Before Burning Man and Lollapalooza, there was Desolation Center
In recent years, massive gatherings and festivals such as Burning Man, Lollapalooza and Coachella have become destination events that draw thousands. However, the roots of these cultural juggernauts are far humbler. That honor goes to Desolation Center, an early-'80s DIY venture that booked concerts in off-the-grid locations. And they were only promoted word-of-mouth.
These gigs included now-legendary (and very illegal) events such as the Gila Monster Jamboree featuring Sonic Youth, Redd Kross and Meat Puppets. Mojave Auszüg boasted performances by German industrial titans Einstürzende Neubauten and art provocateurs Survival Research Laboratories.
Stuart Swezey was a major figure in these Desolation Center gigs. Today he is a plainspoken, humble gent working in reality TV. However, in the early ‘80s, Swezey was one of hundreds of kids in L.A. under the sway of punk rock. He was frustrated at how the scene’s momentum was continually halted by the actions of that city’s police department.
“You barely ever got through a show,” Swezey says. “Just pulling one off was an accomplishment. Getting to see these bands was a really big deal. People would drive for hours if they knew there was a gig in a remote spot.”
The long-tail impact of Desolation Center has been talked about for years. Now Swezey has finally properly memorialized the work he and his friends did via a documentary. Desolation Center, directed by Swezey and featuring copious amounts of archival footage, captures the ethos and spirit of the counterculture.
Much of this comes from dozens of interviews with some of the musicians that played Desolation Center gigs. Various members of Sonic Youth, Minutemen and Einstürzende Neubauten appear alongside fans who attended these performances. They rave about the rarity and magic of these once-in-a-lifetime events. (Especially the Gila Monster Jamboree, where much of the audience was fueled by some acid that a friend of the Meat Puppets passed around.)
The interviews also drew out some details about these gigs that were a surprise to Swezey. Survival Research Labs founder Mark Pauline remembered setting off an explosion inside a small cave that sent a large piece of steel flying over the audience. Incredibly, no one was injured. ("Obviously we would have stopped the show if someone had been cut in half,” Pauline says in the film.) Swezey recalls another story that didn’t make the film. This one involved a truckload of dudes arriving at the Mojave Auszüg location looking to do some target practice.
“They get there, and there’s all these crazy punk-rock people and explosions and bonfires," says Swezey. "So they were like, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’ I had no idea. That was all news to me. I think I was too busy running around, making sure things were moving along.”
The most startling revelation in the film was how much the L.A. punk scene was transformed by the death of Minutemen guitarist/vocalist D. Boon. The 27-year-old was driving through Arizona with his sister and fiancée when the rear axle of their van snapped, throwing the vehicle from the road and killing him.
Boon died the same night Desolation Center held its final event: the first West Coast appearance by noise-rockers Swans. At that point, Swezey was ready to wrap up his short career as a concert promoter. (He received a $400 fine from the Department of the Interior for the Gila Monster Jamboree.) Boon's death was the final push he needed to move on.
“It was one of those inflection points,” Swezey says. “Sometimes one person can be that important, and Boon was like that. I don’t think I realized it as much when he was alive, and I didn’t realize it at first when he died. It just felt like things weren’t going to be the same in L.A. I wanted to try to be underground in a different way.”
From there, Swezey went on to create Amok Books, a distribution company that eventually became a brick-and-mortar shop and counterculture publishing house. He also began finding his footing in the worlds of television and film. Swezey helped produce Criss Angel’s series Mindfreak and Better Living Through Circuitry, a documentary on electronic music and rave culture.
Along the way, Swezey began to clock the influence that Desolation Center had on the counterculture. His former roommate, Perry Farrell, announced the creation of Lollapalooza, which took the festival experience on the road. Swezey caught wind of another fan starting up Burning Man. The art event in the desert of Arizona has since become a destination for Silicon Valley tech gurus and fashion models to cut loose.
It’s a legacy that Swezey cops to in Desolation Center with an air of bemusement and disappointment.
“Some part of me is surprised that these very uncommercial, disorganized efforts have turned into these big operations,” he says. “I think the thing I’m most perplexed by is young people going along with the whole idea of commodifying an experience. I mean, of course, corporations would think of that. But it doesn’t mean you have to participate.”
Desolation Center is available digitally via Apple TV (iTunes), Google Play and Amazon Instant Video.