The documentary Heavy Metal Parking lot celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. The cult film has had a long and strange series of lives: first, smuggled aboard tour buses and handed out via dubbed VHS tapes; second, embraced by a wide viewership with the advent of digital technology; third, recognized as an authentic anthropological slice of mid-80s life in an exhibit at the University Of Maryland. Heavy Metal Parking Lot rides a delicate line in the sense that it both celebrates metal culture and allows those who didn’t understand to confirm their suspicions – that these people will never be like the rest of us.
The movie has taken on a different meaning for me in the past year. Everyone who grew up in the Washington D.C. area had a friend or sibling who was at the Capital Centre on May 31st, 1986. A few of them appeared in the movie. For years, I thought my only connection to that night was the guy who lived down the street and scored me a Priest shirt. I learned earlier this year that my good high school friend Chris Donahue’s older brother, Dave, was in HMPL for a brief yet glorious moment.
Of course, I had seen Dave many times watching the film (he appears about 13 minutes in) but didn’t know about the connection because we’d never met in person. Dave is the guy in the red Oxford short that looks out of place in the sea of longhairs. Concert tickets in hand, he says: “I’m going to go to my car, drink a few beers and then puke on some unsuspecting victims!” Just like that, he’s gone. Chris was inside the Capital Centre watching Dokken at the moment his brother was memorialized forever. For years after, Dave could stop at a record store and be recognized because of his appearance – he was that guy. And he was that guy but life and the pain it often brings continued.
I never knew Dave Donahue outside of Heavy Metal Parking Lot. And yet, in many ways, Dave was an important part of my upbringing. Early in high school, Chris was the one kid in school with an older brother who was a die-hard metal fan. As a result, we reaped the benefits. Chris heard of Venom’s At War With Satan and Celtic Frost via his older brother and shared the knowledge with us. It was the same with bands like Manowar and The Mentors. At a time when most of us weren’t allowed to go to shows, Chris was attending pivotal early Slayer gigs with his brother and telling us the stories – allowing us to live vicariously through his experience. Dave was the mythical older brother that we never saw who shared his knowledge and love of music with a younger generation. Without Dave, I’m not sure I would have heard of those records. I’m not sure my passion for metal would run so deep. I’m not sure any of us would have heard about bands we later loved our entire lives. He was a mystical conduit of metal knowledge, the Oz who cleaned out the racks at Joe’s Record Paradise before we knew the store existed.
Forget zebra suits and teased hair and kids with Judas Priest shirts; Dave Donahue’s appearance in Heavy Metal Parking Lot is the most authentic metal moment in the documentary. Dave’s Oxford and regular haircut – not surprising given our shared Catholic upbringing – is a gigantic middle finger to anyone who would claim metal fandom comes with a dress code or requires tattoos, piercings or patches. If Dave walked by you would never identify him as a metal fan. And yet, the music meant so much to Dave that they placed “Ace Of Spades” at his funeral. Chris told me that while Dave struggled with learning disabilities he found a tremendous amount of acceptance and self-realization in metal; Dave was among the first to discover that if you make metal part of your life, self-acceptance sometimes follows.
Sadly, while Dave’s life is captured forever on film his life after the parking lot was not easy. I had a long conversation with Chris this summer about Dave’s life in the decades after the parking lot. Dave was a dedicated public servant who never missed a day of work for the federal government. He became a die-hard soccer fan who lived for games, even if they were shown at 3 a.m. East Coast time. But drinking became problematic and he couldn’t kick the disease. Dave died in 2010 from cirrhosis after a long fight with alcoholism. He was just 48.
It’s easy to view Dave’s life as a sad story because it ended too quickly. And yet, there is something timeless in the example he left when he was young – both for a brief moment of time in a film and through his indirect mentoring of a bunch of kids. While Heavy Metal Parking Lot is outwardly about metal as tribe – about our stripes and colors and routines – Dave Donahue’s life was about the stubborn power of individuality, about being yourself regardless of the situation and circumstances. He showed that if share your passion with the world it will plant seeds for others. His life was about the gift of music, and what it can mean when you pass it on and how it can help you find yourself when you are lost. Chris told me: “You asked me what I thought when I see Dave. One thing I always saw was a dude who didn’t need long hair, his metal shirt, or to be amongst the cool folks. He just wanted to drink some beers and jam out.”
The Capital Centre no longer stands; it was razed to make room for a shopping center. I drove past the site this summer when I was visiting home. I thought a lot about my friend Chris, and my good memories with him, about the years that have passed since we were young metal fans. I thought about his memories and stories of his older brother Dave. I thought about being young, and iced beers in a cooler and the car stereo blasting “Living After Midnight” on cassette and the way the sun feels on your skin in D.C. as summer begins. I thought about 1986. We didn’t worry about terrorism or Trump or a catastrophic climate change, and a car was a means to get to a show, not an environmental liability. I like to think that Dave’s spirit lingers in the same place where he was once filmed with Judas Priest tickets in hand, poised for one of the formative nights of his young life, a night when the power of music and brotherhood and eternal possibility reigned and all was briefly right with the world. In whatever afterworld he has reached Priest is playing and life is beginning and the universe is contained inside one suburban parking lot.