From Judas Priest to the Dalai Lama

One bored Sunday night recently, I was browsing the “Cult Classics” section of the Tubi streaming app and came across this short film I’d never seen or heard of: Heavy Metal Parking Lot. Now, in my late 40s, I’ve been interested in the obscure, the off-beat, and the otherwise odd for most of my life, so I’m always pleased to make new discoveries. This one I should have seen a long time ago: a fifteen-minute, homemade documentary about the parking lot outside a Judas Priest concert in Maryland in 1986. Back in the day, these were my people.

As I watched, I thought about my teenage self in the late 1980s and early ’90s and remembered being full of energy, anger, and frustration like the guys in the movie. Nothing around me seemed right or fair or even desirable. It seems sad to me to think about now, but I had no role models. There was no one – no grown man – who I looked up to, who I wanted to emulate, about whom I thought, I wanna be like that guy. In Generation-X Alabama, that was an empty and stifling feeling. My own father was anti-social, often confusing, and overly concerned with obedience, and most of the other dads I knew reminded me of Roy Turner in The Bad News Bears. The only men at school were the coaches (nope!) and the principal (oh hell no!). My family wasn’t close so I didn’t have uncles around, and both of my grandfathers died before I was born. Though I didn’t understand this at the time, I turned to music, TV, and movies for the images I wanted to find. (Of course, there were men who wrote books and who were portrayed in books, but I wasn’t there yet and certainly didn’t know anything about the counterculture writers I would discover later.)

For an MTV-generation kid, many of those images came from hyper-masculine, uber-angsty heavy metal. Coming from a working-class Southern family, the emphasis on toughness was there, but for kids like me who weren’t athletic or outdoorsy, this hardened image was an alternative. The bands, songs, and imagery told me, You may not be Andrew Clark, but you could still be John Bender. The music was driven by loud and abrasive electric guitars. The look was in-your-face, dirty, and unkempt. The attitude was sneering, rebellious, and defiant. The lyrics reminded us that no one liked us, no one wanted us, and everything – every adult, every institution, every rule – was bogus, self-serving, and designed for conformity. Sometimes, as an adult, I’ve looked back at these bands and wondered why in the world I ever liked their ridiculous clothes and hair, their screechy voices, their often-mediocre songwriting. But, when I’m honest, I do know: they presented an alternative to what I saw around me, which led the authority figures in my life to be as dismayed and frustrated with me as I was with them. It may not have been justice, but it felt pretty good to an immature teenager as retribution.

So, when I watched Heavy Metal Parking Lot and saw those mostly shirtless teenage boys, I recognized them. Because I knew them. I understood why, in 1986, they were smoking and holding their beers high and screaming into a microphone that Judas Priest and their opening act Dokken were the best things ever. To a bunch of scraggly boys (and the few girls) who had piled into somebody’s scraggly car and spent their last few bucks on some beer and cigarettes, it felt good to pull into that parking lot and see all those folks who were just like them. It felt good to be away from the parents and teachers who said things like “Cut your hair!” and “Why do you act like that?” I know, because in 1989, I went to our local coliseum to see Cinderella and White Lion – two terribly mediocre hair metal bands – and had those feelings. The heavy metal of the 1980s was of questionable artistic merit, but for some people, it fueled something that begged to be fueled: a sense that you weren’t alone in refusing the conventional life that was being emphasized.

Looking back, though, this alternative – heavy metal and its musical cousins – didn’t offer us solutions, just more gasoline for the fires that were already burning. The messages and the mentality were not about finding something better, but about staying as disgruntled as possible. I think about hearing Metallica’s “Fade to Black” or Danzig’s “Mother” and how devoid of hope and full of violence it all was. I also think about the imagery on the album covers, t-shirts, magazines, and posters: dead bodies and skeletons, Nordic gods, fire, all on a black background. I can remember parents or teachers making me or some friend get a hair cut, stop wearing a favorite article of clothing, or throw away a favorite cassette, and all that did was made us more resentful. The hair, the clothes, and the music weren’t the disease, they were the symptoms. The disease was alienation, which led to feeling disaffected and hopeless. The lifestyle choices were just the part that people could see.

I’m not turning into one of those PMRC types in my old age, but I do recognize now what the damage was. When a teenage boy is confused about life and sees very little reason for hope, he doesn’t need recurring messages like the ones in heavy metal. Where there was comfort in the community of it – knowing that I feel this way, but I’m not alone, so I must not be wrong – there was also a self-perpetuating aspect to it. Finding solidarity through heavy metal told us that we had a right to feel that way, but that led too many listeners to the wrongheaded notion that it was good to feel that way. It wasn’t.

What prompted me to think about all this was a tweet from the Dalai Lama’s account the morning after I watched Heavy Metal Parking Lot:

If I had seen this as a 1980s teenager, I would have equated the word “responsibility” with parents and taken the word “educate” to mean school, and he’d have lost me before I even saw the word “happiness,” which I’d have scoffed at anyway. Today, I’m sharing it because I know that “responsibility” means the ability to be responsive, and because I know that education happens in more settings than school, and because he’s right about happiness coming from affirming what we value, not from obsessing on what we reject. That’s the exact opposite of the hopelessness, hate, and violence that heavy metal offered me and other young men in the 1970s and ’80s.

The 1980s may be long gone, and hair metal may have been relegated to the joke book of modern history, but what we see in Heavy Metal Parking Lot is still around. The “we” in the Dalai Lama’s message means that all of us can do something to help somebody who needs it, and what I’m adding is: showing them a better way does not necessarily mean offering them more ways to conform, obey, or fit in.

People who are overcome by alienation have considered those traditional options already and have found them unsuitable. (That can be hard for people who find traditional options suitable, or even enjoyable, to understand or accept, but it’s a fact.) What experience tells me is that “we” can look past typical options, like sports and clubs and churches, and find out what disaffected young people might be looking for. Platitudes about staying in school, finding your place, praying about it, and getting a job weren’t ever going to work on a young guy who has ended up shirtless, drunk, and cursing in a concert parking lot. Asking him what he truly wants, what he’s looking for but can’t find, then listening respectfully to his answer . . . that actually might.

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