“Heavy Metal Parking Lot” and the Meaning of Life




ABOUT HALFWAY through Jeff Krulik and John Heyn’s 1986 documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot, we see a group of metalheads relaxing against a parked car outside a Judas Priest concert. Krulik and Heyn have directed all previous conversations with concertgoers, but this time one of their subjects — a young woman with big hair and a cut-off tank top — holds the microphone. “What’s your philosophy on life?” she asks her friends. As she begins to pass the mic to a young guy in a Dokken T-shirt, it’s intercepted by a man dressed in zebra-print from head to toe. Zebraman, as he’ll come to be known, pulls the microphone too close to his mouth. What’s his philosophy on life? “It sucks shit!” he yells. “Heavy metal rules!”

Zebraman is among the most eccentric young adults interviewed in Heavy Metal Parking Lot, but his philosophy on life resonates throughout the 16-minute video. As Krulik and Heyn navigate the parking lot outside of Landover, Maryland’s Capital Centre before the concert, they hear countless permutations of “it sucks shit” and “heavy metal rules.” The interviewees eagerly take their few seconds of screen time to show off crushed beer cans and ripped T-shirts, and to proclaim their love for sex, drugs, and Judas Priest. For many viewers, it’s this unabashed enthusiasm that makes the documentary a hilarious and engaging slice of pseudo-cinema verité. Indeed, 30 years later, there are still few clearer examples of excited teenagers in action.

But frustration lurks underneath. Zebraman’s “philosophy” that life “sucks shit” underscores his angst, and it lends pathos to Heavy Metal Parking Lot’s timely anthropological approach. In addition to their love for Judas Priest, the teens and twentysomethings who populate the documentary profess a uniform desire for rebellion — for “Breakin’ the Law” (or at least pissing off their parents). There are kids no older than 14 chugging beers; girls hoping to “fuck [guitarist Glenn Tipton’s] brains out”; a shirtless guy who claims he does “all” the drugs. Viewers see behavior that’s definitely juvenile and often illegal. But is it really rebellion or simply a desperate performance? What’s the value of performing rebellion?

The documentary’s early shots don’t necessarily elucidate the value, but they certainly suggest that the concertgoers are performing rather than practicing radical behavior. Krulik and Heyn maneuver their cameras around a sparsely populated parking lot. No matter how rowdy the tailgaters, the shots imply, the whole situation is fairly low-key; zoom-ins on apathetic police officers roaming the lot unfazed only bolster the innocuousness of the whole thing. More than subversion, Heavy Metal Parking Lot often projects a feeling of stagnancy and middle-class malaise. While the documentary endures because of its humor and the nostalgia it breeds for heavy metal, it also endures because of its paradigmatic portrait of American adolescence in the 1980s — of radical ambitions circumscribed unknowingly by the stifling realities of corporate control.

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The filmmakers state at one point that they’re working with MTV, but they’re lying. Heavy Metal Parking Lot was shot with equipment from the public access station where Krulik worked, and it never aired on television at all. Although it didn’t air, the documentary still bears public access’s aesthetic and character — cheap, silly, and of course, public. “Usually public access is thought of as an open forum for idiosyncrasy and ego fulfillment,” said the pioneering avant-garde artist Tony Conrad in a 1996 interview. His comment is borne out by the fans howling into the camera, angling for their shot at local “fame.” But, for Conrad, the medium’s public appeal had the power to upturn its egotism. “Public access also turns an entire urban municipality into a laboratory for exploring models of the circulation and development of cultural forms,” he added.

Better known for his minimal music and structural films, Conrad refers here to Studio of the Streets, a public access show he produced in Buffalo from 1990 to 1993. In Studio of the Streets, Conrad and collaborators Cathleen Steffan and Ann Szyjka interviewed Buffalo citizens outside City Hall, hoping, Conrad said, to “[trigger] cultural participation among the people in my city.” It was crucial that, as one of the program’s intertitles stated, “Everyone speaks at the Studio of the Streets.” Interviewees dictated the topics at hand; Conrad and his artistic cohort merely sought to provide local voices a pulpit. The impetus for inclusion derived in part from Conrad’s engagement at the time with identity politics — his desire to mute his white and male voice in order “to devote [his] attention to the concerns of adequate representation among subaltern people.” Idealistic at times, Studio of the Streets was nonetheless an animated forum for local discussion, with Buffalo citizens of all races, genders, and age groups sounding off on-screen.

