Bone Bash VI, Shoreline Amphitheater.
It’s 4:00 p.m. on the weekend of our country’s 229th birthday, and Metal Matt is lookin’ to score. He inspects the payload from his cameraman’s Hyundai: tripods, floodlights, and a $22,000 Betacam with the cleanest sound you could ask for. Tonight, Judas Priest will bring the rock in a hazmat container, crack the seal, and step back as Rob Halford deploys his weapons of mass destruction all the way to the Mountain View city limits. But despite the perfect sun and the opening riffs of “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” wafting from the amps of the AC/DC tribute band, Matt knows it won’t be his day. Metal Matt loves heavy metal, but heavy metal doesn’t love him back.
You know what? That’s fucked up. Metal bands spent a decade playing county fairs and three-hundred-seat venues after Kurt Cobain put a match to their hairspray. But Matt Bolender stayed true to the faith. Since 1998, he has been producing a monthly cable-access TV show dedicated to bands the world seemed to have forgotten.
“There was all these bands coming through with all this great music, and they’d be playing these little tiny places, and you’d be going, ‘What’s this about?'” he says. “‘Why are these bands that I used to grow up on — you know, playing these massive arenas and stuff like that — now they’re having a hard time filling up a three-hundred-seat club?’ … It didn’t seem too pie-in-the-sky to say, ‘Hey, why don’t we get together, and let’s talk. Talk about old times, talk about the new album, talk about things that are happening now in your lives, and then shoot some music and put it on TV.'”
Whenever Dokken played Palo Alto, Matt was there, plugging a line into the soundboard, filming the show, and interviewing the band backstage. He sat down with the Scorpions, Ronnie James Dio, and Blue Oyster Cult, asking questions no one else was interested in. Matt nurtured these bands through the lean years, publicizing their gigs when no one else could be bothered. He interviewed Judas Priest without Rob Halford, and Halford without Priest.
Now Halford is back with Priest, and he’s even being interviewed on National Public Radio. His band tops the bill at the Shoreline, and the place comes close to selling out. Old-school bands like Priest and Iron Maiden have displaced nü-metal acts from atop the Ozzfest lineup. Headbangers’ Ball is even back on TV. And Metal Matt no longer gets his phone calls returned. Metal is too big for Matt, and he’s lucky if he can get comped into the cheap seats.
It’s been a dry concert season; Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Def Leppard/Bryan Adams double bill, and a version of Foreigner that doesn’t even feature Lou Gramm all blanked Matt this year, and three weeks ago, the “Rock Never Dies” tour (Cinderella, Ratt, and Quiet Riot) kept him waiting outside Paramount’s Great America for two hours. Just before tonight’s show, Priest’s opening act Queensrÿche agreed to sit for a quick interview, and someone hinted that Matt might even get to film Priest’s first song. That’s why he and his crew of two wait for a roadie to usher them backstage.
But Matt knows his place in the universe, and he’s been through this before. The union that works Shoreline has been known to shut him out, and you never know when the shop steward will turn on him, or Judas Priest’s representative will change his mind and toss him out. “The tour manager’s sending a runner up to get us in,” he says. “How this happens now will tell you a lot about what happens tonight.”
Sure enough, Queensrÿche’s runner brings down the hammer. “We talked to a couple of the other bands about having video done, but we haven’t been able to get it approved,” she says. “So you won’t be able to shoot the other bands.”
Matt gives it one last try: “We’re supposed to have Judas Priest scheduled for tonight.”
“Yeah, that’s a big no.”
What else can he do? Testament gets ready for its set as Matt’s crew crowds into Queensrÿche’s dressing room, an eight-by-ten-foot cubicle filled with cold cuts, bottled water, and fake wood paneling. Bassist Eddie Jackson and guitarist Mike Wilton huddle on a couch as the cameraman sets up the tripods and gets the lighting right. Matt’s friend Randy, who runs a carpet-cleaning business and serves as grip this evening, exclaims, “You guys are awesome, man!” and pumps their hands. “Okay, you like the shots?” Matt says as he slides onto the couch, mike in hand. “Tape’s rolling?” With a silent count, he glides into his on-air persona.
