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.”
… 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.
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.
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.”
…and Liam Gallagher
For someone so connected to the fame machine, Rodney is a remarkably quiet, private person. He’s uncomfortable in the spotlight — preferring to introduce the band and then stand in the half-light just offstage. Having a feature-length film about his life has got to be strange.
“Yeah, it’s very weird,” he says, half-giggling. “’Cause I’m real shy. To see my life onscreen is really odd. You get the feeling of what reality TV is about.
“I feel like I’m not that guy, I’m just seeing a movie of this guy, and all this great rock & roll stuff. It’s [director] George Hickenlooper, the way he sees my life. The real people that really knew me, knew me . . . What’s fascinating about it is, George Hickenlooper doesn’t know a thing about rock & roll, and he’s doing the greatest rock movie ever filmed. He didn’t know who No Doubt was.”
It’s an excellent film, but Rodney’s right: There’s an obvious, probably intentional distance between the filmmaker and his subject, and a sense of condescension toward Rodney’s foibles. At the same time, the film documents Rodney’s daily life with real tenderness — the banality and loneliness of it, and his poverty relative to the many stars he’s promoted.
Bingenheimer may have been a starfucker, but he’s never given a shit about money. And when you think about the amount of wealth he has generated for the record industry, for bands and for KROQ’s owners, it just doesn’t seem fair.
“But, I mean, look at what I’ve got here,” he says, gesturing at his stacks of vintage vinyl, his snapshots and autographs, his prized Nina Hagen Halloween mask. “And getting named on the records — bands always thank me and stuff. I get recognition from them.” He pulls out a coffee-table book on Oasis featuring a picture of the band getting signed to Creation Records in 1993. Rodney’s there, grinning on sofa. His walls are covered with framed photos, many of them taken in his club: Rodney and Marc Bolan; Brooke Shields and Jimmy McNichol; the Turtles; Bowie. Then there’s his prized possession — John and Yoko’s autographs.
He’s also got a framed letter from Phil Spector hanging next to the bathroom door: “Always be good to rock & roll,” it says, “ and it will always be good to you.”
“When I go to New York, I can stay with Debbie Harry and Chris Stein,” Bingenheimer continues, a little defensively, “and when I go to London, it’s like I’m like the Beatles. Everybody takes care of me in London — you’d be surprised. Parties, out every night, dinners, everything.”
The wide reach of his fandom is a reflection of his musical aesthetic, too. Like early KROQ itself, Rodney’s show, which started in 1976, has always been a cross-genre haven for weirdoes of many persuasions: To him, there was never any big leap from the Beach Boys to the Cramps. On Rodney on the Roq, as on freeform radio of the past, it all makes sense.
“I like happy music,” he says. “Punk is fast, it’s very aggressive — it might be sad or about violence, but the tempo keeps you going, keeps you alert. It kinda makes me happy. I just don’t like disco or techno or rap. I hate disco. It’s trying to kill rock & roll.”
(Disco’s trying to kill rock? See what I mean about the living-in-all-eras thing? Sometimes it seems as if Rodney collects favorite phrases and just repeats them endlessly for fun. “Parking killed rock & roll” is another one: “You can’t park anywhere — they haul your car away. Look what’s happened to Spaceland! It costs you an arm and a leg to park. It’s not like you can just pull up in front of a club anymore and go, ‘Hey, what’s happening?’”)
In the film, George Hickenlooper (which Rodney pronounces “Hinkenlooper”) makes a big deal of Rodney’s fascination with famous people, from Connie Stevens to Kato Kaelin. But when it comes to choosing music for his show, Bingenheimer has always considered a band’s fame to be a liability. Like any good hippie, or punk, Rodney’s whole purpose is to support brand-new music with no money or machinery behind it — music that has nowhere else to turn, except maybe college radio.
“‘What if you heard this on the radio?’ was my motto, my moral,” he says, raising his voice slightly. “Something you don’t usually hear on radio. In fact, I don’t even play the Strokes that much anymore. Basically, they graduated. They got too big. “
As the film asserts, Rodney is, and always has been, the go-between for the little people and the beautiful ones. He’s Everyman in La La Land. If DJs were paid based on the success of bands they’ve broken, Rodney would need a bodyguard when he goes to Denny’s. Instead, he’s an everyday icon: You see him waiting in line at the Hollywood Wells Fargo; sipping barley-bean soup at Canters every goddamn night; standing outside the Troubadour. “I do normal things every day,” he says. “I go to restaurants. I do laundry. People come up to me all the time at Ralphs or Rite-Aid. I don’t even go out very much anymore. I stay at home. I just prepare for my show.”
