Saturday Night at the Movies
Where the deer and The Meat Puppets play: "Desolation Center" (***)
By Dennis Hartley
“If people stand in a circle long enough, they'll eventually begin to dance.”
- George Carlin
From sacrificed spearheads to Burning Man, the one constant for humankind is the need for ritual. Ceremonies, whether somber or exultant, reinforce our sense of group identity.
In short, you gotta fight for your right to party. Even if it’s in the middle of the desert:
The promoter of an event set up around the “Storm Area 51” internet craze in the remote Nevada desert pulled the plug due to low attendance, but the host of a festival for several thousand people in the tiny town of Rachel said her show would go on.
“Area 51 Basecamp” organizer Keith Wright said that after drawing just 500 attendees at a Friday event planned for 5,000 at the Alien Research Center souvenir shop in Hiko, he had to pull the plug.
“We put on a safe event for the people that showed up,” Wright said. “But we had to make the decision today because it costs tens of thousands of dollars to staff each day.
“It was a gamble financially. We lost.”
Several dozen campers still at the site could stay until Sunday, he added.
In Rachel, Little A’Le’Inn owner Connie West said she was sad to hear the Hiko festival didn’t succeed. In a voice hoarse from stress and lack of sleep, she said a noon-to-midnight slate of “Alienstock” event musical entertainment would continue for the several thousand revelers camping on her property and nearby federal land.
“This is the most fabulous time,” West said. “I’m just so grateful that people came. This is their event as much as it is mine.”
Lincoln county sheriff Kerry Lee said it was “pretty calm” early on Saturday in Rachel and Hiko. In Nye county, Sheriff Sharon Wehrly said no one showed up at a main entrance and an auxiliary gate at the once-secret Area 51 US air force facility.
Wehrly revised to 100 each the number of people who appeared at each of those gates early on Friday near Amargosa Valley, a 90-minute drive west of Las Vegas.
Lee, about a two-hour drive north of Las Vegas, said revelers gathered until about 4am at two gates between Hiko and Rachel, and said about 20 people broke from among revelers and “acted like they were going to storm but stopped short”.
Lee and Wright reported one arrest, for disorderly conduct, at the “Area 51 Basecamp” event.
Earlier, officials reported five arrests, including one man treated for dehydration by festival medics in Rachel.
Lee said a man reported missing on Friday morning after heading Thursday from a festival campground in Hiko toward an Area 51 gate was found safe in the evening.
The mood among the assembled remained mostly harmless. While costumed space aliens were a common and sometimes hilarious sight in events that began on Thursday, no one had reported seeing actual extraterrestrials or UFOs.
“Mostly harmless”. LOL. Somewhere out there in the ether, Douglas Adams is spinning.
The “Storm Area 51” meme may have fired the imaginations of millions earlier this week, but by Friday night it fizzed into several hundred disappointed people, standing in a circle somewhere in the middle of the Nevada desert…who eventually began to dance.
I only bring this up because I watched a documentary Friday night that oddly mirrors the Area 51 gathering. While there’s naught to do with UFOs or government cover-ups, Stuart Swezey’s Desolation Center does involve rituals, desert gatherings…and dancing.
Swezey, a scenester in the early 80s L.A. punk explosion, founded “Desolation Center”, a performance venue with no fixed geographical address. Desolation Center was an umbrella Swezey used for a series of guerilla music and art performances he organized in warehouses, lofts, and rehearsal spaces (think of it as a pre-internet “flash mob” concept).
According to one of the interviewees in the film, one of the main “inspirations” for the clandestine events was notoriously fascistic Chief of the L.A.P.D. Daryl Gates. Gates was no friend to the burgeoning punk scene; he deployed his officers to shut down club shows and generally harass punk fans whenever possible (never mind that despite the “in your face” posturing of the music and fashion, most of the kids were just having harmless fun).
Eventually, Swezey get the bright idea that if he staged his events out of town…like way out of town where Jesus lost his shoes, the performers and the audience would be free, free to ride without getting hassled by The Man. So it was that in April of 1983, he approached the LA band Savage Republic about doing a show in a dry lakebed near Joshua Tree. They were in. Once he talked The Minutemen into coming aboard, “The Mojave Exodus” was on. Swezey hand-crafted 250 cardboard tickets ($12.50 admission).
He distributed the tickets to record stores around LA; to his surprise they sold out. Using the money, he rented 3 school buses, a PA and a generator. In the film, Mariska Leyssius (a member of the band Psi Com) recalls how she assisted Swezey in organizing the event, as well as helpfully advising ticket holders to “keep your drugs and liquor below the line of the window” of the bus, in case they ran into cops during the road trip to the event site.
The event was a smashing success for all concerned, even if it failed to set the world on fire. The film documents The Mojave Exodus, as well as its follow-up, “The Mojave Auszug”, which took place in an isolated spot near Mecca, California in March of 1984.
The German influence was the result of a sabbatical Swezey had taken to explore the scene in Berlin, where he befriended the experimental industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten, who ended up headlining that second event. In addition to musicians, a small group of performance artists known collectively as Survival Research Lab also appeared. Aptly named, their act included blowing up refrigerators and shooting objects with a Gatling gun (have I mentioned none of these desert events involved obtaining a permit?).
The recollections by participants are alternately hilarious and harrowing (let’s just say there was some acid). My eyes did start to glaze over when the anecdotes became tantamount to getting cornered Monday morning by a co-worker who insists on sharing details of how fucked-up he got at that party Saturday night, but for the most part it’s a fascinating look at a little-known chapter in alternative culture history. The film also connects the dots between these obscure little desert bacchanals and the massive like-minded festivals we have nowadays like Burning Man, Lollapalooza, and Coachella.
“Behind the music” archives at Den of Cinema