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And while that may be true, chatting with Roecker under the watchful eyes of the copious collectibles and figurines that stare out from the shelves in his kitschy kitchen, it’s clear there is a message behind his madness and a very big heart behind his filmic hell-raising. He’s been accused of trying to shock purely for shock’s sake, but the guy’s got way too many opinions and inspirations for that.
Ten years in the making, Freaky is about challenging the status quo in a way that’s droll and rousing and, yeah, ugly too, not unlike the hardcore music that awakened Roecker’s rebellious soul, growing up as the youngest of five kids in Granada Hills.
This guy’s a romantic all right, and the object of his affection is, and always has been, the visceral music that spoke to him as an adolescent when nothing and no one else did. Music that filled his daydreams as he lay in his flier-plastered bedroom, with Rodney on the Roq blasting in the background. Music that questioned everything.
“It was the ’70s. I was a complete outsider and I didn’t have anyone. All the kids were into Van Halen and metal and all that,” he remembers. “I just wasn’t. I liked the Beatles and that was all I was into. Then I saw this band called Sex Pistols on a Dick Clark special and everything changed.”
Roecker became the only punk kid at his Catholic school in the Valley, wearing short black hair, safety-pinned jeans and Chuck Taylors in a sea of fuzzy locks, flared corduroys and Vans tennis shoes. He was constantly teased and called “faggot” by the Camaro-cruising kids in his neighborhood.
After watching Battle of the Rock Stars (a one-off musical version of the popular ABC show Battle of the Network Stars) featuring the Runaways, he realized there was a whole city full of people just like him. And it was only a bus ride away.
Hollywood had always fascinated him. It was where films and TV shows were made and where Roecker’s father, a director of episodic TV shows including Little House on the Prairie, spent his days. But the punk scene there added a new dimension to the so-close-yet-so-far-away fantasyland. On the surface it was glamorous, but underneath it was dirty and dangerous. It’s cliché now, but to a kid coming of age, realizing that things aren’t always what they seem and that dreams definitely don’t always come true, the dark side can be undeniably seductive. And one band in particular expressed this desperate duality better than any other.
Wearing a faded-out, paper-thin X Los Angeles T-shirt during our interview, Roecker reminisces about the band’s thrilling live shows and the early punk days, his eyes bright with awe as he takes himself back and names off the bands he saw. “Christian Death, Blondie and the Go-Go’s .?.?.”
“How did you become friends with all these people?” I interrupt.
“I wasn’t,” he says flatly. “I was still a loner back then.”
But I’m having trouble believing that. See, if you know John Roecker or even if you just know of him, you know this: The dude has a ton of rock-star friends. He’s not unlike Rodney Bingenheimer in that sense, though he’s much more of a Svengali (and he admits this, if only in a jokey way), or a sounding board, if you will, offering guidance, advice and, most importantly, a strong opinion to many of his talented chums.
Not only were he and Exene partners in crime and bad taste, but he was very close to her then hubby, Viggo Mortensen. (Roecker’s their son’s godfather.) Mainly through his store days, he had developed close bonds with everyone from Donita Sparks of L7 to Gwen Stefani, not to mention nearly all of the marquee names that participated in the Freakyproject, especially “the Armstrong boys,” Tim and Billie Joe (who aren’t related, but are old East Bay punk comrades). Tim was the first to seriously encourage Roecker to turn his script into a real film, while Billie Joe later became like a brother while working on Freaky, even asking Roecker to document in film the entire recording process of the now multiplatinum record American Idiot. The result, Heart Like a Hand Grenade, is due out at the end of 2006.
So how does a guy go from follower to friend as effortlessly as he has?
“Part of John’s charm is he’s not afraid to be a fan,” says Jane Wiedlin, who plays the appropriately high-pitched “Hanson” family member Squeaky in the film. “At the same time he’s really irreverent, which I’m really drawn to. It forces you to make fun of yourself and not take anything too seriously. He can make fun of anything, including himself. He’s not immune to his own wicked humor.”
It’s a testament to Roecker’s charismatic sway that even Tim Armstrong, who never grants interviews, is willing to talk about him. “You know you either love him or hate him, but you don’t forget him,” Armstrong tells me over lunch at Netty’s one afternoon. “He’s got great ideas, and he’s just really entertaining and fun to be around. And he’s a loyal friend.”