Maryland on My Mind

New York
01.08.09

Left: Filmmaker Jeff Krulik and critic Michael Azerrad. Right: A still from Jeff Krulik's Led Zeppelin Played Here. (All photos: Hannah Shields)


BARRING JOHN FAHEY, curmudgeonly master of American-primitive fingerstyle guitar, whose gnomic, self-penned liner notes mythologized the Takoma Park, Maryland, of his childhood, no artist has done as much for suburban Maryland as Jeff Krulik, underground video documentarian, obsessive chronicler of obsessives, and maker (with John Heyn) of one of the funniest docs of the past thirty years (maybe ever), Heavy Metal Parking Lot (1986). Having no affinity for the state besides a love of Fahey’s music and a repulsion-fascination with the central-Atlantic accent (Philly, Baltimore, and environs—listen for words like Coke and bowling), I was mildly surprised to find myself hoofing through freezing rain and under the Gowanus Expressway to Light Industry, an empty room in a massive converted industrial building in Sunset Park, to see a minifestival of Krulik’s works-in-progress. Ever since I saw a Krulik retrospective in San Francisco years ago, I’ve been on the lookout for this amateur auteur’s compellingly geeky docs wherever I may find them.

Shot outside the Capitol Center in Landover, Maryland, before a 1986 Judas Priest concert, Heavy Metal Parking Lot offers all the mullets, spandex, feathered perms, central Atlantic o’s (“I’d jump his bones”), and real-life Beavis and Butt-head behavior any aging student of ’80s America could want. It’s impossible not to laugh at these people, but the video avoids arch condescension through Krulik and Heyn’s honest idiot glee and unabashedly nerdy interest in the mysteries of fandom. For years after its making, HMPL circulated through an ad hoc network of friends and mondo videotape traders, winding up in many a touring band’s bus VCR, notably Nirvana’s. Its “success” led Krulik to make a number of other “parking lot” docs, of which the best is Neil Diamond Parking Lot (1998), shot ten years later outside the same arena and featuring overweight, middle-aged, utterly normal women exhibiting a dedication to their musical god that would shame the most ardent Deadhead.

Sadly, neither film was on the bill on Tuesday, nor were some of Krulik’s other peaks: Public Access Gibberish (1990), King of Porn (1996), and Ernest Borgnine on the Bus (1997). For this was his “Nuggets”—unreleased, unfinished works with an overarching rock-'n'-roll theme. After a brief introduction (“Jeff is the missing link between Errol Morris and Allen Funt”) by Thomas Beard, one of Light Industry’s young proprietors, Krulik appeared, bald and gray, but with a fresh face and irrepressibly boyish energy. The standing-room-only audience, mostly twenty-something hipsters and film students, welcomed him warmly. The space heater was fired up and the lights turned off.

The first offering, The Leisure World Comedy and Humor Club, was one of the few that didn’t concern rock. Shot at a weekly gathering of geriatrics who recite (often off-color) jokes to each other from a lectern, it felt like a living Drew Friedman cartoon and charmed the pants off the audience. The next, Meet James’ Parents, followed a youngish mom and dad who have been ditched by their achingly self-conscious teenage son at an outdoor pop-punk concert as they unintentionally get backstage passes and meet James’s heroes. When James hears what he missed for thinking his parents hopelessly uncool, he says (naturally), “That sucks!” Also charming as hell.

Left: Light Industry's Thomas Beard and Ed Halter. Right: Michael Azerrad and Jeff Krulik.


Then we moved to relatively unstructured segments of what is clearly Krulik’s current obsession—’60s rock in the Maryland/Washington, DC, region. Including Ambassador Theater Psychedelic Memories (an oral history of DC’s short-lived Fillmore-like psychedelic music hall) and Led Zeppelin Played Here (an investigation into the truth behind the legend that Zep played their first DC-area gig at the tiny, unglamorous Community Center in Wheaton, Maryland, in 1969 on the night of Nixon’s first inauguration), the amorphous project became tedious at times, with rambling anecdotes by aging local rock fans, record collectors, and former garage-band members. An extended shot of a telephone on a desk as the director interviewed Nils Lofgren about Hendrix at the Ambassador was typical no-budget Krulik but also awkwardly exposed the limitations of limitations. Some of the audience snuck out between sections.

We were on more familiar, amusing territory with Heavy Metal Picnic, a film Krulik edited from hours of video shot by an amateur cameraman/metalhead at an all-day outdoor party in a Maryland field in 1985, featuring third-rate local metal bands and more onion-skin shorts, pubestaches, and devil-horn hand signals than anyone ever thought possible. (The next time a twenty-something openly envies me for being an adolescent during the ’80s, I will hand him/her a DVD of HMPL and HMP. Trust me—it was pure hell.)

After a very short short about a middle-aged “throat guitarist,” the lights came up and Krulik was interviewed by Our Band Could Be Your Life author and Kurt Cobain biographer Michael Azerrad. “I didn’t breathe the whole time” the films were playing, Krulik admitted; he seemed generally nervous, if flattered. Azerrad noted that he’d first seen HMPL in Nirvana’s tour bus and tried to link Krulik’s practice—and its viral distribution network—to ’80s hardcore and indie-rock DIY subcultures. Krulik is clearly someone who doesn’t think too deeply about what he does, giving the impression that his many short films are merely the result of mild OCD. “A collector mentality,” he said. “Madness.” Over one hundred films into his oeuvre, he is still preserving the castoffs of pop fandom and creating his own version of John Ford’s Monument Valley in the tract homes, minimalls, and McMansions of Maryland. He loves YouTube. You can find him there.

Andrew Hultkrans