How a 20-Year-Old Punk Kid and the Minutemen Pioneered Mainstream Music Festival Culture

Joseph Bien-Kahn

Joseph Bien-Kahn

Stuart Swezey's Desolation Center shows were illicit desert festivals—drug-addled parties for LA punks which would influence Coachella and Lollapalooza and then disappear as quickly as they came.

A young Perry Farrell at Desolation Center's Mojave Auszung. Photo by Mariska Leyssius

Maybe you were one of the hundred thousand people watching Drake at Coachella out by Joshua Tree this year, or A$AP Rocky at Lollapalooza in Chicago. Or maybe you've just finished dragging your whole family into the middle of the desert for Burning Man. What you probably don't know is that before Rocky, before Drake, before the original Man burned on a beach in 1986, there was a guy named Stuart Swezey leading bands like Sonic Youth and the Minutemen into the California desert to put on a string of illicit bacchanals called Desolation Center—drug-addled parties for LA punks that would influence today's music festival culture and then disappear as quickly as they came.

I met Stuart Swezey in the spring of 2015 at a trendy coffee shop in Los Angeles's Silverlake neighborhood—an area almost unrecognizable from the Silverlake where he hosted his first punk shows three decades ago. Swezey is now a clean-cut 50-year-old, but back in the late 1970s, he was just another broke LA kid, listening to Rodney on the ROQ, attending underground punk shows, and stuffing LPs for Dangerhouse Records to make a few bucks. Although Swezey wasn't a musician, he ingratiated himself inside the Los Angeles punk scene, making friends while the hardcore scene sprouted up around him.

The punks and the police butted heads from the beginning. "It was just threatening—I think the imagery was threatening, the anarchic nature of it," Swezey says. When punk bands managed to book a club gig, it wasn't rare for the cops to break it up, billy clubs raised.

"They didn't like this radical new movement in their backyard," he continues, "and they were going to use force to suppress it."

In an effort to avoid clashes with the authorities, Swezey came up with the Desolation Center—nomadic DIY shows he hosted in warehouses, lofts, and rehearsal spaces around Silverlake, where the cops wouldn't hassle them. Those first small shows soon transformed into something larger—a looser, more insane Happening that would lead the 20-year-old Swezey and a crew of punk legends out across the California desert, to isolated lake beds, and into the San Pedro Harbor, blazing a trail for the modern festivals we know today.

Stuart Swezey today. Photo courtesy of Stuart Swezey

The idea to take Desolation Center into the Mojave desert came during a road trip through Mexico in 1982. "We were listening to all this experimental punk—people like Wire, Savage Republic, Minutemen," Swezey says. "That's when it just clicked to me: This is where I want to see this kind of music."

When Swezey finished the trip and showed up back in LA, he immediately started setting the plan in motion. He reached out to Savage Republic to see if they would be interested in trekking out to the desert for a show. Guitarist Bruce Licher loved the idea, and even offered a locale: Soggy Dry Lake, a lakebed out by Joshua Tree.

Swezey also asked Mike Watt and D. Boon of the San Pedro punk group the Minutemen if they'd like to join in. Swezey had been a fan of the band's "full-throttle minimalism" since their 1981 album The Punch Line, and did the band's first interview in a zine called Non-Plus.

"I thought it was totally in line with what the movement was doing," Minutemen bassist Mike Watt tells me, over the phone. "The desert would add a whole 'nother dimension to the trip! It was beautiful." With the Minutemen and Savage Republic on board and a location figured out, the first real Desolation Center show was becoming a reality.

Swezey printed 250 handmade, cardboard tickets and, calling the desert pilgrimage the "Mojave Exodus," and scattered the tickets around LA at different record stores. Selling them all for $12.50 a pop, Swezey used the profit to rent three school buses, a PA system, and one small generator. He then reached out to his friend Mariska Leyssius—keyboardist for the punk band Psi Com—to provide some much-needed organization to the DIY festival.

Kids aboard the bus to the Mojave Exodus in Soggy Dry Lake. Photo by Mariska Leyssius

"I made up this little waiver in case anyone got bitten by a scorpion or a snake, we weren't responsible—whatever that would do," Leyssius remembers, laughing.