“Welcome back to CC Rock!” Metal Matt punches out. “I’m now backstage with the big Q&R guys, and we’re gonna get some big Q&A going on here. … You guys have played the Bay Area so much in the last few years, I mean, you guys are a mainstay in this area. What’s it like coming back to the Bay Area?”
“Oh, it’s always fun coming back here,” Jackson says. “I mean, we’ll play anywhere.”
Metal Matt goes back in time. “I remember way back in the day, when you guys opened up for Ronnie James Dio down at San Jose Civic, you had your EP out at that time, it was a really early time for you guys, yet there was a really strong sign that you guys were something of the future. Because, I mean, you guys came out with heavy metal, yet progressive. They keep on asking the question, ‘What is Queensrÿche?’ What do you say to that?”
“We’re just Queensrÿche,” Jackson says. “I mean, whatever they wanna label us, put us in, you know, have at it. But we just do what we do, and, you know, that’s pretty much it.”
Metal Matt gets political. “This is a very important day, I mean there are musical bands all over the world today playing for one big reason — that’s hunger, Live 8. … You have any connection, or any feelings about what’s going on with Live 8 today?”
“Not really,” Wilson says.
With that, Matt is back outside the Shoreline gates. He’ll get a few Queensrÿche songs later tonight, but the Priest has blanked him, and he has a half-hour show to fill. So he falls back on Plan B.
Nineteen years ago, two filmmakers shot a documentary of the tailgate scene outside a Judas Priest concert in Largo, Maryland. Dubbed Heavy Metal Parking Lot, the film became an underground classic, delighting the hipper-than-thou with its ironic portrayal of heshers in all their glory. It was a key contributor to the wave of hesher kitsch that fatally punctured heavy metal’s infernal pretensions; Nirvana even used to play it on their tour bus. Now Matt has set out to film Heavy Metal Parking Lot II at the Shoreline, searching for a little bit of that lost ’80s magic. The last unironic heavy metal fan in America hopes to re-create the film that helped reduce his love to an inside joke.
John Heyn and Jeff Krulik were aspiring documentary filmmakers with a taste for colorful Americana. Heyn had worked on John Waters’ Polyester, and Krulik ran a local public-access station, which gave him access to cameras and editing equipment in the days before camcorders and Final Cut Pro. “We liked to show strange things going on,” Krulik recalls. “We used to do documentaries about old movie theaters. We loved characters and subcultures, just weird things.”
One day in 1986, Krulik and Heyn rolled out to Maryland’s Capitol Centre stadium, where Dokken and Judas Priest were scheduled to play. They had no idea what they were looking for, but they loved The Decline of Western Civilization, Penelope Spheeris’ look at the Los Angeles punk scene of 1979. Their instincts told them they might find something just as exotic. “Headbangers’ Ball was hot,” Krulik says. “Metal was all over MTV. Although we went to concerts, we didn’t know what the scene was about, but we guessed that the metal lot would be an extreme scene.”
What they found was an exquisite portrait of Rust-Belt America at the end of the industrial age. Hammered, shirtless kids leaned against their Camaros, dribbling beer down the peach fuzz on their chins. Others wore muscle shirts with Maiden tour dates on the back and bandannas around their necks, and their girlfriends smeared garish eye makeup just beneath their feathered bangs. Krulik and Heyn were a little apprehensive — the metalhead was an unpredictable animal, and might not appreciate being filmed in its native habitat. But everyone was nice and toasted on booze and drugs, howling “Priest! Priest! Priest!” and waggling their Satan digits.
Parking Lot fanatics know the characters by heart. There was Graham of Dope, so called because when asked his name he replied, “Graham, man. Like gram of dope ‘n’ shit?” “Hey, man,” Graham said through the acid fog, clutching a beer bottle and peeking through his hair. “They should legalize drugs — that is a fact. … They should make a joint so big, it fits across America.” There was Bad Steve Perry, who squealed through “Living After Midnight” as if ten thousand lighters flickered at his feet. “Lemme tell you something,” Perry said. “Priest is the best, man. Robin Halford is the baddest motherfuckin’ singer aroooouund! And K.K. Downing, man? That motherfucker can play some guitar.” There was Zebra Man, decked out in a striped jumpsuit with muscle sleeves and a mane of blond, feathered locks. When asked about his philosophy of life, Zebra Man said, “It sucks shit! Heavy metal rules! All that punk shit sucks. It doesn’t belong in this world, it belongs on fucking Mars, man. What the hell is punk shit? And Madonna can go to hell, as far as I’m concerned. She’s a dick!”
