Curt Kirkwood (Meat Puppets) and D. Boon (Minutemen) [photo: Ann Summa]
Wait, the Meat Puppets and the Minutemen played on a boat?! Yep, it happened. The outing was part of a series of events staged by the Desolation Center, a Los Angeles collective guided by a pioneering punk promoter, whose creative concepts resulted in some of the most memorable punk rock shows of the 1980s. There’s a fantastic new documentary about this subject in the can, though it’s not ready to set sail just yet.
The Desolation Center concerts were organized by Stuart Swezey. He started out booking punk bands into the usual venues, but once the intimidating presence of the LAPD became commonplace at punk shows, Stuart began to think of non-traditional sites. This led him to come up with the idea of putting on a concert in the Mojave Desert.
‘Mojave Exodus’ [photo: Mariska Leyssius]
The first of these happenings, dubbed the “Mojave Exodus,” was held on April 24, 1983. Minutemen and post-punks Savage Republic performed, and the ticket holders—who were clueless as to the location of the gig beforehand—were bussed in. Though there were unforeseen circumstances, like sand blowing into band members’ faces as they played, it was an extraordinary affair for all concerned. Stuart had pulled off what had previously been unthinkable: a punk rock show in the desert.
Minutemen (photo: Bob Durkee]
For “Mojave Auszug,” which took place on March 4, 1984, Stuart booked the German industrial band, Einstürzende Neubauten, Savage Republic-related group, “Djemaa el Fna, and performance art outfit, Survival Research Laboratories—who blew shit up.
Blixa Bargeld (Einstürzende Neubauten) [photo: Fredrik Nilsen]
A few years back, we told you about the final Mojave Desert concert, “Gila Monster Jamboree.” Held on January 5, 1985, it featured Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets, Redd Kross, and lots of free LSD. Psi Com, the opening act, was fronted by a young Perry Farrell. It’s no coincidence that Farrell later conceived the traveling outdoor festival, Lollapalooza, as he was very much inspired by his desert experience. Other events like Coachella and Burning Man also owe a debt to these Desolation Center concerts.
‘Gila Monster Jamboree’ (Spy the Blue Öyster Cult logo?) [photo: Bob Durkee]
After two events in the desert, Stuart started brainstorming other ways the Desolation Center could present shows. He thought, ‘What’s the opposite of desert? Water.’
Stuart had gone to a number of backyard parties in San Pedro, a neighborhood of L.A, and the hometown of the Minutemen. The Port of Los Angeles is partially located in San Pedro, and on his evening drive home from these parties, Stuart would pass the illuminated harbor, the giant cranes positioned there lit up in the night sky. It looked incredible. This is where the next Desolation Center event would be.
Stuart invited the Minutemen to play on a boat as it went around the harbor. The band, who rarely had proper gigs in their hometown, jumped at the chance, and told Stuart they could get the Meat Puppets to do the gig, too. The June 15, 1984 outing would be christened “Joy at Sea.”
Stuart was able to rent a whale watch boat, and the stage was designed and built as the vessel made its way from Redondo Beach to San Pedro.
Stuart and the SS Cormorant (LA Weekly clipping) [photo: Steve Housden]
Also on the “Joy at Sea” bill were Lawndale and Points of Friction, who played below deck. At one point during the Meat Puppets’ set, the P.A. speakers were wobbling so hard they were in danger of falling in the water or, even worse, on audience members, so the show had to be stopped for a period. There were other technical difficulties, but nothing that couldn’t be overcome.
Meat Puppets [photo: Ann Summa]
The Minutemen blazed through their set, which included songs from their new two-LP, Double Nickels on the Dime—now rightly considered one of the seminal underground rock albums from the period.
Minutemen [photo: Ann Summa]
L-R: Craig Lee (Bags/journalist), mustached man (unidentified), Suzi Gardner (L7), Robert Lloyd (journalist), Mike Watt (Minutemen) [photo: Dirk Vandenberg]
“Joy at Sea” proved to be another spectacular Desolation Center happening, and like the desert shows, it was a trailblazing event. Rock cruises are now a thing, with at least one catering to a punk rock audience.
‘Joy at Sea’ [photo: Ann Summa]
How cool would have it been to be at one these shows? In the new documentary, Desolation Center, performers and attendees of these events tell us what it was like (spoiler alert: it was life-changing). Directed by Stuart Swezey, the film is a compelling assembly of archival footage and current interviews—including Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo (Sonic Youth), Mike Watt and George Hurley (Minutemen), Suzi Gardner (L7), and the Kirkwood brothers (Meat Puppets). There’s a crowdfunding campaign for the doc currently underway to help it get passed final hurdles; check out the details and watch the trailer here.
Desolation Center is a fond look back at an amazing moment in American punk rock culture, but at its core the film is an inspiring DIY story. A reminder that—at the risk of sounding cliché—anything is possible.
Stuart, present day, with the ‘Joy at Sea’ banner [photo: Mariska Leyssius]
We’ve got an exclusive clip from Desolation Center to share with you. Taken from part of the “Joy at Sea” segment, there’s footage of the Meat Puppets and the Minutemen rocking the boat, as well as interviews with some of those who were there. Meat Puppets bassist Chris Kirkwood describes that evening on the SS Cormorant as “magical as crap.”
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
‘Gila Monster Jamboree’: Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets and Perry Farrell live in the Mojave Desert, 1985