When kids piled onto the bus, ready to start the trek out on the Mojave Exodus, Leyssius acted as bus monitor: "Keep your drugs and liquor below the line of the window!"

After a bumpy, sweaty, three-hour drive, the rented school buses finally reached the lakebed. There was no stage—Savage Republic and the Minutemen set up their gear right on the sand and played out to the crowd. It was dusty, hot, but no one cared. They knew they were a part of something special.

D. Boon and the Minutemen performing at the Mojave Exodus. Photo by Mariska Leyssius

"D. Boon once said, 'Punk is whatever we made it to be,'" Watt remembers. "I still go by that."

After the successful first show, Swezey quit his job and spent time traveling through West Berlin. At the time, the city was a haven for artists and musicians, and Swezey loved every minute of it. "You could stay in a squat, go see music, it was just Disneyland for alternative culture," he says.

While he was out there, he ran into Sonic Youth, who had just released their debut album, Confusion Is Sex, and Einstürzende Neubauten—an industrial group famous for playing scrap metal and heavy machinery. He wasn't sure the next time he'd be back in the States, but offered to throw both bands a show in the desert if they were ever in Los Angeles.

A few months later, Swezey found himself home in LA and, soon after, his phone rang. It was Einstürzende Neubauten. The band told him they would be in town the next week and had one day free and asked if he wanted to do that desert show. Even though Swezey had no idea how to pull everything together so quickly, he didn't think twice. Using the German word for Exodus, Swezey would call the second Desolation Center show the "Mojave Auszug."

Fans out at the Mojave Exodus. Photo by Mariska Leyssius

Einstürzende Neubauten brought along experimental performance art group Survival Research Lab (SRL), and Boyd Rice—an edgy musician and artist from the Bay Area punk scene. Rice and SRL's bizarre, avant-garde take on punk paired nicely with Neubauten and the desert setting. The second Desolation Center show would be a must-see event.

The group decided they'd take this new pilgrimage near the town of Mecca, California. Seven buses full of people trekked 150 miles until they reached a closed road off of Highway 10. It was "this really beautiful winding road through these prehistoric rocks; it looked like dinosaurs were going to come out at any point," Swezey remembers.

For the opening act, Rice laid down on a bed of nails with a block of concrete on his chest, surrounded by contact mics. One of the members of Einstürzende Neubauten took swings at the concrete with a huge sledgehammer.

"Boyd [Rice] was totally playing it low-key. He was like, 'Yeah, it's an old carnival trick I'm going to do,'" Swezey says. "But there was no real trick. He was lying on a bed of nails, and he's got a big rock on his chest and someone's breaking it with a sledgehammer. But the cool thing was it was also made into a sound art piece. And it sounded really cool."

Survival Research Lab's Gatling gun. Photo by Matt Heckert

After Rice's performance, SRL took the stage—or patch of sand, since they had no stage. Unable to transport their signature robots from San Francisco, the band created a show that incorporated the surroundings. They filled five old refrigerators, found while camping the night before, with explosives. Then they shot them with a homemade twelve-barrel Gatling gun. Afterwards, SRL rigged a boulder on top of the mountain behind the stage with dynamite, with the hope that the explosives would dislodge it and send it rolling down the hill.

At some point earlier in their performance, a young pre-Jane's Addiction Perry Farrell had wandered up the hill, unaware of the impeding explosion. "We saw him up there and everyone was trying to wave him down and he thought we were just being friendly and waving and he kept waving back," Mariska Leyssius says. "And, well, he didn't get blown up."

The explosion electrified the crowd, many of whom were on acid, but the boulder stayed perched atop the mountain and Perry Farrell stayed in one piece. It was the only hiccup in a shockingly seamless event. There were hundreds of acid-fried kids, watching artists play with power tools and explosives, but it still felt safer than a night at an LA club.

SRL's explosion at Mojave Auszug. Photo by Matt Heckert

The Minutemen's Mike Watt was one of the tripping punks, and for him, the combination of LSD and Einstürzende Neubauten was an otherworldy experience.

