The seminal rock band Led Zeppelin has been in the news recently facing a new plagiarism lawsuit for its iconic “Stairway to Heaven.” The heirs of Randy California of the lesser-known band Spirit claim that the opening guitar riff of that 1971 classic was lifted from California’s 1969 song “Taurus.” This past fall a judge ruled that the suit could move forward and the case will be heard in a Pennsylvania court. Meanwhile, for the past few years, Silver Spring-based documentary filmmaker Jeff Krulik has been working on solving another Led Zeppelin mystery: Did the band play a gig in 1969 at the Wheaton Youth Center, better known today as the Wheaton Community Center on Georgia Avenue?
There are no hard facts. No ticket stubs, posters or other ephemera of that January 20 concert in the community center gym exist. Instead, Krulik, a longtime video producer and director, sought first-hand accounts, remembrances, verification of the rumor and traces a meandering trail in his latest independent doc, Led Zeppelin Played Here, Jan. 14, to commemorate the 46th anniversary of Led Zeppelin’s first U.S. tour in 1969, the film screens at the Avalon Theater in Chevy Chase. It’s also been making the rounds of alternative film festivals and jogging the memories of sixtysomethings with roots in Wheaton’s then working-class neighborhoods.
“I’ve been fascinated with the history of the rock concert industry for as long as I can remember,” said Krulik, who grew up in Bowie before he attended the University of Maryland and got his first job selling cable in Prince Georges County. “I’ve always been curious about the personalities and machinery behind the industry, and how the modern concert industry emerged from the amorphous blank slate of the 1960s. I grew up, and certainly came of age in the ‘70s arena rock era,” he noted. Originally, the story Krulik and his co-filmmaker and longtime documentary partner John Heyn were going to tell was one that explored the history of “Maryland’s Woodstock” and of the rock music business in the region: big hair bands, greasers, metal heads, punkers and more.
A former college radio DJ at WMUC in the early ‘80s, Krulik, 53, still brings that same off-the-cuff, free-form sensibility to his documentaries, particularly one of the duo’s earliest, the underground hit Heavy Metal Parking Lot. The rough-cut mini-feature that Krulik and Heyn shot in 1986 on the spur of the moment was born when they decided to bring a camera from PG’s public access cable station to the now-gone Capital Center parking lot before a Judas Priest concert.
“We weren’t metal fans,” Krulik said. “We were just curious doofuses with a camera, which was a novelty. Nobody had cameras like that, certainly not to record in a parking lot. I had the name immediately: Heavy Metal Parking Lot.” Heyn edited the hour of footage they shot and, in the days of tape trading, it became an underground cult classic that still screens today.
Fast forward to 2009, the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. Earlier in the summer of 1969, a pop and rock music festival at Laurel Racetrack presaged Woodstock, but without the fanfare, the inordinate film and newspaper coverage, the hordes of hippies and stoners packed together on that farm in rural New York. What the Laurel music festival had was Led Zeppelin, Sly and the Family Stone and a few other burgeoning rock groups.
“I wanted to commemorate that [festival] with a documentary to tie-in with the Woodstock 40th anniversary,” Krulik said. “But I found a stronger story for a documentary about Led Zeppelin’s first concert here and whether it happened or not at this Wheaton Youth Center.” Krulik and Heyn also uncovered an entire unheralded rock music history that played out in run-of-the-mill suburban roller rinks, community centers and high school cafeterias. Brand name artists like Rod Stewart, Brownsville Station, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent and Iggy Pop performed for area teens, often promoted by local radio stations, at venues that charged between 50 cents and a few dollars a ticket. Even the godfather of soul, James Brown, played a sold-out (but reportedly money-losing) gig at Walt Whitman High School’s auditorium in the late ‘60s as a failed class fundraiser.
This history serves as an undercurrent to the documentary, which features a distinctive number of local Jews who were involved in the regional music business. “There were a lot of Jews involved in promotion and production,” Krulik said. “It’s the entertainment business. It’s easier to think of the promoters who weren’t Jewish.”
As for Krulik, whose other documentary works include equally oddball stories like Hitler’s Hat, Ernest Borgnine on the Bus, The Legend of Merv Conn (D.C.’s once popular wedding and bar mitzvah accordionist) and he sequel to that earliest effort, Heavy Metal Picnic, he said, “I’ve always had this extreme curiosity about what’s going on in the margins, in the recesses, the cracks.” He cites among his influences growing up Jewish in then still rural and racially divided Prince Georges County, where his family attended Nevey Shalom then in Bowie. Film artists on his influencers’ list include, of course, Baltimore’s John Waters and Barry Levinson, Woody Allen, Monty Python and Rod Serling, among others.
Did Led Zeppelin play the Wheaton Youth Center on snowy Jan. 20, 1969, coincidentally the night of Nixon’s inauguration? “I like perpetuating the mystery,” Krulik said. “It’s obviously at the core of my film, which started as a nostalgia trip.” Interestingly, reporting on this little-known mystery was never his primary goal, but, Krulik added, “there are enough people who still don’t buy it to sustain that mystery.” As for whether Led Zeppelin plagiarized Spirit in composing “Stairway to Heaven,” which premiered two years after the supposed Wheaton gig? Krulik doesn’t have much to say about the suit, other than pointing out that Spirit also played the community youth center circuit during that period.