What makes one tragedy worse than another is subjective.
Anyone who’s watched Netflix‘s new three-episode docuseries Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 (or last year’s HBO incarnation, Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage) might be inclined to award it the prize for most chaotic, poorly planned, terrifying s**tshow (literally, people were swimming in fecal runoff from overflowing portable toilets) in U.S. music-fest history. Three people died, including David G. Derosia, 24, who suffered from hyperthermia after spending time in the Metallica mosh pit at the Rome, New York, event, which was characterized by insanely hot temperatures.
By the end of the weekend, four women had reported being raped, and there were countless other instances of nonconsensual groping and harassment. Broadcasting towers were rocked to the ground, and cars and other structures were set on fire. There was, by all accounts, a general sense of white-male aggression permeating the weekend. The HBO documentary spotlighted a particularly disturbing moment when DMX, a Black rapper, led a call-and-response that saw the mostly white audience very comfortably shouting the N-word back at him.
But there have been other low points in music-festival history in this country. Newsweek looks back on some of them.
Civil Right Congress concert, August 1949
Long before Woodstock ’99 performer Kid Rock was even a twinkle in his mother’s eye, Peekskill, New York, was a powder keg of white-male aggression. In response to Black performer and activist Paul Robeson’s headlining gig at a concert that also featured Pete Seeger, racists, anti-Communists and antisemitic extremists showed up to smash car windows, riot and burn Robeson in effigy, Newsweek‘s Jon Jackson has reported.
Woodstock, August 15–18, 1969
Americans’ retrospective rose-colored glasses reflect the original Woodstock back as three days of peace, love and music, and it was…but it wasn’t only that. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller officially declared the counterculture event a disaster, and at least two people were reported to have died. Urban legend also remembers a proliferation of toxic batches of LSD making the rounds, and festivalgoers were repeatedly urged on loudspeakers to “stay away from the brown acid.”
Altamont, December 6, 1969
Officially called the Altamont Speedway Free Festival, this Northern California show was meant to be the West Coast counterpart to Woodstock but is most famously remembered for the reportedly racially motivated killing of an audience member. While the Rolling Stones performed, Meredith Hunter Jr., an 18-year-old Black man, was stabbed to death by Hell’s Angel Alan Passaro, who had been hired to work security. As Hunter approached the stage, Passaro and other Angels reportedly pushed him back, at which point Hunter returned with a revolver and Passaro stabbed him to death. Passaro was found not guilty of Hunter’s death, saying he acted in self-defense. The attack was caught on tape and appears in the 1970 film Gimme Shelter.
Woodstock ’94, August 12–14, 1994
The first reincarnation of Woodstock, in Saugerties, New York, is mostly remembered for lots and lots of mud—with Green Day throwing the lion’s share of it at the audience and Primus famously playing its single “My Name Is Mud” as a sort of anthem—and perimeter fencing that came down, allowing people who hadn’t paid for tickets to enjoy the festivities. But two people reportedly died at the three-day festival, which may be the tamest of its three namesakes but not without tragedy.
Woodstock ’99, July 23–25, 1999
Butt rock, price gouging, looting, sexual harassment and assault, arson, toxic white masculinity and a general Lord of the Flies–like vibe are Woodstock ’99’s legacies. As Brian Rosenworcel of the rock band Guster, which performed on day two of the festival, told Newsweek, the crowd “felt MAGA before MAGA.”
Fyre Festival, Apri 28–30 and May 5–7, 2017
Technically this festival took place in the Bahamas, but we’re including it because it was the brainchild of American Billy McFarland, and it drew a mostly U.S.-based crowd of influencer wannabes and their ilk. Like Woodstock ’99, the debacle spawned competing docs, both in 2019—Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened and Hulu‘s Fyre Fraud—documenting the abject negligence of promoters who, for just $1,200 and up, promised party seekers the time of their lives alongside models (Kendall Jenner, Hailey Bieber and other famous Beautiful People appeared in the ads) with acts like Blink-182, Tyga and Skepta on an island once owned by cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. Instead, when they arrived, concertgoers were greeted by accommodations that drew comparisons to FEMA tents, cheese sandwiches, a mostly canceled lineup and pretty much nothing else. In addition, numerous Bahamian vendors went unpaid for their work putting together the festival. McFarland pleaded guilty to wire fraud in 2018 and served four years of a six-year prison sentence.
Route 91 Harvest Fest, September 29–October 1, 2017
Arguably the most horrific entry on this list, the Las Vegas event brought massive gun violence into the realm of the music festival. As Jason Aldean played to an outdoor crowd of more than 20,000, Stephen Paddock opened fire from the 32nd floor of the nearby Mandalay Bay hotel. Using rifles outfitted with bump stocks, Paddock was able to kill 60 people. Hundreds of others were injured. Paddock committed suicide after his rampage.
Astroworld, November 5–6, 2021
Travis Scott’s Houston festival—named for his 2013 album—was conceived as a beloved franchise for the city, created as a love letter from one of its most successful hometown heroes. But the rapper, who is known (and adored) for his ability to get a crowd riled up, is now facing thousands of lawsuits and a criminal investigation for a massive crowd crush that occurred at the show last year, resulting in 10 deaths and countless injuries.