"I remember the bass player was playing a one-string bass, and he threw it off and he grabbed this thing you use to level the pavement and he fucking pounded that bass right into the fucking lakebed," he says. "Blew my fucking mind. He also had this gigantic truck string that he was using for a bass string. That was a trippy gig."

Watt never took acid again, after that night—probably because no other trip could top Mojave Auszug.

There were hundreds of acid-fried punks watching artists play with power tools and explosives, but it still felt safer than a night at an LA club.

If the desert performance art, the explosives, the music, and the drugs sound familiar, it's because Mojave Auszug was the spark, or at least some kindling, that helped start another desert-dwelling festival: Burning Man. John Law, co-founder of Burning Man, told me Swezey's work had a big influence on him and many of the early festival collaborators. He explained that those early SRL performances were a huge inspiration for the desert festival—specifically the fire and machine art.

The crowd at Mojave Exodus. Photo by Mariska Leyssius

After Mojave Auszug, Swezey's otherworldly desert shows became mythic among the LA punks. He knew he had to do something next, and that it had to be completely different.

"I was always trying to think at that time, How can we use the LA environment, where I'm from, but in the uncliché way that's not Hollywood or the beach? " Swezey remembers.

Driving home from backyard barbecues at D. Boon's home in San Pedro—a blue-collar town in South Los Angeles—Swezey always loved the way the cranes looked in the water. He decided the next Desolation Center event should be on a boat in the San Pedro Harbor.

Boon and Watt were thrilled. The San Pedro cops hit their punk scene especially hard, and the Minutemen would get shut down after a song or two every time they tried to play a gig. They couldn't believe that their friend from LA was going to plan a show in Pedro. "It was like adding another guy to the band. Bass, drums, guitar, and Stuart—gig inventor," Watt said, laughing.

Swezey decided to call the show "Joy at Sea," as a nod to the Minutemen LP More Joy. The Minutemen called up Arizona cowpunk weirdos the Meat Puppets, and got them to sign onto the show, too.

As for the venue, Swezey managed to charter a whale-watching boat on the cheap, and with help from Mariska Leyssius's band Psi Com, built a makeshift stage out of wooden planks the morning of the show. With the venue complete, the group set sail. But when D. Boon and the Minutemen took the stage, things got a little rocky.

Fans setting sail at Joy at Sea. Photo by Ann Summa

"D. Boon, in his nature, was not there to be still," Watt tells me. "When he played, he wanted to dance. And there was some consequence."

The boat bucked and rocked and threatened to capsize as Boon tossed his body around the stage, but it stayed afloat.

"Like King Ishmael said, 'We lived to tell the tale.'"

As they pulled back into the harbor, a Coast Guard ship hassled the punks because they were flying a Minutemen flag instead of Old Glory. "It was really like this ship of fools going around," Swezey says. I ask him if the Coast Guard thought the spiky-haired, pierced kids were pirates. "Well, technically, we were pirates," he says.

Swezey and Leyssius both laugh looking back: They can't quite explain why they didn't worry more about getting busted by the cops, someone falling from the boat, or the stage collapsing. By taking the movement away from the LAPD and the restrictive clubs, Desolation Center provided punk a place where it could thrive.

"Stuart's a guy who never played in a band, but he liked making it happen," Watt says. "You were going to be all wild-ass about making your band and your haircut and your songs and your style, why not do it with venues? There was something about the aesthetic of that environment that he found—it wasn't the fucking same old, same old."

D. Boon and Mike Watt performing at Joy at Sea. Photo by Ann Summa

Right before Christmas 1984, Swezey received an unexpected phone call from Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. She said she and Thurston Moore would be in LA visiting her family for the holidays and asked if he wanted to do that desert show they'd talked about in Berlin a couple years back.

At the time, no one had seen Sonic Youth on the west coast, so Swezey jumped at the opportunity. The band struck him as a perfect fit for the third Mojave desert show. "There was some kind of dark Americana thing that they were really fascinated with," he says. "The sweeping scope of what they were doing that felt like it could exist in this desert setting and make perfect sense."

