“The LAPD freaked out about punk rock like it was the second coming of the Black Panthers,” says Germs drummer Don Bolles in the opening moments of Desolation Center. He paints a picture of the early 1980s, in which the police shut down left-leaning events (in this case punk shows), instigating violent confrontations. With nowhere left to host gigs legally, promoter Stuart Swezey launched a series of guerilla happenings in remote locations featuring some of the most influential underground artists of the Reagan era.
Swezey doubles as the director of this feature-length documentary, flashing back to the heyday of his legendary live series with recollections from audience members and artists who were there. School buses brought fans to the Mojave desert to see Einstürzende Neubauten surrounded by exploding refrigerators, before the Meat Puppets and Minutemen welcomed fans onto a freight ship in the San Pedro harbour.
After local officials caught wind of Swezey’s events (which were sorely lacking in the areas of safety and security), he and his fellow organizers were hit with massive fines. This signaled the beginning of the end, but not before multiple people in attendance were inspired to go off and create new things in Desolation Center’s image, like Lollapalooza, Burning Man, and Coachella.