Led Zeppelin Played Here – or Did They?: An Interview with Jeff Krulik
By Jude Warne.
“Well, everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is… maybe he didn’t?” – Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
What is proof enough to determine that a historical event did indeed happen? The accounts of firsthand witnesses? Written documented records? Handed-down legends? Where the imperfect memories of human beings (and not much else) are involved, it becomes increasingly difficult to know for sure. In his latest film, and first feature-length one at that, documentarian Jeff Krulik employs all of these evidential elements in order to conclude whether or not Led Zeppelin played here. Here, in this instance, is the Wheaton Youth Center, a building in Silver Spring, Maryland that was the frequent site of up-and-coming rock and roll acts during the 1960s. Zeppelin may (or may not) have played here on January 20th 1969, the night of Richard Nixon’s presidential inauguration. Over the course of Led Zeppelin Played Here, originally released in 2014 (and recently recut with its New York premiere set for this weekend at Anthology Film Archives), Krulik attempts to come to a definite answer to the question. He investigates and interviews those who may (or may not) have been in attendance at or in proximity to the mystery concert – music fans, concert promoters, radio DJs, and the like.
Krulik’s 1986 documentary short, the cult classic Heavy Metal Parking Lot, is his self-dubbed “calling card,” a film that depicts the whacked-out and youthed-up parking lot attendees of a Judas Priest concert. He has always been drawn to the off-the-wall, offbeat, oddballish aspects of human existence and has sought to explore these through his films. Krulik got his start in college radio and public access television, and then moved on toward the documentary genre, eventually making a slue of Parking Lot shorts amidst others. Concertgoers, rather than concert performers, are what he is consistently drawn to – the human carnival and its kaleidoscope of weirdness.
In conversation with filmmaker Jeff Krulik, we learn more about his motivations behind Led Zeppelin Played Here, and its development and production processes, the origins and evolution of the popular concert industry, and what it is, exactly, that people demand for proof.
Congratulations on such a fantastic film; I really liked Led Zeppelin Played Here a lot.
Well, thank you very much. In fact we’re working on it right now, making a few minor adjustments as we get ready for our screening on Saturday, at Anthology Film Archives in New York City.
I wanted to mention – my dad kept all of his Fillmore East programs from the sixties and seventies, and I found his program from Led Zeppelin’s concert in ’69 – in New York of course, but still. The dates are January 31st through February 1st of ’69, so it must have been that same tour as the Wheaton Youth Center show, explored in your film.
Yes, that’s the same tour, that’s great.
So we have proof of the New York shows, anyway.
Yes, proof that they played there. That’s the hard proof that people want, the proof they need to believe that a particular concert, such as the one I made the documentary around, actually happened. That they crave. That’s cool that he saved all his programs.
Yeah, we have a big box of them. It makes me envious to read listings of all of the acts who would be playing over the next week at the time – some of the best musicians ever – all in one week of time. “Oh no, I missed It!” – was my response.
Sometimes they even played on the same bill.
I know! So – why were you captivated by this particular regional legend, of Zeppelin playing at Wheaton? Or rather, why do you think it’s important to know whether or not this particular concert happened?
Often times when I make documentaries, when I work on projects, they turn into something else completely different from what I started with. When I originally started this film, in the winter of 2009, maybe even December of 2008, I wanted to commemorate Laurel Pop Festival, this two-day concert at the Laurel racetrack, one month before Woodstock in July of ’69. Led Zeppelin headlined one of the nights of Laurel Pop, and I wanted to know more about that, intending to make a film called “Laurel’s Woodstock.” Just because it was a forgotten moment, certainly eclipsed by all of the other pop festivals, including Woodstock, which occurred that same year. I’ve always been interested in the cultural and music history of the Washington DC- Maryland area, where I grew up. So in the film you see me getting excited about the Laurel Pop Festival. I started to trace the arc of Led Zeppelin, to see that a month before they headlined the festival they were at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Of course there are still the ads for that performance, they played on a bill with The Who. And this whole big picture included their first concert in the area, which happened to be at the Wheaton Youth Center. I went in there to find the same building just frozen in time, as though it hadn’t changed since the day it was built in 1963. I thought “Wow, this could really help me tell the story.” Now there were going to be a lot of talking heads in the film because from that particular time there are not a lot of images. It clicked for me, that the way to tell this story would be through the youth center, a venue that held a lot of concerts. A ton of bands played there but somehow nobody questions that those concerts happened, just Led Zeppelin’s. I figured that the youth center, the building, could become a character and help to tell this story. So that’s a sketch of how the film evolved from what I originally intended to do with it. The film is not really about Led Zeppelin; the band is a hook for me to tell the story of this emerging rock concert industry, focusing on the area where I live now. Because this kind of thing was happening all over the country. Originally I was going to include more about local bands that played there too, but that never happened. Now the concert industry has become this ironclad industry that people take for granted – it is a billion-dollar business, but it came from somewhere. Along the way I wanted to solve the mystery of whether this particular concert happened.
