Differing views of festival remembered

‘Woodstock ‘99 was a blast until it blew up in everyone’s face’

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It was an event meant to renew the peace and love vibes of its namesake that would instead come to a fiery, rioting end and become infamously known as “The day the music died.”

Woodstock ‘99 would put Rome on the map as the host of some of the biggest names in rock, hip-hop, rap, metal and grunge with approximately 400,000 music fans attending over the four-day festival held July 22-25. It was the second large-scale music festival, after Woodstock ‘94, that would attempt to emulate the original Woodstock festival of 1969.

But the reputation of the massive gathering would be marred by environmental conditions that ranged from hot temperatures and a lack of water to overflowing portable toilets, violence, sexual assault, allegations of rape, exorbitant food and beverage prices, looting, vandalism and fires that erupted throughout the grounds.

In recognition of the 22nd anniversary of the festival, Cinema Capitol, 223 W. Dominick St., will co-debut the HBO documentary Music Box Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage, with a screening to take place tonight from 9-10:50 p.m. — the same time it debuts on HBO’s streaming service.

The film will be screened at no admission charge. For tickets go to www.RomeCapitol.com. Doors will open at 7 p.m. with a pre-movie reception featuring Copper City Brewing, entertainment and Woodstock trivia.   

Chip Haley, retired Daily Sentinel editor, who worked as a news reporter at the time of Woodstock ‘99, recalled how a festival attended by hundreds of thousands of concert-goers from all over the country turned ugly when the venue literally went up in flames.

“Woodstock ‘99 was a blast until it blew up in everyone’s face,” said Haley. “As a reporter for the Rome Daily Sentinel, I worked with other Sentinel staff to cover the thousands of music fans that arrived from all over the country, the big names in music who took the stage — and the unfortunate, fiery ending to the gathering.”

Editorial Page Editor Barbara Charzuk led the news department team in planning the coverage as Photographer John Clifford worked tirelessly to show readers what was happening each day. Reporter Kathleen Haley covered the police and fire angles of the story while reporter Kim Farrell mostly held down the fort at the office. Others contributed as well.

The Sentinel sprang for an RV as the news department’s temporary office on the Griffiss grounds.

“It was wonderful for us to have a place to rest occasionally, out of the heat and with plenty of bottled cold water,” Haley recalled. “But we spent most of our time on the very hot Griffiss runway area, interviewing music fans and performers. I got to interview Willie Nelson, and took his photo holding a copy of the Sentinel.”

Some other stories written by Sentinel reporters included those about the high price of bottled water being sold by vendors, the unsanitary port-a-potty conditions, the volume of business being generated by local shops on and off the former Air Force Base, and the “final act” — the burning and looting of some of those shops at the end of the concert.

Public opinion about the music fest was divided.

“Many thought it was a good thing that brought money and attention to Rome,” said Haley. “Others thought it was terrible, with concert organizers taking advantage of both the city and the fans, public officials being faulted for lack of proper planning, and leaving the city of Rome with a black eye for the security failures.”

Daily Sentinel Owner/Board Chair Stephen B. Waters, who served as publisher at the time, shared that HBO purchased about 15 minutes worth of the 10 hours of video he shot of the musical festival to be used as short clips in the documentary.

“I explained my own view and that is in the videotape “A Reporter’s Notebook: Woodstock ’99” that was sold after the event,” Waters said. “I talked about the laws and attitudes in conflict at the time. My view was that the media overplayed the violence at the expense of the good time so many people had. It will be interesting as to what point of view they (HBO) chose to use.”

It’s always easier to look in hindsight, but state Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-47, who was serving his second term as mayor in the summer of 1999, said there were flaws in how security was handled for such a mass gathering.

Griffo said he was interviewed several hours last fall for the documentary, with much work done virtually during the pandemic by crews from Syracuse and New York City, with some footage shot on site. He was informed by the film’s director that the documentary is “closing with something I said.”

The senator described the documentary as being much like ESPN network’s “30 for 30” series and rather focusing on sports milestones, the documentary is one episode in a series of about eight called “Music Box” that highlight music milestones, with Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage being the first episode. The documentary is being showcased not only on the date of when the actual Woodstock 99 festival began, but also on the exact day the festival began back in 1999.

Asked what he knows about the HBO documentary, Griffo said, “I was approached by several national publications, and HBO said they were looking at it from a cultural perspective — the genre of music at the time, the societal issues at the time...” — the end of the millennium, Y2K, the Clinton scandals in the White House, the Columbine school massacre that spring — “and they indicated their motivation was to show that Woodstock was such an iconic brand while looking at it from the aspect of all that was happening during that time.”

“How it will be presented I don’t know,” he said. “I hope they view it with balance, but I tend to believe you’ll see more of a sensationalized account based on the trailer, yet I don’t know ultimately what the film will be like.”

Griffo said he still believes he made the right decisions at the time.

“We would receive short and long-term economic benefits, it was disclosure for the community and region, and it was also for the community to believe in itself again and could do something big — to pull” something of this magnitude “off successfully after the closure of Griffiss — that we had a plan and vision for the future, but that there would be a transition to get there and this was the opportunity to do that,” said Griffo. “We wanted to make sure there was no disruption within the community and we succeeded in that regard, maybe with some minor inconveniences.”

“Those were lessons learned by the ‘69 and ‘94 festivals and there were tough negotiations,” he continued. “One thing to look at now, with the opportunity to historically review it, is the security aspect. The original Woodstock was peace and love and they wanted to continue that philosophic approach, but when you realize we were in a different decade and in a different mindset, security should’ve been handled differently, and that was negotiated.”

While the 69 Woodstock had the reputation for promoting “make love not war,” Griffo said the 99 festival was more motivated by profit rather than a cause. But in retrospect, while there’s a tendency for society to “glamorize” the original Woodstock festival, it too had its problems to include weather conditions and overwhelming drug use throughout the event.

“No acts of violence are acceptable,” said Griffo, referring to reports of rape and sexual assaults, “when you consider that sized population in a closed space it’s overwhelming, and it was handled successfully.” When considering the challenges — “the infrastructure and cleanliness, weather issues, the musical vibe — when you take all of that into account, and has to be, it was a success.”

He said, “the majority in the city welcomed and supported the event. No violence is acceptable, but they only had three reported” cases of violence, “we had a MASH unit there and a court system, in addition to what the community had to offer for support. The City of Rome wouldn’t have known what was going on until the last night. But from the city’s perspective, it went very smoothly. There was no negative stereotype or stigma attached to the community.”

For tickets and more information about Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage, visit www.RomeCapitol.com.

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