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'Desolation Center' Explores Burning Man and Coachella's Punk Precursor

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Anarchy reigning, in 'Desolation Center.'

By Rae Alexandra

These days, as far as American music festivals go, you won’t find two more divisive than Coachella and Burning Man. These annual, much-anticipated events are, depending on your perspective, either essential and transformative or insufferably pretentious. Either way, they’ve both seeped into California culture so much that at this point, you’d be hard-pushed to find someone here who doesn’t have an opinion on both.

What most people don’t know is that a scrappy 1980s guerrilla music event called Desolation Center paved the way for these two behemoths. Prompted by the (now-infamous) overzealous policing of punk rock events in Los Angeles, bands simply trekked out to the desert and played there to avoid unwanted scrutiny. Faithful fans and scene kids followed.

Now Stuart Swezey, the man principally responsible for creating and organizing those underground, anarchic events, has directed, produced and written a documentary about them, featuring musicians from bands like Sonic Youth, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Redd Kross and more.


Desolation Center will open at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater and Berkeley’s Realto Cinemas on Friday, Sept. 20, playing for seven nights at both. The Sept. 20 screening at the Roxie will also include an after-show discussion moderated by LA journalist Joseph Bien-Kahn, featuring Swezy, Burning Man co-founder John Law, Bay Area poet Maw Shein Win and performance artist Mark Pauline. V. Vale, of RE/Search Publications will also appear after the screening on Thursday, Sept. 26.

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