One Afternoon That's Still Rockin'

Steve Hochman is a regular contributor to Calendar

Does the name Zebraman mean anything to you? How about Gram O'Dope? Jack-Daniels-and-Coke Girl?

If you're familiar with these characters, you're part of one of the hippest subculture cults of the past decade.

You've seen "Heavy Metal Parking Lot."

It's just 15 minutes of guerrilla video documentary, shot in the parking lot outside the Largo, Md., Capital Center arena before a 1986 concert by English hard-rock band Judas Priest. But in its short running time, it vividly captures a moment in pop culture--its era's version of a rock 'n' roll ritual, with kids hanging out, getting loaded and screaming "Priest!" at the top of their lungs on a tarmac full of big hair, band T-shirts and cherished Camaros and TransAms.

Never officially released, the tape--circulated in 10th-generation bootleg copies and, more recently, on the Internet--has become essential viewing for the rock and Hollywood in-crowd, turning the unwitting cast of characters into underground folk heroes, while spawning sequels and imitations ("Neil Diamond Parking Lot," "Harry Potter Parking Lot," "Raver Bathroom") and homages (a recent video of a song by the band American Hi-Fi).

" 'Heavy Metal Parking Lot,' 'This is Spinal Tap' and [rock band] Pantera's home videos are basically Rock 'n' Roll 101," says Dave Grohl, leader of the band Foo Fighters and former Nirvana drummer.

Grohl grew up in the shadow of the Capital Center (although he wasn't at that particular concert) and first saw the tape when it was a regular feature in the early '90s on the Nirvana tour bus.

"I was in that same parking lot doing the same things, though not at that Priest show," says Grohl, taking a break at a Los Angeles recording studio. "I still watch that tape regularly--saw it maybe a month and a half ago. And [actor] Jack Black was just here quoting lines from it."

But the "stars" of that Priest parking lot--the guy wearing a zebra-striped Spandex outfit who drunkenly rants against punk and Madonna, the guy who says his name is "Graham, as in gram of dope"--long ago faded into real life, whatever that turned out to be for them, anonymous save for the descriptive nicknames bestowed by the film's fans.

Two key figures from that 1986 day, though, will be in Los Angeles tonight. Jeff Krulik and John Heyn, who produced the film on equipment borrowed from a cable access station, will be at the Knitting Factory Hollywood to screen the original plus some of the follow-ups in a 90-minute presentation being billed as "Heavy Metal Parking Lot: The 15th Anniversary Tour." They're also trying to stir interest for the inevitable "Heavy Metal Parking Lot: The Movie," a fictional feature they're developing based on some of the characters in their documentary.

"The metal thing was happening at the time," says Krulik, 40, of their original motivation. "We weren't metal fans, but we weren't dismissive of it. It was John who came up with the idea. We didn't know what we were going to get. We thought we could be taping drug deals or get harassed by bikers. But the whole thing couldn't have been more benign. Frankly, we just stumbled around [as] it was all kind of unfolding there."

It was certainly a prime time for the music in terms of its popularity and notoriety, the latter courtesy of the Parents Music Resource Center and a series of congressional hearings associating the music with Satanism and perversion.

And 1986 was the year parents of two Nevada teens filed suit against Judas Priest charging that the band's music pushed their sons to shoot themselves the previous December--one dying instantly, the other in 1989. (The case ended with a 1990 judge's ruling that the band was not responsible for the teens' actions.) With that as the background, the vibe from the kids in the film is a heady mix of celebration and defiance.

Rob Halford, lead singer of Priest through the early '90s, says the film captures fans' intense bond with the artists.

"If I was to sit down and see it now, I'd just sit and smile at how cool it was that these people were so intensely in love with Judas Priest and the music and the whole atmosphere," says Halford, who is working on the second album by his new band, Halford. "It was a really volatile time in rock 'n' roll. We were certainly being put under the microscope by politicians who, whether or not they had good intent, were coming in and attacking music they knew little about."

However well it caught that moment in time, that the film would hold iconic status 15 years later gratifies and bemuses the filmmakers. After a few local screenings at generally informal film festivals in the late '80s--the most prominent and last being in 1990 at an American Film Institute event in Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center--the two packed it away and moved on to other things.

