ALMOST FAMOUS

New documentary probes Zelig-like disc jockey Rodney Bingenheimer

 

 

BY COREY LEVITAN

      The hostess at Mel's Diner on the Sunset Strip isn't responding.

      "Is Rodney Bingenheimer here yet?" the question is repeated.

      "I don't know who that is," she answers.

      Bingenheimer has long been L.A.'s most influential DJ and scenester. He introduced Hollywood to David Bowie, discovered Dramarama and named the Bangles. Three songs have been recorded specifically about him, one by Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson.

      "Rodney single-handedly cut a path through the treacle of the '60s," Bowie recalled to "Details" magazine in 1992, "allowing all we 'avants' to parade our sounds of tomorrow, dressing in our clothes of derision."

      But Bingenheimer -- dubbed "Mayor of the Sunset Strip" by his late friend, actor Sal Mineo -- is famous primarily to the famous, many of whom he helped make that way.

      Thanks to a new documentary opening today, restaurant hostesses nationwide may soon realize exactly who they're seating. "Mayor of the Sunset Strip" shines a spotlight into the shadows of the famous, illuminating Bingenheimer like a deer in headlights. Cameos are made by Bowie and other famous Bingenheimer chums, including Courtney Love, Cher and Mick Jagger.

      Bingenheimer is indeed already at Mel's. Wearing Johnny Cash all-black, he waves from a booth in the back.

      He is asked to tick off his favorite historical credits.

      "There's so much, it's hard to remember," he says.

      Bingenheimer's speech, which utilizes giggles as commas and awkward silences as periods, is so gentle it's nearly drowned out by the P.A.'s cheeseball selection of '50s records. Such a painfully shy, little-boy personality does not befit the resume. But this incongruity only adds to Bingenheimer's mystique.

      As an interview subject, Bingenheimer consistently tries deflecting focus off himself and onto topics that excite him. First on that list are the new bands he plays on his weekly KROQ-FM show, "Rodney on the ROQ."

      "What's fun about doing these interviews is I can actually tell you about Ima Robot, the Glitterati and the Dollyrots," he says.

      That's hardly the most interesting discussion to be had with a man who has been photographed hanging out with Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and Elvis Presley. Scan any photo of a pivotal event in L.A. rock history going back 35 years, and the petite man with the uncomfortable smile is as likely as not to turn up somewhere in the background.

      Characters this stealthily ubiquitous exist mostly in fiction: Tom Hanks' Forrest Gump and Woody Allen's human chameleon, Leonard Zelig, come to mind.

      Bingenheimer prefers Andy Warhol.

      "He did kind of lead the same life I do," he says. "He was real quiet and never said anything. He had his favorite restaurants that he ate in at certain times."

      Bingenheimer misses the most glaring similarity: Warhol's fascination with fame.

      "I'm not fascinated with fame," he insists. "It's there. Look how big fame has gotten. They have 'Extra' and 'Access Hollywood.' Everything is fame, fame, fame on TV."

      Anyone who knows Bingenheimer well, however, can sense one of his defensive smokescreens.

      "Rodney's apartment is covered floor-to-ceiling with these photos of Rodney with any particular pop star you can think of -- hanging out with Mick Jagger, meditating with George Harrison," says "Mayor of the Sunset Strip" writer/director George Hickenlooper ("Hearts of Darkness").

      "When Rodney started talking about these photos, he came to life. He went from this sweet and shy laconic figure who gave me one-word, two-word answers, to this different person. It was like he was almost speaking through these images. And then I thought, 'This could be a very compelling documentary -- a guy who's very moved by pop culture, by celebrity.'"

      "Mayor of the Sunset Strip" suggests a devotion to celebrity so overriding, it may substitute for some familial devotion lacking in childhood. For example, Bingenheimer sends his father and stepmom framed pictures of himself with pop-cultural icons.

      They never get hanged, and Bingenheimer knows this. But he keeps sending them anyway.

      Bingenheimer was raised a latchkey kid in then-sleepy Mountain View, Calif. Time alone was spent listening to rock hits on a transistor radio and reading the Hollywood fan magazines that his mother, a divorced waitress, kept around the house.

      Beginning at age 13, Bingenheimer -- with mom's approval -- meccaed regularly downstate to try and commune with those whose lives he read about.

      "I'd get busted and my mom would have to come and get me," he says. But not before his gentle charm managed to unlock the door of a Sunset Strip studio where the Rolling Stones were recording.

      "That's when I first met Mick," Bingenheimer says nonchalantly. "It was the times. Everybody loved everybody, everybody took care of everybody.

      "This was before John Hinckley."

      For one of his extended Hollywood stays, Bingenheimer's mom dropped him off in Connie Stevens' driveway. The 14-year-old was hoping to befriend the starlet, on whom he had a colossal crush. But she was off somewhere shooting a movie.

