Classic rock parking lot
Searching for a resurrected heavy-metal scene at Arco Arena, where the Scorpions, Whitesnake and Dokken were trying to awaken a sleeping giant
A teenage boy with feathered hair and a zebra-print spandex bodysuit grabs the microphone and, after drunkenly bumping his mouth with it, clears his throat and addresses the camera. “Heavy metal rules. All that punk shit sucks. It doesn’t belong on this planet. It belongs on Mars. And Madonna can go to hell. She’s a dick. Judas Priest, Dokken, Ozzy, Scorpions, it all rules!”
This eloquent summary of the 1980s music scene is a highlight of cult cinema favorite Heavy Metal Parking Lot. A 16-minute documentary of the social interaction outside a Judas Priest concert in the summer of 1986, the film is a series of interviews conducted around cars packed with mullet-sporting teens clutching beer cans and waxing poetic about the virtues of metal noise.
“Judas Priest is the best! Always has been, always will be!” yells a 20-year-old man before sloppily French-kissing his 13-year-old girlfriend. When the filmmaker asks an excessively blow-dried young miss what she’d do if she met Rob Halford, Judas Priest’s lead singer, she promptly declares, “I’d jump his bones!” Like every other teenager in the film, her eyes glow with the haze of a cheap beer buzz and the certainty that rock ’n’ roll will never die.
How times change! Nearly two decades later, Halford has declared himself gay (sorry gals) and is pursuing a barely detectable solo career. Judas Priest is now headed by Ripper Owens, onetime lead singer of Judas Priest cover band British Steel, and playing the festival circuit with the likes of .38 Special and Loverboy. Shoe-gazing groups of the Coldplay ilk and pop mavens like Christina Aguilera and Avril Lavigne, who only hold guitars for photo ops, are being marketed as today’s rock ’n’ roll. To all outward appearances, the once thriving culture of Heavy Metal Parking Lot has passed into oblivion.
Ah, but this is the town that spawned Tesla! Who does MTV think it’s fooling? Sacramento will not be discouraged from its hard-rock fixation by marketing gimmicks. Aguilera can pose all she wants in fishnets and guitar straps, but the capital city’s heart still pulses to the drumrolls of 1980s heavy metal. Like moths drawn to a flaming lighter held aloft during a power ballad, touring metal bands are visiting our little burg with increasing frequency. Ratt, Quiet Riot, Y&T and Def Leppard have passed through in the last year. With tours by Metallica, Faster Pussycat, Queensryche, Sammy Hagar and a rumored KISS/Aerosmith double bill headed to Northern California this summer, the tide of windmill arms, prolonged guitar solos and pre-irony rock shows no signs of ebbing.
Seeking a toehold in the investigative-reporting forefront of this decades-old musical trend, SN&R sent a reporter to the VH1 Classic Scorpions, Whitesnake and Dokken spring tour stop at Arco Arena to see who’s parking their Camaros in the heavy-metal parking lot these days.
30 minutes before show time, a careful inspection of the Arco Arena parking lot revealed just two tailgaters among the sea of sport-utility vehicles and practical sedans. The party couple, wearing matching 49ers sweatshirts, had gamely popped the tiny hatchback of their Honda. They leaned against the bumper and surreptitiously passed a tiny joint and an unidentified cocktail (in the requisite red plastic tumbler) between them. The tinny blare of Whitesnake’s “Fool for Your Love” from the car’s standard-issue speakers was the only indication that the couple was there to see a rock show and hadn’t simply made a wrong turn on the way to 3Com Park. Clearly, the heavy-metal scene had left the parking lot.
Inside the arena, the halls were filled with music fans ranging in age from 30 to 50. The rockers in attendance fell into two distinct categories: the die-hards and the weekend warriors. Die-hards are metal fans who came to the scene in the 1980s and never left it. Mostly men, these specimens can be identified by long, “career-be-damned” hair and faded concert T-shirts. True to the Sacramento scene, the majority of these shirts read, “Tesla.” The die-hard women, a much smaller population, wear bustiers, leather jackets and heels. The most common die-hard phrase is, “Where’s the beer?”
