Woodstock 99 – Let It Burn, Let It Burn, Let it Burn

Kristine and I sat through the three harrowing episodes of Trainwreck: Woodstock ‘99 a couple of evenings ago. Truly, we paid scant attention to the event when first announced. Understanding, you can't recreate one-offs, no matter the intent. Indeed Woodstock 69 was suspect in our minds.

It's mid-August 1969; I'm marching in wool coverings as part of the 82nd Army band on days when there are parades or changes at the top of post command. Most times in green fatigues. 

Off base Crosby, Stills & Nash, Laura Nyro, Gary Bartz, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Jefferson Airplane, and Richard Harris' ‘cake in the rain’ thingy played without pause. It's the military, its regimentation, it's Vietnam down the road, but for us 'flower children', as we were perceived, it was an infinite state of ‘stress bliss.’ Someplace between free love and a grenade going off in the head. Then occurs the call to Woodstock. 

Kristine and I speculated about the long trip north and the prospect of a weekend pass. From Clarksville, Tennessee to Woodstock, NY, 991 miles or 15 plus hours. But for two free spirits who sometimes flirted with the purchase of an automobile, yet never owned one, it meant the Kings carry on with the method of transportation that served them well in the early stages of a relationship: hitchhiking. Not the casual thumbs up and down the road apiece. This was crazy shit. Hitchhiking as a daily mode of transportation. From army base to an off-base apartment. To visit friends, to call up long-neglected relatives. North, south, east, and west. Sometimes scary, but most times easy pickings.

The two of us almost bought the sales pitch. Instead, I applied for the weekend pass, and it was turned down. I was both pissed and relieved. The earliest Love-ins in Los Angeles were in May 1967. I sneaked around Hell's Angels conspiring to grope young girls and tasted the vibe of a mass festival and future festivals in the making. 

"A BBC reporter covering L.A.'s hippie culture observed: "In Griffith Park Los Angeles, hippie tribes gather 20,000 strong for a Love-in. The recent waves come bearing beads, blossoms, and bells, looking for a novel experience and new magic, wandering the woods like children of the children's crusade, leaving only a trace of gentleness in their wake..... For the Love Generation, it's just the beginning. Their numbers grow, and their philosophies spread. If you can stand, or understand, this flowering segment of the younger generation, there's little point in getting cross and calling it names. . . there's no point at all in just wishing it would go away. You will go away first." California Historical Society.

In reflecting on this account, there's much I agree with here. I recall being a naïve Indiana boy, stepping into the path of party makers, bead shakers, lovemakers, and hippies. Reasoning how lovely the young women were and how liberated the crowd appeared, knowing only a few feet outside the perimeter stood the L.A.P.D.—Gestapo-like. Villains; humourless and at the ready-to-bust heads.

Though denied a weekend pass, we followed the happenings on the nightly news. Certain aspects of the gathering made us envious, but as the weekend passed, learning of poor facilities, persistent rain, and lack of amenities - hanging close to the base seemed reasonable. 

Woodstock '69 may have sent a message of hope and peace, or at least billed but to us, it was about the music. Bands we actually cared about all on the same stage. It was a launch pad for many a career, with excessive performance fees, massive record sales, comprehensive budget marketing and the consequent end of the war in Vietnam. 

This draws me to Woodstock '99. I'd caught owner Michael Lang's act through Rolling Stone; the many photos—the love & peace speak and always suspect. However, the perpetual smile, the disengagement, and the sense of obligation for the blunders and obvious mistakes were never his strong suit. 

The documentary Trainwreck hardens my feelings about the guy's aloofness and profit motives. Free love was never free. There was usually a visit to a local clinic attached. 

Woodstock '99 is the perfect storm. July 23-25, 1999! 

I'd spent nine weeks working on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, in the early months of ‘99. After my return in February, I caught wind that Lang and company were pedalling a return to love and peace near the epicentre of Woodstock '69. I ignored the hype, the bands, and the nostalgia built around the event. First, you can't remake what's already done. Second, why? The first one, outside the music, was a disaster.

'99 should have been re-titled—The Spawn of Gordon Gekko '99 - kids nurtured on greed is good, and let's go higher and higher and test the body’s limits. Death - the ultimate high. From 1987 to 1999, America was fed the big lie. Everyone can be a hedge fund swindler, a stock market guru - defraud your friends and partners, and always live high and retire a multi-millionaire at twenty-five. Think positive. 

Oh man, did these frat boys ever turn up in mass? The world's largest gathering of "awful." Drunk, high, angry, privileged, and sexual predators. Toss in a shot of Hades' waiting room, 90 degrees weather, and you have an explosive situation from the downbeat.

The doc captures the horrid conditions. The rip-offs. Water at $4 a bottle; food sold at astronomical prices. Porta-potties overflowing with excrement. Drinking water and bowel movements mesh into a fecal catastrophe. All the while, Lang and company hide securely off-site in fenced-in for celebrities and specific staff seclusion. Minimum security, shorthanded medics, and a festival of head-banging bands (Korn, Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock and Red Hot Chili Peppers) bent on anarchy, walking the crowd to the precipice. Young women were tossed about, mauled, and raped—the perfect storm! Poor Jewel…

There was only one scenario available – payback. Revenge of the Gekkos. The Geks burned it all down. They screamed, chanted, ripped, torched, demolished, and left the site in ruins. Saddam Hussain lit 600 oil wells as a finale to the American invasion of Iraq. Payback! The Geks and Pyromania, a match made on Wall Street. Mini-Saddams.

Through it all, Lang and promoter John Scher appear evasive and unrepentant. Much like con man Billy McFarland and the Fyre Festival of 2017. 

Beware of those who wear a soft smile and stare off into the distance during a conversation. They may one day be planning the festival from hell near you—the reprise.

Trainwreck: Woodstock '99 is playing on Netflix. The footage is spot on, and anger content, a ten. ***

Best Bet: Return to Woodstock 1969. ****

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