The greatest compliment one might pay Desolation Center is this: it somehow manages, against almost impossible odds, to capture the power of events that revolutionized pop music as we knew it.
To watch director Stuart Swezey’s essential documentary is to marvel at a dust-grimed Sonic Youth ripping through “Death Valley ’69” in the California desert long before anyone had heard of Coachella. It’s to sit there slack-jawed at the insanity of the Meat Puppets, caught losing their shit on a boat cruise a decade before Kurt Cobain tried to make them a household name with MTV Unplugged in New York. And it’s to understand not only the revolutionary power of German noise pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten as they turn sheet metal into sonic art, but also the seeds of multimedia blowouts like Burning Man.
“When I started looking at putting the movie together I realized that these shows had sort of become legendary,” Swezey says, on the line from his home in Los Angeles. “People would be writing about this Sonic Youth show in the desert or the time the Minutemen played on a boat in the San Pedro harbour. That started to make me look at things in a different way. Originally, I wanted to share these moments. In the process of wanting to do that, I realized that there was a bigger story.”
In the spirit of Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life, Desolation Center not only explores a crazily fertile period in Reagan-era underground music, but also gives context for why the movement was important. Swezey was there to witness the events captured in the movie, because he organized them. Drawn to the chaotic energy of first-wave Los Angeles punk bands like X and Black Flag, he began putting on his own shows. But when warehouse gigs under the banner Desolation Center began attracting heat from police, he decided to think outside the box. At the centre of the film are now-legendary generator-powered shows attended by concertgoers who were transported to the middle of the desert by school bus.
“I didn’t think the shows we were doing would be historical,” Swezey says. “I did know what we were doing was radically different, and really embodied the spirit of what the culture I liked was about. It’s this idea of an ecstatic experience where it’s like ‘It’s not going to change the world, but for the moment it’s a really transcendent thing.’ ”
Except that sometimes small things do change the world, and interviews with artists like the Minutemen’s Mike Watt draw a through-line from Desolation Center to modern mega-events like Coachella. Swezey didn’t make any money, but he walked away from it all in the mid-’80s with something more: namely, memories that make him the envy of anyone who cares about underground culture. It’s his hope that Desolation Center—screening as part of DOXA’s music-themed Press Play series—somehow inspires a new generation.
“The world is totally different,” the director says. “I do think the potential exists, though, for people to be inspired to try out things, no matter how small. It doesn’t have to be Burning Man, because there’s a big desert out there.”More