Saturday, February 15, 2014

Heavy Metal Parking Lot: 2014 Update

It’s hard to believe I wrote A Drive Back in Time: Remembering Heavy Metal Parking Lot almost 15 years ago.  Up until took down the story a few years back, readers were responding to the piece as if I’d written it that week, and the parking lot was a place that existed a few years earlier, as opposed to 13 years earlier at the time of writing (and 28 years now).

I learned a lot about the internet and myself through this story.  The main thing I learned was the radioactive lifespan writing takes on with the internet.  Readers weren’t paying attention to the original publication date when responding and carrying on as if the story was hot off the presses when it was 5-10 years old!  I would respond to people regarding a story I hadn’t dedicated any time to in years.  Two other pieces I wrote for eclipsed this piece in terms of response.  The largest was a three-part movie guide I wrote about forgotten 70’s cult movies that did not make the jump to DVD.  (In the intervening time, most have, even if only for limited release … nearly all of the dozens of movies I wrote about in that piece are now available in some form, which is amazing.)  A seemingly disparate band of movie lovers took over the Comments section of those pieces and carried on dialogues regarding long-lost movies (“does anyone remember that movie in the desert where the guy drives a jeep into a gulley …”).  Lord knows where these folks are now.

The other was a piece I wrote about the movie Xanadu, long before the musical of the same name, when the movie was a forgotten relic, one of those awkward decade bridges that stumbled the 70's into the 80's.  (Predictably, I had fun with this disco cheese masterpiece, as one should when a movie features its lead actors on rollerskates.)  Much as with the Heavy Metal Parking Lot piece, that Comments section was a freewheeling freak show of angry fans, fans who “got it” in terms of my acerbic writing style and über-fans who simply wanted to get on there and declare their love for Olivia Newton-John and the movie.

And this is where I learned a lot about myself.  The way I am now, I would have ignored 90% of the comments, positive or negative.  Back then, I got into it.  Took it personally when someone attacked me, as if they were pissing on my lawn.  (Of course, back then I was pissing on a lot of lawns and simply arousing similar feelings in people who disagreed with my points of view.)  Now I know that’s just part and parcel of being on the internet, or any public forum.  Some folks just aren’t going to “get” or like you in any sense, and it doesn’t help you or them to respond.  For every coherent person who had real, debatable issues I could discuss, there’d be a handful of “you’re a fuckin’ asshole, dude” people.  And I would engage everyone equally, which was a mistake.  Write it down to age-based insecurity as I was in my early/mid 30s and trying to make my bones as a writer … I know better now.

The Comments section for Heavy Metal Parking Lot in particular took on a life of its own, as when I did come across someone with a legitimate criticism, some of the points that flowed from our exchanges would have made an excellent follow-up article, getting more into the relation between being working-class and white in the 80’s and how much of that played into embracing heavy-metal music as more than just music.

A lot of people pointed out that I didn’t “like” or understand heavy metal.  In some respects, they were right.  I really don’t like heavy metal.  I like hard rock, particularly of the 70’s variety before it came to be called heavy metal: Led Zeppelin, Queen, Bad Company, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, UFO, AC-DC, Cheap Trick, etc.  These types of bands weren’t explicitly heavy metal and didn’t cater specifically to the heavy-metal audience that started growing through the late 70s, mainly through bands like Judas Priest that created the iconography of metal, with their “leather and studs” gear and Rob Halford’s high-pitched vocals.  Aside from the big singles like “Livin’ After Midnight” and “You Got Another Thing Coming,” I really wasn’t much of a fan.  It just didn’t grab me, much as KISS didn’t grab me earlier.  I was the perfect age to be a KISS fan, and I thought they were a joke.  (I’ve since realized KISS had more than a few good rock songs that deserved my attention, but this will always be over-shadowed by the goofy make-up and gimmicks.  Can’t help it.  Don’t want to.)

While I may not have liked or understood heavy metal, I surely liked and understood many of its fans.  You had to in rural Pennsylvania in the 70's going into the 80's … or anywhere in rural America, because a lot of the kids I grew up, by sheer dint of geography and social class, were heavy-metal fans.  Some of those guys I knew back then still are.  Most aren’t, or at least it’s more accurate to state that beyond car radios, they don’t listen to music all that much.  When they do, they’ll tune the radio to various FM classic-rock stations.  The same way I do when I’m back there driving around.  Rock and roll for adults, they call it!

In the follow-up documentary to Heavy Metal Parking Lot that appears on the DVD, Jeff Krulik and John Heyn track down some of the people who appeared in the original, 15 years on.  And the results are pretty interesting, particularly for the drunken kid in the zebra-striped shirt who called Madonna “a dick.”  I’m not sure what any of us were expecting with this kid: most of us probably figured he’d be strung out on crystal meth or dead by the way he was carrying on in that parking lot in 1984.

