Woodstock '99 Performer Says Crowd Was 'MAGA Before There Was MAGA'

For those of us old enough to remember, Woodstock '99 was a defining—and possibly pivotal—moment for live events and our culture at large. It was supposed to be about the music (along with the peace and love of its namesake festival), but instead became synonymous with destruction, greed, violence, misogyny, alleged sexual assault, and general nihilistic mayhem.

In the new Netflix documentary Trainwreck: Woodstock '99, which dropped on August 3 (about a year after HBO's Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage), director Jamie Crawford takes viewers inside the massive festival at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York, on July 22–25, 1999. The story is told through video footage and photos, and via the people who were there: promoters, staff working on the ground behind the scenes, performers including Bush's Gavin Rossdale, Jewel, and Korn's Jonathan Davis, concertgoers, security and medical teams, MTV VJs and journalists who covered the event.

Though the fest boasted an array of genres and performers—James Brown, Sheryl Crow, and Wyclef Jean were all on the lineup—the biggest draws were the rage rockers, groups like Korn, Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit and other '90s-era artists whose currency was toxic masculinity before it even had a name.

Kid Rock at Woodstock '99
Woodstock '99 was meant to embody the spirit of love and peace of its namesake, Woodstock 1969, but infamously devolved into three days of increasing mayhem. Above, Kid Rock, who performed at the festival in Rome, New York, poses with fans and an American flag in the pit. KMazur/WireImage

Also on the bill was Guster, a band then made up of lead singers Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner, and percussionist Brian Rosenworcel, 20-somethings who had met as undergrads at Tufts University and had a loyal New England fan base, but hadn't made the mark of the Rocks and Fred Dursts of the world—and played an entirely different sort of music.

They ended up on the bill, Rosenworcel and Miller told Newsweek, because of their connection to Metropolitan Entertainment, which was (and still is) run by John Scher, one of the masterminds behind Woodstock '99, along with original Woodstock founder Michael Lang. (Guster's 1997 album Goldfly was a joint venture between Warner Bros. and Metropolitan.) Beyond that, Rosenworcel said, the band didn't belong there.

"There was this aggressive culture to both the artists that they chose and the audience that they drew, and that is not Guster's bread and butter....We were a melodic band and [the others were] Limp Bizkit and Korn and even like DMX [and] I was like, What did we get ourselves into?" Rosenworcel said.

Miller echoes that, but added that they were "pumped;" this was a huge gig for them, and the biggest show they'd played to date.

Guster at Woodstock '99
Guster performing at Woodstock '99, courtesy of Brian Rosenworcel.

Their account of the events of the weekend squares with that of the documentary. "You could feel the simmering resentment of the audience over the weekend," Rosenworcel said. "You could feel that the corporate side of it was not endearing itself to the people who chose to attend."

Lang, who died this past January, and Scher are portrayed in Trainwreck as, at best, naively negligent and, at worst, greedily and willfully blind to the degrading conditions of the festival as attendees wilted under the intense summer sun and had less and less access to clean water for drinking or bathing.

"In terms of watching it devolve," Miller said, "I have a very vivid memory of the Porta Potties flowing over and people swimming in excrement. The [price of] water was starting to go up. People were starting to vandalize the plywood barriers and take them off. And then the Red Hot Chili Peppers thing happened and [the crowd had candles]...and I remember...thinking, This started out as a music festival, trying to reconcile the destruction that was happening...standing in the middle of this field where there's a car on fire."

The candles that were handed out to festival-goers, Trainwreck documents, were meant to be a post-Columbine statement on gun violence, though who thought it was a good idea to give flammable objects to (at this point in the weekend) 150,000 overtired, overheated young people is anyone's guess.

When Rosenworcel ventured out into the crowd after Guster played its Saturday set on the West Stage, he says "it felt MAGA before MAGA. I guess I had no idea until we were there witnessing it the degree to which this alternative rock scene had burgeoned into Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, Korn and bands that I couldn't understand. There was no part of me that could get one of those songs, because we were so focused on melody and their focus was on harnessing the attitude and energy and connecting with anger, really, of their audience, and we just had a different lens."

Rosenworcel questions the source of the crowd's intensity. "What were those kids so angry about?" he asked. "Is it just a general male angst? Because we know it still exists, but like, what were the conditions politically or culturally that led to that audience embracing the anger of those bands and wanting to moshpit it out of their system?"

He—like nearly everyone in the documentary—points to the oppressive heat as at least one factor in the gradual dehumanization of the crowd. "I cannot underestimate the role that the heat played in this," Rosenworcel said.

The mostly-asphalt Air Force base offered few opportunities for shade, and people sought out whatever slivers they could find.

"I saw people sleeping under trucks, I saw people f--king under trucks," he added. "We had a tour bus parked there with AC, and at one point they brought like 10 Playboy bunnies onto our bus because they just needed some air conditioning."

In the end, Rosenworcel left early—"the air conditioner on the bus broke, so I just remember lying on the floor of the bus because it was cooler down there"—and Miller and their bandmate Gardner had to hitchhike home.

In September 1999, Guster's third studio album Lost and Gone Forever, which brought on legendary producer Steve Lillywhite, was released, and Rosenworcel said that was the end of the band's days playing alt-rock festivals. "We course-corrected when Lost and Gone Forever came out and went on tour with Barenaked Ladies. [It was] like, 'Oh, here are nerdy Canadian people who love us. This is where we belong.'"

Newsweek has reached out to Scher for comment.