"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 3 August 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Hooked on Bacchus



Like lots of people with a T1

connection or a pay-per-view

account, we spent hours riveted

to the broadcast of the slo-mo

train wreck that was Woodstock

'99. The most gripping part,

though, wasn't the naked people

or the rampaging teen arsonists

or the interviews with sullen,

irritated security guys or even

the other naked people. It was

the end, when the producers cut

away from yet another toadying

artist interview to give

concertgoers an early stab at

spin control. One after another,

the kids approached the cameras

with weak, uncomprehending grins

on their faces to say that they

had no words for what was going

on, that it was just very

special, that it was something

they would never forget. But

unlike their grandparents, whose

statistical histories of the

original 1969 peace-in are

miraculously free of wanton

destruction and sexual assault,

these kids haven't learned the

Vietnam-era lesson about

controlling the official story.


The initial word was that the

fires had preempted the all-star

Jimi Hendrix tribute jam

originally scheduled for the end

of the festival. And this made

the havoc sound like an even

better idea: Mass destruction

wreaked by an intoxicated mob is

more bearable than a Hendrix

tribute could ever be. However,

it turned out that not only was

the Hendrix thing still on —

as a video and light show, woo

woo — but the mobs around

the bonfires didn't know what to

do with it. They were

halfheartedly tossing in picnic

tables and soda cans and stuff,

and mostly just standing there

like hypnotized bunnies in baggy

pants. The really adventurous

iconoclasts were trying to roll

joints. Our uncontrollable

reaction: Don't any of you

people know how to hold a




There's a basic human impulse

to dance around a great big fire

to the beat of devil music every

now and then — if there

weren't, we'd have made it to

the end of The Golden Bough. But

it's just part of the rite of

Dionysus, and the Woodstock kids

were totally getting it wrong.

(For those of you who haven't

suffered through Friedrich

Nietzsche's The Birth of

Tragedy, here's the basic

outline: Dionysian = Jimi

playing "The Star-Spangled

Banner" and setting his guitar

on fire; Apollonian = Wyclef

Jean attempting the same trick

and not being able to light the

damn thing.) If it's done right,

Nietzsche says, the bacchant

"feels himself a god ... he is no

longer an artist, he has become

a work of art: in these

paroxysms of intoxication the

artistic power of all nature

reveals itself." (Want to read

the rest of this routine?

Somebody seems to have

transcribed it off the same Frankie

Goes to Hollywood record

we learned it from.)


The tableau on the screen was

obviously an attempt at a

Dionysian rite, apropos of

nothing but an opportune moment.

It sure wasn't a riot against

anything in particular — ex

post facto justifications are

comforting, but pricey Cheetos

aren't probable cause for arson.

And those poor kids were trying

so hard to be moved by their

pathetic bonfires! We wanted to

reach out and counsel them on

how to do the rite right. First

of all, it's wine, people, wine

— pot makes you lazy and

hungry, Ecstasy makes you as

touchy-feely as a pinhead.

What's called for here is an

actual frenzy, which is not the

same thing as tipping over ATMs.


They skipped the crucial blood

sacrifices too. To pass for a

crowd of Maenads, once you get

loaded, you have to tear a

living creature to shreds with

your bare teeth (doesn't even

have to be a baby — a goat

or a bull is a perfectly

acceptable symbol of Dionysus);

body-painted vegans-

until-graduation playing

catch with looted $4 giant soft

pretzels don't make the cut. And

the difference between firelit

mass erotic frenzy and K-holed

teenagers being raped in

overflowing Port-O-Sans is not

of degree but of kind. You can't

spell "bacchanal" without

"banal," but the Woodstockers

took it to new depths of




Mostly, though, what the stars

of the next few days' headlines

were doing was standing around

watching the pretty flames,

which was a really dumb move if

the ritual of frenzy, joy, and

sacrifice was going to mean

anything. To compound matters,

that's what the couch potatoes

at home were doing too.

Nietzsche's problem with

Euripides was that he "brought the

spectator upon the stage" and

destroyed the power of drama.

This is where the other



event, Burning Man, comes in,

with its war cry of "no

spectators!" It's a

hypertrophied fib, of course:

"nose taters" is more like it.

If there's one thing Burning

Man's really about, it's

spectators — millions of

them, now and in the future

— pandered to by magazines,

books, and the Web sites of

every dweeb with a camera and a

Winnebago who can spell

"Geocities." There's a cult of

onlookers around the

Exhaustively Documented

Autonomous Zone, and they're

only invisible from the burn

site itself; everyone knows that

the world is watching, everyone

waves to the camera (which

somehow never gets thrown into

the fire with all the other

crap), and the immolation of the

Man is preserved in digital

fidelity from every angle, along

with the unburned form of every

piece of artwork fed to the

flames. Which means it doesn't

really count as a sacrifice: You

can't give something up if you

hold on to it forever. To quote

Nietzsche one last time

(honest): "The degenerate form

of tragedy lived on as a

monument of its painful and

violent death." This reads kind

of like the New York Post's

coverage of Woodstock.



He had a point. The Woodstock

foofaraw couldn't cut it as a

bacchanal because it was done

entirely for the camera, the

spectators, the viewers at home.

The fire starters were aiming

for immortality, which is an

Apollonian idea if ever there

was one. This year's Signing the

Ransom Note award for Advanced

Moronism goes to 18-year-old

Jason Hamet, who said, "I tried

to start a riot twice today

because I was bored," and then

split to "steal some more stuff"

— but not before identifying

himself to a New York Times

reporter by name. You can't be

overwhelmed and subsumed into a

wild mob if you're trying to be

the star asshole. (Besides,

despite what you may have heard

from Alec Empire, yelling "start

the riot ... now!" doesn't work

that well.)


The joy and freedom of real

bacchants, as well as their

violence, are as transient as a

$4 Pepsi buzz. The ultimate

truth about the bacchanal is

that once it ends, it's over.

The mass goes back to being

individual people, and they

return to their lives outside

"the charm of the Dionysian."

This Woodstock didn't have the

problem the first one had of

pathetic hippies who never

wanted to leave — anyone who

thinks that it constituted

"going back to the garden"

should probably be locked away

as a superpredator — but

it's left a massive spoor of

comprehensive documentation:

JPEGs of dumb grins above

airbrushed body paint, RealAudio

whoops from around the blazing

chow trucks. The idea that

anything that might be

meaningful has to be saved on

camera is the enemy of real

ecstasy. Of course, the kids are

never going to forget the

burning of Rome. They didn't

figure out that they were

supposed to.

courtesy of The Cloud of Unknowing

[Purchase the Suck Book here]