As it was, Krulik and Heyn found a slightly-embarrassed, clean-cut, middle-class guy, living in what appeared to be a nice suburban home, with a job … and a taste for country music!  While I wouldn’t say he was ashamed of who he was as a teenager or that awkward time in his life, that was one drunken day in the life of a kid who got a little wild in his teenage years.  He probably did that innumerable times over the next few years.  And eventually got tired of it, fell into some type of trade, worked at it, slowly ditched the “party hard” way of life and became a responsible adult … who was slightly embarrassed to realize that goofy, stoned kid he was in 1986 would now be memorialized forever on film.  His idea of a rowdy good time went from Motley Crue’s “Girls Girls Girls” to Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places.”  Which isn’t all that far to go!

I was touched when I saw that.  Touched that his embarrassment was palpable, and that he found his way out of one kind of life (teenage rebel) and into another (responsible adult), however weird or tangled that path may have been.  In my original synopsis, I painted a pretty dark picture for how metal kids age and/or don’t grow up.  I wouldn’t say I was wrong, but I would say I wasn’t taking into account the fact that there are guys like zebra stripes who partied hard as teenagers, but were lucky or smart enough to wake up down the road and not become casualties of what’s essentially an unsustainable way of life.  Sustainable for rock stars, maybe, but even they get tired after awhile, as witnessed in Metallica’s documentary, Some Kind of Monster.  Even people who are financially rewarded for living that way, forever, sooner or later recognize that life changes, and they should change with it, too.  For all the psycho-babble in the Metallica documentary, it pretty much comes down to a bunch of guys in a rock band realizing they’re grown men and need to start acting as such in their private lives, if not onstage.  If not for their own sanity’s sake, then for the sake of this mini-corporation their band has grown into and the dozens of people who depend on them to make a living.

What I didn’t understand then, and still don’t now, is fellow adults feeling a strong need to justify the “metal” ethos of partying and their teenage years as a sacred state of being.  That struck me as instant mythology, and a load of bullshit.  It was nostalgia in sheep’s clothing.  That’s something you don’t entertain or pay lip service to as you go through your 40’s: you no longer glorify being a teenager.  Unless, of course, you benefit financially from doing so.  Otherwise, you’re just making a mistake.  It’s become a basic tenet of our culture, at least since the Baby Boomers came along, to glorify our youths as sacred and not to be criticized or questioned.  As a result, we now have an overall cultural where millions of people refuse to grow up, refuse to accept any other culture save the one they nurtured as teenagers, refuse to be told they’re “wrong” in any sense, because to do so would be to admit some type of personal defeat.  We let down the spirit of rock and roll (metal, hiphop, goth, punk … insert your narrow taste in music here), man … we got old.

There doesn’t seem to be much worse you could imply about someone than to suggest he “got old” … when growing older is simply what everyone and everything does from the moment it’s born.  You age, and you die.  It’s that simple whether you’re five, 15, 35 or 65 years old.  A lot happens to us at every age, all of it valid and instructive in ways we often don’t grasp until long afterwards.  We’ve attached these mythical qualities to being a teenager that just aren’t true, or shouldn’t be used to define our lives at any other point beyond being a teenager, the same way we don’t choose to define our lives as adults by how we lived when we were eight.  Pick any age at which people choose to stop aging emotionally – I’d peg this time period for too many people at anywhere from 15 to 21 years old.  All I know is my adult life is riddled with people who stopped aging emotionally at some point in this relatively unformed stage of life.  It isn’t cool … it’s fucking stupid and irritating beyond belief.

Now, how much of that can be attributed to one’s taste in music is surely debatable.  But there’s no debating the emotional stasis our society tolerates.  It’s not just a white-trash thing either: the lack of maturity is just as prevalent in an upper-middle-class divorce with two otherwise highly-responsible adults doing everything they can, even using their children, to inflict as much emotional damage as they can on each other.  It only underlines the complete lack of empathy most of us had as teenagers, and never grew out of, despite going through so many life-alerting changes that should suggest otherwise. 

At that time, we told ourselves this wasn’t true, that we cared about everyone and everything.  But I can assure you, the way I lived as a teenager was mercenary and self-serving compared to how I live now.  I thought otherwise: I was certain this was not the case, that I genuinely cared about other people.  But very little about my life back then suggested that was true, other than my having believed it to be so, because I was a “great guy” or some other such horseshit.  And that seems to be a forbidden sin for a lot of people: to look at your life and recognize this is to commit a betrayal, as opposed to simply recognizing the narcissism of youth.  That the only “gang” we’re all part of is humanity, not some age group we’re temporarily part of that’s perpetually and irrationally fawned over by imbeciles.

I wouldn't be wise to call out heavy-metal music in and of itself, so much as the concept of attaching teenage values to anything, be it musical tastes, emotions, lifestyles, etc.  I think whatever mistakes I made in that original article or the healthy debate that flowed from it can be attributed to narrowing down the debate to just heavy-metal music and not recognizing the real issue was someone making a conscious decision not to grow up, regardless of musical taste.  I can see now the problems people create in their lives go a lot deeper than their tastes in music, and it’s too easy to use that as a scapegoat.

