Sonic Youth’s West Coast debut took place at the Gila Monster Jamboree, one of three not-totally-legal shows Desolation Center put on in Southern California during the mid-‘80s. If you wanted to attend, you had to buy a ticket, sign a release form, and then make your way to a remote rock in the Mojave Desert. Run by Stuart Swezey of the great AMOK bookstore and press, Desolation Center specialized in setting up wild shows at nontraditional venues, as the ‘90s Sonic Youth biography Confusion Is Next explains:
Previous Desolation Center events had included a boat cruise around San Pedro Harbor featuring the Minutemen, and a Mojave Desert show starring the coruscating German band Einstürzende Neubauten and high-gauge explosives. The Sunday-night bill pitted Sonic Youth against the Meat Puppets, an acid-punk trio from Phoenix, Arizona, signed to SST; Redd Kross, a seventies-inspired punk band led by teenage brothers; and Psi-Com, a [sic] unfortunate group headed by one Perry Farrell—later front man for the infinitely more successful Jane’s Addiction.
A map to a halfway point, Victorville, was provided with each ticket; exact directions to the festival site were given verbally from there. Despite a rash of free LSD and a late-night slot that forced Sonic Youth into the chilly desert air, the show was an unqualified success. Regardless of the prevailing hippie aesthetic (which the members of Sonic Youth found nothing if not anachronistic), Sonic Youth for the first time met their true contemporaries face-to-face: postpunk musicians who regarded rock and punk with equal doses of admiration and derision.
“We went to this weird goth guy’s house the day before, to check out the drum kit I’d be borrowing,” remembers Bob. “The place was full of wild reptiles. He was the singer of Psi-Com; years later, I would realize he was Perry Farrell, of Jane’s Addiction.”
“Gila Monster was a pirate thing,” explains Kirkwood, “the kind of thing Meat Puppets used to play in Arizona, where people would bring kegs. But Stuart did it on a much larger scale.” The generator and crappy PA system were set up at Skull Rock, a knoll deep in the Mojave Desert, eight miles from Joshua Tree.
“It was well lit, because it was full moon,” remembers Kirkwood. “Clear viewing, you can go hiking around, you don’t need a flashlight or nothin’. It’s real nice. You were surrounded by the desert, you kinda had to sneak in. There was slippery stuff going on all around; there were 500 people there, and I think a lot of them were on LSD. There was this bizarre feeling of paranoia. Loads of people were just sitting there going, ‘woooah, woooah’, tripping in the desert, all these punk rockers from LA. It was a pretty SST-heavy affair. Like I said, we’re all friends, Redd Kross, Sonic Youth, all the attendant freaks from SST. It wasn’t real loud, it was pleasant.”
Sonic Youth in Southern California, 1985
I’ve yet to come across any recordings of Redd Kross at Gila Monster Jamboree, and while audio of Psi Com’s bad night (according to Perry Farrell: The Saga of a Hypester, after their set ended, the frontman hid behind a rock and sobbed) certainly exists, all the links I’ve found are dead. However, you can hear all of the Meat Puppets’ performance, comprising most of their not-yet-released masterpiece Up on the Sun, in glorious FLAC or just-fine MP3 at the Meat Puppets Live Repository.
A ticket to Gila Monster Jamboree
And here’s Sonic Youth, two months before the release of Bad Moon Rising, busting a gut for “Brother James” under the desert stars. We learn from Lee Ranaldo’s liner notes for the VHS of Sonic Youth’s set, released in 1992, that a crew from Flipside Magazine shot the video, and that the Meat Puppets were the last band to go on, playing “on into the night as the desert cold set in, under a big ring around the moon.” If you’ve ever wondered how Sonic Youth pulled off “Death Valley ‘69” without Lydia Lunch, wonder no more.