Heyn and Krulik showed their film at a few festivals and an art gallery, and almost managed to show it at the next Judas Priest show before staff terrified of Tipper Gore’s jihad against naughty words killed it at the last minute. And that, they thought, was the end of their little film. Then a friend in Los Angeles lent a few tapes to the store Mondo Video, where Sofia Coppola came across it and spread the word. Suddenly, Heyn and Krulik had a cult hit on their hands. The scary stoners who used to shake you down for lunch money suddenly seemed so … adorable.
Heavy Metal Parking Lot joined a growing corpus of hesher kitsch that coincided with the collapse of metal. The band Blotto struck the first blow with its 1982 single, “Metal Head,” followed by This Is Spinal Tap, Wayne’s World, and the magnificent early-’90s zine Hessian Obsession, which featured such items as the top ten Slayer lyrics (Number one: “Dead bodies dying”) and the hesher crossword puzzle (the answer to the clue “Do you want to die?” has three letters). Metal did its part by spawning hair metal acts such as Poison, Mötley Crüe, and Warrant, which primed the pump for the grunge backlash. When Tenacious D worked its hesher shtick in a series of HBO shorts in the late ’90s, they were just giving the corpse one last kick.
“The record companies decided they were gonna drop all their hair bands and go to Seattle,” says Billy Steel, who has been in heavy-metal radio for more than twenty years and now works as a deejay at the Bone (“Classic rock that rocks!”). “Metal became a taboo word, because it was associated with Nelson. … It was frustrating in a lot of ways. You were made to feel as if it wasn’t cool to be you. I was in a holding pattern for a lot of years. I starved for a lot of the ’90s; there were many times when I was down to one can of beans in the cupboard.”
But metal is on the rebound today, as improbable as it may seem. Sure, it started in a spasm of prince-of-fucking-darkness camp, but these things usually do. Ratpack-swinger kitsch once was an inside hipster gag, and now The New York Times has a poker column. Eventually, the meme spreads to people who don’t get the joke, which is why Steel can say with a straight face, “You’ll find that when Republicans are in office, heavy metal’s on the rise.”
Even during the dark years, Matt Bolender never turned his back on the glory days. He grew up in Concord in the early ’80s, when the New Wave of British Heavy Metal — Iron Maiden, Saxon, and Def Leppard — reigned supreme in American suburbs. “It was a very powerful time, I thought, for a lot of bands,” he says. “I’d still say the most memorable music I know was produced in the early ’80s, from 1980 to 1985.”
The first time he heard Blizzard of Ozz, Matt was hooked for life. He and his friends at Ygnacio Valley High swapped albums, taped the choice songs, and devoured magazines like Hit Parader, Circus, and Kerrang! He gawked at Ross Halpern’s concert photographs and hung posters of Iron Maiden, UFO, and Aerosmith on his bedroom walls. His parents were a little worried, but family always came first for Matt.
“I had a friend who, he called me one night, and he says, ‘Hey, I got Metallica over here, you wanna come over and party with Metallica?'” Matt recalls. “I’m like, ‘Ahh, I got dinner on the table.’ … My mom had, gee, I remember that night she had tacos. She made great tacos! She had a great plate of tacos on the table, and my friend called and said, ‘We got Metallica over here, come over right now, we’re gonna party!’ I’m like, “Nah, I gotta have dinner right now, my mom made some tacos. I’m gonna stay here and have my tacos.'”
While so many of his hesher friends burned out, Matt made his way to San Jose State, where he majored in radio and television broadcasting and minored in meteorology, with dreams of being a weatherman. He interned with the San Francisco Giants, working the Jumbotron cameras during games. Soon, ESPN and TBS started hiring him for spot work, and Matt seemed on a healthy career track. But he never got the office politics right, and decided to move on.
