The concert series and documentary “Desolation Center” are testaments to the transformative power of live music

Stuart Swezey’s film kicks off MMoCA’s rescheduled Rooftop Cinema slate on Friday, August 7.

Stuart Swezey’s film kicks off MMoCA’s rescheduled Rooftop Cinema slate on August 7. Info

With live music festivals on hold for everyone besides die-hard Static-X fans in the age of COVID, now’s a perfect time to watch Desolation Center (2018), an oral history of the infamous California concert series of the same name that influenced some of the world’s biggest festivals, including Lollapalooza, Coachella, and Burning Man. Directed by Desolation Center founder Stuart Swezey, this rock documentary wisely sidesteps the common tropes of the genre in avoiding narration and the usual celebrity talking heads. Instead, Swezey tells the story through a wealth of archival footage and interviews with a wide range of band members and concert-goers.

Desolation Center will kick off the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s 2020 Rooftop Cinema series on Friday, August 7 at 8 p.m.. For safety precautions and guidelines, please visit the Rooftop Cinema main page. Additionally, tickets for all Rooftop events this August must be purchased in advance through Eventbrite. Desolation Center is also available to rent or buy online.

Emerging from the Los Angeles punk scene’s most experimental and diverse fringes, Desolation Center was founded out of frustration and repression. By the early 1980s, punk rock was a prime target of Chief Daryl Gates’ LAPD. Inspired by early industrial act Throbbing Gristle and the fact that so many punk shows were getting shut down by violent riot squads, Swezey decided to start booking underground DIY concerts outside of the traditional club circuit. After a road trip with friends, Swezey began holding guerrilla shows in the Mojave Desert far from the eyes of authorities.

For the inaugural “Mojave Exodus” concert of 1983, Minutemen and Savage Republic performed for spiky-haired concert-goers who had arrived by bus on a “punk rock field trip.” Desolation Center followed the success of this first outing with a wildly dangerous spectacle featuring German industrial legends Einstürzende Neubauten and haphazard pyrotechnics from Survival Research Labs in an unforgettable night of extreme performance art. Its programming culminated in the “Gila Monster Jamboree” in 1985 with no wave/“Death Valley ’69”-era Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets, and Redd Kross performing to a crowd of 500 punks tripping on acid. But, after unwanted attention from the Bureau of Land Management and the tragic death of Minutemen’s D. Boon, Swezey decided to end the series.

Although Desolation Center was a major influence on the founders of today’s largest music festivals, those bloated corporate behemoths have little in common with Swezey’s extreme DIY vision. With no permits and little regard for safety, Desolation Center was a decidedly un-businesslike venture that radically re-imagined the shape and scope of the outdoor concert. These influential desert shows were a powerful and near-religious experience; almost every musician and attendee interviewed in the film expresses how Desolation Center was a pivotal event in their life, including Lollapalooza founder (and Swezey’s then-roommate) Perry Farrell. And, despite the brutal police crackdown on the LA punk scene, these shows were clearly life-affirming events that helped it survive. A compelling testament to the enduring power of the ethos of the DIY scene, Desolation Center is a much-needed reminder of the life-changing power of live music. 

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