Take 250,000 hippy children (Please! — Ed) and baby boomers reliving the ‘glories’ of the ’60s, stick them in a sea of mud and charge them $11 for a pizza, and you have WOODSTOCK II. And, says JOHN HARRIS, you can keep it.
“We want to stay true to the spirit born at Woodstock and hope that this generation will take that spirit and make this festival uniquely its own. Woodstock ’94 will focus on the ideals and music of today. That should result in a great rock festival that will endure as long as the first one.”
— Michael Lang, longhair entrepreneur, co-organiser of the first Woodstock and figurehead of Woodstock II
SO, THIS was the idea: celebrate the hippy silver jubilee by turning Generation X on to the things they’d missed. Get Dylan and Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Allman Brothers to rub shoulders with Nine Inch Nails and Green Day and Metallica. Couch the event in some kind of New Age aura, all beads and bells and save the expiring planet. And tell people at every turn that they’re making history, thus repeating the era-defining trick pulled off by their parents.
And, to make it happen, secure the assistance of Pepsi. And Haagen f—ing Dazs. And what appears to be an anonymous food-dealing cartel, hellbent on ensuring that the only sustenance available on site is burgers, hot dogs and pizza with the consistency of corrugated cardboard.
Now, to make sure that the modern-day scourges of crime and violence that bedevil white America are all but absent, you have to price the underclass out of the reckoning; so a ticket costs $135. You’d also better minimise the risk of recklessness coursing around the crowd’s veins by banning alcohol from the site. You can stop hold-ups and muggings by replacing dollars and cents with plastic coins — obtained at makeshift banking centres — and slyly make a fortune when everyone keeps them as souvenirs…
…And in order to put the conclusive seal on all this, you — representatives of the generation that gathered at Max Yasgur’s farm to smoke pot and drop acid until you barely knew who you were — issue loud proclamations that anyone discovered carrying outlawed substances and their associated paraphernalia will be in big, big trouble. You appalling, stinking, sanctimonious hypocrites.
ALL THIS forms the backcloth to what we behold on Woodstock II’s first night, an understated, tacked-on affair (featuring James, the Violent Femmes and, er, King’s X) laid on to keep the early arrivals content.
Imagine Glastonbury stripped of the last vestiges of hippified chaos and mysticism (there’s a ‘surreal field’, but it turns out to feature little more than overpriced Virtual Reality machines) and pumped so full of corporate moolah that it begins to resemble a shopping concourse built by Boy Scouts. Try and picture a crowd so hung up on vicarious nostalgia that the opening bars of Hendrix and Beatles songs are enough to prompt apocalyptic cheers.
And bear in mind that Woodstock II is already unbelievably huge. Like the sprawl of a city viewed from a tower block, the flood of people in front of the main stage appears to have no end; so moving more than a few yards in either direction is impossible. In turn, the crowd is dwarfed by the stage, a colossal monolith framed by two vast TV screens. Inevitably, this all contributes to a spectacle that’s breathtaking.
It’s all over CNN and MTV, too, frantically described by people conscripted into the campaign to talk Woodstock II up as the generational coming-out party that its organisers want it to be. Images of the crowds are being thrown all over the country; so kids leap into daddy’s car, realising that the scale of this circus means that it must be shot through with organisational holes, and look forward to crawling through fences, fooling the guards and turning this into a free-for-all.
And on Saturday, that is precisely what Woodstock II mutates into. As the Cranberries seduce a handsome crowd of doe-eyed college students, looking at Dolores as if she’s come to save them, people are beginning to pace around the fields clutching cases of Bud. The accoutrements and odour of dope culture are everywhere. The smiling anarchy that had been quietly brewing on Friday — one man had defiantly pitched his tent eight feet from the main stage! — has succeeded in throwing the armies of the Pepsi-cop conspiracy on to the margins.
The security guards have given up, leaving their posts in a flurry of discontent, allowing legions of empty-pocketed opportunists onto the site. The man in charge of the plastic currency has reportedly developed symptoms of chronic anxiety and been airlifted to a psychiatric hospital. The bus drivers, placed in control of an infinite fleet of yellow school buses, commandeered to ferry employees and the press corps to and from the site, are on official strike.
And in the middle of all this, a bearded Hispanic man is looking out over a crowd of 250,000 people, tugging on a fat joint, and barking, “I’m taking this hit for you”. He’s daring the few cops who still feel they should be trying to grapple with this supermob to tell him to stop. And when they don’t, he starts rapping about “greasy pig meat pork chop motherf—ers”, or some such.
