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Review: Would Coachella, Lollapalooza or Burning Man exist without ‘Desolation Center’?

‘Desolation Center’
A scene from the documentary “Desolation Center.”
(Matson Films)

In the early 1980s, fed up with the violence that Daryl Gates’ LAPD brought down on the flourishing Hollywood punk scene, Stuart Swezey took to the warehouse wasteland of downtown L.A., and then to the wide-open spaces of the desert, booking punk, noise, industrial music and experimental art shows under the moniker “Desolation Center.” His first venture featured San Pedro punkers Minutemen, $12 tickets and a school bus ride to the Mojave. No one could have known that this event would be the first DNA strand of the multibillion-dollar modern music festival, as chronicled in Swezey’s documentary “Desolation Center.”

Annual festival behemoths Coachella, Lollapalooza and Burning Man can trace their roots to Swezey’s dusty DIY shows, featuring such acts as Sonic Youth, Swans, Meat Puppets, German industrial rockers Einstürzende Neubauten and explosive machine performance art group Survival Research Laboratories. Swezey’s roommate, future Jane’s Addiction frontman and Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell was in attendance, as well as Gary Tovar, founder of Coachella promoter Goldenvoice, and Burning Man‘s John Law, who each took a different aspect of these unique shows for his own gathering, whether it was musical curation, the desert landscape or the cathartic anarchy of violent interactions with a punishing environment.

Swezey’s film is a historical record of this short-lived time and this singularly L.A. scene — he promoted only three desert shows and one on a boat. The era ended with the death of Minutemen guitarist D. Boon in 1985, but it means that Swezey never sold out. Though the “Desolation Center” served as inspiration for the massive festivals of today, in the hearts and minds of the scene’s major figures, it remains pure to the punk ethos.

‘Desolation Center’
Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

Playing: Starting Sept. 13, ArcLight Hollywood; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica.


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