While everyone speaks at the Heavy Metal Parking Lot, meanwhile, everyone says more or less the same thing (“Priest!” or “beer!”). Public access opens up “a laboratory for exploring models of the circulation and development of cultural forms” to an extent, but it also clearly offers “an open forum for idiosyncrasy and ego fulfillment.” Roaming through a suburban American parking lot, Krulik and Heyn film a stalled dialogue, lacking the array of voices Conrad sought on the open streets of Buffalo. Instead, the parking lot is kind of an echo chamber, one in which everyone not only speaks the same, but looks the same: Judas Priest T-shirts, long hair, white skin.

Indeed, if the documentary’s segment with a Jamaican parking lot attendant suggests that heavy metal fans are a decidedly unique subculture, the giant stadium looming in the background makes the “sub”-culture appear dominant. These kids might stand out in Jamaica — not so much in the United States, though. Here, their rebellion was (and is) symptomatic of a media system that, through news clips, music videos, etc., outlines semi-acceptable modes of defiance — from partying suburban teens to student revolts at elite universities — that ultimately expose local hierarchies of race and class. In the heavy metal parking lot, the constituents are “radical” partly at the expense of black, immigrant, and low-wage labor. Their self-defined difference reveals itself to be more and more uniform as we hear more and more variations of “heavy metal rules”; teenage rebellion begins to look less exciting, more confining — and more representative of the larger systems that enable such public “rebellion.”

Conrad (and of course many others) understood the staid normalization and reinforced hierarchies to be conditions of Reagan-era politics in the United States. “The single preeminent cultural objective that makes sense in the ’90s,” Conrad noted of the post-Reagan era, “is the development of mechanisms that can trigger and sustain differentiated cultural expression.” Within a mass media–saturated landscape — not to mention one nearing the dawn of the World Wide Web — sustained differentiated expression came (and comes) at a premium. Acting out the broadcasted tropes of American adolescence are the subjects of Heavy Metal Parking Lot, unwitting profiles, in what Conrad refers to elsewhere as a “corporatist de-development effort aimed at leveling the playing field.” Can they unlock difference somehow? And how does heavy metal itself — the “cultural form” explored in Heavy Metal Parking Lot’s public-access “laboratory” — factor in?

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Whether Krulik and Heyn intended it or not, Judas Priest provided a particularly apt backdrop for a portrait of adolescent rebellion. The band’s relationship to authority was especially public in 1986. One year earlier, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) had formed with the hopes of regulating objectionable lyrics in pop music. At its outset, the PMRC released the “Filthy Fifteen” — 15 songs that were, in its view, especially inappropriate. Topped by Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” the list featured “Eat Me Alive” by Judas Priest at number three, due to lines such as “Spread-eagled on the wall / You’re well-equipped to take it all.” Of course, “Eat Me Alive” is, like the fans, crass but harmless.

The song does speak to Judas Priest’s overall artistic presentation, though. Whereas Iron Maiden’s lyrics tend toward fantastical narratives, and Black Sabbath’s toward Satanist poetics, Judas Priest’s have, throughout the band’s existence, fixated upon earthly images of sex, violence, and individualized rebellion — images that are projected on the bodies and minds of their fans. No matter how “rebellious” though, Judas Priest, moving millions of albums and selling out stadiums, is a tightly crafted product of the entertainment industry. Teens, of course, rarely consider the corporate system that supports the rhetoric in songs like “Living After Midnight” (howled memorably by a hawk-nosed interviewee); they rarely understand that the heavy metal phenomenon is simply another manifestation of the media “leveling the playing field.”

The “differentiated cultural expression” that Conrad promoted — which he actualized in his own music by, to simplify, employing tonalities that resisted the Western tradition — becomes fuzzy in the heavy metal parking lot, drowned out by echoes of Judas Priest’s legibly anti-authoritarian, PMRC-baiting couplets. Rather than circulating discrete identities, the fans serve as avatars acting out the band’s behavior. If heavy metal serves as their means of “differentiated” — in actuality, programmed — cultural expression, the theoretical chasm between brainwashed and rebellious expression becomes harder and harder to locate.

Judas Priest responded to the PMRC in song with 1986’s “Parental Guidance.” “You always chew me out, because I stay out late,” sings Halford, “Until your three-piece suit comes back in date.” Later:

Is this message getting through
You went through the same thing too
Don’t you remember what it’s like to lose control
Put on my jacket before you get too old
Let’s rock and roll

Could “You went through the same thing too” foster a positive parent-child connection? Consider the quartet of wasted fans who say, in fact, they love their parents and that their parents love heavy metal. (“Let’s rock and roll,” indeed.) Or is it pessimistic? Is anti-authoritarian rebellion simply a blip on life’s radar? Will we soon exchange our leather jackets for three-piece suits and become our parents? In any event, the corporatist American landscape that circumscribes both three-piece suits and leather jackets, the PMRC and mainstream music (albeit in different ways), comes closer into view.