All this from a goofy documentary about a parking lot before a rock concert?  Probably not, just as I brought baggage to my 2000 appraisal.  This is the baggage I bring now.  I’ll probably  have a different set of luggage in 2024. 
Assuming I’m alive, man!  I’ll probably die before I’m thir … uh, I mean fort … uh, man, could we maybe leave this age thing blank and just agree that I’ll probably die before I get old, man?  Old in spirit, if not in actual, physical age?  Thanks, bro, I knew  you’d understand!  Rock and roll forever!


Beatles Comment Guy said...

It's unusual to think that "Where are they now?" segment is now as old today as the original film was when the new part was released. (Similar in my mind to how more time has passed since "Dazed and Confused", the archetypical 70s nostalgia piece was released than years passed between the '76 setting and when it came out in 1993. Yet, as someone who grew up at the time, I can't imagine someone making a a mid-90s flashback movie.)

When I see it (and I watch the majority of the stuff on the DVD with a particular friend every time he visits, once a year or so), I always think to that line from "Where Are They Now?" from Kink's Preservation 1 "I wonder what become of all the Rockers and the Mods/I Hope they're making it and they've all got steady jobs". From all appearances, the kids who made it to the reunion, turned out fine, and I'm glad to see they grew out of their party days as much as a middle class kid who went to college would. Sure, a good deal of them went on to be "losers", undoubtedly, it says something like a social background or a scene isn't by any means a "trap".

HMPL has always reminded me of the older kids and teenagers from the time when I was young. I was 5 in 1986, and I can still remember people looking like that, though I had no real interest in music or in a "social scene" of any sort. Since my background is pretty solidly working class, though, I wasn't totally detached from the vibe you get in that documentary. That said, I would wager that a large minority of the revelers were rich kids from the DC suburbs (where I lived briefly after college and hated it). The Reston crew were likely relatively affluent kids who were just going along with the trends of the time, though the one lady did seem to really like the music.

William S. Repsher said...

In the original article, one of the people who came at me believed ALL the kids in the parking lot were spoiled rotten suburban DC kids, not in any way working class. But I know better: you couldn't really fake that look, or want to, in the early/mid 80s. I'd say a fraction of the people there were affluent ... and it was probably kids who had enough money to buy zebra-striped spandex pants!

You can't fake used 70s cars ... your parents wouldn't be buying them if you had money. You can't fake that vibe -- most of those kids had "it." I do know that some of the town names rattled off are upper-end suburbs, but I'd wager that turn of the 80s, most weren't nearly as affluent as they are now, and they more than likely had bigger pockets of working-class families living "on the wrong side of the tracks" ... which every town has, no matter how affluent.

I can vouch that Dazed and Confused was perfect timing. The early 90s were a ripe time for 70s retro, 20 years after the fact. Rhino primed the pump with their massive 25-disc Have a Nice Day CD series focusing solely on one-hit Top 40 pop songs that no one, and I mean no one, could cop to liking at the time. ABBA did not exist in America back then -- I know, because I was trying to buy their CDs, and none were released. There was a 3-disc Italian import that cost a small fortune, but eventually ABBA Gold came out in the UK, followed by More ABBA Gold, followed by movies featuring ABBA songs, followed by a landslide of retro 70s stuff (like That 70s Show).

People will find nostalgia in the mid-90s -- it's our nature. It's happening now. With Nirvana being inducted into the RNR Hall of Fame, the time is now. Of course, one of the problems is many of the trends that came into play in the mid-90s are STILL dominant cultural forces, which is a mistake that's been carried out for decades by a dying pop music industry. Namely hiphop, boy bands and former Mousketeer girl singers acting like sluts. It's a tired equation that became standard in the mid-90s. The difference being in the 70s and 80s, this stuff would last a few years then blow itself out, something would take its place. Not anymore!

Beatles Comment Guy said...

You know, I'd agree that the internet has made music (and culture more generally) more accessible, and therefore we see less in terms of "waves" of nostalgia but a sort of past-to-present semi-permanent merger. Everything is more or less there, especially on youtube, and it's easier to have something of the past to grab onto. You don't have to pay 20 bucks for a CD, you don't have to wait months or years for this or that movie to come on TV, and all that. Everything's now part of the massive present, and I think that's why the big 90s revival never quite happened. In a sense, the generation that made it up, and doubly so for whatever the hell you call the 00s, never let it go away.

Re: Judas Priest, Rob Halford is actually a devout Christian (like Ozzy, Alice Cooper, and Dee Snider, etc,) of all things, a Christmas album few years back. Normally, these rock n'roll Xmas things are crap, but his vocal style makes it work in a sort of way. Check out his take O Holy Night. It's actually and interesting and impressive take in my book (though the instrumental backing sounds a little like Europe Endless from Kraftwerk):

Beatles Comment Guy said...

Here's another alum from the parking lot, remember the guy wearing the Star of David:

Beatles Comment Guy said...

A podcaster finds Graham of dope!

William S. Repsher said...

Yes, I'd read an article about him a year or two ago also, related to his book. God bless the guy for having a relatively normal life!

William Repsher said...

You can get his book on Kindle for $2.99 or borrow for free with Kindle Unlimited - Jalyn Graham Owens, Sr.: