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August 1994: Portishead’s Dummy, Woodstock ’94, McDonalds Coffee & More

This month in PopCulture25YL, we’re taking a look at the music, shows, video games, and whatever else we want from the month that was August of 1994.

Woodstock 94'

Woodstock ’94 Through a Lens Darkly   by Anonymous
Five years before the disaster that was Woodstock ‘99 and long before the Fyre Festival was ever dreamt of, Woodstock ’94, promoted as “2 More Days of Peace and Music” in celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the original 1969 Woodstock, was held August 12-14, 1994 in Saugerties, New York. I snuck into Woodstock ‘94 at age 23 at loose ends after a gap year in London with my British boyfriend traveling with me. Tickets were priced at $135 which didn’t seem at all in keeping with 90’s alternative Neo-hippiedom or the idealized original festival it was celebrating which itself had $18 tickets in 1969 (equal to $120 today.) Spoiler alert, it’s still and always was partially about capitalism, kids. It seemed like a depressing corporate money grab by the original Woodstock organizers to us twenty-somethings but during those three rainy muddy days, the event that ultimately became known as Mudstock due to the excessive and relentless rain became about community and music. Only 164,000 tickets were sold but the crowd grew to an estimated 550,000 so tickets were clearly eventually optional as the festival’s strict admission policy completely broke down over the three days. Those of us who snuck in felt like we sticking it to corporate America as all of the artists were paid.

What were we looking for at Woodstock ’94? I knew it was going to be a big deal given all the great acts signed up to play the festival and because of that ‘90s youthful feeling that we could somehow recreate the best parts of the 1960s. I also knew that I didn’t have tickets so I hatched a last-minute plan to camp nearby with my boyfriend and try to sneak in. I’d been to the original Lollapalooza in Chicago in 1991 so I had experienced how amazing large festivals could be. I thought it was going to be nearly impossible to get in without tickets but hoped it would somehow be like the ‘60s when people just showed up en masse. We road tripped from my parent’s house in Philadelphia and I was surprised that I was able to reserve a camping spot within walking distance of the festival only a few days in advance. That Friday night we decided to scope out the festival site without our tent and supplies figuring we likely couldn’t get in but we easily walked onto the concert field with no gates or check-ins. The event organizers were playing the film Easy Rider on the big screens so we hung out and watched it and debated staying with nothing but ultimately decided to go back to our campsite and come back the next day with our tent and all of our stuff. After all, it was easy to get in. The field that night had a small crowd and it felt like something big was about to happen. Maybe this would be a Neo-hippie festival after all.

The next morning was a different dystopian world. We were met with long lines with authoritarian ticket checks and bag searches for contraband items like outside food to force attendees to buy overpriced water bottles and food. Security guards yelled at people without tickets to move along and we realized we had made a huge mistake in leaving Friday night. We wandered around a bit and found some kind people with wire cutters who had cut a large hole in the fence and were welcoming in weary travelers. We were in.

It was 25 years ago so my memories of the festival are through a lens darkly. I could have sworn that I remembered Johnny Cash playing his cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt.” But he didn’t record his cover of it until 2002 and he didn’t even accept the invite to play Woodstock ’94 though his name was printed on the promo posters. I’ve pieced together that I am remembering the amazing performance of the song that night by Nine Inch Nails and that when I heard Cash’s cover years later, I superimposed his performance onto my memories of the festival. The pinnacle of the festival to me was that Nine Inch Nails performance. I’d seen them in concert before but they were in rare form that night and the band had had a mud fight right before they came on stage so they played the entire set covered in mud.A post-mud Trent Reznor sings intensely during Nine Inch Nail's set.
To a red-blooded twenty-something girl, seeing an angry and talented Trent Reznor at the top of his game covered in mud is enough to make you want to look for the nearest mud waterfall and join the mud people tribe. The mud people of Woodstock ’94 freely dancing and rolling around in various states of muddy undress were beautiful to my idealistic 23-year-old self. However, I decided not to be the lone mud person in my group. I was grateful for that a few days later when we were checking into a cabin in actual Woodstock, New York with wholesome owners and on our way to visit my grandmother. I was also grateful we didn’t actually take acid, due to a miscommunication that weekend, for similar reasons.

Things I remember for sure about Woodstock ’94 besides the mud people were a sea of tents and the peaceful sound of almost constant rain on the roof of our child-size tent. I remember getting lost looking for our tent on hills of endless tents. Somehow I found our tent which was also a check in the “grateful I wasn’t on acid” category. Despite the occasional creepy dude asking me to join him and his wife in his tent, I remember a friendly crowd who were in it together with crazy rain and amazing musicians.

