Before viral videos there was Heavy Metal Parking Lot. As the cult documentary turns 30, Scott Messenger asks if we can ever go back to the music of our youth
Judas Priest fans in Heavy Metal Parking Lot
The last awkward scene in Heavy Metal Parking Lot sums up the film’s impact on the music and subculture that inspired it. Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year as a defining portrait of the proudly aimless, the 17-minute documentary is a story of drunken devotion. Sinewy, shirtless men and billowy-haired women clutch cans of Bud and Busch outside a now-demolished arena in Maryland. They’re waiting to see Judas Priest, one of the biggest metal bands of the 1980s. Filmmakers John Heyn and Jeffrey Krulik trawl the crowd like junior anthropologists. They record gushing praise for Priest, unrestrained air guitar, a few seconds of clumsy necking. And, right before the film cuts to concert footage and credits, Kelly McCullis makes her appearance.
Bright, young and soberly mature, McCullis cheerily warns against drinking and driving while two men lean into the shot. One of them briefly rests his head on her shoulder. “Get away from me. Please,” McCullis exclaims as she recoils, smiling but serious. This is the reaction the film encouraged in most heavy metal outsiders. It’s fun to watch, but Parking Lot inadvertently lampooned the genre, making the music antithetical to people with an understanding of consequence and an interest in the future.
That perception wouldn’t concern me had I not felt renewed appreciation for the genre now that I’ve hit middle age. My attention was drawn away from metal in high school by a grunge era that turned out to have the depth of an empty flannel shirt. Now, in the right company, I’ll eagerly weigh in on how thrash metal godfathers Anthrax are enjoying a creative high point in their 35-year career, how instrumental metal has almost no match for emotional intensity, or the reasons for the decades-long persistence of the scene in my hometown of Edmonton.
In other company, I try not to worry anyone. Since its birth in 1970 with Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut, metal’s reputation has vacillated between being everything from Satan’s communications department to refuge for the disaffected to just plain silly. Black metal did the most damage, with its role in church burnings and murders in Norway in the ’90s. Less terrifying but still alarming, death metal – fast and brutal – represents the genre as an exclusive club with no obvious benefits. Then there are amusing examples like Scandinavian Viking metal (yes, mythology set to music) and a Toronto “doom metal” band that includes a lead flautist. The list carries on without coda. Although Parking Lot preceded all of this, each sub-genre is marked by a wilful social detachment that gave the film its must-see status – and outsiders justification to fret.
My return to metal isn’t mere nostalgia. Middle age is defined by powerlessness. I’m a ridealong on a circuitous route with predictable stops at the daycare, the job, the grocery store and home.
That anxiety has concerned academics, too. A 2015 paper in the journal Self and Identity noted how hard-partying metal fans of the 1980s were expected to amount to less than their mainstream counterparts. “Today, these middle-aged metalheads are middle class, gainfully employed, relatively well educated, and look back fondly on the wild times,” researchers write. Also, they tend to be happier today than most, perhaps because they grew comfortable with living in a community of outcasts, self-appointed or not. “Some researchers have suggested that identification with rebellious music may actually aid in the development and solidification of a cohesive sense of identity,” the paper continues. More than a third of the research sample still listened to the music they had all those decades ago.
Dweeb from Heavy Metal Parking Lot
With some regret, I can’t count myself among the subjects of that paper, although I tried in my formative years. My earliest experience playing in a band involved thrash metal. We did covers of Dirty Rotten Imbeciles and Suicidal Tendencies at, of all places, a high-school talent show. My first all-ages concert in the ’90s was a metal bill featuring an Edmonton band called Disciples of Power and a roiling pit at the foot of the stage. (I wore a Philadelphia Flyers jersey tucked into a pair of stone-washed pale blue jeans; a friend yanked the shirt free and patted me on the back as if to say, “Good luck.”) Almost getting arrested over trying to get a fake ID to attend no-minors shows was as rebellious as I got (the brush with the law dulled my appetite for delinquency). In the end, I spent more time with books than booze or girls – far more than necessary, I realize now.
That’s why my return to metal isn’t mere nostalgia inciting an identity crisis. There’s little history worth trying to relive, no bygone wild man to emulate. But the timing is meaningful. Middle age is defined by powerlessness. I’m a ridealong on a circuitous route with predictable stops at the daycare, the job, the grocery store and home. Having kids makes this easier to accept. They’re worthy causes, but it sometimes feels as if they’re the ones in the driver’s seat. There are moments when I feel compelled to grab the wheel, even though chances are excellent I’d steer us straight into the ditch.
Embracing heavy metal now means embracing the awkward self that led to a slightly less awkward one.
It makes sense to reach for the stereo controls instead. Metal is a safe space to indulge frustration, even anger, and see some good come of it. For example, much modern metal has been a reliable source of protest songs. Rage Against the Machine agitated for changes in U.S. foreign policy; Slayer questions the morality of organized religion; and Winnipeg’s Propagandhi frequently rails against human rights abuses, usually Canadian. The protest isn’t always political, either. Countless songs fixate on the heartbreaking things we do that emotionally isolated others.
Even when metal isn’t music with a message, it can have positive physiological effects. “It has been claimed that extreme music leads to anger, and expressions of anger such as aggression, delinquency, drug use and suicidal acts,” researchers report in a 2015 paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. The study revealed the opposite. Following “stress interviews” to induce anger, 40 metalheads put on headphones and listened to music of their choice. Though their heart rates remained as high as when they were angry, their irritability and hostility dropped. “The music that participants selected when angry matched their physiological arousal and allowed them to fully experience it,” researchers noted. When the music was turned off, their heart rates returned to resting, suggesting that those who preferred metal were able to turn to it in tough times as a coping tool. Which makes it perfect, of course, for the difficult years of adolescence – or those of middle age.
But since anger isn’t my issue, is there another kind of processing going on with my return to metal? Given the links between our identity and the music we listen to, embracing the genre means embracing the awkward self that led to a slightly less awkward one. All of us can watch Heavy Metal Parking Lot and see something of ourselves in those self-conscious, embarrassing Judas Priest fans (most of whom likely turned out OK in the end). If we were able to find in music what we needed to get through those times, maybe we can still use it to manage whatever is to come.
Scott Messenger, who is EB’s senior editor and in the (very) early years of middle age, chronicled his year of drinking locally on his blog, One Year Alberta Beer. He’s written for Canadian Geographic, Avenue Magazine and The Guardian.
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