I love how you address the power of DJs and promoters in the film, how they helped to curate national taste in popular music at the time. This film seems to be more about all of the people who support music, rather than the musicians themselves. Using Led Zeppelin as a jumping-off point. It’s interesting how that’s kind of what your Parking Lot films are about too; Heavy Metal Parking Lot is all about the audience, concert culture. Could you speak to why you’re drawn to this area of musical life?
Well, I’m certainly a music fan and I think that’s why I like to tell stories revolving around it. But I’m always fascinated by the mechanics of the industry and how it’s put together. I’m a frustrated promoter; I don’t have the demeanor for it. I’m a fairly accomplished – on my own terms – archivist. As a kid I remember being fascinated by backstage articles. I spent time in college radio and then that went to community television, public access, which is where I developed an eye, or at least experience with the camera. I love pop culture history, and things like Heavy Metal Parking Lot have been a great calling card, not by action but by design. It’s thirty years old; I couldn’t be more pleased. If that’s how people come to me, that’s great.
Part of what I like about this film is your tone and approach; like you said, you’re a fan, so there’s no sense of making fun of the action happening on screen. In some documentaries, the viewer gets a sense of the director commenting non-verbally on the action, poking fun at people. Which can be easy to do with music fans, and I can relate to their enthusiasm, and I think that a lot of people can relate, being hardcore music fans.
Thank you, I appreciate that. Lately people can’t believe that I’m not a metal fan. I have screenings and people are outraged at the fact – I mean, I don’t hate it, it just isn’t my music. The subculture of Metal drew us in, but we had no agenda, no interest in making any overt commentary or editorializing on anyone in that place. We did take the most entertaining bits of footage though – because we did have interviews with people who were not drunk, who didn’t carry on saying outrageous things. The film was done as more for entertainment value than Cinéma vérité. I’m just pleased that it’s had the shelf life, for a variety of reasons.
What are you drawn to in terms of selecting subjects for your films, is it music that pulls you in?
It’s more, something I think that I can wrangle a story out of. I like unusual stuff, eccentric behavior, esoteric stories, odd things. I’ve always been like that. I’ve done a lot of shorts; LZPH is my most fully realized feature-length documentary.
Would you say that you prefer the short medium?
I don’t know, I mean shorts can allow you to be more prolific. I’ve done a lot of shorts of varying lengths, they were how I cut my teeth. Back in the nineties I went around to the alternative and underground film festivals and I wanted to have my own programs; single shorts would be incorporated into long programs there anyway. I wanted to be a feature filmmaker, no question, but I had all these shorts.
How do you usually work – alone, or do you have a production team with you?
It’s great to have a team, but most of the time it’s just me. I have worked with a team before; when I made my Ernest Borgnine documentary I hired a crew. Cameras became cheaper and easier to transport, in the mid nineties, and digital film came in. Now you can make movies on iPhones, and economically it’s cheaper to work by yourself. But I love collaboration and I love editing with other people. It’s great to be a generalist, but working with specialists is better, if you can.
For Led Zeppelin Played Here, how did you decide who you were going to interview? Was it difficult to track them down?
We went public in 2009; The Washington Post wrote an article about how we were looking for people who had been at the Wheaton Youth Center concert. About 200 people called me – because my phone number was printed in the article – none of whom had seen Led Zeppelin. They all wanted to talk about the other concerts. It was great because it showed that there was interest, and we did get a few leads from people. With Mario Medious in Miami, on the phone he told me “yeah, Led Zeppelin did play here,” but when I got there in person to tape him, he couldn’t remember. Led Zeppelin getting honored at the Kennedy Center while I was filming was just dumb luck. Certain people didn’t have a big part in the story and others did; I originally wanted to include a segment on record stores and one on radio. Some people build their documentaries with scripts, but I don’t, I kind of just blunder ahead. I go with where the story leads me and with whatever I collect.
