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Remembering Woodstock: Drug overdose to deaths, a look at the dark side of world's most celebrated music fest

It had an aim to bring about peace and entertainment, but things have not always been butterflies and rainbows
Fans at Woodstock 99 in Rome, New York 
(Getty Images/Scott Gries)
Fans at Woodstock 99 in Rome, New York (Getty Images/Scott Gries)

From its conception in 1969 till today, Woodstock has been known as the world's biggest music festival. It has had an aim to bring about peace and entertainment as an akin pair with crowds drinking their beers, forming dance pits and joyously screaming their lungs out to their favorite bands on stage, but things have not always been butterflies and rainbows.

As we remember some of the best moments to come out of the world's most celebrated music fest, there are also occurrences that haven't been so positively fruitful.

Organizers had to nearly shut down the first day

Going back to its origin in 1969, the first day of Woodstock wasn't entirely smooth sailing. The four men who brainstormed the event, namely John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld and Mike Lang, were all in their 20s. Age doesn't necessarily factor in if you want to present the world with the next big thing, but the organizers' pre-planning didn't pan out the way they expected. They speculated that no more than 200,000 attendees would actually show up, but according to the History channel, about 186,000 tickets were sold before the weekend. One of the initial problems on the first day was that they did not set up the ticket booths they had planned and the fence was so shoddy, it was torn down by the crowds. Finally, a total of 400,000 to 500,000 people, more than double their initial estimate, attended the festival.

Just a few hours into the festivities, the concert organizers found themselves at a financial loss with renowned artistes like Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead demanding money before their performances. Other artistes also asked for double their usual fee since Woodstock was the first-of-its-kind and couldn't be sure of its success. By the end of the event, the organizers were millions of dollars in debt.


Most times, when you think of hippies, you think of peaceful, loving souls who go out of their way to take care of the environment, but back in 1969, the hippies at the Woodstock fest weren't so concerned with looking after their surroundings. According to a 1969 article in The Village Voice, festival attendees had left "piles of garbage up and down the hillside" seen a month after the festival. Crates, plastic and clothes were strewn about and the green grass was trampled into an unholy mess. The litter had also poured out onto the shoulders of most roads and nearby woods.

Drugs, drugs and more drugs

The Woodstock festival is notorious for having crowds heavily under the influence of narcotics and problems can arise when things get out of hand, but exactly how far that goes has led to some disturbing stories. For the 1969 Woodstock, Mary Sanderson, a nurse who worked at the festival reported that burned eyeballs were actually a result of the drug usage. She claimed that the harmful effect came from kids on LCD who would "lie down on their backs and just stare".

Fast-forward years later, and drug-taking at concerts didn't end there. In 1994, one of Woodstock's performers got onto the stage while under the influence which earned him mixed reviews. When Blind Melon frontman Shannon Hoon took to the stage in a long, flowing white dress, he was allegedly tripping on acid. It was more unsettling the following year when it was revealed that he died of a drug overdose.

'The day the music died'

With an epic line-up of artistes such as Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Creed, Korn, Jamiroquai, James Brown and Limp Bizkit, you would have thought the crowd from Woodstock '99 would have been fixated on the music and focused on the stage, but the pandemonium that ensued at that festival was not forgotten. Reports had said that raucous attendees escalated their energies from enjoying the event to violence, to destruction and even sexual assaults. A total of four rapes, 17 fires and property damage that no one could plan for on their best day, were reasons why Woodstock '99 has been dubbed the "day the music died".


One of the most famous tragedies of Woodstock is related to the death of attendees. Three young men died at '69 fest, two of them from a drug overdose. Another was a 17-year-old who was asleep in a sleeping bag and got run over by a tractor that was collecting debris. It was also a rumor that women gave birth at the festival, but none were recorded at the site itself. Sadly eight women had miscarriages though at the festival. When Woodstock '69 was all over, the New York State Department of Health recorded 5,162 medical cases over the near-four-day event, 800 of which were drug-related.