Blame it on parking, on cruising laws, or on the corporatization of rock, but Rodney’s world just isn’t as much fun as it used to be. The glitter girls grew up and got married (like his ex, who ran off with Bowie’s manager). Rock & Roll Denny’s shut down. Bands no longer drop in at tiny clubs to hang out with the kids, and they couldn’t get into KROQ to drop off a demo if they tried. Rodney’s mournful of a lost era, and doubtful it could ever return.
“It’s just different now. It’s not the same. I don’t know what happened. I can remember when kids used to cruise up and down the Sunset Strip to their favorite songs, and they had their own tambourines, hitting the tambourines to the radio.”
Maybe the saddest change is in his stature at the station he helped to build. As far as The World-Famous KROQ — behemoth of the Viacom empire — is concerned, Rodney just doesn’t matter that much anymore. He may play their best stuff first, and he may help their eventual hitmakers to get signed, but he no longer shapes the station. Jed the Fish generously suggests in the doc that KROQ’s owners are afraid that if they fire Rodney, the soul of KROQ will dry up and blow away. More likely, they just don’t want to look like bad guys. And so he sits on Sunday night, when only diehard fans are awake, doing what he’s always done.
And though Rodney is a shameless name-dropper, the truth is that for every big name he drops, he also mentions five little bands you’ve never heard of — talking about them as if they were stars. Rodney never forgets a band, no matter how small. Chicklet, Relax to Paris — they’re all famous to him.
“What was fun was when bands used to come up to KROQ, like Bad Religion would show up and give me a tape, and by the time they get in their car and drive off, it’s already on the radio.” He could say the same of a million bands from Van Halen to the Offspring. “I used to play Oasis before they were signed — on cassette demos!”
Rodney claims to be satisfied with his life, and he deserves to be. Maybe the ultimate tragedy of his story, and of the film, is ours. What does it say about the future of music when a real visionary becomes thoroughly marginalized? It would be one thing if he’d become musically fossilized, a sort of punk Jim Ladd, stuck in the music of his youth. But Rodney knows more about new music than most teenagers. In fact, while Rodney may be the amusing old geezer around the KROQ studios, he plays far more brand-new stuff than you’ll hear at any other hour on KROQ — a station that touts itself as the paragon of youth culture. How the hell did that happen?
Things first started changing for Rodney in the mid-’80s, when a corporate conglomerate purchased KROQ and moved it from its Pasadena storefront to a bunker in Burbank (and recently to the former K-Earth Studio near in West L.A.). “It’s really hard now,” he says. “They have gates, and we’re in a soundproof room. There was an all-girl band that showed up called Blocked Number. They came with their mom and everything — they’re all sisters. They’re from Manhattan Beach. But they couldn’t get in — they waited and waited at the gate. I was leaving to grab a quick bite at Canters before my show, so I got their CD. I think I played it.”
Most of the week, KROQ, like all corporate radio, works much differently. But it’s paid a price to become America’s most powerful rock station: Where KROQ used to forge musical trends, it now follows them, favoring bands with major-label deals and large followings. Who knows what greater success it might be missing in its more conservative format? The openness of Rodney’s show is, of course, what made success possible for his bands, and, once upon a time, for the station. The more good music you throw at the wall, the more is likely to stick.
With media chains lobbying tirelessly for further consolidation, Rodney will only become more anachronistic — and more valuable as an outlet for the no-name geniuses of tomorrow. And when he’s gone, you can bet he won’t be replaced.
It’s depressing as hell, and the film has a plaintive quality as it follows Bingenheimer through the streets of Hollywood, visiting his former club — now a martial-arts studio — or sprinkling his mother’s ashes on the water at Brighton Beach in England. Rodney Bingenheimer may have been the most popular man in music, but, in a sense, he’s also become the most isolated.
He doesn’t seem to feel that way, though. “I’m always looking into the future,” he says meaningfully. “The next sound, the next guitar, the next voice.
“Like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Or the Libertines. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Rooney. There’s this one band I really like called the Postal Service. And I’ve been playing a demo by a band called Ruled by Venus. They’re not even signed yet. Have you heard them?”
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