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Desolation Center (1985): a desert-dazing frenzy laced with LSD and experimentation

Desolation Center was the 1985 desert festival that punched authority in the teeth, taking art-rock and LSD-laced sound experimentation to the next level.

Picture this: you’re high tailing it to the centre of the Californian desert in a rickety bus. It’s 1985 and Ronald Reagan has the nation by the throat. The roads are barely visible in the dust and you’re lacking basic supplies. There’s no food or water and plans to get home are all pretty open-ended. The poster reads, “Desolation Center presents Gila Monster Jamboree.” All you know is that there’s a nuts lineup planned for the evening; Sonic Youth, The Meat Puppets, Redd Kross, The Minutemen, and Psi Com.

As for drugs? Well, someone decided to stash 500 hits of acid and the rest is history. Desolation Center (1985) would become the archetype for the multi-scale, dustbowl festivals of today; think Burning Man, Coachella, and Lollapalooza. Induced by a legion of punks who were pissed about their parties getting shut down, the 1985 gig is easily one of the most interesting moments in art-rock history. We dive into the unfathomable legacy left by this desert trip of a lifetime.

sonic youth, desert trip, desolation center
Sonic Youth experimenting at Desolation Centre. Photo: Monoduo Films

At the tender age of 20, noise rock/art-punk promoter Stuart Swezey had an epiphany while on an introspective road trip to Mexico. The cops were shutting down parties at almost every critical moment and the punk scene was growing more averse to authority at every step. DIY bands like Sonic Youth, Swans, and Dinosaur Jr. were shaking the pillars of rock ‘n’ roll with their unconventional styles. This was no MTV. Designed exclusively by a bunch of creative misfits, these were sounds that couldn’t be pigeon-holed.

So, why not move the party out into the middle of the desert? There’s fuck all out there, nothing to break, and no one to complain about the noise. The idea was brilliant!

“It had an element of danger that normal events never have,” Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo remembers.

Returning to LA in 1983, Swezey led a guinea pig experiment that featured post-punk bands The Minutemen and Savage Republic, a few magical school buses, and lots of sandy feet doing the night dance. The trial festival was a success, giving the green-light to its sequel the following year.

This second instalment was by no means less memorable. Einstürzende Neubauten, Blixa Bargeld’s chilling pre-Bad Seeds experimental group, performed in a canyon and Survival Research Laboratories used DIY bombs to blow up fridges in the nearby dirt. Although a more confined environment than its predecessor, Desolation Center Round Two was still remembered as an intense “religious experience”.

gila monster jamboree, desolation center
Tickets were US$7.50 (bus transportation not included)

With Swezey riding high on Desolation Center’s two-year success, he decided to throw one last hurrah for the masses in 1985. The third and final round of Desolation Center emerged as a continuum of sorts: the foundational elements remained the same but the extremes were more divided than ever. Slated for January 5th, with no better reason other than it being the first full moon of 1985, the event was an utterly hectic way to kick off the year.

“It was a desolate and really confusing location to get to, driving down all these barely existent dirt roads,” Ranaldo explained in an interview with The Guardian.

Redd Kross were scheduled to kick off the event but ended up playing last after getting majorly lost on their journey to the venue. Flexibility was obviously never an issue and spontaneity was at the core of the organiser’s ideology. It was a vibrant desert night sky soaked in lysergic bliss; no rules, no food, and no toilets. There was no backstage and everything was makeshift, ephemeral like the night. Adverse guitar tones and muffled sandy undertones filled the nocturnal landscape.

With the threat of lawsuits lingering on the horizon, everyone who attended had to sign a disclaimer in the case of “personal injury or other harm”. The danger was real, but enough creativity and thrill can outweigh the element of fear any day.

“There was definitely one of those doors that opens and you’re kinda different on the other side,” Ranaldo recalled.

It was dusk when Sonic Youth kicked off their set, everyone in the audience was stunned by their unorthodox performance. Although the band plugged screwdrivers into their strangely-tuned guitars, it wasn’t just this element of freak that put the audience in a trance.

“Some chick had, like, 500 hits of acid and gave it to everybody,” Curt Kirkwood from The Meat Puppets remembered. Everyone was tripping balls, except for the band, of course. It wasn’t until after the gig that Sonic Youth frontman, Thurston Moore, realised the bleary-eyed crowd in front of him.

“It was completely guerrilla-style,” Ranaldo continued. “These day’s festivals are all so sanitised, but this was an anything-goes situation.”

Sonic Youth played in a frenzy, blistering through a ferocious set that included a rendition of Death Valley ’69. Their lyrics channelled rising fears of isolation at a time when Charles Manson and his twisted family walked freely. The tune was the perfect fit to the barren wasteland and managed to capture the anxiety felt by any adolescent travelling through LA County in the late ’60s.

When Meat Puppets hit the stage, they decided to turn the lights out. Everyone was tripping pretty hard by now. The natural moonlight was all that was needed to keep everyone in synchronicity, pushing through the hallucinogenic atmosphere with ease. Psi Com also graced the stage that night, fronted by Perry Farrell who, clearly prompted by the Gila Monster, would go on to found Lollapalooza.

We went to this weird goth guy’s house the day before, to check out the drum kit I’d be borrowing,” Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert recalled in an anecdote from Psychic Confusion. “The place was full of wild reptiles. He was the singer of Psi-Com; years later, I would realise he was Perry Farrell, of Jane’s Addiction.”

The Minutemen’s Mike Watt summed up the unbounded nature of the night in a documentary on the event: “It was beyond a theory. It was made real. This gig makes total sense.” 

Desolation Center (1985) was equally as radical as it was seminal, a freewheeling trailblazer for art-rock and the contemporary underground.

Check out the trailer for Stuart Swezey’s 2018 film Desolation Center below: