Woodstock News

By Daniel Rubin


ROME, N.Y. - In the end, Woodstock burned.

Hundreds of concertgoers Sunday night fueled a dozen roaring fires with anything they could find: planks, frames, tables, tents.

They toppled a lighting tower inside the former military base, and 20 of the most brazen scaled the twisted metal, singing "Give Peace a Chance."

Flames engulfed 12 tractor-trailers after a propane explosion. Looters raided souvenir stands, turned over cars, and set one ablaze using "peace candles."

"Holy s - , it's apocalypse now!" said Anthony Kiedis, lead singer of Red Hot Chili Peppers, before they closed their set with Jimi Hendrix's "Fire."

A pre-recorded finale honoring Hendrix, the guitar hero who closed the first Woodstock, was all but inaudible from the middle of the field at the former Griffiss Air Force Base.

The promoters of Woodstock 99, celebrating the 30th anniversary of three days of peace and music, had made much of the symbolism: Where B-52 bombers had once taken off, the festival's signs of the dove rose into the sky. On Sunday night, the place looked like a battlefield.

"They're destroying everything," said Chris Melnyczenko, a 21-year-old college student from Chicago, as he rushed his girlfriend from the melee.

Men pounded barrels with sticks. One man was chanting, "Burn, baby, burn." Another said, "Oh, man, they must have run out of drugs."

As hundreds of New York State Police in riot helmets and batons mustered to take control of the site, two young women and a man huddled near the stage, singing a song from a generation earlier:

Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose . . .

What happened? Fingers will point to Fred Durst, leader of the hugely popular Limp Bizkit, who on Saturday night urged the audience to "smash stuff." They did, ripping plywood sheets from a TV camera tower and passing them forward - while teens rode them like surfboards.

Security stopped the concert, evacuated towers, and cleared the stage.

One night later, people were wondering where the security was when the action turned really ugly.

The toxic potential of so many people, so much dope and beer, so much sun, and so much driving noise was evident Thursday night, as Philadelphia's G Love and Special Sauce played a cool rhythm-and-groove set to those arriving early.

The crowd was dancing to its own music, 10 men writhing atop a sea of raised arms, the crowd roaring as the pay-per-view cameras descended. When women began to ride the crowd, several had their tops ripped off, their bodies manhandled. One man, angered at being deposited in the pit at the front of the stage, started fighting the security forces in yellow Peace Force T-shirts. They dragged him away by the foot.

Amneris Merchant, 53, of Rome, blamed high prices, overflowing portable toilets, and mountains of trash that angered those who paid $150 to get in - then faced $4 bottles of water and $12 pizzas.

"These people are filled with a whole lot of angst and have nowhere to direct it," said Nick Davitt, 20, a landscaper from Lansdale. "They just took the fact the food was entirely expensive and got all righteous. . . . They don't really know what they were fighting about."

Another factor: You had '90s hip-hop and metal music combined with a '60s attitude of giving people space. Given that freedom, the crowd torched everything in sight - not so much in anger as in fun.

About 10 p.m. Sunday, on a field choked with smoke and mud and litter, a young man carrying a wood frame approached the crowd circling a bonfire.

"Excuse me, please," he said, and flung his offering into the flames.

The explosive ending to a long weekend of music came after a subdued day of music that featured quieter performances on the east stage from such singer-songwriters as Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello and Jewel.

When the first bonfire was spotted during the Red Hot Chili Peppers' set, concert organizers stopped the show only for a moment, then decided to let it go on because fire officials felt it was controllable. But the security forces were not prepared for the violence that followed, promoter John Scher said.

By yesterday morning, state police had reported seven arrests on riot-related charges. Five concertgoers were hurt when a trailer fell on them. Two troopers also were injured. Police said the destruction was the work of 200 to 500 people, though thousands cheered them on. Police arrested at least 37 people for drug possession and drunken driving over the weekend.

There were many Woodstock 99s. The early-morning scene on the west side, where the Twelve Tribes commune served blueberry pancakes and hibiscus juice while campers shaved and shampooed in a wash basin. The Saturday-night special on the east stage, where Limp Bizkit, Rage Against the Machine and Metallica sent bodies and bottles flying through the air with abandon.