Each time he does, the huddles of kids scattered around — the pack of boys who all manage to look exactly like members of Pavement, the girls dressed up like Tank Girl crossed with a Mid-west farmer’s daughter, the aged freak selling shots of vodka from a cowhide water bottle — yell their approval like religious zealots. Led by Cypress Hill, the festival threatens to congeal into an admirable celebration of dope-fuelled abandon, shot through with a real sense of camaraderie.
Which should not, needless to say, be tied up with any kind of world-shaking significance, threat to the American body politic or any of the other dreamy hogwash being pushed around the fields. What happens on Saturday morning is this: the crowd, in a beaming display of the age-old Yankee habit of Taking A Stand, seizes back its rights. It brings in beers. It smokes hash. It goes to the mall and buys donuts and patties.
But the crawl towards some sort of squalid libertarian idyll lasts mere hours. Mid-afternoon, just as Henry Rollins is addressing his core constituency, we are drenched by a torrential downpour. The earth turns to a foul-smelling slop. Tents, fastened loosely to steep hillocks, begin to slide away. More than ever, the idiots — frankly there is no other word — pressed against the main stage revel in the knuckleheaded rituals of crowd-surfing and slam-dancing.
And these are the resulting scenes: Packs of people, who figure that they may as well go crazy, roll around in lakes of mud. One poor woman at the front of the crowd is sprayed with the urine of a drunken retard behind her. The organisers begin to panic about the legions of kids camped in the woods and what will befall them if the showers prove to be the harbingers of an electrical storm.
A 44-year-old man from Long Island, who wandered around the fields drinking vodka and munching prescription drugs, has already died. Others will soon follow him. Woodstock II is turning very, very ugly.
The crowd, however, unites to tell anyone who cares to listen that they’re continuing to have a good time. Shank, a 42-year-old from Florida, tells me that he arrived here with his wife, had a screaming row, and hasn’t seen her since. He’s drenched, too — and yet he’s insistent that this represents some sort of apex of communal enjoyment.
The generation below are yet more convinced. Adam and Chris, two college boys from Massachusetts, rant on about “all the good shit that’s going on”. Walter and Lance, who’ve driven here from Nashville, grope for a suitable adjective to describe their weekend, and can only shrug and whisper “intense”. And so it goes: on and on, each breathless plaudit filled with ever-more sky-scraping superlatives.
THE PRESS tent — a vast marquee filled with people barking into Bakelite phones and bashing laptop computers — has now placed itself on a war footing. Tugging at lukewarm cups of Diet Pepsi and glorying in steadily more preposterous whispers (“There’s a 50-mile line of Hell’s Angels heading up the country,” dribbles one bloke), they are being entertained by a steady stream of public officials, sowing the seeds of panic despite a valiant effort to stress “positive” aspects of the scenes outside.
Scores of people have been seriously injured. Another person has died. Even the chief of police is describing his grip on security as “intermittent”. There are frequent claims that almost every stall near the North Stage has run out of food. But wait! Steven Tyler from Aerosmith has taken the rostrum…
“They should have one of these every year,” he burbles. “When you live in the inner city and you don’t even speak to a guy from the next block, this kinda thing can really open your mind. And take a look outside, man: the crowd is glowing.”
He’s right, after a fashion. Still, the soggy droves wading through expanding lakes of mud to queue for their $11 pizzas are responding to every call-and-response routine barked from the North Stage with absolute fervour. They’re going back to waterlogged tents and thinking that deprivation is part of the fun. One of thousands of self-proclaimed “mud-people” enthusiastically tells us about how he’s just spent $150 on official merchandise.
There seems to be two key reasons behind all this. The first is that, now the ’60s has become a commodity, stuck in museums and uncoupled from anything troublesome (it’s now become a decade of Woodstock, Monterey and teddy-bear hippies rather than Vietnam, Kent State and Chicago rioters), whole swathes of American kids are hellbent on reliving them. They buy tie-dye T-shirts. They go on and on about Hendrix and the Doors. They feel honoured to be participants in anything bearing the Woodstock name.
It was sprawling, squalid and muddy there, too. That’s what forged the Woodstock Nation. So, take out all the irritating trifles about 1969 — no food, chiefly — and ensure that the supply of shopping mall refreshment never ceases, and you arrive at the creation of something approaching a hippy theme park, with the freshly-created marshes (now mixing with overflowing sewage from the Porta-Johns) as supplementary attractions.