I remember a blur of good performances by bands like Green Day, The Orb, James, Blind Melon, Porno for Pyros, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Primus and I’m sure many more. There were rumors that the Rolling Stones would show up as they had a concert nearby but they never did. It was three days, 25 years ago.

On the final night, Bob Dylan, who couldn’t be persuaded to play the original Woodstock despite it being almost in his backyard, was introduced with “We waited twenty-five years to hear this.” He gave an amazing performance just as the rain finally let up.

I remember the sudden wake up of back to reality at the end of the festival as we joined lines of exhausted people dragging ourselves through the kind of mud that tries to steal your shoes right off your feet and makes each step feel like your ankles are breaking. I definitely remember the campsite manager yelling at us for leaving our car one extra night but miraculously we didn’t get towed like so many others did. Overall, it was an amazing experience and though some of the bands blended together for me as I saw them before and after the festival, the experience was one of community and music and mud.

I read that the 50 year anniversary of Woodstock was cancelled even after the organizers tried moving the location to Maryland and making the event free (quite a markdown from the original $450 ticket price.) I think it’s a little sad but a little fitting as there’s no way to recreate that 1969 event. The event we got in 1994 was a very ’90s event with musicians yelling at the crowd and the organizers though something like the community feeling of 1969 did shine through during the storms.

The McDonalds Coffee Lawsuit   by Caemeron Crain

If you were alive and aware back in 1994, you definitely know about the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit settlement. It was everywhere, from late-night TV to your local news. And the subtext was always the same: some dumb woman didn’t realize coffee was hot.

Late-night hosts, from Jay Leno to probably everyone who was on the air at the time, cracked jokes along these lines, often riffing to other dumb-ass things a person might not realize are dangerous.

But it wasn’t just them. The news coverage was often similar, lacking in detail about the case and instead focusing on the apparent absurdity of a woman who spilled hot coffee on herself while driving being able to sue for millions of dollars.

The case became emblematic for the idea that frivolous lawsuits were running amok in the U.S., to such an extent that the case has come to serve as a kind of cultural shorthand for that notion, even for those who weren’t alive and aware at the time.

And the jokes have continued here and there in the years since, with the likes of Craig Ferguson, for example, referencing the case on his own late-night show in the following decade.

If only we’d been given the truth with detail.

Here is what is true: Stella Liebeck, 79, got a coffee from a drive-thru window at McDonald’s. She was in the passenger seat of the car, but it didn’t have cup holders. So her grandson, who was driving, parked so that she could put cream and sugar in her coffee. She opened it up, spilled it on her lap accidentally, suffered third-degree burns, spent eight days in the hospital, had skin grafts, lost 20 pounds, was permanently disfigured, and almost died.

Ha-ha.

She admitted that spilling the coffee was her fault, and originally only asked that McDonald’s cover her medical bills. Given what she had already been through, and estimates about the cost of the future treatment she would need, this was an ask of $20K. The company responded by offering 800 bucks.

So it was lawyer time. Because what else do you do, really?

Now, you may be wondering—to go back to where we started, what with the jokes and all—didn’t this silly woman know that coffee is hot?

Of course she did.

In fact, it was the heat of the coffee that the whole case hanged on, basically. She admitted that she spilled it on herself. She wasn’t driving, as many reports claimed, but sitting in a parked car. But, yeah, she spilled it on herself, holding it between her knees as she took the top off to add cream and sugar. Oopsie.

Except that almost killed her, because McDonald’s was selling coffee at that point that clocked in around 180–190 °F (82–88 °C). That’s nearly boiling! Attorneys at the trial presented evidence that other establishments tended to serve coffee some 20 degrees cooler, and that this made a key difference in terms of one’s ability to avoid significant burns.

In other words, the whole case was about the heat of the coffee. And this is what led the jury to find that McDonald’s had been grossly negligent.

They decided the company should pay $2.7 million in punitive damages (because fuck them!) but Liebeck only ever got something like $640K. And that’s a lot of money, sure, but nothing about this case was frivolous.

We all know coffee is hot, but you don’t expect it to be so hot that if you spill it on yourself you’ll get third-degree burns, end up in the hospital for skin grafts, and almost die.

And yet here we have a woman who went through that, only to become the butt of jokes for the rest of her life, and a rallying point for the forces of evil who want to claim that we’re being overrun by “frivolous lawsuits.”

It’s hard to blame the late-night hosts and the comments they made jokes at Liebeck’s expense, but it is pretty easy to blame those who call themselves journalists.

They ran this story all over the place, without nuance or detail. And there was, and is, a lobby against consumer lawsuits like this that they fed into, whether from complicity or negligence.

