Here on the West Coast, it seems like gigantic festivals have always been associated with the desert. People have been flocking to sprawling, crowd-filled mega-gatherings such as Burning Man and Coachella not only for the art and music, but for the quintessential desert experience. But who was the first promoter to stake a claim out in the great, wide open, and how did others follow suit? The answer lies in a new exhibition titled "From the Desert to the Sea: the Desolation Center Experience," currently on display through July 30 at Cornelius Projects in San Pedro.
SoCal native Stuart Swezey was barely 20 when he started producing and promoting live shows for local post-punk bands such as the Minutemen and Savage Republic. Continuing the DIY spirit of early California punk, Swezey set out to keep an emerging genre of alternative music out of nightclubs and inside mysterious warehouses and rehearsal places. This was in accordance with the principles of what would become known as Desolation Center, a consortium of post-punk aficionados who resisted the concept of money-making in favor of truly egalitarian experimental live shows with no guest lists, no paid advertising, and no solicitation of the press. “The name came from the feeling of metaphoric desolation that I felt from Los Angeles and its surrounding sprawl in the early 1980s,” Swezey tells Artbound. “Then when I came up with the idea of taking the music events to the desert to get away from those surroundings, it also applied to the more pure sense of desolation of that environment.”
While on a road trip through Mexico's Sonoran Desert, Swezey was listening to his favorite music when, as he recalls, "It just hit me: Why not take this music and put it into the desert as opposed to in a nightclub, which always just felt wrong?" Swezey consulted with UCLA art student and member of Savage Republic, Bruce Licher, who wanted to make a film that was a hybrid of "Eraserhead" and "Lawrence of Arabia," and had been scouting locations in the interim. It was Licher who suggested the venue: a dry lakebed called Soggy Dry Lake, near Lucerne Valley.
The place was fairly empty at the time, except for occasional dirt-bikers and people steering land yachts. "I think the whole idea of this setting felt otherworldly and extraterrestrial, in a sense," Swezey says. But it wasn't the desert's unrestricted sound that necessarily appealed to the young promoter, who admits he was feeling "on the defensive" at the time about whether Los Angeles was as "cool" as New York or London. In pairing post-punk music with the desert, he realized, "There's nowhere in the world that could do this, because they wouldn't have the kind of high level of interesting music, and they also wouldn't have this environment. To me, that was kind of a statement of our geography and our situation."
The debut edition of Desolation Center’s desert shows, Mojave Exodus, took place on April 24, 1983. It sold a maximum of 115 tickets at $12.50 each, because that's exactly the number of people Desolation Center could afford to fit on three rented buses from Downtown to the Mojave without losing any money. But while the excursions became a short-lived annual tradition, they weren't necessarily something Swezey and his friends initially set out to do every year.
After Mojave Exodus, Swezey quit his job and traveled to Berlin, where he came in contact with members of the industrial band, Einstürzende Neubauten, who wound up headlining the second annual desert Desolation Center show on March 4, 1984, along with San Francisco-based performance-art collective Survival Research Laboratories (SRL), and an offshoot of Savage Republic called Djemaa el Fna, named after a marketplace where Saharan musicians gathered in Marrakesh, Morocco. The sophomore edition of Desolation Center's desert show was called Mojave Auszug (German for "Exodus"), and it took place at Box Canyon outside Palm Springs, which Swezey and Licher chose based solely on the fact that it was adjacent to a town called Mecca. This time, the number of buses doubled to six.
The new location was not only a stunning backdrop for live music performances — it set the stage for a pair of site-specific art pieces from SRL featuring totem poles made from discarded major appliances filled with chargers set off by a shotgun. Local noise musician Boyd Rice also teamed up with Einstürzende Neubauten's Alexander Hacke for a so-called "carnival trick" that involved Rice on a bed of nails with a cinderblock on his chest containing a contact microphone, which would emit sounds while Hacke struck Boyd with a sledgehammer.
About three months after Mojave Auszug, Desolation Center temporarily reinvented itself with Joy at Sea. Now, instead of school buses, the pioneering post-punk promoters chartered a whale-watching ship christened the MV Comorant, which departed San Pedro on June 15, 1984 and cruised along the coast to tunes by the Meat Puppets, Minutemen, Lawndale and Points of Friction.
Desolation Center returned to the desert for its last big show, Gila Monster Jamboree, on January 5, 1985. Partly inspired by the Disneyland attraction, Country Bear Jamboree, the name was also a tribute to a poisonous lizard native to Arizona, just like the Meat Puppets — who returned to headline with Redd Kross. The occasion was also notable for being Sonic Youth's first show on the West Coast, and one of Perry Farrell's last with Psi-Com before he formed Jane's Addiction and, as a consequence, Lollapalooza.
Perry Farrell acted as a volunteer at Mojave Auszug, and was also at Joy at Sea. At one point, Swezey was roommates with him, and co-curator of the Desolation Center retrospective, Mariska Leyssius, was in Psi-Com with Farrell as well. When Farrell started Jane's Addiction, he had the idea to do a big touring festival, which became Lollapalooza, and it's obvious that Desolation Center was a major influence. "He always cites it as being his inspiration," Swezey agrees. "It's where he learned about promoting, and all this stuff like that."
Co-curated by Laurie Steelink, Craig Ibarra, Swezey and Leyssius, "From the Desert to the Sea: the Desolation Center Experience," which runs through August 27, is organized chronologically, featuring archival material such as show flyers, original artwork, photographs, posters and other bits of ephemera spanning the 1980s. The show not only tells the story of Desolation Center, it also suggests that there are connections to other desert festivals such as Coachella and Burning Man as well.
Swezey didn't realize there was a connection with Coachella until he began working on his Desolation Center documentary, currently in production. Before serving a seven-year sentence for drug trafficking, founder of Goldenvoice Gary Tovar attended Mojave Auszug. Now, Goldenvoice — which has since become a subsidiary of AEG Live under CEO Paul Tollett — is famous for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which launched in 1999 and has been exploding ever since.
Desolation Center's connections to Burning Man, meanwhile, is affirmed by Burning Man's co-founder John Law, who remained involved with the yearly art-pilgrimage from 1990 to 1996. Law worked with SRL, and while he wasn't at either of Desolation Center's Mojave shows, "It was totally in my consciousness," he tells Artbound. For Law, the idea of taking Burning Man from the shores of San Francisco out to the Black Rock Desert where people could freely blow stuff up "was in the air at the time."
"When I was 18, I thought we invented everything we did, which is what you should think when you're 18," Law elaborates. "Other people have done similar things going back to antiquity, but you make it your own, and the best way to do that is not knowing your history to start with. Like Stuart [Swezey]: he was 21 when he did this shit. If he had been older and known any better, he wouldn't have done it!"
Maybe so, but then, we might not have Coachella, Lollapalooza, or Burning Man as a result.
Top Image: Parked cars, Desolation Center: Mojave Exodus, 1983 | Dan Voznick