With Sonic Youth on the bill, it was easy to talk the Meat Puppets, Psi Com, and Redd Kross—one of the original South Bay Hardcore bands—into playing, too.

Psi Com opened the show back in the Mojave, now fronted by a young Perry Farrell. "Psi Com in its first incarnation was very shoegazer—My Bloody Valentine, kind of—but this was a little more hard rock," Swezey says. "I could see [Farrell] had this charisma and people really seemed to respond to it."

The Meat Puppets went on next and asked for the spotlights to be turned off so they could play just in the light from the full moon. Swezey learned later that someone was handing out psychedelics and everyone in the crowd was tripping.

"I remember there was a guy who just grabbed the microphone, and was shouting, 'We're in the desert! We're in the desert!'" Swezey says. "It was spooky as hell."

Finally, Sonic Youth took the stage. The LA punks didn't know what to make of them. They were doing completely different things from the LA scene, like tuning their guitars with screwdrivers. "I remember somebody at SST saying, 'Why are you booking this Loft Rock? Why are the Meat Puppets opening for this Loft Rock band?'" Swezey says. "After that gig, they were signed to SST."

After Sonic Youth's set, everyone packed into their cars and drove back out all over California. This was Swezey's fourth Desolation Center event in less than two years, and at the time, everyone assumed they'd go on forever.

In December of 1985, D. Boon was killed in a van accident in the Arizona desert.

The weekend of the crash, Swezey threw a Desolation Center benefit show for the Foundation for Art Resources in Downtown LA. Sonic Youth, Swans, and Saccharine Trust all played great sets, but it wasn't the same. "It was the first Swans show on the west coast," Swezey says. "But that was the weekend D. Boon died. I was just done."

In some ways, the magic of the shows is that they never had a chance to become diluted by money or time.

Watt and Swezey both remember Boon as a larger-than-life presence, but also as a loyal friend. Swezey recently showed Watt some old footage from the first desert event. "Seeing D. Boon dance, it seemed like he wanted to jump right out of the fucking screen," Watt tells me about that footage. "It's still hard to believe, after all these years, that something could fucking kill him."

The benefit show was the last of Swezey's Desolation Center events. "I started to feel like things had changed," he says. "For me it didn't have that element of adventure." Instead, he started Amok Books, an underground publishing house, with Leyssius, where he published gonzo journalist John Gilmore's memoir Laid Bare, among hundreds of other titles. He moved on, and the punk scene moved on, too.

Swezey could have made a fortune by making the Desolation Center shows into a yearly festival, but the same spontaneity and disregard for the bottom-line that helped make his shows a countercultural success, were also what kept them from turning into a cash cow. The Desolation Center shows managed to avoid the pivotal moment when festivals for the counterculture shift and become mainstream, inevitably altering their feel and purpose. In some ways, the magic of the shows is that they never had a chance to become diluted by money or time: they were raw, they were real, and, most importantly, they were completely original.

Savage Republic playing at the Mojave Exodus. Photo by Mariska Leyssius

Swezey's influence can still be seen today. Perry Farrell linked up with Dave Navarro in 1985 and made it big in Jane's Addiction. He eventually started Lollapalooza in 1991 and credits the Desolation Center shows as inspiration. Rick Van Santen and Paul Tollett's company Goldenvoice promoted the Minutemen, Einstürzende Neubauten, and Farrell's bands back in the 1980s in LA and, in 1999, they launched a desert music festival of their own: Coachella.

In 2015, Swezey began filming interviews with players from his Desolation Center shows for an upcoming documentary, which he plans to crowd source and release in the fall of 2016. Mike Watt stresses that this documentary will not be "sentimentalism." Instead, he says, it will be "evidence that you can fucking make things happen."

For Watt, the magic of Swezey's vision—taking punk rock to the desert and the sea—encompasses punk's anarchist core. "Part of the scene was, hey, let's blow some minds. Sometimes, it's with bass and guitars, sometimes it's with words, sometimes it's with clothes, and sometimes it's with venues," he says. "Let's turn people onto stuff that proves to them that they're alive."

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