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One Afternoon That's Still Rockin'

The cult status of a video shot outside a Judas Priest concert in1986 surprises even its creators.

July 29, 2001|STEVE HOCHMAN | 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.

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