In 1992, with the ink on his marriage certificate still wet, Matt took a part-time job running tapes for TCI Channel 6, a public-access station in Walnut Creek. He made next to nothing and spent the dogwatch hours staring at monitors in a dark studio, but the job gave him the freedom to conceive, write, and direct his own documentary shorts. His first major project was On the Go, a look at Contra Costa’s singles scene. But Matt’s real love was metal, and after learning his craft for a few years, he decided to apply his talents to celebrating the music everyone seemed to have forgotten.
Thus was born CC Rock in 1998. Its debut artist: Saxon, which was touring the United States for the first time in years. Metal Matt was about to meet his gods face-to-face.
Saxon’s is a wistful tale of glory almost attained. Formed in 1977 by guitarist Paul Quinn and singer Biff Byford, the band opened for Motörhead and released Wheels of Steel to critical and popular acclaim. By the time The Eagle Has Landed came out in 1982, Saxon’s following rivaled Iron Maiden’s. But after a few iffy records, the band went pop, with catastrophic results. The die-hards loathed the new peroxide feel, and the new fans never materialized. “Saxon limped through the rest of the decade recording weak pop-metal albums in a desperate, but futile, attempt to connect with American fans while slowly corroding their European fan base,” writes Ed Rivadavia at Allmusic.com. “By the time they released their tenth studio album, Solid Ball of Rock, in 1990, Saxon had been reduced to Spinal Tap-like dinosaur status.”
But to Matt, Saxon was still the badass band of his youth. After years playing small clubs in Britain, the band had finally returned for an American tour, and Matt had a secret project ready. If Biff and the boys would go along, Matt hoped to shoot a music video for the title track of their new record, Unleash the Beast. He spent weeks scouting a location at Castle Rock, just outside of Walnut Creek. Unleash the Beast was a new direction for Saxon, and Matt thought Castle Rock’s eerie stone formations suited the band’s new mood. “It’s definitely a higher energy, more, let’s see, mystical — even more evil, I’d say — sound than they normally have.” Matt recalls. “That was one of the angles that they had gone for in this last album, was to be a little bit more, I guess you’d say Black Sabbath-type sound, something a little bit more related to, like, evil. I don’t want to say the devil directly, but maybe. I don’t know. … And I was trying to get that look of a dark scene, which would hopefully match up with the look of the video.”
On the day he was to meet Saxon for the first time, disaster struck. A storm left Castle Rock’s access trails pitted with mud, and Matt knew he could never ask the band to trudge through the fields in boots and leather pants. Then he got a phone call from the pretty young thing he had asked to host the shows. She had bashed in her nose kickboxing, and her face was rather creatively rearranged. No host, no video location — unless he came up with something fast, the whole project would be a wash.
Matt sprang into action. He called his friend John Villareal, and persuaded him to stand in as host. But before he could settle on an alternate site for the video, it was time to meet the band. He still remembers how he felt climbing into the tour bus. This was Saxon, after all, and he was just Matt Bolender. But Biff and the band were consummate professionals. Matt got his interview and even caught some footage with the fans. Now it was time to pitch the video. “To drag these guys up on a hill for a day, and shoot a music video on their day off or whatever, who am I to say that I should do a music video with Saxon?” Matt says. “Right before the show, I said, ‘You know, guys, this is a great interview, I had a great time with you guys, but you know, I have an idea.’ … And they were like, ‘Hmmmm. Interesting.'”
The shoot was on. Saxon had a show in Concord, but after that, Matt could work his magic. He spent the next day driving Saxon around San Francisco, walking along Fisherman’s Wharf with his heroes and sharing a lunch of clam chowder. He even got to jam with Paul Quinn a little. But he still had to figure out the location.
The morning of the shoot, Matt made his move. After a few hours trying to get the band out of bed, he packed them into a van and drove up to the peak of Mount Diablo, cruising the picnic sites in search of a breathtaking view. But everywhere he went, families had laid out lunch. Finally, Matt spotted a site with just the right look. They jumped out of the van, and Biff threw on a black trench coat. As Matt rolled tape and Unleash the Beast screamed out of a CD player, Biff Byford gazed across the valley, his arms raised in triumph, blond mane whipping in the wind, face distended in a silent, primal howl. Then the park ranger showed up.
