DESOLATION CENTER gets 7/10 Desert punk exodus

Directed by Stuart Swezey
Staring: Stuart Swezey, Thurston Moore, Alexander Hacke, Blixa Bargeld , Mike Watt, Suzy Gardner


In the early 80s, 300 high school drop outs and punk scenesters with dyed hair and piercings hopped on buses from downtown Los Angeles to be driven into the Californian desert arriving at a mystery location hours from anywhere. Unbeknown to those pioneering youth, they had just become part of rock and art history.

LA in the 80s had a small punk scene, with a couple of “anticlubs” like the famous Whisky a Go Go and The Zero, where everyone knew each other. Venues were plagued by over the top police raids, shutdowns and police-instigated riots. Underground gigs, dubbed Desolation Centre, were put on by booking only every-other week, no press, no doorlists, no advertising, a BYO ethic and no “fuckups” policy. But the cops still kept showing up. Desperate to find an alternative to have a good time without being hassled, organisers Stuart Swezey and his cohorts, took to the road in search of an alternative venue to run down warehouses and clubs.

Arriving in the middle of a vast expanse of a salt lake in the Mojave Desert, Swezey found their new home and Mojave Exodus was born. The gigs combined installation artworks, experimental performance and alternative music to present what was essentially a mini arts festival. It brought together a community of like-minded people who were free to express themselves and just about anything was go.

Despite the secrecy, once again the law was on the trail. But being issued with a $400 fine and trespass notice didn’t stop the party, with the next venture a “trespass benefit concert” to raise money to cover the fines. Suck on that, US government.

Unfortunately, tragedy struck with the loss of a dear friend and around the same time the scene started changing. Swezey and crew decided it was time to move into something different and Desolation Centre faded out before it became a big commercial success.

However, the Mojave Exodus attendees included the likes of Perry Farrell (Jane’s Addiction) and Justin Law, who used the format of these early renegade gigs to start their own shows. Just some little festivals you may have heard of called Lollapalooza and Burning Man, respectively.

Desolation Centre includes rare early footage of legendary experimental and post punk bands, the likes of Sonic Youth, Swans, Meat Puppets and the Minutemen, and combines it with recent interviews with some of the key artists and organisers, reflecting on their part in the story. The anecdotes and stories make for captivating and sometimes heart-warming and humble viewing.

For the time, it’s quite impressive that so much was recorded and archived so well to now be able to tell this story completely and without needing to resort to gimmicky animations or borrowed footage. Perhaps the people behind the camcorders knew something special was in motion.

Mojave Exodus and Desolation Centre were a far cry from the days of the Instagramable festivals we know today where thousands of shiny posers buy $500 tickets to sleep in glamping tents and sip cocktails while watching the top-billed pop music artists. It’s just not the same.