Stuart Swezey was barely out of his teens when he forged what would become the music fest template for everything from Coachella and Lollapalooza to Burning Man.
In the early 1980s, a 20-year-old Swezey – a self-described geek growing up in LA immersed in the burgeoning local punk scene – decided to bring his friends’ bands out to the California desert along with a few experimental artists for a loosely organized show. That cobbled together guerilla music and arts fest led to more, including one held out on a whale watching boat in the Pacific Ocean. The festivals eventually ended, many of the bands went on to global recognition and Swezey would co-found the popular publishing house Amok Books.
But those desert shows still remained a strong memory to Swezey and those lucky enough to attend all those decades ago, including a young Perry Farrell years before he would found Lollapalooza. The rest of the world finally gets an in depth look of what those shows were actually like, thanks to the Swezey directed documentary, Desolation Center, a wildly compelling film about putting on those inspired performances a generation ago. The film includes interviews and rare performance footage of the Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth, Redd Kross and Farrell, among others.
Desolation Center is now streaming on a slew of different sites.
Swezey spoke with New Noise Magazine recently about the genesis of those shows, why he finally decided to make the documentary and the connections between the 1980s LAPD and the inevitable reckoning of the Black Lives Matter movement.
How did you first get exposed to the LA punk scene?
I grew up on the Westside of Los Angeles which was very Brady Bunch-suburban in those days. I went to the same middle school and high school as Darby Crash, Pat Smear (I was a couple years younger but I remember seeing Pat in those days) and was in some classes with Kira Roessler (who became bass player for Black Flag later on). They were way cooler than me and probably were not aware that I existed. I was a good student and into geeky things like collecting model soldiers until I became aware of punk rock through a local radio show called Rodney on the ROQ. There was an indie record store called Rhino Records near my house where I got exposed to lots of punk 45s and could pick up used copies of import records like Live at the Roxy which is where I first discovered Wire along with bands like Eater and Johnny Moped. I was always interested in media and tried to get punk bands on our local cable public access TV station. I found out there was a TV studio at Beverly Hills High School and talked the teacher into letting me bring the Germs there for a taping. Sadly, that footage doesn’t exist anymore.
I started going to see punk rock bands and hanging out in Hollywood from the age of 16. A big influence on me was meeting Black Randy who had an early LA punk label called Dangerhouse. I used to help him out with his label, and I remember stuffing the 45s into the jackets for the first X record Adult Books/We’re Desperate. I met a lot of interesting characters from the scene through Black Randy in those days and got turned on to things like the very first Wall of Voodoo show at a Catholic girls’ school in Hollywood. I was a contributor to a pioneering cassette zine called Non-Plus and was the first person to interview the Minutemen which you can now listen to online.
How long have you wanted to make this documentary and how did it finally come about?
I started watching music docs with friends as an escape from our regular jobs and lives. At some point, I decided that I was enjoying this so much I should make my own. I felt like I had enough experience from working in cable TV and producing a music doc about the ‘90s rave scene to be able to make my own music doc. It took me a while to realize that my own story of Desolation Center was actually the best place to start. In 2012, a German filmmaker Joerg Steineck was making a doc about the Stoner Rock scene like Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age, etc. and found out about me through interviewing people that had heard about my desert shows. When I started googling Desolation Center, I found out that these shows had become somewhat legendary over the years. When I decided that I really wanted to make this film, my first call was to my friend Mariska to see if she still had her photos of the desert shows. When she dug them out of the garage, we decided to start the Facebook group and post her photos with the idea that eventually we would let people know we were working on a doc. Mariska became a co-producer on the film and is still super-involved with everything we are doing now with the digital release.
One of the cable TV shows that I developed was called Death Dealers and aired two episodes on the Science Channel. The show was about my friends JD and Cathee who run the Museum of Death in Hollywood and now New Orleans as well. We have known each other since they ran an alternative gallery in San Diego which led to them starting the Museum of Death. JD and Cathee were generous enough to give me the first outside funding for the Desolation Center doc and be able to cut a show reel. That reel helped me get more interviews and became the nucleus of our Kickstarter pitch tape. Mike Watt was playing a gig out at Pappy’n’Harriet’s near Joshua Tree and he agreed to shoot part of the pitch tape which was a big boost for the crowdfunding effort. It was a whole process of getting back in touch with people that I knew in the 80s and doing new interviews along with lots of people contributing cool archival material. Working with a very experienced editor Tyler Hubby who also really got the music and counterculture side of the story was also a big step in getting the film to be what is now.
