[Landline] Well, that takes you back
Desolation Center, Kyuss, Harvey Dickson, Pandit Pran Nath, camels, birds, more
Saw this recently on the internet….
Can't figure out the true source for this photo (if you know, let us know) but kudos to the visionary Fred or Wilma Flintstone who improved their motor vehicle with this Lascaux-like painting work.
Speaking of art and rocks and machines, I recently — finally! — screened the 2019 documentary on the legendary Desolation Center events made by original event organizer Stuart Sweezy. It’s terrific, definitive, spellbinding viewing…
…but then, how could it not be? Sonic Youth, Einstürzende Neubauten, minutemen, Savage Republic, Meat Puppets, Survival Research Labs, Perry Farrell’s pre-Jane’s Addiction band… playing deep-in-the-desert, non-legal art-punk music events… this series of shows had already ascended to Deep Mythical status for us UCLA kids in the late ‘80s, who had just missed them.
The Desolation Center film reminded me of the similarly legendary, non-legal “desert generator” parties of the ‘80s and ‘90s put on by local bands in the Low Desert (and maybe other places as well, I’m not sure), including Yawning Man, Across the River and Kyuss. In 2002, Josh Homme (Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age) memorably described playing these shows to me this way:
It had moments of true beauty where it was, This is amazing. There was one time in Indio Hills. There's a bonfire in front of us, so no one's standing directly in front of you. But they're on the edge of the fire. The canyon was tight, and there's little fires in the walls of the canyon, in these perches, where people were standing around these little fires. And you could see the shadows on the canyon walls. And you'd look up and see girls on top of the hill, dancing. And I remember playing, in that moment, going, This is definitely it.
But the problem with anarchy is, anyone can do whatever they want. Whether it was the wind telling us what to do, or Mehi gang guys coming in and stabbing someone in the ass with a penknife, or someone going ch-ch-boom! [with a gun] and they're freaking on acid — that kind of shit can stop a party fast. I remember when they lit the car on fire. And it was like, This is definitely not it.
So there were some trade-offs.
In 2023, whatever romantic thoughts about non-legal (or even legal) loud music events in the wilderness I once had as an urban dweller are long gone. Having lived full-time off the asphalt in the rural high desert of the Mojave from 2010-2020, witnessing week to week the damage done to the functioning but fragile ecosystem by visitors enjoying their art/anarchy, oblivious to the immediate and lasting damage they’re causing… there’s no romance in that. It’s just a different kind of colonizing of space, a willful disregard for precious native creatures and plants and soil and so on. You came, you partied, you trashed the place. And you talked it up. Then the money came, and soon it’s scraped land, fences and pools. Trade-offs!
I was thinking about all this while reading a wonderful piece in the New York Times this past week about a different interaction between a musician — this is crucial: playing an unamplified instrument — and nature. From “I Started Playing My Sax Outdoors. Then the Fans Came” by Harvey Dickson:
I walked 10 minutes down to the bank of the Hudson, found an arrangement of boulders where I could put my case and started to improvise to some 1960s soul jazz playing through my headphones. I was loud. Gloriously, triumphantly loud. Within minutes, bike riders and strolling couples stopped to listen. Some took photos. After that, I took my sax to the park almost every day. Over the next few weeks and on through this summer, paddleboarders, canoers and motorboats on the river hove to the shore to listen for a few minutes. When the traffic on the nearby West Side Highway ground to a halt, I got a round of applause. I had at least two cameos on Instagram.
I find it hard to practice inside now, even in my building, where the jazz pianist and composer Billy Strayhorn once lived. It’s inhibiting. I miss the expansiveness of playing outside. And I’ve found nature surprisingly attentive, despite the noise. Robins and sparrows — and only one word is possible here — flock to me as if I’m St. Francis of C Minor. Squirrels stand on their hind legs and fix me with hard stares, like miniature critics. My most cherished fan, though, was Zippy, a goose with whom I had a prior relationship. (My wife is known as the Goose Lady of Riverside Park, but that’s a subject for another essay.) One summer day, Zippy and his extended family were paddling south down the Hudson but then circled back and flew up to the riverbank next to me. Zippy sat there quietly for the next 45 minutes until I packed up to head home. There is nothing more satisfying than entertaining a goose you’re fond of.
… In 1960, Sonny Rollins, already one of the greatest tenor-sax players ever, quit recording and appearing in public so he could concentrate on getting better. He was living on the Lower East Side. He tried to practice in a closet (I’ve been there). Still too loud. There was a pregnant neighbor. “I felt real guilty,” he said, according to a 2022 biography. So he walked over to the Williamsburg Bridge and played outside day and night until he returned two years later with an LP called “The Bridge.” I’m not Sonny Rollins, but I can hear progress.
Progress?!? My dude, when animals want to hear what you’re playing, you’ve made it.
This reminded me of an astonishing — to me, at least! — documented historical (and contemporary!) ritual amongst Gobi desert nomads where musicians are sometimes employed to play a specific type of music that literally coaxes reluctant camel mothers to nurse babies they have previously rejected. You can see this technique at work here:
Harvey Dickson’s story of playing saxophone outdoors1, amongst animals, also reminded me of vocalist Pandit Pran Nath2, spending hours at the shore of rivers, listening to birds and practicing his singing:
No trade-off. Just an exchange, possibly of mutual benefit.
Til next time,
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Old Arthur heads may remember “THEIR MASTER’S VOICE: the impact of Pandit Pran Nath on Western minimalists”, a lengthy excerpt from The Dawn of Indian Music in the West by Peter Lavezzoli (2006).
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