      No matter. There were plenty of other famous wings to nest beneath in the big city. Bingenheimer's small stature and long hair landed him a gig as Davy Jones' stand-in on the hit TV show "The Monkees." He also ran errands for Sonny and Cher.

      "None of the kids at school would ever believe me," Bingenheimer says. "I'm glad Cher's in the movie, so now the stories are bona fide."

      Gigs as a rock journalist and record scout followed. But in 1972, Bingenheimer made his first real mark when -- at the suggestion of Bowie -- he opened Rodney's English Disco. A haven for homesick British rock stars including Bowie, Queen and Led Zeppelin, the tiny Sunset Strip club quickly became THE happening nightspot in a town of happening nightspots.

      Bingenheimer held court here much the way Warhol did at New York's Studio 54: He enjoyed making the most surreal introductions possible, then stepping back to watch the results of his alchemy. At Rodney's, one could see Who drummer Keith Moon mingling with the cast of "The Brady Bunch," or teenybopper pinup Shaun Cassidy opening for punk prince Iggy Pop.

      "There's footage of me in the DJ booth with both of them," Bingenheimer says, lighting up. "But the director didn't realize it was Shaun Cassidy, so there are all these great outtakes for the DVD."

      In 1976, Bingenheimer's reputation impressed radio station KROQ-FM, which hired him to spin his favorite records on Saturday and Sunday nights at 8 p.m.

      The influence of "Rodney on the ROQ" cannot be understated. It was the first American radio show to air the Sex Pistols, Clash and Smiths (and, more recently, Nirvana, Oasis and the Strokes).

      "I've always liked turning people on to new music," says Bingenheimer, who conducts the program like a living-room chat with friends.

      Yet since corporate interests gobbled up KROQ in the '80s, Bingenheimer's show has been increasingly marginalized. The only DJ not beholden to playlists, he's been pushed almost off the schedule -- to Sunday nights, midnight-to-3 a.m. Even pop culture's other Rodney, the one who says he "can't get no respect," gets more.

      "It's a shame that he's only on in the middle of the night once a week," says Nic Harcourt, host of L.A.'s only other cutting-edge rock radio show, "Morning Becomes Eclectic," on National Public Radio's KCRW-FM.

      "I can't believe KROQ thinks that's a good time slot for him to be on the radio -- that the audience on Sunday at 2 a.m. is really gonna dig what Rodney does."

      In "Mayor," fellow KROQ DJ Jed the Fish goes as far as suggesting that their station's owners would like to fire Bingenheimer, but fear "the soul of KROQ will blow away."

      The documentary derives much of its poignancy from contrasting Bingenheimer's glamorous past against a lonely present. It follows him as he visits his former club (now a karate studio) and sprinkles his mom's ashes over the English Channel.

      "He's spent a lot of his life chasing the Hollywood golden calf, the false promise that Hollywood offers of taking you to a transcendental place," Hickenlooper explains. "By being around the famous, or becoming famous yourself, you're taken to this place that's sort of between the mortal world and the immortal world.

      "And that's a lie."

      In addition, "Mayor" suggests how depressing it must be to have only a tiny fraction of the wealth of your friends, many of whose careers you helped create.

      That element of the movie doesn't sit well with Bingenheimer. Money has obviously never been one of his priorities, and he claims it still isn't.

      "How would I make money from these people anyway?" he asks. "Would I ask them to hand me their fortune? You don't do that to people. That's very rude."

      Fortunately, "Mayor of the Sunset Strip" -- which was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award -- sold for $1.3 million to First Look Pictures, the second-biggest documentary sale after Michael Moore's "Bowling For Columbine." So Bingenheimer's finally in line for his due, via points on the back end.

      Unfortunately, it's an awfully long line. Production costs ran upwards of $2 million.

      "It has to do really well for anyone to see money," Hickenlooper says. "I've spent five years of my life on it and haven't seen a penny, either."

      Of course, there is always that chance. And Bingenheimer also stands to profit as one of four producers credited on the soundtrack album. (Released last week on the major label-distributed Shout Factory, the CD features Brian Wilson's song, "Rodney on the ROQ," (click here to hear it) an in-studio performance of "Yellow" by Coldplay's Chris Martin, and "I Hate the '90s," a humorous collaboration between Bingenheimer and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore.)

      At the end of the day, though, Bingenheimer claims none of that's important. He says he's had a sweeter ride than most. And that's all the satisfaction he could ever want.

      "I have a great radio show," he says. "And look at all the thank-you's I've gotten on the back of albums, all the laminated passes I get to go to shows, and the great dinners and parties I get to go to.

      "And I got my due," he adds. "I have a movie coming out."

      When you think about it, even a movie about how ALMOST famous its subject is makes that subject famous.

      "I got the last laugh," Bingenheimer says.

 

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