Review: ‘Desolation Center’ documentary is a punk rock desert trip worth taking
"You know, in Europe you don't have the same access to explosives and weapons that Americans do," Einstürzende Neubauten's Blixa Bargeld said of his band's truly incendiary 1984 performance in the California desert, one of a series of totally DIY shows put on by the Desolation Center collective during the Reagan Years. Desolation Center was the brainchild of Stuart Swezey who, nearly 40 years later, has made a wonderful documentary about the concerts and the time. It's not often that a film leaves you totally envious of the people who were there, but this is one of them.
Swezey, who was 22 at the time, had gotten sick of trying to find places to put on shows in Los Angeles where kids could go and wouldn't get shut down by the cops. After travelling through Mexico listening to PiL, Wire and Savage Republic on his Walkman, he hit on an idea: do them in the middle of the desert. “Their music felt right for that setting since it was this mix of Spaghetti Western soundtracks and Arabic music,” Swezey told The Hundreds. “The combination of the music with the emptiness of this otherworldly landscape made me wonder what it would be like to see this kind of music performed in this environment. How uniquely Californian would it be to have a show in the desert? You couldn’t do that in New York.”
He contacted Savage Republic's Bruce Leicher, who not only agreed to do the show, but had a location in mind (he'd shot a film there) and Leicher designed the tickets for it, too. (These days, Leicher is as well known for his hand-printed graphic design as his many great bands.) The first of these shows was the "Mojave Exodus" in 1983 which featured The Minutemen and Savage Republic. The Minutemen agreed to headline and the "Mojave Exodus" happened on April 24, 1983, with attendees being taken to the show in old school buses. Not without its hiccups, the show was a success...but it would be the next Desolation Center event that was the real stuff of legend.
On a trip to Berlin in early 1984, Swezey caught an Einstürzende Neubauten show and thought their industrial sound and performance style -- using found metal and power tools -- would be perfect for Desolation Center. Swezey and Leicher wanted to up the ante for this one so, at Neubauten's suggestion he also booked the controversial Boyd Rice and, really cranking the industrial element, performance art collective Survival Research Laboratories who made post-apocalyptic robots and war machines that spewed fire and destroyed each other. (Think Robot Wars, but much bigger, scarier and unpredictable.)
"Mojave Auszug" happened March 4, 1984. SRL's set included setting off explosives in a cave and blowing up household appliances they found dumped in the desert. Boyd Rice's set had him laying on a bed of nails with a cinderblock on his chest, which Einstürzende Neubauten's Alexander Hacke hit repeatedly with a sledgehammer. It was that kind of show.
For a change of pace, Desolation Center next presented "Joy at Sea," which featured The Minutemen and Meat Puppets on a boat in the Minutemen's hometown of San Pedro, CA in June, 1984. “It was a wild crowd,” Swezey told The Hundreds. “A lot of people I talk to today say they don’t remember anything about the show because they were so hammered that night, so we’re lucky no one fell overboard.”
The final Desolation Center desert show, "Gila Monster Jamboree," had Sonic Youth playing their first California show, The Meat Puppets and Redd Kross. One attendee brought 500 hits of acid, so legend has it nearly everyone was tripping at the show which was lit only by moonlight. Redd Kross got lost on the way there and almost didn't make it at all.
Among those in attendance at at least one of the Desolation Center shows was Swezey's then roommate, Perry Farrell (whose pre-Jane's Addiction band Psi Com opened the Gila Monster Jamboree) who would go on to found Lollapalooza, and Gary Tovar who would go on to found Coachella. And certainly the Neubauten/Survival Research Labs show can be seen as a direct precursor to Burning Man. Like a lot of stories, not that many actual people may have attended these shows, but everyone who did left inspired.
Because there were so many creatives involved in the Desolation Center shows, there is a lot of amazing film and photos from the time, which is what really makes this documentary great, with a real "you are there" vibe. It's supplemented with current day talking head interviews, but most of them are done in creative ways -- they took Blixa Bargeld and Mike Watt back out to the desert for theirs -- so it never gets bogged down in static shots. The overall sense of "I can't believe this happened" is strong throughout the film, as is a sense of nostalgia for a time when shows like this could happen. You will be laughing and shaking your head that nobody died.
Like the collective itself, Desolation Center sputters out after the the Sonic Youth show. A combination of authorities catching on, and the 1985 death of The Minutemen's D. Boon, had Swezey deciding Desolation Center had run its course. But for most of its running time, this is a desert trip worth taking.
Desolation Center is out now to rent digitally via most outlets (Amazon, Google Play, Amazon, iTunes), as well as Video on Demand. You can watch the trailer and a few clips from the film below.