“He was like, ‘Well, what are you doing here?'” Matt recalls. “I said, ‘Well, we’re trying to shoot a music video.’ And he says, ‘Well, do you have a permit or something like that?’ … At the time I was working for TCI, and it was like, you know, a cable company, and I’d been up there doing projects for Mount Diablo, things about the park or pieces about nature and stuff like that. … So I told him, ‘Hey, we’ve done projects up here before. This is just a little different. ‘”
The ranger told them to hurry it up, and Matt got his last few shots in. Two months of editing later, CC Rock debuted on TV. As Byford intones, In pages of old when fables were told of the time when the beast was among you, you can’t see Clayton over his shoulder unless you look real hard.
From then on, Metal Matt was on a roll. He made himself host and scored interviews beyond his wildest dreams: Dokken, Deep Purple, Yes, the Scorpions. “We coming from Germany, we not have rock radio, really,” Scorpions guitarist Rudolf Schenker told him in 1999, just before playing a Chronicle Pavilion show that featured more empty seats than fans. “Here, is rock radio. … The people love it, really. They are really happy that bands like us still on the way!”
Matt assured him, “Hey, that’s why we do this show.”
But for all Matt’s work, he has no idea if anyone’s watching, or if the local metal scene respects what he does. No one tracks the public-access audience, and for all Matt knows, he’s begging tour managers for face time, only to broadcast into a black hole. “You mean Metal Matt? Yeah, I watch it,” says Jason Parrilla, frontman for the Martinez metal band Death Breeds Sorrow. “Fuck, I been watching it for a long time. … It’s cool. I think it’d be even cooler if he updated it and did other bands than Judas Priest. He mostly does the old school.”
On the other hand, Clinchfist guitarist Dave Robertson has not only never heard of Matt but thinks his favorite bands are glammed-out pussies. “I grew up in that era and didn’t like them when they were big,” Clinchfist Dave wrote in an e-mail. “Most of those bands you mentioned are a big joke. Glam rock, Spandex, hairspray … nobody gives a shit about them.”
As long as that was true, bands such as Judas Priest were willing to say yes to a guy with a local cable-access show. Once music fans rediscovered these bands, most of them decided they were too big to give Matt the time of day. “Matt, at one time, he was like an oasis,” says Billy Steel. “You turn on the TV, and there would be his show all alone. Now, the Fuse Network has tons of metal shows like Slave to Metal. Headbangers’ Ball is back on MTV2. … Lately, the poor guy’s been running up against the wall, trying to get footage for his show. Because he’s kinda locked out of the bigger venues.”
Last year, Matt got fed up and quit. “It’s like, this should be getting easier,” he growls. “It shouldn’t be harder to do this job. … I’m like, you know what? If they don’t want to do it, then I don’t want to do it. Who needs it?”
But he couldn’t stay away. Fans walked up to him in Safeway or at a high school baseball game and asked when the next show would air. The old hesher itch grew and grew. After six months, Matt picked up the Betacam again.
Bone Bash VI, Shoreline Amphitheater.
By 6:00 p.m., Matt is ready to remake Heavy Metal Parking Lot. But sightings of the Great American Hesher are few and far between. As he checks his gear and plots strategy, it looks like he’ll hit paydirt when a young man in a denim vest, spiked bracelet, and long black hair spins donuts in the lot. His black Malibu Classic fishtails a hundred yards from Matt, flinging gravel in all directions. A fat rent-a-cop springs into action, bellowing: “You’re outta here! You’re outta this lot!” But the driver leaves without a word, and the guard says you seldom see anything like that these days, except at “the redneck shows — Toby Keith.”
Matt strikes out for the farthest corners of the parking lot, his grip and cameraman in tow. Here and there, thirtysomething white men wander toward the gates in Sharks jerseys; everyone looks like they bought their tickets online. Matt makes small talk to pump up his boys. “David Gilmour and Roger Waters are playing onstage today,” he says. “They’re playing Live 8, right now probably. Actually, they’re probably still onstage. Wouldn’t it be great to see those guys again?”
