The Desolation Center documentary took audiences back to the early days of the LA punk-rock scene during its screening at the Florida Film Festival. The film was directed by the Desolation Center’s founder Stuart Swezey who provided moviegoers with a chance to see punk-rock band performances in the desert more than 30 years ago on the big screen.
Swezey’s innovative concert experiences are also considered the precursor to Coachella and the Burning Man music festivals.
Being a punk rocker in Los Angeles during the 1980s wasn’t easy. The City of Angels’ law enforcement weren’t fond of teens and young adults who had a mohawk haircut, colored locks, wore black attire and listened to anti-authoritarian and politically-charged punk-rock music.
Members of the punk-rock subculture were looked upon as outsiders or troublemakers, but in reality they were misunderstood artists, creatives, dreamers, musicians, writers and decision makers of the future.
The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) appeared at punk-rock concerts when there wasn’t a disturbance. The police activity also caused tension between law enforcement and the punk-rock community. Many concertgoers felt that the police instigated fights with the punk-rock scene, so they could make arrests.
Folks living in LA at the time consider this era as LAPD Chief Daryl Gates’ reign of terror. Many of the punks felt he was a tyrannical puppet master holding the strings and causing unnecessary chaos.
Swezey was a punk-rock music enthusiast who was fed up with LAPD harassing fans at concerts. He wanted to make a difference and give fans and musicians a safe haven for concerts. He came up with the name Desolation Center for his venture, which displayed his feelings of despair in the punk scene. He scouted out remote locations for out-of-town shows. With the help of Bruce Licher of Savage Republic, Swezey organized his first concert at Soggy Dry Lake, a lake bed near the Joshua Tree in the Mojave Desert. The concert was called the Mojave Exodus, which included performances by the Savage Republic and Minutemen on Saturday, April 24, 1983.
LA punks embarked on a mysterious and adventurous journey as buses transported them to the Mojave Desert.
Besides the concert being situated in a secluded utopia, there were hiccups during the first Desolation Center concert. The bands needed to block out the sand and wind, so the best solution was placing socks on the microphones and parking the buses behind the them to create a windbreak. The buses came to the rescue again when the generator powering the public-address (PA) system started to run out of gas.
Swezey took his second desert DIY experience up a notch in the Mojave Desert near Mecca, California. The Desolation Center’s Mojave Auszüg concert, which occurred on Sunday, March 4, 1984, featured avant-garde, experimental German band Einstürzende Neubauten, noise artist Boyd Rice and the machine performance-art collective Survival Research Laboratories.
The explosive concert featured Einstürzende Neubauten banging rocks on metallic surfaces and oil drums and Survival Research Laboratories attempting to blow up a canyon cave along with having its Mad Max-looking mobiles drive around in the desert.
Three months later, the third Desolation Center concert, Joy at Sea, left the barren desert for a vessel voyage in the San Pedro, California harbor. Fans experienced a concert on the water before concert cruises were popular! The show, which occurred on Friday, June 15, 1984, featured the Minute Men, Meat Puppets, Points of Friction and Lawndale.
Pictured from l-r: Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets and D. Boon of the Minutemen at Joy at Sea. Photo by Ann Summa.
The Desolation Center’s final Mojave Desert gig, the Gila Monster Jamboree, featured the Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets, Redd Kross and Psi Com on Saturday, Jan. 5, 1985. During this show, fans drove themselves instead of relying on buses to transport them to the concert, but stopped at checkpoints along the way.
Sonic Youth goes ballistic during its desert performance, Redd Kross dresses down and rocks out and punk-rock fans have an opportunity to see Perry Farrell perform with his Psi Com band before it disbands and becomes Jane’s Addiction. Farrell organized Lollapalooza as a touring music festival, but after a six-year run, it’s now based at Grant Park in Chicago, Illinois.
The film from start to finish flows well and tells the wonderful story of the four Desolation Center concerts with classic footage and interviews by Swezey, band members and concert attendees.
The desert punk-rock concert concept was ahead of its time. It took a lot of guts and determination for Swezey to make his dream a reality.
Swezey participated in a question-and-answer session after the film screening. I had an opportunity to ask him if he would change anything and which band he wished had performed during one of his Desolation Center concerts.
“I wouldn’t have had attendees drive themselves to the Gila Monster Jamboree concert because I felt like it changed the vibe and slightly detracted from the overall atmosphere,” said Swezey.
As far as the bands go, “I would have enjoyed seeing and booking the Butthole Surfers because the group’s performance would have been incredible with fire in a desert setting,” he said.
Keep your eyes peeled for upcoming DVD releases, featuring footage and extras from the Desolation Center concerts in the future.
Music fans will love the Desolation Center documentary because it’s punk-rock history melded with timeless tunes that make you want to go back and experience the music by land and sea.