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A Man Out of Time 

Rodney Bingenheimer on life as the erstwhile Mayor of the Sunset Strip

Thursday, Jun 12 2003
Photos by Raul Vega, Steve Diet Goedde, JulianWasser

KROQ DJ Rodney Bingenheimer has had more hot-groupie sex in his lifetime than most rock stars, according to Mayor of the Sunset Strip. But this has nothing to do with his conversational skills. In fact, his small talk is lousy. His big talk ain’t too keen, either. You get a lot of wandering yeahs and one-sentence answers, delivered in his signature singsong style. Look, some people are talkers, and some people are listeners — and Rodney’s a listener. In fact, he’s probably the best listener L.A. has ever known.

And despite his legendary reputation as a lech, Rodney is no scheming Svengali — unlike his pals Phil Spector and Kim Fowley.

... and hairdresser

“I’m too shy,” Bingenheimer says, sitting on a couch in his two-bedroom Hollywood apartment, which isn’t nearly as fucked-up and depressing as it looks in the movie. Besides a kitchen table buried under a mound of papers and bills, it’s a tidy and well-kept museum of rock & roll paraphernalia (we’re parked beneath a wall of gold records by artists ranging from Nick Gilder to Elastica). “If I see a strange girl I want to meet, I can never meet her, because I can’t go up to a strange girl and start a conversation. Someone has to either introduce me or she has to make a motion. I can’t go up to strangers. I would probably faint or something.”

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... and groupies It sounds like such a line — except that you know it’s true. In some ways, Rodney has never really grown up. And like a lot of the ’70s survivors in his movie (Cher, Pamela Des Barres, Mackenzie Phillips), Rodney has a peculiar agelessness. People snicker about how old he looks, but that’s not precise enough: It’s more that Rodney seems to be all ages at once. He lives in different eras at once, too. He’s just as excited about Ronnie Spector as he is about the Raveonettes. And though KROQ has mutated around him from creative hothouse to corporate juggernaut, Rodney has not changed. His programming ethics are identical to what they were 20 years ago. In fact, the only thing that changes about Rodney is the name of his newest fave rave.

...and alone Mayor of the Sunset Strip (Bingenheimer’s unofficial title in the glam-rock days) tells the story of his life from early childhood through his heyday as KROQ’s punk pied piper to his eventual ghettoization on Sunday nights (midnight to 3 a.m.) on KROQ. It follows his early days as a rock & roll groupie, living with Sonny and Cher; his job as Davy Jones’ stand-in on The Monkees; his record-label jobs; and his nightclub.

The parade of celebrities he befriends — and takes snaps with — is bizarre, including just about everyone from Elvis to Gwen Stefani. (He’s truly the Where’s Waldo of rock.) And though the film never gives a proper list, it’s obvious he’s broken more bands than anyone at KROQ — and maybe anyone in L.A. radio history. Some early KROQ DJs might quibble, but the official story is that Rodney was the first to break the Sex Pistols, Ramones, the Runaways, Generation X, the Go-Go’s, X, the Clash, Black Flag, Blur, Nirvana — on and on and on, right through to Coldplay and the Strokes. At a station that made its name taking risks, Rodney took the most.

...and Andy But the film is not just a biography. It also describes the cultural moment that produced Bingenheimer: that chaotic window between the late ’60s and early ’80s when rock culture, and rock radio, were being reinvented — first by hippies, then punk rockers (who weren’t too different philosophically, it turned out). The film features old footage of kids hanging out on the Strip — back when broke teens could still live in West Hollywood as non-hookers. It’s amazing: In these shots, young people are actually walking down Sunset during the day, waiting for the bus, talking, whatever. The light has a golden quality. The storefronts look humble, the clothes inexpensive. Everyone’s smiling. It’s a glimpse of Hollywood street life — and rock & roll culture — before money took over.

The vibe is reminiscent of Almost Famous, except that it’s real. In fact, the mantra of that film’s groupie heroine, Penny Lane, was stolen from Rodney. “It’s All Happening!” was the name of Rodney’s nightlife column in Go magazine (it’s now the name of his Web site). “Cameron Crowe used to go to my club,” Rodney says a little proudly, referring to his short-lived glam-rock hangout, Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco. “He took a lot of lines from me for Almost Famous, and he admitted it.”

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