Matt nears the Shoreline dog park, with still no sign of the Great American Hesher. Finally, he runs into a column of fans streaming toward the show, and Matt sets up his shot beneath a few shade trees. A fortyish man saunters past in a Stanford cap, with a cell phone clipped to his belt and a Frappuccino in his hand. Matt grabs three pimply skater boys for his first interview. “Welcome back to CC Rock!” he shouts above the wind. “We are now here in the heavy metal parking lot, and we’ve got some of the younger blood here. … You guys look pretty straight here. Are you guys, you know, taking care of yourself?”
“No drugs today, right?”
“Okay, ’cause that’s what we’re kinda worried about. There’s too many cops around, and we notice that the youth movement is staying out of this whole drug scene, right?”
“Oh, yeah. I don’t smoke at all.”
Skater boy number two chimes in: “I got a ride here from three police officers.”
Randy the grip decides to hijack the project. He’s got his inner horndog workin’, and instead of searching for heshers, he scans the fans for cute blond chicks. “Oh my God — wait, wait, wait, get that girl!” he shouts. All afternoon, Randy couldn’t stop talking about the California Dream Girls, an oil-wrestling troupe that was scheduled to make an appearance. “You see that girl right over there?” he said earlier. “The California Dream Girls make her look like a dog.” Suddenly, four of the Dream Girls walk by in matching jumpsuits, and Randy goes apeshit. “Hey, do a quick interview! Television!” They shake their heads and walk on. “Awwwwww!”
Matt begins to despair. “I don’t think we’re gonna find that same Heavy Metal Parking Lot feel you had in ’86,” he says. “I’d say ‘reserved’ is a good word for it.”
At least some of his fans give him his props. As he wanders the last lot, a middle-aged couple walk past. “Hey, it’s Metal Matt!” the man shouts. “We watch him all the time!”
Matt tells the cameraman to start rolling. “You guys look a lot more reserved than you might be twenty, 25 years ago. What’s going on in your mind when you visit a show like this?”
“We gotta show the kids that mom and dad still are cool,” the woman explains. “And now we take the girls to the concerts, ’cause they gotta do their homework, and that’s one of the payoffs, we’ll take you to the concerts. But Judas Priest, they’re not ready for it. Ozzfest, I don’t think they can handle it. … Can I give a shout-out to Ashley and Megan, my babes? I left them at home.”
So much for Heavy Metal Parking Lot II. No hesher meltdowns, no acid casualties — just good clean fun, and don’t forget to stay hydrated. Matt knew it was always a long shot, but he’s still a little disappointed. Judas Priest passed on the interview, the tour managers killed his chance for concert footage, and now, no knuckleheads crawled out to kick ass. Those glorious days are gone forever.
“Back in the ’80s, it was a whole different world,” he sighs. “You had no kid, you had no mortgage, you had no responsibilities. All you had was you in a parking lot full of people, drinking, you know? And you had your best band coming onstage hopefully that night. … That’s a magical time. Doing this was fun, and it brings back some of the memories, but it’s never gonna compare anything close to what it was like back then.”
At times like this, there’s only one thing you can do.
Darkness shrouds the land and eighteen thousand pairs of Satan digits stab into the cool night air. Somewhere amid this frenzied mob, Matt sits alone, watching as Judas Priest kicks into the first chords of “Electric Eye,” and Rob Halford scorches the lyrics from a cage suspended above the drummer. Halford finally stalks onto the stage, wrapped in a studded leather trench coat and lumbering like a man who hasn’t had to move fast for anyone in twenty years. He barely acknowledges the crowd, which woofs out “Priest! Priest! Priest!” as though the infernal Rapture is imminent. Finally, Halford glares at the writhing, adoring mass. “The Priest is back!” he howls. “Judas Priest is reee-yoo-nited! Bringing you thirty years of heavy! Fucking! METAL!”
But this too shall pass. Someday, metal will be cheesy again, and Halford will fall from grace. When he does, Metal Matt will be waiting to catch him.