Do you have a favorite documentarian from film history? Someone whose style you’ve always liked?
It’s funny, I never studied documentary. I got an English degree but I never took film classes. I’m self-taught; through community television I learned to do it. Errol Morris’ work, the filmmaker Chuck Statler who made some of the earliest modern music films, like Elvis Costello’s films, in the pre-MTV era. Penelope Spheeris’ work, both her narratives and documentaries, her punk film The Decline of Western Civilization influenced me greatly. Television too, the DC Sunday morning show Capital Edition did these mini-profiles, ten or twelve minute segments. The Maysles’ Brothers’ Gimme Shelter. John Waters, Martin Scorsese. My favorite film of all time is the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre from 1974. I kind of snuck in to see it as a kid, I was 13, so those kind of experiences always feel marked. When documentaries came along, I saw that they were something I could do, where I wouldn’t have to write a script or work with actors. Truth is stranger than fiction. I’m drawn to weirdness, and I also used to be a collector, I’m a stuff person. I took film classes in college, and contemporary European cinema inspired me, where I saw things in filmmaking that I was never exposed to growing up in the suburbs. My parents didn’t take us to see art films, they took us to musicals – which I loved too.
Do you like Mondo Elvis?
Yes, that, the Mondo films. And Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone influenced me, those kind of weird stories. I take a lot from narrative film, though I’ve never written a script. Documentary film was the portal that allowed me to create stuff. Mondo New York I saw in the eighties. I love Elvis Presley like everyone else, but I love Elvis Presley impersonators more, if that makes any sense. I like the cult of Elvis.
Would you say that Led Zeppelin is your favorite band?
No. It goes back to how I made Heavy Metal Parking Lot but I’m not a metal fan; I made Led Zeppelin Played Here. That said, I like Led Zeppelin a lot. The only album I ever had by them is the fourth one, with “Stairway to Heaven” on it. When CDs came out I bought all of them but growing up I only bought IV. Their music is great, timeless, I turn it up when I hear it on the radio. It would not have been the same movie as Atomic Rooster Played Here – and Atomic Rooster did play here, though there’s no record of it other than people saying that they saw the show. My favorite classic rock band when I was growing up was Jethro Tull, and of course the Beatles and the Stones, maybe the Stones more because they stayed around longer. I was too young to experience the Beatles as an active band so I discovered them later; I was the oldest of my siblings so I didn’t have someone older exposing me to this great stuff. Bad Company was my first arena concert.
What’s up next for you project wise, after you finish editing this?
Well, right now it’s the thirtieth anniversary of Heavy Metal Parking Lot. We have an exhibit at the University of Maryland, my alma mater, where I gave my archives to the Media Culture collection there. This coincided with some screening activity, like the one at Anthology in New York. As far as a new project, I don’t know. I have a lot of things I want to finish, nothing as ambitious as the Zeppelin film. I do want to work with a lot of the extras and outtakes, like Mario’s stories. Even if they just go up on YouTube, I believe in the power of online video. I am trying to archive the stories of The Washington Free Press, the sixties underground newspaper. Everything is to be continued. I can promise you I won’t do another five-year project like LZPH – though – I might, who knows, never say never. It’s always a labor of love.
The final cut of Led Zeppelin Played Here will be unveiled this Saturday June 18th at Anthology Film Archives in New York City as part of its RE-VISIONS: AMERICAN EXPERIMENTAL FILM 1975-90 Series; Krulik himself will be in attendance.
Jude Warne is the music columnist at Red Paint Hill Journal and a jazz critic at CMUSE. She has written numerous reviews for The Vinyl District, Live for Live Music, No Depression, Journal of Popular Music and Society, Film Matters, and Senses of Cinema. She earned her BA (Cinema Studies ’11) and MA (Humanities and Social Thought ’15) from New York University. Her Master’s Thesis, “Let the Broken Hearts Stand,” explored and examined the disappointed American characters in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. Jude’s original teen fiction series is scheduled for publication in 2017 through Epic Press.