Krulik took a job at the Discovery Channel, successfully battled Hodgkin's disease and eventually became an independent documentary maker. He has specialized in such offbeat short fare as "Ernest Borgnine on the Bus" (a road trip with the actor on his custom-fitted vehicle), "The King of Porn" (a profile of a mild-mannered Library of Congress staffer who amassed a comprehensive collection of X-rated material) and the in-production "Hitler's Hat" (about an American GI who purloined a top hat from the leader's Berlin quarters at the end of World War II).

Heyn, meanwhile, went to work for the Department of Veterans Affairs producing training films, got married and had kids.

But while they were getting on with their lives, "Parking Lot" was taking on a life of its own--unbeknownst to them--seeded by a few copies a friend took with him when he moved to the West Coast to work in the music business. They first became aware of the "Parking Lot" phenomenon in 1994 when Sofia Coppola cold-called Heyn to discuss possibly using the material on "High Octane," a series she was producing for Comedy Central.

"She was producing her pilot, and she said she was a big fan of our film," says Heyn, 43.

Flummoxed, Heyn asked how she had even seen it. Coppola told him she'd rented it at Mondo Video A GoGo, a Los Feliz store that specializes in offbeat material.

"John called the owner right away and he was thrilled to hear from him," Krulik says. "He said that the film was one of his most popular items, and read a list of people who had rented it--Paul Mazursky, Belinda Carlisle, the band Redd Kross."

Invigorated by the interest, Krulik and Heyn re-teamed in 1996 to revisit the same parking lot (although the facility had been renamed the USAir Arena) to cast the same video eye on a parallel universe--fans coming for a Neil Diamond concert. The crowd is older, the cars and clothes less flashy, the drinks softer. But the passion's the same.

Around the same time they started getting wind of other people doing "Parking Lot"-inspired projects. First came "Heavy Metal Sidewalk," a things-have-changed examination done in front of a 1997 Judas Priest concert (when Halford was long gone from the band) in San Francisco with nicely dressed fans asked about their pre-show substance consumption and giving such answers as "I had a Snickers bar."

Then there was "Girl Power Parking Lot" at the Hollywood premiere of the Spice Girls' movie "Spice World," followed by "Raver Bathroom," with hug-happy, Ecstasy-popping youths at a rave.

And Krulik and Heyn last year shot a passel of precocious preteens at a D.C.-area book signing by author J.K. Rowling for their own "Harry Potter Parking Lot."

So when they got a call from the Experience Music Project museum in Seattle about screening "Heavy Metal Parking Lot" earlier this year, they thought instead it would be worthwhile to compile the related pieces--plus the American Hi-Fi video, complete with a guy dressed as Zebraman doing a variation of his "metal rules" rant--into a 90-minute package, which in turn led to the current tour.

They also started developing the feature project, which they describe as a cross between "Rock and Roll High School" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" in which the parking lot fans turn activists to persuade the Parents Music Resource Center and politicians of metal's value.

And where are Zebraman and the rest today?

"That's a good question," says Heyn, who says there's some thought of trying to do a reunion for an epilogue scene if the feature is made. "We figured a lot of them are either dead or incarcerated."

One of them is anything but, and will in fact join the filmmakers at the Knitting Factory tonight. Jay Hughen, who moved to Los Angeles in the early '90s and settled into a solid career in record company promotion and marketing, says he learned six or seven years ago that an afternoon he spent in an arena parking lot leaning against his brown Firebird with his buddies had been immortalized.

"A friend told me that he'd just seen this hilarious movie about a heavy metal show, a parking lot in D.C. at a Judas Priest show, and I went, 'Whoa!' " says Hughen, 32. "So I went to Mondo Video and rented it, and I spat Coke out of my mouth when I saw my scene. I'm in a group of people, and they ask where we're from and I put my fist in the air and say, 'Reston, Virginia!' And there's another time I say, 'You can listen to heavy metal all the time, man!' "

Eventually he did an Internet search and contacted Krulik and Heyn--the first and only person in the movie to have done so--and they have duly dubbed him the official "Heavy Metal Parking Lot" Alumnus 001.

"It took me awhile to have perspective on it," Hughen says. "At first I was kind of embarrassed. But about five years ago, I was touring with a band on Ozzfest and every band on the tour had a copy of it on their bus. Then I started to wear it as a badge of honor."

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