As candles were distributed on the last night of Woodstock ’99, out-of-control youths set giant bonfires, went on a looting rampage and burned 12 tractor-trailers on the concert site.

As candles were distributed and a crowd of tens of thousands of people started getting out of hand the last night of Woodstock ’99, then-Rome Mayor Joseph Griffo reached out to the weekend’s final performers for help.

When the Red Hot Chili Peppers came backstage to get ready for their encore, Griffo said he asked the band’s lead singer, Anthony Kiedis, to tell the crowd to settle down.

“He said, ‘What do you think — they’re going to listen to me?” Griffo recalled.

The popular rock band then went back onstage and played its cover of Jimi Hendrix's “Fire.”

Out-of-control youths set giant bonfires, went on a looting rampage and burned 12 tractor-trailers on the concert site. More than 700 state police officers gathered late that Sunday night to control the crowd.

Now, one decade later, a debate still rages locally about the event that brought in 200,000 people, generated four days of fun and music, yet is recalled chiefly for the riots, reports of sexual assaults and questions over the quality of the security plan.

Was Woodstock ’99 a success for the area?

Depends on who you ask.

Then-state Sen. Raymond Meier, who was a fierce opponent of the event, remembers exactly where he was when he found out about the riots that made Woodstock ’99 a major headline around the world.

He was watching the news in his Rome residence when he got a phone call from an official with the state police.

“He was telling me about the fires and the rioting, and at one point, I remember him saying to me, ‘I have to go now, there are some propane cylinders exploding,’” said Meier, who did not attend the event.

Woodstock officials, including promoter Michael Lang, had allowed only their own security to be inside the concert gates. It was that lack of uniformed law enforcement inside the venue that aided in leading to the concert’s demise, Meier said.

“It was one of the most spectacularly bad decisions ever made by public officials in the community,” Meier said.

That’s a stark contrast to the memories of Joe Hobika Jr., who was assistant county attorney at the time.

Hobika acknowledged there were things that could have been done differently, but overall, said it was an “amazing experience.”

He remembers standing next to Kennedy, the MTV vee-jay, looking out at the crowd of hundreds of thousands of people right before opening act James Brown — nicknamed “The Godfather of Soul.”

“I remember Michael Lang coming up to me and saying, ‘This is what all the hard work was for,’” Hobika said.

Numerous attempts to reach Lang for this article were unsuccessful.

‘Once-in-a-generation event’

No matter how people remember the concert, referred to as “like a concentration camp” by former MTV host Kurt Loder, there are certain facts that can’t be forgotten.

- Treatment of women: Eight sexual assaults and rapes were reported, including alleged incidents in the mosh pit and campground. Throughout the weekend, young men urged women to reveal their breasts; many complied.

- Flawed security plan: In the weeks and months leading up to the event, concert promoters assured Oneida County, state police and the public that about 1,200 unarmed security guards would be manning the site throughout the weekend. Yet only half of the security staff remained by the last day of the concert because the rest had either been fired or walked off the job, O-D archives show.

- Lax law enforcement: Drugs and alcohol, two items that were supposed to be off limits, were used – openly — all weekend.

Griffo, who is now a state senator, acknowledged the problems, but maintains he doesn’t think it was a mistake to bring Woodstock here.

“This was a once-in-a-generation-type of event on a scale that was so significant,” he said. “I believe that it was the right decision.”

Marcy resident Ed Lewandrowski worked at the concert, putting wristbands on people after taking their tickets.

Lewandrowski, who is now 42 and works at Utica College, said while he enjoyed the music at the festival, the behavior of many of the attendees was out of control from the start.

On the first day, Lewandrowski remembers about 20 people on motorcycles coming into the show and breaking down the gate he was at with their bikes.

“I didn’t sign up for that,” he said. “Really, the whole weekend was a mess.”

‘If we could do this…’

Mohawk Valley EDGE President Steven DiMeo was first approached by Woodstock producers about having the concert in Rome. He remembers the meeting happened in late fall of 1998.

“I was here, I was there and I was in the middle of it,” he said. “I was the one that met Michael Lang and his attorney on a Sunday.”

DiMeo then contacted Griffo about the concert offer.

Griffo said he was excited about the possibility, citing short-term economic benefits, exposure for the area and rebuilding confidence for the area following the 1995 closure of the Griffiss Air Force Base.

“I felt if we could do this and pull it off, people could say, ‘Wow, we hosted a huge event,’” Griffo said.

Organizers, however, weren’t prepared for the new generation that would be attending the Rome concert.

“They were looking at a ‘69 mentality,” Griffo said, referring to the original Woodstock, which focused on peace and love. “And here we were now in a ‘99 mentality — an MTV age.”

‘A very serious problem’

Thousands of vehicles arrived in Rome full of young people anticipating the experience of a lifetime. And the first two days were often carefree, as people chatted with strangers, marveled at body-painted women and moshed in the pit.

As the weekend progressed, however, concertgoers baked on the Griffiss tarmac in heat approaching 90 degrees. Expensive concession prices including $4 for bottled water stirred anger. And conditions around the Porta-Potties and elsewhere on the grounds grew increasingly worse.

Yet at a news conference just hours before the mayhem, then-Oneida County Executive Ralph Eannace was buoyant.

“There were naysayers who said we couldn't handle the traffic, and we did,” he said then. “They said the (Peace) Wall wouldn't hold up, and it did.”

“They said the security wouldn't work, and it did,” he said. “It was a wonderful, wonderful concert and we loved it.”

More than 12 hours later, a bleary-eyed Eannace attempted to reconcile the fires and property destruction with his overall view of the concert.

“This festival did not collapse into chaos,” Eannace said. “This festival had a very serious problem for a few hours last night.”

Today, Eannace won’t comment about Woodstock, citing his current role as a Utica City Court judge.

From the county’s standpoint, the concert was a success on one tangible level.

When Oneida County tallied its concert-related expenses and compared to fees and fines collected, it came out $200,000 ahead. And the event generated at least $500,000 in sales tax revenue.

‘On the outside looking in’

The lack of a police presence on concert grounds was one of the biggest mistakes, said state police public information Officer Jim Simpson, who attended the festival.

“You should never hold something like that and have law enforcement on the outside looking in,” he said. “That was flawed thinking.”

When the fires began, Simpson joined 776 other officers who went right onto the grounds along with fire personnel. They formed one giant line across the grounds, trying to move everyone off the site and over to the camping area.

“The fires were very serious,” he said. “Once that mentality starts, you don’t know where it’s going to go.”

No Woodstock encore?

For Meier, there was nothing that could have changed the outcome.

“There are people that will still defend it – they will say it brought substantial revenue in our community,” he said. “My response to that is our community shouldn’t be for sale.”

For Hobika and Griffo, the area benefited and can learn from its mistakes.

“I believe that was a life experience that could not be replaced,” Hobika said.

Yet, says DiMeo: “I don’t think you’re doing to see something like that happening in New York state.”

Observer-Dispatch