burn. In the closing summary for Trainwreck: Woodstock 99, the interviewees were asked to offer their final thoughts. Assistant site manager Lee Rossenblatt ultimately assigned blame on one thing, “greed. The user experience was totally thrown out the window. I mean those kids were taken advantage of.”

Woodstock 99’s music festival failed for a number of reasons, most salient was the organisers’ blatant refusal to act when things began to spiral out of control or to take accountability for their obvious negligence. Lang and Scher watched from the sidelines while, down in the trenches, people got hurt.

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