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Thread: DESOLATION CENTER (Stuart Swesey 2018) - now showing around the coiuntry

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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    DESOLATION CENTER (Stuart Swesey 2018) - now showing around the coiuntry



    A time of musical adventure

    The Reagan-Thatcher era of the early Eighties was a turn to to the right on both sides of the pond. But in the arts it was a time of vibrancy, experimentation, and opportunity, as I myself saw in my own career as a visual artist. It seemed like the worst time in society and politics, but the best time for art - and for me. This new documentary dramatically shows that was true for other people. Stuart Swezey, who was himself a prime organizer of pioneering punk rock desert events, has crafted a film rich in eye-popping archival footage. The punk and industrial music scene was at its peak. He and others enlivened it further by bussing adventurous young audiences, along with groups like Sonic Youth, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Redd Kross, Einstürzende Neubauten, Mark Pauline's risk-taking Survival Research Laboratories, Savage Republic, Swans and others two hours out into the Mojave Desert to experience sound and happenings in an intimate, stark, awesome setting, without commercial distractions. Later Swezey went from sand to water and did a show of hard core Sen Pedro musicians The Minutemen, on a boat in the harbor of San Pedro. These were the seed and spark of what became big and commercial with events like Lollapalooza, Coachella, and Burning Man. Many of the concertgoers speak today about what were seminal and unforgettable experiences of their lives. This is an eye-opening and inspiring film.

    It's funny, but even if punk rock means little to you, it's impressive how much it meant to the people whose experience is chronicled in this film. It's about the audience almost more than the bands, though it becomes clear from the testimony that these treks out into the desert meant much to the musicians too. The desolate location seemed right. It was far-out, it was rad, It was a place to be free with like minded people - and nobody else. Audience members, 20-something Angelinos, had never even been to the Mojave desert. They did have experience of being frequently hassled in bars and clubs by L.A. cops, whose police chief then, Daryl Gates, was a real piece of work, who hated punk music, hated blacks (and the punk scene was very multi-racial), hated youth, hated their having fun. Downtown L.A., by the way, at that time was like one big slum, and urban desert, so the move to the natural desert was logical, and practical.

    The school buses that packed the audience out to the concerts were part of the mystique and the success. They were a solution about how to collect tickets in a venue with no walls or gates. The tickets - beautifully made ones, which contributed to the caché - were sold well in advance, and the audience members rode out to the desert on the buses, avoiding gate-crashers and contributing to the sense of togetherness.

    We hear from regulars of the L.A. punk rock scene who were at these concerts, who rode in the busses, couples still together, who say this was the coolest thing they ever did, and something that cemented their relationship. It feels like, counterintuitive for this kind of music scene though this may be, these were events were healthy, inspiring, life-affirming, and wonderful fun. We're also seeing footage and stills comparing the young punk fans with their present selves, and the comparison too is positive.

    After his success putting on the first desert concerts, Stuart Swezey quit his Los Angeles day job and went to Europe settling in Berlin. It was simpatico, and the punk music scene, rife with performance art, was exciting and inspiring, particularly a highly experimental group called Einstürzende Neubauten / Collapsing New Buildings. He brought this bigger band, with its industrial strength bricolaged noise to a new location, not too far from Coachella) called Mecca. Werner Herzog'sFitzgeraldo was an inspiration, Swezey recounts. Einstürzende Neubauten brought in kindred groups to the concert, including Mark Pauline, of Survival Research Laboratories, with his thrilling and terrifying self-destructive machines - all to a location not disclosed to audience members ahead of time.

    There was more focus, less distraction, than in any other venue. Compare today's pampered, low-attention-span youth with their grafted-on smart phones to these full-on dedicated musical and artistic adventurers.

    Musician Janet Housden declares now (goodnaturedly), "People in their twenties are sociopaths." They loved Mark Pauline trying to blow the side of a mountain away. That was then. They would not feel that way now. This is a statement about wild youth having its day. It's bracing, but cautionary to see footage of the "religious experience" that was the desert concert built around Einstürzende Neubauten and their American friends. The only trouble with this film is that after that explosive concert, the rest may seem a bit of a let-down. Nonetheless the next featured story, of the Minutemen's San Pedro show in 1984, is significant: the Minutemen's Pedro show became their seminal album, Double Nichols on the Dime which put them on the map. Sonic Youth (discovered by Swezey in Berlin) were to come, and Gila Monster Jamboree in 1985, in a night of the full moon and concerts where people were allowed to come in their own cars, but given the final destination only along the way.

    This is also a rundown on groups that went on being significant and are still around. When Swezey says the Meat Puppets seemed "a chaotic thrash band from Phoenix that somehow emerged as some of the skilled musicians on the scene," with a rhythmically precise clip, such details are interesting. And there are many in this enjoyable album of youthful musical experimentation and environmental adventures. Stay around for the Gila Monster Jamboree, by the light of the moon, with everybody trippin' on acid, Sonic Youth's West Coast debut, with The Meat Puppets, Redd Kross and Psy/Com. It's classic. This film is really fun.

    Desolation Center, 94 mins., debuted in 16 Mar. 2018 at CPH:DOX in Denmark and has shown in a dozen other festivals in 2018 and early 2019 .Originally watched by me as part of SF Indiefest. Rewatched courtesy of MATSON FILMS. It is coming to the Bay Area to the Roxie Theater San Francisco and Rialto Elmwood Sept. 20, 2019 - with Q&A's and still showing at Arclight Cinemas in Los Angeles, with Q&A's recently. For other cities, venues, and times see their website Desolation Center.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-22-2019 at 12:54 AM.


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