Attendees at a Wheaton Community Center reunion for the 1969 Led Zeppelin… (Dominic Bracco Ii )
Some stories sound preposterous, if delightfully so -- like the one about the night Led Zeppelin played the Wheaton Youth Center.
Robert Plant doing a whole lotta lovin' on Georgia Avenue? Jimmy Page climbing a stairway to suburbia?
No ticket stubs, posters, pictures or news clippings of the gig are known to exist. Yet some people passionately insist they saw the performance. Zeppelin-in-Wheaton is Washington's own rock-and-roll Loch Ness Monster. Could it possibly be real?
Yes. No way. Depends whom you ask.
To appreciate the monumental improbability, you had to be there Saturday afternoon, amid the motley crowd of graying Zeppelinheads -- with their T-shirts, ticket stubs and precious original LPs -- gathered for an earnest experiment in the nature of truth, myth, memory and dreams.
It was a reunion -- a reunion of people who attended an event that may not have occurred.
Apparent eyewitness testimony was recorded for posterity. Skeptics were listened to. In the absence of physical evidence, any totemic link to the fabled show was deemed potentially worthy. Then veteran local musicians took the stage and everybody totally rocked out.
"They were definitely here," said Anne Marie Pemberton, a computer systems engineer who was 17, she said, when she saw the show. She paced the gym floor Saturday, marking specific spots, occasionally wielding an air guitar.
"Page was over here. John Paul Jones was over there. Plant the showman was right here. And right behind was John Bonham with his hellacious drum set."
Tom McAleer, a liquor salesman who grew up near the center, carried a grocery bag containing the battered white Chuck Taylor high-tops he says he was wearing that night 40 years ago when he and a friend sneaked in to see Led Zeppelin. "My girlfriend gives me a hard time because I save everything," he said.
But Sharon Ward Ellis, the former director of the youth center, who can recall telling Iggy Pop to stop smearing peanut butter on his chest during his Wheaton concert, has no recollection of Led Zeppelin. And former teen center fan Ruth Lynn Youngwirth brought her scrapbook documenting scores of concerts from 1967 to 1972. Curiously, the log does not include the Wheaton Zeppelin show.
"If Led Zeppelin was here, I don't remember," Youngwirth said.
Way up Georgia, next to the public library and the townhouses, the Wheaton Community Center, as it's called now, is one of those bright, smiley concrete-block havens built by society to keep the kids out of trouble. It's got a trippy, wavy roof to remind you it dates from the 1960s.
Then as now, the space was operated by the Montgomery County Department of Recreation. Today the main floor is a basketball court. Back then, kids roller-skated on that floor. Today there are DJ classes, teen dances, art lessons and computer labs. But once upon a time, the rec department found itself in the unlikely role of rock concert co-promoter, and the Wheaton Youth Center was almost unbelievably cool.
Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, Dr. John, Rod Stewart, Rare Earth, Bob Seger and local boy Nils Lofgren with his national act Grin: They played Wheaton.
But Led Zeppelin?
The show supposedly took place the evening of Jan. 20, 1969, the day of Richard Nixon's first inauguration. Zeppelin was on its first U.S. tour. The band's first album had just been released. Hardly anybody had ever heard of the group, though Jimmy Page was sort of famous for having been in the Yardbirds.
Zeppelin-in-Wheaton is a weird subcultural enigma on the blurry frontier between the absurd and the sublime -- which means it's a perfect assignment for Jeff Krulik, the local filmmaker whose body of work roams this frontier, going back to his cult classic, "Heavy Metal Parking Lot," the documentary about big-haired heavy metal fanatics shot with John Heyn in the parking lot of the old Capital Centre in Landover before a Judas Priest concert in 1986.
Krulik put out the call: If you attended the maybe mythic show, come to a reunion at the Wheaton Community Center.
He also invited anyone connected to the regional teen center scene of the time. The centers were vital venues for youth culture and music as the 1960s burned out. The modern rock concert industry had yet to be born, there was no Ticketmaster or Live Nation, and a ticket to a Zeppelin show at Merriweather Post Pavilion (where the band definitely did play in May 1969) cost $5.75 -- while a ticket for a show at Wheaton cost a dollar or two.
More than a hundred people showed up Saturday -- a bigger crowd than the 50 or 60 who are said to have attended the Zeppelin show. About a half-dozen at the reunion said they had attended the concert. The rest were fans who had seen other shows in Wheaton, or they were musicians who had played in bands on the teen center circuit.
In the end, it wasn't just a reunion of a storied Zeppelin show. It was a reunion of people who had even more in common -- having been young at the same time, when music was the crucial soundtrack to important dreams.