There have been many questions asked over the years about Woodstock ’99. A big one is: why did the Red Hot Chili Peppers play Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” while actual fires were raging in the audience? The point is raised in the latest Woodstock ’99 documentary, Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 , which just dropped on Netflix and has inspired a lot of conversations about the infamous festival (the original title was “Clusterf—“). It’s the second documentary about the disastrous event in two years: last year, HBO released Woodstock ’99: Peace, Love and Rage.
As both documentaries show, Woodstock ’99, which took place in Rome, New York, was a “trainwreck” pretty much from the start. This was due to poor planning, cost-cutting and greed from the promoters. And then there was the aggressive audience, many of whom were there to see Korn and Limp Bizkit (as the Netflix doc points out). In the Netflix documentary, one of the festival’s organizers, Michael Lang (the brains behind the original Woodstock in 1969) confessed to being unfamiliar with these bands.
By the third and final night of Woodstock ’99, the crowd was still very riled up; the last band to play was the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Unbeknownst to them, during their set, thousands of candles were distributed to the crowd for a candlelight vigil. The vigil was intended to pay tribute to those who had died due to gun violence (Woodstock ’99 took place just months after the Columbine shooting). Given the destruction that took place throughout the weekend, the candles were well-intentioned, but an ultimately terrible decision. Many in the audience infamously used the candles to start giant, raging fires.
And, according to the Netflix doc, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were asked to calm the crowd down before their encore. Instead, they responded by covering Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire.” New York State Senator Joe Griffo, who was mayor of Rome, New York at the time, said that he asked singer Anthony Kiedis to help calm down the crowd. He says in the doc that Kiedis said that nothing that he could say would really help.
In his 2004 book, Scar Tissue, Kiedis discusses the event from his point of view. “Before we got there, we’d heard reports that this event was less organized and the crowds were getting out of control. When we pulled onto this old military base way up in upstate New York, it was clear that this situation had nothing to do with Woodstock anymore. It wasn’t symbolic of peace and love, but of greed and cashing in.” He added, “We hadn’t heard any reports about people getting abused or raped or anything like that. It just seemed to us like another big rock festival.”
As they were warming up for their set, Kiedis said that Jimi Hendrix’s sister – Janie Hendrix, the CEO of the Hendrix estate – came backstage, and asked the band to do a cover of a song by her brother, which they had not planned on. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ set was supposed to be followed by a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, which, apparently, had fallen through. “She was mortified that Woodstock would forget him,” Kiedis recalled.
“It had been a long time since we played a Hendrix song, so our first inclination was to say no. But she kept telling us how much it would mean to her, so ten minutes before we were to go onstage, we decided to do ‘Fire.'” They reviewed and re-learned the song quickly, according to the singer.
He admitted that they saw “a giant column of fire” in the audience during their set, but added, “We’d been through tons of festivals where bonfires had been started, so this one didn’t seem out of the ordinary… When it was time for our encore, we started into ‘Fire,’ not because there were fires raging, but as a palliative for poor Jimi’s sister.” After that, they left the stage, went to the airport, flew to New York City and checked into their hotel.
The next morning, they realized that they’d become a big part of the story of the festival in the press. “We woke up to papers and radio stations vilifying us for inciting the crowd by playing ‘Fire.’ We ignored these ridiculous charges, though it did turn out that the promoters were a–holes and it had not been a user-friendly environment.”
Kiedis did, however, take some ownership, which is more than can be said of festival organizers Michael Lang (who died earlier this year and John Scher. He said, “We should have paid closer attention… and not been so isolated from the fan’s point of view. I guess it was irresponsible to just show up, play, and leave, without taking a closer look at some of the details surrounding the show.”