It was the ’80s. While New Wave and yuppies and Reaganomics ruled the country, there was a thriving underground scene where art and music intersected. Starting first in Hollywood and the desolate ghost town of Downtown LA before spreading into the suburbs, punk rock pissed off the cops like nothing had since the 60s. Cops in riot gear used to scatter the confused crowds of kids at shows, batons swinging, with no provocation at all.
A young concert promoter named Stuart Swezey wanted to avoid the police crackdowns and explore new environments. Soon he took his promotional concept, “Desolation Center” out of the downtown warehouses and into the wide open spaces of the desert and the sea. This documentary covers the four site-specific shows that followed–three shows in the desert and one on a whale watching boat in the LA harbor– as well as several in Downtown LA. These pioneering events were the inspiration for Coachella, Lollapalooza and even Burning Man, as the founders of these festivals attest to onscreen. Although it’s already pretty obvious from the old clips of Survival Research Lab’s exploding art and Einstürzende Neubauten making industrial music with scrap metal and power saws, that it was proto-Burning Man.
“Desolation Center,” directed and produced by Swezey, is the usual mix of film clips, stills, and talking heads. Never dragging, it moves at a fast clip, as does Swezey’s narration. The interview subjects are funny and interesting, and the commentary is well edited to be both complementary to the visuals on the screen and to provide context. Besides describing the history and zeitgeist, the interviews are also really entertaining; there is a lot of humorous sangfrois at the actual dangers attendees faced. Participants include Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth, Mike Watt from the Minutemen, Blixa Bargeld from Einstürzende Neubauten, Cris and Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets, Don Bolles from the Germs, and Perry Farrell from Psi Com and Jane’s Addiction.
As for the music, bands include Sonic Youth, the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, the Swans, Einstürzende Neubauten, Lawndale, Redd Kross, and more. Sometimes the songs are playing in the background, but there are also several long clips of the bands playing live. The sound isn’t always perfect, because these were random people videotaping without the benefit of modern equipment, and there was a lot of atmospheric noise, kind of by design. Sonic Youth playing Death Valley 69 at the Gila Monster Jamboree, with Kim’s vocals howling out into the desert is almost chilling, but so…right. The Minutemen’s late D. Boone singing History Lesson Part II amongst the giant cranes of the LA Harbor made me tear up. It’s going to be an awesome soundtrack.
When people throw around the phrase “DIY” I’m not sure whether they really understand the deep commitment that ethos entailed. Stuart Swezey and his crew took many leaps of faith, as did the musicians and the audiences. But when the hammer fell, it fell on Swezey, who was fined hundreds of dollars for trespassing. In the true punk rock spirit of bonhomie, several bands put on a fundraiser to pay the fine. Nobody ever thought about waivers or lawsuits. It was a big tribe, all in the same frame of mind. And everyone did it just for the sake of doing it. Nobody made any money, and Stuart Swezey certainly wasn’t planning to grow his concept into a big commercial venture like (cough) Coachella.
It’s hard to be completely objective when you are close to the topic. I was lucky enough to be at one of these awesome shows, the Gila Monster Jamboree. And it was one of the best nights of my life. I also know many of the people interviewed for the film, as well as Stuart Swezey himself. So, is this subject only interesting to those of us who are close to it? I don’t think so. I think it was the kind of experience that is difficult to communicate. It’s impossible for moviegoers to feel the cool air, the endless sky and the sounds screeching into the night. But this film does a damn good job of letting you get a little taste of what it was like to be there. As Cris Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets states in the documentary, “It was magical as crap.”
Starting Friday, September 13, 2019, Desolation Center will be screened in LA at Laemmle Santa Monica, Pasadena (TICKETS) and the Arclight Hollywood (TICKETS). The film will also be screened over the next few months in venues across the United States and Canada.