The truth is, the McDonald’s coffee suit is one of those rare instances where the good guys won. The jury—weighing all of the evidence at hand—said, “you know what, McDonald’s? Fuck you on this one: pay millions of dollars!”

And they changed their behavior because of it. But Stella Liebeck lived out the rest of her life as a joke.

CDs On Rotation In Our 6-Disk

Sponge- Rotting Piñata   by John Bernardy

the cover of Sponge's Rotting Pinata is a pen and ink illustration of a person, filled with a mound of orange and yellowcandy corn

Sponge deserves way more name recognition than they have. They’ve been able to put out albums every handful of years since this debut album, so they’re a proper working band, but the quality of this album alone makes me think they should be at least as renowned as Soundgarden. Sponge deserved to be on The Crow Soundtrack, as far as I’m concerned. Instead, they’re lumped in with mysteriously faded bands like Candlebox.

Sponge has a proper heaviness and depth that fit in great with anything of the day. Their vocalist Vinnie Dombrowski’s vocals are favorable to Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland. And both “Molly” and “Plowed” are on this album. I mean, what more does a band have to do? If you’ve never heard of sponge, try those two songs on. And when you inevitably find them appealing, try out the rest of the album.

The Jerky Boys- Jerky Boys 2   by John Bernardy

The cover to Jerky Boys 2 is snarky comic book panel style, and includes their name in font, their big mouthed mascot character, and a few illustrated prank calls.

Johnny Brennan and Kamal Ahmed would be YouTube stars today. They made prank phone calls and recorded them, and in 1994 that was enough to make them known in every school in America. They were such a thing, Radiohead named their first album after the first track on this album. Their first comedy album came out a year earlier, and their follow up came out this month.

It’s full of accents and stereotypes. They call customer service lines, businesses, random people, all in search of confusing them. These guys came up through Howard Stern’s radio show, and listening to it today I can see exactly why that worked so well for them.

I still don’t think they’re that funny, but I also don’t see how this was as shocking as it was in the middle ‘90s either. It’s just young guys acting dumb, and with everything the internet allows, this phenomenon just comes off quaint.

Jann Arden- Living Under June   by John Bernardy

the cover to Jann Arden's Living Under June is a sepiatone shot from above of the singer, hair in her face and arms behind her back looking pensive.

Jann Arden’s album Living Under June was a huge hit in her native Canada, but even in America, “Insensitive” got a ton of airplay. Arden got noticed on an even larger scale in a few years as part of the Lilith Fair crowd, much like Shawn Colvin who put out Cover Girl—an album of covers—this month as well.

Arden’s half country with her style, and half in the power-pop vein that leans into the same territory as Sarah McLachlan’s Touch and Solace albums. I remember really enjoying this album at the time and I can see why, but it’s nowhere comparable to McLachlan’s ’93 release Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. Even though it’s not as edgy as I remember, I still think “Insensitive” is a great song for its category, and it favorably reminds me of ‘80s rock ballads by Heart.

Portishead- Dummy   by Chris Flackett

The cover of Portishead's Dummy is mostly blue, with a narrow widsceen picture cutting through the center of singer Beth Gibbons looking highly enigmatic.

Isn’t it strange how the future can sound like the past (and vice versa)? In 1994 as Britpop, for better or worse, took popular music and filtered it back through the cosy, familiar sounds of the sixties and seventies, Portishead went the other way.

Taking the cool, hip John Barry soundtrack sounds from sixties cult spy films as their starting point, Portishead dragged these sounds back into the nineties kicking and screaming, filtering them through the cavernous echo chambers of dub and riding them across the tough, street smart beats of American hip hop. It shared friends and traits with the Bristol Trip-Hop scene, yet it carried all its own mystery, beauty and seduction, the perfect enigmatic soundtrack to the greatest Bond film never yet made (as directed by David Lynch). The likes of Dodgy and Gene just couldn’t compare, a load of old hat.

And then there was the voice of Beth Gibbons.

In equal measure hysterical and hyper-sensual, she is the premier Femme Fatale, on the run from her own untrustworthy emotions as much as any Bogart-esque detective, repelled and fascinated in equal measures by her despair and her desires.

This is the torch singer taking said torch and setting the blue velvet curtains of the Slow Club alight, finding and exploring her own sexuality in the flames. Laura Palmer would have had this record hidden with her diary, and it would have been the perfect companion.

Beth Gibbons’ voice is one of my definition’s of beauty. And when I walk around with Portishead snaking through my headphones the everyday world around me is transformed from something vaguely mundane to an exciting, illicit, dangerous labyrinth straight out of a classic Film Noir.

And if that’s not the sign of a great piece of art, then I don’t know what is!

 

 


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