It gets better. You can watch Joe Cocker croaking ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, Crosby Stills & Nash managing to turn in an exhilaratingly bravura performance that’s only sullied by a hammed-up — and crushingly inevitable — reading of ‘Woodstock’, and Bob Dylan yanking his back catalogue through the mire with all the pathetic fatalism of man about to be committed to a residential nursing home. If you choose, you can also behold Santana, the Allman Brothers and the remains of the Band playing ‘The Weight’ with Bruce Hornsby. Wa-hey!
Such is one strand of 250,000 people’s stoic pleasure. The other lies in the web of cultural theory surrounding Generation X: the legions of people in their 20s whose faith — unlike their parents’ — in mass political activism and the chance of any lasting change is non-existent.
This crop of Americans express their separation from mall culture by going in for the futile gesture; revelling in actions that are absolutely mindless; wallowing in nihilist schlock just so they know they aren’t yet members of Main Street, USA (inevitable advice: for confusion-free proof of all this, watch Beavis And Butt-Head).
So, coating yourself in mud is kinda cool. Spending a day immersing your synapses in Bud Lite, dope smoke and loud music is some kind of pinnacle of dissent. And on Saturday night, when some of your number have spent hours pummelling their compadres in front of the stage, receiving communion from Nine Inch Nails seems to represent the highlight of your weekend.
Thus spake NBC on Sunday morning when NIN are pronounced “the band of the festival” by a moustached correspondent from the New York Times. It’s clear why, too. Trent Reznor and five pierced droogs with appalling haircuts make a point of getting mudded up. They behave with exactly the same air of aimless f—ed-upness that’s de rigueur among their constituency. And they look out over a scene that resembles a sprawling mock-up of Gallipoli and play songs that are appallingly apt.
You know the stuff: God’s dead, we’re all screwed, and you may as well dissolve in a sea of bizarre sexual practices, petty violence and self-mutilation. It all marches to a peak during ‘Closer’ — when, against the usual clattering, atonal backdrop, Reznor (judgement of Woodstock II: “I was kind of worried that it would suck. But I think it’s turned out to be pretty cool”) sings, “Let me violate you/Let me desecrate you… I want to f— you like an animal”.
“What a shockingly pertinent encapsulation of the Gen X ethos taken to its logical extreme,” mumble the press corps. “Wow… cool!” holler the kids.
BY SUNDAY, it’s become all but unbearable. Droves of people are hobbling back to their distant automobiles: most forced back to their day jobs, the odd one bitterly dismissive of all the hyperbole and repulsed by the mud. The Pepsi-cop conspiracy is beginning to regain control, sending its agents to knock beer cans from people’s hands and confiscate any dope paraphernalia.
Perry Farrell is on stage indulging in a meandering tirade about personal freedom. Green Day have just displayed the hallmarks of imminent greatness and ended up brawling with bouncers. The Chili Peppers will eventually endeavour to re-awaken a spirit of wackoid frivolity by taking the stage dressed as industrial lightbulbs. And in the middle of the night, a rump of loved-up neo-hippies will leap onto the South Stage and dance to the Orb, apparently persuaded that they’ve discovered the key to the next millennium by booming reproductions of ‘The Blue Room’, ‘Towers Of Dub’, and a transcendent ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’.
They’re here to swell the numbers at ‘Ravestock’, a hastily-concocted attempt to wedge a foot in the door of the American mainstream and spread the hip liking for electrofied dance that’s prevalent on the West Coast all over the continent. Thus, the Orb also appeared on Friday (greeted by swathes of nude enthusiasts) with Orbital and the woeful Deee-Lite, when there was still some hope of Woodstock mutating into a patchwork celebration of peace, love and music. Forty-eight hours later, after death, injury and 840-acres of Hell, it’s an irrelevance.
Our parting shot is an alcohol-free strawberry daiquiri, bought from a stall framed by palm fronds and speakers playing Madonna’s ‘La Isla Bonita’. The sky above the wooded hillsides is filled with plumes of acrid smoke, choppers are swooping over the site in huge arcs, and the walking wounded are picking their way along the Interstate. The restaurant on the corner is still selling overpriced Bud, there are still mounds of commemorative Pepsi cans by the roadside, and people are still gibbering about their presence at an epochal event.
“Yo man,” shouts one of them, offended by our assumption that he’s walking away from the site because he’s returning home. “I’m goin’ back in there. It’s HISTORY, man…”
Back by the South Stage, the guy with the microphone looks out over the crowd, soaked in mud, facing serpentine queues to get back to parking lots 30 miles away, full of kids who, but for the grace of God, could have lain in sodden tents suffering from hypothermia. “Don’t worry,” goes his rap. “The highways are all snagged up, but you’re in Heaven.”
© John Harris, New Musical Express, 27 August 1994