The second, more calm and less hirsute group of fans are the weekend warriors. Having capitulated to societal and career pressures the die-hards have avoided, the weekend warriors wear short, office-appropriate hairstyles. That night, most of the weekend warriors were clad in T-shirts from Aerosmith’s most recent tour that looked as if they hadn’t been worn since their purchase. Some weekend warriors, having rushed straight from the office, were still in Dockers and button-down Van Heusens with ID badges clipped to the front pockets. The most common phrase uttered by this group is, “I thought I wouldn’t make it tonight. Do you know how tough it is to find a babysitter on a Wednesday?”
It should come as no surprise, then, that the weekend warriors were largely responsible for the presence of a third subset of the population—the teenagers who wandered the halls yards behind their caregivers while trying hard to look as if they were not actually at a rock show with their parents.
A cluster of die-hards stood at the edge of the floor, engaged in a heated discussion about the arena’s seating plan.
“They’ve got chairs on the floor?” one asked in disbelief.
“Bullshit!” the others yelled. “We’ll kick them over! Yeah!”
The chairs in question filled every inch of floor space, completely eliminating the prospect of a pit. Most of the seats were occupied by weekend warriors and their offspring. Even while seated, the teenagers leaned away from their parents and stared into the middle distance, trying to sustain the ruse of independence.
The auditorium was filled with a smoky haze that blurred the farthest walls of the room. Of course, in the era of indoor-smoking bans, the source of the smoke was not several thousand burning Marlboros, but a giant smoke machine. The machine belched cloud after cloud of strawberry-smelling fog until the room was hot-boxed like any proper ’80s concert.
The haze had at least one person feeling nostalgic. A man in a leather jacket prowled the aisles like an alley cat yelling, “Whereza weed? All right! Who’s got a pipe? Ow!” The weekend warriors glanced worriedly at their children as he passed. No one made him an offer.
The crowd, intoxicated by either the strawberry fumes or Miller Genuine Draft, already was nodding to the ’tween-set music. A recording of Peter Green’s voice shot out through the PA and demanded, “Don’t ask me what I think of you!” The crowd collectively sang the reply: “I might not give the answer that you want me to.” A spontaneous “Whoo!” arose as the audience members marveled at their synchronicity.
That tiny “Whoo!” swelled to tsunami proportions as the lights went down, and the bands, one after another, took the stage. The members of all three groups strictly adhered to the big-hair/small-pants formula for metal attire (although, in a nod to the new millennium, hairstyles were shaggy rather than permed).
From Don Dokken’s first “Are you reeeaaadddyyy?” the concert was a montage of rock theatrics at their finest. Whitesnake’s David Coverdale strutted across the stage, swinging his mic stand with dangerous velocity and emitting random screeches Robert Plant would envy. Scorpions vocalist Klaus Meine raced back and forth pouting at the crowd. Guitarists in both bands planted their legs in wide stances and strummed power chords at crotch level before breaking into windmill-arm riffs. Scorpions drummer James Kottak tossed his drumsticks in the air between rolls and, after delivering a solo long enough for the rest of the band to squeeze in a wardrobe change, broke a beer bottle over his skull to the roaring approval of the crowd.
Theatrics aside, the music was impressive. The musicians’ technical prowess made one yearn for the days before rampant sampling, when rock stars actually played their instruments and invented new hooks for every song. Far from the “fame is such a burden” aloofness of many of today’s rockers, these bands reveled in the adoration brought by their talent.
The audience members were smitten. They held up handmade signs professing their love, threw flowers onstage, played air-guitar solos with unabashed abandon and fought viciously for the bands’ cast-off drumsticks. Despite the harsh tones of the music, the arena glowed with an innocent sincerity absent from most concerts today. For a few hours, the gap between the die-hards and the weekend warriors was fused by a common desire to rock.
That desire peaked when the Scorpions ran back onstage for the night’s final encore. “Of course, Sacramento,” Meine yelled, “we would not let you go without rocking you like a hurricane!” The band launched into its signature hit as the crowd head-banged with ferocious intensity.
Then, the lights came up, and the die-hards and weekend warriors, looking equally disheveled from the experience, filed their way toward the exits.
“Fucking déjà vu!” one die-hard said to his buddy.
“What? I’m deaf!” his friend screamed.
“I said, ‘Fucking déjà vu!’ man.”
Just behind them, a weekend warrior smoothed down his ruffled hair. “That was irresponsible of the drummer to break a bottle on his head,” he complained to his girlfriend. “He probably had a trick bottle, but now there’ll be a bunch of guys in the ER next weekend who tried the same thing.”
Long live rock.