It’s Not Just Rock and Roll with Desolation Center

This 95min documentary is fascinating. It highlights an era and the problems the LA music scene faced.

Ed Sum

Way before open air concerts like Burning Man became a thing, nobody knew how to organize it. Shows like Coachella and Lollapalooza owe a debt to the people who organized impromptu gatherings in the Californian desert back in the early 80’s that combined punk rock, crazy pyrotechnics and performance art. All that happened gets nicely chronicled in Desolation Center, a documentary by Stuart Swezey. He serves as both the director, organizer of these shows and is one of the protagonists who bore witness to this movement.

This work is set to debut on January 25-31, at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. It will no doubt see screenings at other events as words spreads, much like how those impromptu concerts from long ago started. It will no doubt hit other film festivals, and keeping an eye on https://www.desolationcenter.com/festivals for other dates will be important.

In the 80’s, Los Angeles was a time for new bands to experiment. Other historians may argue the decade prior more influential, but as for when the punk movement was born, its subject to debate. At least this period of time was hailed as the Silver Age. No matter what the decade, youths and new musical talents always had hard time to find venues express themselves. They can gather at the Whisky a Go Go but when a movie documentary needs to cast a villain, the foe chosen disliked everything that did not meet up to his standards.

Police Chief Daryl Gates was accused of being a xenophobe. He was antagonistic and ordered the shut down of many social gatherings. Swezey was there to witness the events; he’s simply telling his story. Key to this feature-length movie is where could they move these concerts? Because they could not play in town, the people got creative in where to gather. As this culture moved further underground, fans who embraced this life were more than ready to plunk down $12.50 to get transported to the middle of the desert for shows which had nobody but themselves to enforce, cleanup and monitor. The sky was the limit; attendees witnessed performance art, explosive finales (yes, attempts to detonate cliff sides were made) and punk rock at its finest.

This 95-minute work is fascinating to watch. It highlights an era and the problems the LA music scene faced. To recall this era with video meant diving into Super8 or Betacam recordings. To hear it is just as raw. Some of the news media back then decided to stayed out of it or turned a blind eye. In those who decided to document these performances in the middle of nowhere, the feeling is very well expressed by those who went there.

Unlike today’s era with immediate access to video recording equipment, the 80s was limited. The grittiness of the footage only exemplifies a time we do not always recall. The talking heads (ranging from attendees with chuckle worthy creative titles and the bands themselves) said what they saw was a “religious experience.”

Live performances from Savage Republic, Sonic Youth, Minutemen, the Meat Puppets and Red Kross are interspliced within all the exposition going on. My attention was held as these performers talked about what they faced and how life back then inspired their words. One part was very informational, recounting the time, and other a highlight reel. No analysis is offered; it could have wrapped this work up better than hearing Swezey talking about how he thought he was done with the scene. After he finished paying off the Federal government for misuse of their property (no permit was acquired), he suddenly finds recognition by the National Endowment for the Arts. He’s suddenly legit. He organized the huge Winter Solstice: Sun Stands Still (featuring Swans, Sonic Youth, Saccharine Trust and Debt of Nature).

Keeping this work focussed was tough. It mostly sticks to Swezey’s story. Watching this documentary transported me to the dark side of the moon and learning some of the secrets held there. I don’t want to go back into the light. No, Pink Floyd was not part of the scene, but I’m certain Syd Barrett would have felt at home here.