WATERTOWN — Fifty years ago this week, as many as 500,000 people converged on Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair and the three days of peace and music that defined a generation.
But the third edition of Woodstock, held in Rome in 1999, was known more for the chaos that ended the three-day concert at the former Griffiss Air Force Base.
That Sunday night, concert-goers apparently had enough of spending $4 for a bottle of water and $12 for a slice of pizza.
About 200,000 music fans descended on the central New York city from July 22 to July 25 to camp out and listen to the live music of James Brown, Cheryl Crow, Dave Matthews, Willie Nelson and Counting Crows.
At the time, I was a reporter for the Schenectady Daily Gazette and helped cover the music festival. I was among three reporters from the Amsterdam bureau assigned to drive 80 miles to Rome to find a story with a local angle for the paper.
As a weekend reporter, I was there for that last night that erupted into violence.
By then, police reported four alleged rapes that occurred during three days, including a gang rape during Limp Bizkit’s set.
With the sun going down on the crowd on Sunday, the Red Hot Chili Peppers closed the music festival with “Under the Bridge.” But an anti-gun group distributed candles to festival-goers for a peaceful vigil. Instead, revelers used the candles to start bonfires and ignite an audio tower. Tractor-trailers were tipped over and ATM machines broken into. Vendors scrambled to escape the mayhem.
I was sitting on a hill as all of it played out.
Our photographer Heather called me on her cell phone from her tent in the camping area. She was scared. I could hear loud voices in the background.
I got off the phone with her and called my editor to see what I should do, how should I cover what was going on below.
He directed me to stay put.
It was too late for the Monday’s edition, so he told me to look for someone to talk to the next day. Get their reaction comparing the three days of peace and music in 1969 to what happened in Rome, later called by the San Francisco Chronicle as “the day the music died.”
I called Heather back and stayed on the phone with her to make sure she was OK.
Heather didn’t scare easily. She always gave a “don’t mess with me” attitude no matter the assignment. Over the years, I saw her at police scenes, making her way through to get that shot she needed.
We stayed on the phone for a couple of hours — until things quieted down and she felt safe.
By then, it was after midnight. The media tent was dark. I didn’t know what to do, except sleep in my car and see what the scene looked like the next morning.
As the sun came up, a lone state police car with a trooper inside slowly made its way through tons of garbage around it. Charred tractor-trailers were among the ruins.
Word soon got out that Woodstock promoters were going to hold a news conference about what happened.
According to my story from 1999, concert promoter John Scher tried to explain.
Reporters asked was it the 100-degree temperatures and the lack of shade at the concert site that played a role? Or the exorbitant prices for the food and water? Had times changed from the bastion of free love back in 1969?
About four dozen people were arrested on various charges and more than 1,000 people needed medical treatment during those four days.
To prevent the gatecrashers that occurred in 1969, promoters had 12-foot-tall walls of plywood put up. Concert-goers said they felt that it was no longer about the music. Only about money.
While we reminisce about that first Woodstock, the final one faded into history even before any acts went on stage.
Promoters had hoped to put on the 50-year reunion at Watkins Glen before investors pulled out. Then it was going to be moved to Vernon Downs, Oneida County. It didn’t work out there, either.
Promoters finally canceled the music festival altogether after they tried moving it to a concert venue in Maryland.
Maybe that 1999 Woodstock taught us that the peace and music from 30 years earlier was truly a moment that defined a generation.
It’s time to move on.