'I Performed at Woodstock '99. We Didn't Know It Was A Horror Show'

I was 25 when I landed my first record deal. I had spent years paying my dues as a musician, playing bars in Hollywood while working as a club promoter and living in a cheap apartment in a dangerous part of town. Suddenly I was caught in this crazy whirlwind which seemed to appear out of nowhere.

I signed with Interscope Records in April 1999 and before I knew it I was recording songs, performing at huge sports games, being jetted around the world and was even asked to play at Woodstock Festival that same year.

Of course, I knew about the iconic first incarnation of Woodstock in 1969. I thought it would be pretty cool to take part in this legendary festival three decades later. Being young and no-doubt a bit arrogant; it just felt natural, like I was where I was supposed to be. It was exciting and a lot of fun.

My band and I would be playing on the emerging artist stage. The main thing running through my mind was just hoping the show went well; that we caught the stage at a good time so we could earn some new fans.

John Oszajca
Guests covered in mud at the main stage at Woodstock Festival in 1999. American musician John Oszajca performed on the emerging artist's stage at the festival in 1999. Getty Images/David Lefranc/John Oszajca

We were put on an airplane and flown across the country to Rome, New York. We didn't even realize the event wasn't taking place in Woodstock, the location of the original festival, until we arrived.

We played on the final day of the festival and I spent most of the lead-up to our performance in our hotel. The festival's surrounding areas were crazy. We visited a McDonald's and the parking lot was mayhem. There seemed to be hour long lines, the area was just slammed full of people.

On the day of our performance we were picked up from the hotel and taken through the artist's entrance. We had a few hours to roam the venue before our show.

Wandering around, we knew right away Woodstock '99 wasn't anything like the original festival. I remember being shocked at how expensive basic items like food and water were. As artists, we were nowhere near campgrounds, but I remember everything being very dirty. I don't know if it was muddy or dusty, but everything was just brown. There was trash everywhere. It was like a wasteland.

Tents Woodstock
Tents put up by festival-goers on site at Woodstock 1999 Andrew Lichtenstein/Getty Images

These were not the idyllic scenes I'd seen from footage of the 1969 event. There were no rolling fields or hippies hanging around the treeline. There were some crazy characters, a few people walking around very comfortably naked. But mostly, I noticed, the festival was full of frat boy types.

I don't recall seeing any aggravation or violence, but I saw a lot of the kind of people who did metaphorically tear the place down—young, drunk men with a stereotypical frat boy mentality.

It didn't feel cool. It felt like a dirty, broken version of the original festival. It had more of a Mad Max vibe than one of peace and love. It just had this marauding, dirty feeling. We quickly wanted to get back to the artist's area and get away from the uncomfortable vibe.

Our performance took place in a giant air hangar in between the two mainstages. I'd guess around two or three thousand people ultimately came through
the hangar while we performed, perhaps even more.

The stage itself was huge. It was lined with a giant Woodstock banner, which effectively acted as the back wall of the stage. It was bolted on by it's four corners and hid the backstage area.

There had been talk of a storm coming after the hot weather and as we played a huge gust of wind arrived. We were mid-set when the bottom of that giant banner blew off the stage.

The wind was blowing it back and forth like a flag and suddenly everything was
exposed and there was this nervous energy on the stage. We weren't sure if it was
dangerous or perhaps going to get worse. It was a spectacle to be sure. It felt as if
the stage was falling apart.

That said, the atmosphere within our crowd was fairly calm. My music isn't particularly heavy. It wasn't a sound that was likely to rile people up in the way that some of the "new metal" bands ultimately did.

Woodstock 1999
Sunday night at Woodstock Festival 1999 Andrew Lichtenstein/Getty Images

After the show, I decided to leave early. I was in a relationship and I suspect many of
my bandmates stayed to meet women, plus soak up a bit more of the iconic festival. I was back at the hotel when news about Woodstock '99 started popping up on the TV.

I heard the festival had ended in chaos. My band came home with their video camera full of footage, saying: "The place is on fire, it's burning down, people were going nuts."

To be honest, at the time, I felt a little disappointed that I'd left so early. It felt like something significant had happened that I had missed out on. Nobody I knew came home saying they were scared.

So I had no idea about some of the horrors said to take place at the festival, the accounts of violence and sexual assaults. It wasn't until I watched the recent Trainwreck: Woodstock '99 documentary about the event that I knew I had been in the middle of something far more horrible than I realized.

I decided to watch the documentary out of curiosity, without knowing much about the angle. I wondered if perhaps I'd see a shot of our band performing somewhere in the
footage. Watching it, I felt disgusted by certain people and sad for other people—it was a sobering experience.

I have no knowledge of anything very dark happening in my vicinity, but I was still part of the festival. I performed just an hour or two before parts of the site were set on fire. It felt like getting out of the ocean at the beach, only to realize a great white shark
was circling the area you had just swam in.

Woodstock 1999
Sunday night at Woodstock Festival 1999 Andrew Lichtenstein/Getty Images

I thought Woodstock '99 was this crazy rock and roll riot, not the scene of alleged abuse, disregard for safety and drive for profits. I didn't realize how much some people were taken advantage of in many respects. That was uglier than I realized.

While it may be a foolish, youthful perspective, I thought rock and roll history was full of violence and mayhem, which people often look back on and say was cool or crazy. I just always saw this kind of mayhem as being consistent with the ideology behind much of the music. But this was different, this had a real dark side. It wasn't cool, maybe none of it has ever been cool.

John Oszajca, 48, is an American singer-songwriter and actor who currently lives in New Zealand. John's latest album, Elephant Graveyard is available to purchase or stream now.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Monica Greep.