The email from Rooftop Films came hours before last night’s screening of Desolation Center at Green-Wood Cemetery in Sunset Park: “No standing, sitting, or leaning on any gravestone (no matter how sturdy it looks).” Apparently Lee Ranaldo didn’t get the memo, because during a post-screening performance involving an electric guitar suspended from a crane, the Sonic Youth member hopped onto the edge of an obelisk and ran his instrument across the stone to produce a howl that sounded all the more unholy under the full moon.
If that sounds a little sacrilegious, rest assured it was in the spirit of the film, a documentary that frames the rogue, remote Desolation Center performances that took place in the California desert in the early-to-mid ’80s as a precursor to destination festivals like Coachella and Burning Man.
It was fitting that Rooftop Films– also born of a DIY ethos and prone to staging events in transporting al fresco environments– was previewing the doc, which opens Sept. 13. And also fitting that Ranaldo and early Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert were there for the post-screening Q&A, given that one of the band’s first West Coast shows was at a Desolation Center event in the Mojave. “It was the start of a community in LA for us that has expanded to this day,” Ranaldo told attendees seated on folding chairs or lounging in the grass between gravestones.
The footage of a truly youthful Sonic Youth playing their location-appropriate, Manson-inspired song “Death Valley 69” is just one of the prime snippets found in Desolation Center. Others include the Meat Puppets telling the sound guy to cut the lights so they can do an extended spaced-out jam under the moonlight; the Minutemen rocking out on a chartered whale-watching boat; sparks flying into the night as German industrial pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten grind power tools and slam rocks into sheets of metal; and Survival Research Laboratories, originators of the whole Robot Wars phenomenon, attempting to blow up a mountain.
The SRL performance almost turned deadly when a large piece of shrapnel went flying just a few feet over everyone’s head. Last night, Stuart Swezey, the visionary behind Desolation Center, joked that he might’ve been a little too trusting of SRL’s founder, whose hand was famously injured in a rocket-motor explosion. “[I thought] ‘Mark Pauline, ‘Oh, yeah, he knows what he’s doing; nobody’s going to get hurt.’ But the guy had already blown off three fingers. What was I thinking?”
Swezey, who started organizing the shows as a 21-year-old burned out on the LA club scene, has other second thoughts, as well: “As far as what would I tell my [younger] self to do differently? I mean, taking acid at your own show is not a good idea.”
Ranaldo and his bandmates managed to avoid that mistake: “I think Sonic Youth, the four of us, were the only people who were not tripping at that Gila Monster Jamboree. It was 1985. We weren’t doing that in New York in 1985!”
Even if you weren’t on LSD, it’s clear the shows were out there. Percussionists used the mountains as drums. Campy rockers Red Kross got lost in the desert en route to one performance and spent four hours trying to find the remote location. Attendees were transported in school buses without knowing where they were headed.
Today, in the case of You Are So Lucky and similar destination parties, magic buses to mystery locations are intended to make it all feel like a special experience. In the case of the Desolation Center events, letterpress-printed tickets by Savage Republic band member Bruce Lichner served this purpose, but the hidden location was mostly a precaution against the LAPD’s heavy-handed, sometimes violent crackdown on youth culture and punk shows. (See Black Flag’s “Police Story.”) The concerts eventually did meet the long arm of the law, when Swezey was fined for the unlicensed use of government property for commercial purposes. A fundraiser quickly ensued, which shows just how much of a community had grown around the performances.
“It felt like a radical place to be doing something like that,” Ranaldo said last night of the desert performances. “And it felt like there was a collective energy going on that was a move towards a kind of radicalism.”
The Desolation Center events were fairly intimate, catering to a few hundred people in the know. But the film— directed, produced and co-written by Swezey— presents them as precursors to today’s mega festivals. Perry Farrell of Lollapalooza, John Law of Burning Man, and Gary Tovar of Goldenvoice, which started Coachella, all admit to being influenced by the desert parties.
Though Swezey says he never intended to scale the parties in such a manner, it’s not surprising that he’s itching to get back in the game, if only to prove that it can still be done in the age of social media. Last night, he said that “by next spring I’ll be ready to do another desert show.” He said he was working on a location and a lineup of older and newer acts, and added that he wants to book some Mexican artists for “continuity politically.” That continuity was evident when he described his thinking behind the original shows: “Things are so fucked up—which is probably relatable to now—so let’s just do something that is meaningful to us.”