“Down with Profitstock!”: ‘Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99’ shows festivals at their exploitative worst

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Held at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York in July 1999, Woodstock ’99 was the third incarnation of the legendary counterculture festival. And also the worst. Comprehensively torching the values and reputation of the original 1969 event, it became a three-day rampage of bottle-flinging, looting, arson and sexual assault that had its root in several fundamental societal issues. In ’69, for instance, rebelling against a repressive status quo meant permissiveness; in ’99, rebelling against a permissive status quo meant violence.

But as the new three-part Netflix documentary Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 reveals in horrifying detail, organisers unwittingly concocted a tinderbox weekend that lit the match on a youth culture, and wider society, which was ready to blow. This isn’t just a step-by-step run-down on how not to run a festival – it’s a dire and prescient warning about how not to run an entire planet.

It’s all told in classic countdown-to-disaster style, with the major organisers such as late Woodstock legend Michael Lang and promoter John Scher still playing down events and the backstage doom-mongers getting plenty of belated told-you-so moments. The site, chosen to save millions on basic infrastructure, was an asphalt heat-trap, lacking shade, camping space and much in the way of idyllic nature to commune with in the spirit of ‘69. Essential services, farmed out in lucrative contracts, provided insufficient and inexperienced security, overpriced food, faeces-soiled drinking water and a blanket of rubbish across the site which would be repurposed as ammunition and kindling by the increasingly irate crowds.

Huge fires broke out around the festival site. CREDIT: Netflix

What’s more, the bill was far from the peace-and-love line-up of ’69. Instead it was a parade of nu metal angst, aggression and machismo: Kid Rock, Korn and Limp Bizkit, encouraging the testosterone pumped crowd to release their anger, pelt the stage and “Break Shit”. Not a recipe for disaster at your usual metal festival or Lollapalooza outing, but this was Woodstock, where a new generation of jocks and drug-guzzlers had descended, high on the ‘60s promise of sex, drugs and anything-goes hedonism. Pour in a large dose of institutional exploitation and what you stir up is an appetite for destruction fuelled from the basest human depths. The documentary, for all its numerous horrors (not least the van that drove into the middle of the crowd during Fatboy Slim’s set with an alleged sexual assault going on inside), barely mentions the eye-witness reports of female crowd-surfers being pulled into the mosh-pit and gang-raped during the Korn and Limp Bizkit sets.

The documentary reaches its riotous denouement with huge fires being lit across the site using candles handed out for a ‘vigil’ during Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Under The Bridge’, lighting towers being pulled to the ground, wooden walls kicked down to burn, vendor stalls looted and kerosene stores exploding – “we’re making the biggest noise now!” yells one gurning shithead as a fuel dump goes up like Apocalypse Now with its helmet on backwards. “It’s Lord Of The Flies, I guess,” says another, and it is indeed – the mass mob psychosis that takes hold of the thousands of people smashing open ATM machines, tearing down walls and scaling the toppled towers is a vision of what happens when large numbers of people are commodified, dehumanised and driven over the brink.

Come Monday morning, amid the smouldering wreckage, the writing is literally on the wall: ‘Greed’, sprayed across what remained of the Peace Wall. The great communal Woodstock ideals had been sold out for profit, the populace kept in squalor and squeezed dry for every buck, just for basic human necessities. Yet the organisers, managers and stars are interviewed in their mansion gardens and atriums, shrugging off responsibility. Twenty-three years later, as resources such as homes, food and lighting become unaffordable, living standards plummet and fat cats continue to cream off maximum profit while everything burns, this vision of endgame capitalism in succinct, 36-hour microcosm should be required viewing at Davos. Truss and Sunak, take note.