Led Zeppelin Played Where?!: Jeff Krulik on the Central Mystery of his New Film

Jeff Krulik is a talker. He’s happy to give an extended interview (this is my second time interviewing him; the first was in 2008 for Viva Radio), but engaging in as much may invite digressions about the future of his record collection, or perhaps the unique character of strip clubs in Portland, OR. He’s a good conversationalist, and conscientious about his tangential tendencies, but he’ll go if you let him (I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t happy to travel down the side roads with him, but it’s an indulgence that makes for unwieldy transcription).

Krulik is drawn to talkers, too: as a documentary filmmaker, he rarely shows events as they happen, instead zeroing in on the excited chatter before an event, or the memories after a big event. Krulik’s subjects are rarely the stars of the proverbial “big show”, but instead its witnesses and bystanders.

This approach to his subjects has yielded remarkable results over the years. Krulik is most well-known as the co-creator (with John Heyn) of the timeless Heavy Metal Parking Lot, a beloved short subject which documents the trashed hesher milieu outside a Judas Priest concert in suburban Maryland in 1986. That film’s underground success helped kick off a career which has found Krulik following actor Ernest Borgnine as he drove around the U.S. in his personal bus (“The Sunbum”), escorting pro wrestler (and Andy Kaufman collaborator) “Classy” Freddie Blassie around Washington, D.C. tourist destinations, and paying a visit to the foremost porn collector in the United States (throughout, Krulik and Heyn have also returned to the parking lot for several sequels and spin-offs, including the truly remarkable Neil Diamond Parking Lot). As a whole, Krulik’s oeuvre has showcased a fascination with, and earnest sympathy for, the nerdiest, weirdest underbellies of popular culture, keenly observing the increasingly odd world left to us in the wake of mass communication and endless pop ephemera.

Led Zeppelin Played Here, Krulik’s first feature film, marks a return to music-oriented subject matter, exploring the story of a rumored, but undocumented, early appearance by the quintessential arena rock band at a small youth center in Wheaton, Maryland. Thanks to poor promotion and lousy weather (not to mention it being the same night as Richard Nixon’s presidential inauguration), Zep supposedly played to about 50 people and made a scant $200. There are no photos, no ticket stubs, and no concrete evidence to prove that this event ever actually happened, but a handful of purported attendees, among others, passionately insist that it did. Meanwhile, a gauntlet of people, including Atlantic promotions man Mario Medious and the woman who operated the Youth Center at the time, insist that it likely did not. As the Washington Post’s John Kelly put it, it’s “a rock and roll Rashomon”.

While it may not provide conclusive answers, Led Zeppelin Played Here does provide plenty of rock-nerd trivia and kicks. Beyond its surface narrative, though, there is also a fascinating subtext about the nature of memory and subjective truth: it may not have the heavy consequences of, say, Donald Rumsfeld’s selective memory in Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known, but it does provide similar food for thought.

The following are excerpts from my extended discussion with Krulik, edited for style, space and relevance.


FM DUST: So, you originally set out to document this festival that happened in Maryland…?

JK: Yeah, my original intent was to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Laurel Pop Festival, which took place one month before Woodstock at a race track in Laurel, Maryland (a suburb of Washington D.C.). It was put on by the Newport Jazz Festival people. It was a pretty significant lineup for this unsung, somewhat forgotten festival… Led Zeppelin was one of the headliners one of the two nights…

It was (Led Zeppelin’s) first year of existence, and they were just kinda barnstorming the U.S. They had allegedly played at this youth center in Wheaton, Maryland, this modest building with a gymnasium, to 50 people on a Monday night, but nobody believed that it happened, so I just started to fixate on that…

(The Wheaton Youth Center) still stands. I wouldn’t have fallen for that angle if I hadn’t gone to visit the building and seen that it was essentially frozen in time. It looked exactly the way it did the day that it opened. It has all the 1960s design flourishes, and a bunch of plaques on the wall for teen dances, teen talent shows. It just kind of transported me.

I felt like this building… could be a character in the film and help me tell this story. So I switched the whole thing around to really be focused on this concert. Beyond that, though, it wasn’t really about that concert or the band… that was my hook, but it’s really about the emergence of the rock concert industry.

When you started researching this story, did you think that you would find the definitive answer?

Absolutely. Hard proof has been very elusive, but I have a lot of supporting evidence. I think I make a convincing enough case. All the right people are included, and all the dots are connected, in my opinion, (but) people still want hard proof.

You’ve made a handful of movies that are about rock and heavy metal, and it’s conceivable that someone would only pick up on those things. Does it bother you at all that these are your signature works, when you’ve done so many other things?

I’m not bothered in the least… that it’s a signature subject of mine. I was a huge music geek. I was on college radio, a record collector, I loved music, and I wanted to work in the music industry. I wanted to be involved with promotion, but I didn’t have the temperament to be a hard-ass promoter. I loved publicity and promotion, but the thing was, I realized that the bands and music that I liked were not promotionally viable, so I thought that was the end of that street for me…

I had, and have, an affinity for music culture. I have a strong interest in rock and roll stories, history, and pop culture, so that’s become a hallmark of my (film) work. I love music history, cultural and social history, architectural history… in many ways, Led Zeppelin Played Here is really about that, I think. It’s funny, too, the way people interpret it the more I’ve been screening it… I’ve been invited to speak at a seminar for a non-fiction writing program, on the subject of memory and fact. There’s a lot going on (regarding that subject) in this film.

Has anyone approached you about taking Led Zeppelin Played Here to a “legit” marketplace, clearing the music rights, and all of that?

No. I just don’t know if it has the appeal that it would need to make a return on the investment. I made the film I wanted to make knowing that I’d have some limitations in terms of distribution, and I’ve made my peace with that. I’ve gotten into some marketplaces, and some people in the business have taken a look at it, but… I think it’s got some charm, some appeal, but it’s such a niche kind of title. It doesn’t seem like it would get anybody’s money back, certainly not mine.

I think it’s going to be the kind of thing where you need to seek it out. Go to a festival or somewhere where it’s being screened, or a one-off screening here and there. Ultimately, I’d like to share it online at some point, in some fashion.

When I made (Led Zeppelin Played Here), I never envisioned it being something that would play beyond Maryland. I really did it for the community, the people here. I thought it was a local story. It’s been really gratifying to see that people elsewhere are interested and like it.

Led Zeppelin Played Here makes its UK debut on November 19 at the Leeds International Film Festival. You can learn more about the film, and check for screenings in your area, at ledzeppelinplayedhere.com. Find out more about Jeff Krulik’s other work at jeffkrulik.com.


Dustin Krcatovich is a cartoonist, writer, designer, founder of FM DUST, and a collector of certain curios and ephemera (with a focus on 20th century "junk culture"). His writing and illustration work appears frequently in The Quietus, Tiny Mix Tapes, and Esquire's Culture Blog. He is also a former editor and contributor to Secret Zen Garden,Saagara's illustrated mindfulness/wellness blog for young people. He currently resides in Portland, OR.

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