The pilgrims rolled in lazily on Thursday. Organizers figured 220,000 concertgoers gathered for a raunchy, randy blast that was not their parents' Woodstock, though there were enough patchouli oil, tie-dye and jam bands to satisfy the nostalgia. Sunday night, they went out in a destructive blaze.

In between were many wondrous signs of the times:

You hear the pounding and you're drawn through the darkness to a horde of figures bent over crumpled barrels, like jackals on a carcass. There are maybe 30 drummers in all, men, women, improvising a furious call and response, while around them a circle of twice as many people shake from the hips.

A shirtless man slams an upright barrel with a block of wood. Someone in dreadlocks beats an African djembe. A boy plays a cowbell in double-time. Percussionists have scavenged sticks, rocks and plastic bottles to make this drum circle happen. At the edge of the gathering, one man lies on the ground, face up, with his knees bent, his mouth open, and his eyes shut. His hands are folded in prayer across a white Woodstock 99 T-shirt. He is fast asleep.

Thousands of pizza boxes litter the 20-minute stretch between the two main stages. The dirt is pocked with crushed lemonade cups, flattened water bottles, half-chewed hot dog buns.

Ramon Hernandez gets an idea. The 20-year-old from Lehighton, Pa., grabs his friend Bruno Day, 19, of Hazleton. They'll build a peace sign.

Two sisters from Colchester, Vt., Brenna and Kim Bourque, ask if they can help, and as they talk, dozens join in, arranging the boxes in a giant circle and spelling the word peace. A breeze kicks up, scattering the artwork.

Hernandez dives, arms extended, onto the ground, screaming, "We gotta save it!"

Announcement from the west stage after Los Lobos plays: "Unique Strokious, please meet your parents at the Dunkin' Donuts on Chestnut Street."

In the medical tent, a girl curled in the fetal position shivers on a cot. She's covered by a giant sheet of tin foil. It's to keep her warm. The doctor on duty calls her one of his baked potatoes.

"It's getting worse tonight," Gary Steffan, 47, says. It is 10:30 p.m. Friday, the end of his shift. He works at a Syracuse rescue mission, and says his job has been ministering to those overwhelmed by acid, beer, pot, mosh pits, the sun, and "general freak-out." Steffan spent four hours with a boy separated from his father. "I do a lot of hand-holding," he says.

Taking his place are Allan Duncan, 48, and Adel Gianaris, 47, social workers with Somerset Home in New Jersey. "It's a whole different world here," says Duncan, a former cop in a Yankees hat who works with runaways back home. "People can open up, be whatever they want to be - which is OK."

It is 1:21 a.m. Saturday in Hangar 100. Blue strobe lights explode to a deafening techno soundtrack of sirens over drum-and-bass. Where B-52s once rested, 25,000 people dance - each in his own universe. Amazingly, none of them smash into a thin, older guy with close-cropped hair who is playing an electric guitar while a woman holds his battery-powered amp.

His chords sound as if they're coming from a ray gun, and fit perfectly. He tries to bribe a security guard with a joint for a hook-up to the soundboard. No way.

"If they'd just let me plug in," he says, packing up peevishly, "everyone would have a . . . great time."

"I'm scarred," Kathy McKnight's post on the People Finder bulletin board begins. "Very little $. No clothes besides what I'm wearing . . . I miss you guys."

Another, written on cardboard, goes: "I'm from Philly, Pa. My name is Chaz. I need a ride home after the show. I'm willing to pay. . . ."

Morgan from Boston writes: "I'm wandering like a nomad."

Only a few people are in the media tent when Dale Bell steps to the microphone. He is gray-haired, clean-shaven, a producer of the original Woodstock movie.

"I think what this generation has to do, is they have to listen to what Wavy Gravy has to say about feeding each other," Bell says, referring to the gap-toothed patron saint of tie-dye, the Hog Farm commune member identified with the festival on Max Yasgur's farm 30 years ago.

"If we don't, I think this generation will go to hell in a handbasket."

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