- Zev Zalman Ludwick today (photo courtesy Z.Z. Ludwick)
Twenty-five years ago today, Robbie Ludwick, the bassist for the metal band Steelwynch, headed down to the Capital Centre from Silver Spring to see Judas Priest. What happened when he stood in line to get in was etched on the hearts of a certain class of underground film fans forever, as captured in this scene in the anthropological documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot.
"That was, like, 25 lives ago for me," says Ludwick, 47, who now goes by his Hebrew name, Zev Zalman Ludwick. He's calling from Wheaton, where he repairs violins at Chuck Levin's Washington Music Center. Like many musicians who've gotten older, he hasn't quite kicked the habit of having a day job. But instead of pounding out bass lines in metal bands, which consumed Ludwick for many of the past two-and-a-half decades, he now spends his nights pursuing a different goal: Becoming a rabbi.
Ludwick is still playing music in addition to his studies (he is looking for other Hasidic musicians; look for him on Facebook if you qualify). A few years ago, he moved his attention from metal to bluegrass, especially the mandolin. With his groups the Sinai Mountain Boys and the Zion Mountain Boys, he tried to take bluegrass to yeshiva.
"I was taking bluegrass standards, for instance, 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown,'" Ludwick says, "and I was throwing in some Hasidic melodies in the middle of the song. Lyrical content that had to do with the Bible, Moses, things that mainstream America would call the Old Testament."
Ludwick's brother, the rabbi and author Lazer Brody, has been "a huge influence" on his life, he says. Brody suggested the name for Ludwick's new band, Ashrenu, which means "how happy we are."
Happiness, Ludwick explains, is very important in Breslov Hasidim, to which his spiritual path led him 10 years ago after growing up mostly nonobservant in a Conservative household. If you're depressed, he says, Breslov teaches that you're basically saying you don't think God's doing a good job running the world. With Ashrenu, Ludwick says, he's trying to "take Hasidic music and mix it with Grateful Dead, folky-sounding stuff."
"This is a band that's hopefully gonna be doing a lot of happy events," he says.
When I ask Ludwick what he remembers about the day that filmmakers Jeff Krulik and John Heyn forever captured his hesher past, he laughs. "The choice wording is 'remember,'" he says. "I went to maybe 200 concerts at the Capital Centre. We'd always get there and do the whole tailgating thing." You had to look out for cops, especially the ones on horses, he says.
"I remember being there with my friends and partying pretty hard. I remember getting in line and this guy with a camera asking me questions. I thought he was working for Judas Priest. He said, 'Do you have anything you want to say to the band?' I tried to say a shoutout to the bass player, Ian Hill. I was trying to say, 'Ian Hill, I'm a fellow bass player.' What I said in the movie was 'I'm a former bass player!'"
"That was a future, what's it called, a moment of clarity," he says.
The dig at Judas Priest singer Rob Halford in his scene, he says, was also sort of accidental. "Being a heavy metal young guy in his 20s, I didn't have a lot in common with people in alternative lifestyles....I had heard a rumor that he was gay," Ludwick says. Someone wrote on Facebook that Ludwick was the first person to out Halford, who is in fact gay. "I don't know," says Ludwick. "I was just guessing. I do remember being intoxicated, and I remember talking to the camera."
Ludwick joined Zebra-Print Guy, Jump His Bones, and Graham, Like Gram of Dope, You Know? in the pantheon of indelible Heavy Metal Parking Lot characters. No one played him in American Hi-Fi's 2000 "Flavor of the Weak" video, which imagined story lines for some of the documentary's participants, but Ludwick thinks a better legacy would be a project he's been trying to talk Krulik into, in which veterans of the film would overdub their voices over film of their younger selves, while they appeared in split screen.
"Well it's a great idea, but we're kind of — the logistics are challenging," says Krulik. "It would be great to go back to the Capital Centre. The thing is, we like to think there's a documentary in there with a budget and some TV interest, and that's what we're all waiting for. We might wait forever!"
Krulik and Heyn have made one film about Heavy Metal Parking Lot alumni, but Ludwick was not in it. He won't be able to attend the June 17 celebration of the film at AFI, either: "Getting him out on a Friday or a Saturday is a problem," Krulik says, laughing.
Ludwick says he's asked Krulik before for a taste of the movie's profits, an account Krulik confirms: "Believe me, we all wanna get paid for that one," Krulik says.
Ludwick hopes to work with people addicted to drugs and alcohol, addictions he says he's battled successfully, and that he believes his presence in Heavy Metal Parking Lot serves a higher purpose. "I don't believe in coincidence," Ludwick says. "I believe that God puts us in each situation and we meet each person for a reason. For me to be in that movie and to be really for sure obviously under the influence of something, and then for people now to see me, it says we all go through phases, and we all make choices that are maybe not so wholesome."
With the movie, he says, "I can say look at who I was before. I was actually in the trenches, and here's proof that that's who I was. And for sure now I can definitely say that life is so much better."
Ludwick now goes by Zev Zalman (after our second phone call, he insisted I call him "Z.Z.") because "Robbie's that guy in Heavy Metal Parking Lot. He's that guy that even a year ago, my best friend was a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale."
"In synagogue," he adds, "they don't even know my English name." People who meet him as Z.Z., he says, "They're like, 'You're like ZZ Top, you got the beard. I'm like, man, I'm the original Z.Z.," noting that the band was formed in 1967 and he was born in 1963. "I wasn't born with the beard," though, he says.