Was all of the footage taken by you or did you collect it from others?
I didn’t shoot any of the footage of the shows. At that time, it was actually really hard to get access to a video camera. I was reliant on other people shooting the events and did not have control of the post process at the time when the events were going on. If anyone approached me about filming one of the shows, I was always up for it and I had an idea of who had shot footage. When I started working on the documentary, I realized that there was some footage that I didn’t even know existed from searching on YouTube. That’s how I was able to find the footage of Joy at Sea that was shot by Eureka Mike. There is a filmmaker named Gary Walkow who asked me if he could make a short film about the Mojave Auszug show and when I got back in touch with him, we eventually digitized all of his footage and found all kinds of cool stuff that worked for the Desolation Center doc. Some of those tapes were sitting in a warehouse in the Inland Empire and were about to get thrown out when I got there. Flipside fanzine had started to do video releases so that’s where a lot of Gila Monster Jamboree footage came from along with Dave Travis who was a guy who filmed all kinds of hardcore shows.
Are you surprised they had to foresight to document these shows?
I am surprised now that so many different people had the foresight to document the shows. I was not into taking a still camera around to gigs in those days but some of the people that were part of the scene like my friend Mariska were. I did have the idea of making films out these shows but I got so caught up in doing all the logistical promoter stuff that I never really was able to do our own shoots at the same time. I like doing the detective work of documentary-making so that is probably part of how we were able to put together so much cool documentation. Another thing that I personally didn’t have the foresight to think about was recording audio for those shows. We did some things like start Facebook groups and put together an art show in San Pedro with a really cool art space called Cornelius Projects. Things like that worked to get the people who did have archival material to get in touch with me. One example is Bob Durkee who had recorded all of the Desolation Center shows on his Sony Walkman and that provided a lot of the audio we used in the film. Another person that got in touch when we had the art show was Chris Petersen who is the brother of the late Naomi Petersen who was an amazing hardcore-era photographer and had great shots from Gila Monster Jamboree of Sonic Youth and Redd Kross.
What do you remember about being the hardest part about putting together those desert shows and the boat shows?
The hardest part I think was finding regular small businesspeople who had school bus companies and a whale watch boat and then somehow talking them into helping us do these crazy gigs. Here in LA in the early ‘80s, punk rock was a controversial and scary thing to most normal middle-aged people. So not only did I have to talk them into letting us rent the buses for a bunch of weirdos but then drive the buses into the middle of the desert. A lot of people turned me down flat before I found companies that would go along with these scenarios. Then once the gigs were underway, it was always touch and go that we would even get them to let us board the boat or drive the buses onto a dry lakebed for example.
Was it difficult to recruit the bands to take part in these shows? Do you remember anyone turning you down?
It wasn’t difficult because I was usually setting up shows with friends or friends of friends. I don’t think I ever just hit up some band to do a desert show without somehow having a personal connection. I do remember being a huge Meat Puppets fan and being really surprised when the Minutemen said they would be able to get them to do the Joy at Sea show. I didn’t know those guys at all, and I hadn’t really thought of getting them to come to San Pedro from Phoenix just to play one gig on a boat in the harbor. Another example would be Survival Research Laboratories who came down from San Francisco to the second desert show and brought explosives. I had read about them in the Re/Search book Industrial Culture, but I would not have thought to invite them to be part of an event if the Neubauten guys had not gotten in touch with them about. It was more like hanging out with people in bands led to doing the shows. It’s funny in retrospect but that first call to Bruce Licher in Savage Republic about doing a desert show was the one I was most worried about. If he had turned me down, I kinda doubt any of the rest would have happened.
If you had it to do all over, is there anything different you would have done with these shows?
