Rodney Bingenheimer is one of those names that, almost purely by its syllabic overload, seems properly suited to a larger-than-life character. Known to many as the world-famous DJ “Rodney on the Roq” at Los Angeles-based KROQ, Bingenheimer has led one of those lives on par with the Lennons, Ghandis and Clintons of our time. The irony of it all, though, is that Bingenheimer himself is relatively pint-sized with a humble, soft voice one would rarely equate with a legendary radio god.
Since beginning at KROQ in 1976, Rodney was first to play records by such now-legendary artists as Blondie, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Van Halen, the Go-Go’s, the Cramps, the Clash, the Cure, the Smiths, the B-52’s, Billy Idol, X, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bad Religion, Duran Duran, the Jam, the Bangles, the Runaways, Joan Jett, Tom Petty, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Echo and the Bunnymen, No Doubt, Blur, Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Oasis, Travis, Coldplay, the Doves, the Strokes, the Hives, the Vines, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and many more.
In a new documentary, “The Mayor of Sunset Strip,” directed by award-winning filmmaker George Hickenlooper (note the multi-syllabic connection), Bingenheimer’s extraordinary life is examined through almost six years of interviews with Bingenheimer himself, his parents Bing and Zelda, as well as a slew of celebrities including Courtney Love, Gwen Stefani, Brian Wilson, Debbie Harry, Mackenzie Phillips, Nancy Sinatra, Joey Ramone, David Bowie, Cher, Mick Jagger, Johnny Marr, Coldplay and the remaining members of the Doors.
The film also tries to further dissect the way in which Bingenheimer’s ability to hover so close to celebrity mirrors America’s own now-rabid obsession with fame. On Feb. 6 and 7, the film screened at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, with Hickenlooper and Bingenheimer both attending to answer audience questions. The film, which opens March 26 in L.A., was recently bought for widespread distribution and now stands as the second-highest selling documentary behind Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine.”
It is Bingenheimer’s indelible contribution to the L.A. and international music scene that cannot be ignored. Having left his Bay Area home for the streets of Hollywood at the tender age of 14 in the early ’60s, his “lost puppy” looks and warm demeanor quickly gained him access into some of the closest-knit celebrity circles, including Sonny and Cher. Soon, he was working as a stand-in for Davy Jones of the Monkees and, within a few years, had Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco up and running as the foremost celebrity hangout on the West Coast. Though his club-owning days were numbered, his years on KROQ were not, as one can still catch Bingenheimer every Sunday night from midnight to 3 a.m., playing cutting-edge music from the likes of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Hives, the Doves, Idlewild, Ash and hits from Bowie, Siouxsie and the Ramones. A true L.A. fixture, Bingenheimer can be found almost every night at Canter’s Deli, located on Fairfax Avenue, in his own booth, chatting away with friends after a show. Before heading back into the dense L.A. jungle, Artsweek caught up with Bingenheimer to find out just a bit more about the Mayor of Sunset Strip’s legendary jurisdiction.
Artsweek: Can you tell a little bit of the backstory on the film? How it came about?
Rodney Bingenheimer: It all started, I guess, with [producer] Chris Carter from Dramarama, a band I first played on my show that became very big from that. He always wanted to do a book about me, so he went around to all the different publishers, but they wanted more of a sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll thing; they wanted me to tell stories and I’m not going to tell what people do in their private lives, so that kind of killed the idea for the book. They also thought I was too regional, too L.A., so that people in Kansas City might not have heard of me. Well, Chris went to an art opening of Ron Wood, who used to be in a band called the Faces and now he’s in the [Rolling] Stones. He was interviewing him and said, “Tell me about Rodney,” and Ron said, “Oh, Rodney! The fifth Face!” – because he was in the Faces – and Chris thought, “Wow! This is pretty colorful stuff. This should be documented on film.” That’s where the idea for the documentary came from, and then Chris got a hold of George, who did a lot of movies and documentaries, and I guess used to hear my show when he was working late at night, editing and such.
The film gets pretty emotional at parts, with your family and you dealing with your mother’s death. How does it feel to be in the audience and see people laughing and crying at moments in your own life? Does it do justice to your life in your opinion?
It didn’t catch everything in my life, but pretty much. It’s pretty weird. It’s like if someone did a documentary about you and you had to see yourself on the big screen.
Do you have a favorite part of the film?
Yeah. With Cher [talking]. Because I remember going to school and telling all my school friends about staying and living with Cher and Sonny and how they took care of me. No one ever believed me. To get the actual Cher herself telling the story is great – to finally get it out.
Some of those pictures from your English Disco with Bowie, Iggy and the mega stars of the day are pretty unbelievable to see. Did it feel that insane at the time?
That’s just a part of growing up in Hollywood. That wouldn’t happen anywhere else. Maybe New York, but wherever you’re out on the scene and a part of it.
How did you get your show on KROQ?
When I had the nightclub, everybody used to go. I mean everybody hung out there: Bianca Jagger, Alice Cooper, T Rex, Led Zeppelin and Mackenzie Phillips. It was the place, like a smaller version of Studio 54. Once I even had President [Gerald] Ford’s son Steven. The owners at KROQ were in there, and they saw all these people and couldn’t believe it. They said, “We’re starting this new station, KROQ, and should have Rodney come on so that he can bring all these people down to the show.” They started KROQ and it was in a hotel room at the Pasadena Hilton Hotel. We broadcast there and I had my very first guests who were the Ramones and Joan Jett calling in. That’s how it all started, when I first played the Ramones.
Was there a part of you that ever thought you would make such a dent, such an imprint in the music world?
I never thought that. I have a theme song I play on my show from that time period until even now called “This Could Be the Night,” by the MRQ because whenever I used to do my show, I always thought it was my last show, my last night. But it did last all that long and it’s still going.
What’s the best advice you’ve garnered from your years around celebrities?
Just be kind. Don’t be pushy. That’s what’s good about me. I’m shy. I’m not pushy.
Do you still keep in touch with some of that same Hollywood crowd from the late ’60s, early ’70s?
Yeah. Just after the Santa Barbara [International] Film Festival, I was up at David Bowie’s show at the Wiltern Theatre and I got to bring him out on the encore. He broke into this whole rap about me saying things like, “Rodney Bingenheimer, I love you. He was the first to play me and he still plays me. Bow down.” It was really amazing.
Perhaps, in the end, that’s Bingenheimer’s lasting charm in such a notoriously jaded industry: to still be amazed and delighted by celebrity and applause. Though the film paints a picture of a man somewhat abandoned by his glory days, it works hard to show Bingenheimer’s dedication to fans, friends and family. Beyond the names he has singlehandly brought into the common vernacular, Bingenheimer remains a rarity in this day of celebrity – a star not found enshrouded by a legion of bodyguards but, instead, quietly nibbling a spicy Canter’s pickle on a Saturday night.