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One of the first people to speak in Heavy Metal Parking Lot introduces himself as Dave Helvey. “I’m 20 years old,” he adds. “I’m ready to rock.” Speaking decades later with Decibel magazine, Helvey said, “My father once told me that he thought Howard Hughes got ripped off. When he was growing up in the ’50s, they had cool cars and cool music … I thought, ‘You don’t understand, dad. You got ripped off, because I’ve got all of this cool stuff.’” Such beliefs are what sustain passing cultural movements. Older generations, even when romanticized seem “ripped off,” whereas current young people have “all of this cool stuff,” be it heavy metal in the ’80s or the internet today.

By idealizing the “cool stuff,” though, Helvey and his Heavy Metal Parking Lot peers feed into an uncomfortable totality that subsumed hippies, punks, and other youth music cultures. Ellen Willis pinpoints the phenomenon in 1981’s Beginning to See the Light: “The history of the sixties strongly suggests that the impulse to buy a new car and tool down the freeway with the radio blasting rock-and-roll,” she writes,

is not unconnected to the impulse to fuck outside marriage, get high, stand up to men or white people or bosses, join dissident movements. In fact, the mass media helped to spread rebellion, and the system obligingly marketed products that encouraged it, for the simple reason that there was money to be made from rebels who were also consumers.

Unable to separate the roots and manifestations of their impulses, members of youth cultures are left weighted down by oppositional forces even if they feel liberated. 

Heavy Metal Parking Lot presents Willis’s coincident impulses with radical clarity; the parking lot becomes, in a sense, a 1980s corollary to the freeway of the ’60s. Behind the illusion of freedom was the alienated modern consumer. While amusing and carefree, Heavy Metal Parking Lot’s subjects also come across in the end as stuck amid the physical and ideological architecture that surrounds them. They, again, become avatars — images enacting proscribed behaviors. “Hell yeah,” one of the subjects intones. “Hell yeah … Party … Hell yeah,” as if she’s a bot that can’t circumvent her hardwiring, rather than one of the “triggered” participants of Studio of the Streets. After Helvey introduces himself, meanwhile he proceeds programmatically, making out with a girl who says she’s 13 years old, and then like many of his peers, proclaiming Judas Priest to be “the best.” But then, beer in hand, he says something sobering: “I’ll be in the Air Force in about … two-and-a-half weeks.”

Rebellion — like adolescence itself — is a fleeting thing, a performance that, as Helvey notes, will soon end. Caught in the homogeneous, corporatist system that Studio of the Streets sought to unsettle, the subjects of Heavy Metal Parking Lot bring into view an image of teenagerism that’s stagnant, even portentous. Both of the public access-shot programs set up a “laboratory”; however, where Conrad’s lab aims to circulate cultural forms, Krulik and Heyn’s highlights the extent to which American culture had turned itself into a closed loop. Proffering images of mainstream-approved rebellion, these American teenagers lie on a path not toward “living on the edge” (per Judas Priest’s “Leather Rebel”) but toward giving up and feeding deeper into the system (i.e., joining the Air Force). “Kids will be kids,” yes, only before embracing the realities of American adulthood. Sure enough, Helvey is now a mechanical engineer in suburban Maryland.

But heavy metal and teenage rabble-rousing still possess the power to plant seeds of identity, don’t they? Attitudes can become form, as it were. Despite their specter of corporatism, Judas Priest’s lyrical presentation of difference took a leap when, in the mid-’90s, Halford came out as gay, thereby becoming one of the only openly gay men in the highly masculinized landscape of heavy metal. Fans in the parking lot in 1986 wouldn’t have known, but those following the band 10 years later could then attach a new set of attitudes and images to songs like “Eat Me Alive,” updating their avatar so to speak, staking out identities in a corporatized media landscape. The effects of teenage rebellion aren’t embodied within one particular movement; they take over slowly, simultaneously within and against the confines of contemporary corporate frameworks. Recognizing that “It sucks shit!” isn’t radical in itself, but it can be a valuable first step.

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Joe Bucciero is a writer born in Chicago, based in New York City.


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