Yeah, I think I would have kept all the shows with only school buses and not given people the option of driving themselves. I think it added a lot of really cool elements to the vibe. The element of mystery of where you were actually didn’t know where you were going to end up for the gig. Some people always ended up getting there in their own vehicles anyway but now I really see how putting all these different people together on the bus and then letting them getting high AF w/o having to drive if they wanted to made it into a very unique experience.
Do you know how the Bureau of Land Management found out about the shows which ultimately led to them being shut down?
I’m pretty sure that the BLM had no idea about our first two desert shows. There has been a sort of word-of-mouth story that the BLM had flown over the Gila Monster Jamboree show and took aerial photos but I have never confirmed that. I remember getting a phone call from the BLM Ranger who said that they only found out about the show afterwards from all the beer bottles out there. So that was definitely in the pre-“leave no trace” era. Back then, the only people who regularly used that dry lakebed for events was dirt bike competitions. It was probably so out of left field that someone told them about it afterwards.
How would you compare the types of shows you started to Coachella, Burning Man or Lollapalooza?
The Desolation Center shows were really created by the same people who were doing music, publishing zines, putting out records and so it was completely in the DIY spirit of the time. They were very bootstrap operations with almost no budget and done for the sole purpose of creating a new way to experience music outside of the nightclub-type experience.
I would say that the connections with Coachella have much more to do with the fact that both Desolation Center and the promoter of Coachella (Goldenvoice) both were part of the LA hardcore and postpunk scene at the same time. Gary Tovar is the founder of Goldenvoice and he was actually one of the attendees of the Mojave Auszug and rode the bus out to see Einsturzende Neubauten and SRL. In the years in between, one of the other founders of Coachella (Rick Van Santen, now deceased) was the manager of Celebrity Skin and part of a show in the exact same site in Box Canyon where we put on the Neubauten show which is only about a 15-minute drive from the polo field where Coachella is held. The desert setting was really almost completely ignored by the big concert promotion industry in Southern California, so it does seem that the Desolation Center shows opened that up as a possibility. The other big influence on Coachella was the traveling “alternative” festival Lollapalooza which I believed was winding down around the same time as Coachella first emerged. The fact that Perry Farrell was actively involved as a volunteer and also performer at Desolation Center shows and then cited it as inspiration for Lollapalooza as another link in the chain.
What is completely different to me about Burning Man than Coachella is that it started in an extremely idealistic and unfettered way. The playa where Burning Man takes place is even further from civilization than where we put on our events and the whole concept was not about making a profit. It was more of an experiment in living in a more playful and surreal way even if it was just for a few days out in a barren setting. I think that John Law does a great job of explaining how Burning Man started and by the sheer repetition of doing it annually and having more corporate people involved eventually became a completely commercial venture. I see early Burning Man as being a descendent of Desolation Center and the current Burning Man as almost its antithesis. I have heard that they are taking a year off because of the pandemic so it will be interesting to see if that changes anything.
Do you ever regret not keeping these shows going?
Not really. I decided that if I wasn’t going to “go professional” and become a concert promoter, it was better to go out on a high note. As it turns out, Goldenvoice was subsidizing promoting punk shows back then with a giant weed operation. I wasn’t going to achieve anything better by continuing to organize shows in the desert and possibly would dilute the whole experience. I needed some time to think about what I wanted to do next and then led to us starting Amok Books.
Those are all the questions I had. Anything else you want to cover?
It has been on my mind in these past few weeks with all the protests and discussions about police brutality since George Floyd was killed that the LAPD was definitely a heavy presence in the time when the Desolation Center shows started. There is a great line in the film where Don Bolles from the Germs says that the LAPD looked at punk rock like it was the second coming of the Black Panthers. That might be exaggeration but there is a kernel of truth there. Not that the hardcore scene was anything like what the black communities have experienced but it was a time when young white kids got to see what the police were all about for themselves firsthand just like in some of the protests recently. I think it’s a really healthy thing for our society even if had to be started by something very tragic and unnecessary. To what degree does the presence of police actually contribute to violence and how can rethink the whole institution on the street level?