Fuji Rock 1999

For only the second time since 1998, I am not attending the Fuji Rock Festival (I don’t count last year’s, which I also didn’t attend, because it was seriously circumscribed by COVID restrictions), and I admit I miss it, so I dug out the summary review I wrote for the Japan Times about the third festival in 1999, which also happened to be the first one in Naeba, where it would remain permanently from then on. Structurally, the changes to the festival since then have been considerable, but the vibe never changed substantially. Enjoy.

“Did you see that about Woodstock last week?” Chris Collingwood, the lead singer of Fountains of Wayne, asked the Japanese audience. “Bunch of yo-yos burnt stuff up?”

It wasn’t the only mention of Woodstock that I heard at the 1999 Fuji Rock Festival, which was held at the Naeba ski resort in Niigata prefecture July 30-Aug. 1. Woodstock 99’s topicality at the festival was due to its temporal proximity and its postmortem publicity. In contrast, FRF’s topicality has been non-existent, even in Japan. When I returned to Tokyo after the weekend and told people where I’d been most of them said, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that. How was it?” Everybody else hadn’t even heard of it. There was nothing in the papers, nothing on TV.

Of course, the media could have covered it as a kind of antidote to Woodstock 99, which would have been understandable since Japanese news shows like nothing better than to show how peaceful and civilized Japan is compared to the rest of the world. They could have said that out of the 70,000 people who attended the event over the three days, there were about a dozen “casualties” and only one concertgoer who required hospitalization (from too much drinking; he was released the next day and went straight back to the party). And, of course, no stuff was burnt up.

Such coverage, however, boosts positives on the back of negatives instead of addressing them directly. Something truer could have been revealed had a TV camera crew walked along the main pathway of the festival grounds, from the congested campground on the grassy hill behind the gargantuan Naeba Prince Hotel down to the dinky little Levi’s New Stage for up-and-coming Japanese bands to the tree-lined food service area and the Virgin Dance Tent and on over the huge foothill that spread out before the main Green Stage; and then through the dense woods and over the pristine creek to the smaller open area where the secondary White Stage was erected; and finally up a rise and around a bend and down into the Field of Heaven. I did that long walk early Sunday morning, and I didn’t find a scrap of garbage on the ground, though I did find lots of sleeping bodies in the most unlikely places and in the weirdest positions.

FRF 99 was as close as I’ve ever come to what we like to think festivals are all about: community, experience, celebration. The original Woodstock translated these ideals as love, peace, and free expression, probably because they had already become hallmarks of the 60s. They subsequently turned into cliches for a kind of empty-headed hedonism that a lot of people today find laughable — or even contemptible. Every music festival has somehow had to put up with Woodstock’s legacy. FRF bypassed it for something more prosaic but no less idyllic.

Masa Hidaka, the president of major promoter Smash Corp. and the man who thought up FRF, is of the generation who came of age in the 60s, but his concept for the festival is less hippie idealism than old-fashioned enlightened humanism. He envisions it as an event where for a few days you chuck your quotidian trappings, sleep under the stars, listen to some music, get in touch with nature, and make new friends. If that sounds like empty-headed hedonism then it’s because we’ve grown so cynical over the years that we don’t believe you can get thousands of young people in one contained area and expect them to behave themselves, much less get in touch with their inner hippie.

The camping out part is essential to the vision, which is why last year’s festival, though a logistical success, was treated as a one-off by the festival’s creators. FRF 98 was held for two days on landfill at the Tokyo Waterfront.

I encountered a few wet blankets who said that things at FRF 99 wouldn’t have been so rosy had it rained. The Field of Heaven, for one thing, would have quickly turned into a bowl of mud. But why make something out of fate that it ain’t? The first festival, in 1997, was perhaps closest to the ideal, since it actually was within sight of Mt. Fuji; but it was truncated by an unexpected typhoon. Maybe 1999 was payback, karma. I remember watching Tricky’s performance Sunday night as dark clouds rolled in overhead, thinking “it’s finally come.” It didn’t, but the threatening weather made Tricky’s already dark performance — both thematically and literally, since the lighting was purposely dim — even darker. Nature and artifice combined for a sublime aesthetic outcome that one could never have experienced in a club or concert hall.

But it was Phish, the American jam band, that best represented the vibe of the festival while at the same time being least representative of the general tone of its music. That’s why they were essentially given the presciently named Field of Heaven. As heirs to the Grateful Dead in both sound and sensibility (there was a small fenced-off area next to the sound tent for private tapers), Phish played from 7:00 to 11:00 each night. The field was lined with booths that sold hemp products and candles and other organically-identified items, and a security person at the entrance to the field handed out sprigs of fragrant lavender.

More aggressive groups like Limp Bizkit, Atari Teenage Riot, and Hi-Standard commanded larger audiences and kicked up more of a potential for bodily injury, but I never got the impression that the kids who listened to them were themselves more aggressive. Often I stood next to the stage and watched the burly American servicemen who comprised the security contingent handle the mosh pit. Bodies would sail over the barriers into their arms. Sometimes they saw someone in trouble and leaned over the churning morass to pull them out, as if they were plucking laundry from a spinning clothes drier. The kids would fall on the cushions dazed, get up laughing, and run back around the barrier to do it again.

It was wild, but not careless. These kids were enjoying their music with the same attitude that the swaying bodies over at the Field of Heaven were enjoying theirs. The difference, like the music, was one of style not temperament.

One night while was I talking to Trey Anastasio, Phish’s guitarist, members of the Boredoms, Japan’s (hell, the world’s) premiere thrash-noise band, dropped by to extend their compliments. Both bands, to my surprise, were fans of each other’s music, and they started talking about jamming together someday. I then mentioned that, except for Rage Against the Machine, most of the kids I’d talked to had come to see Phish.

“Did you see them?” Asastasio asked me.

“Who, Rage?”

“Yeah.” He shook his head in disbelief. “Weren’t they absolutely incredible?”

They were. It was the first time I’d ever seen them perform live. Previously, they had been a band I liked in principle but not in fact. Then I was standing on a rise of land overlooking the audience — more than 20,000 people jumping up and down under colored lights — and the band’s convictions hit me with the force of a truck. Zack de la Rocha’s celebrated political dogma was inseparable from the band’s blistering metal attack, and for once I think the crowd got both simultaneously. “Everything for everyone,” de la Rocha shouted, paraphrasing the Zapatista slogan, “and nothing for ourselves.”

Of course, not everybody got it. I thought back to what a colleague of mine had told me earlier that evening. She was doing random interviews in the crowd and had been approached by someone from one of the US bases. “They should give American service people a discount, because it’s too expensive.” Everything for everyone, and a little something more for ourselves.

“Do what they told you,” Zack continued, “do what they sold you,” and finally, “from the people who brought you Hiroshima and Coca Cola.” Though I knew he was talking about a general mindset rather than particular Americans, I couldn’t help but think to myself: And don’t forget Woodstock 99.

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