Fame, fame, fatal fame
It can play hideous tricks on the brain
But still I’d rather be famous
Than righteous or holy any day
Any day, any day.
The Smiths, “Frankly Mr. Shankly”
For a few short years in the early 1970s, Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco was the world’s rock & roll salon. In “Casablanca,” everyone went to Rick’s, but in Hollywood from 1972 to late 1974, everyone went to Rodney’s. It was a place where Shaun Cassidy and Iggy Pop performed on the same bill; where Keith Moon mingled with the cast of the Brady Bunch; and where teenage girls whose parents thought they were spending the night at a friend’s house were romping with Rod Stewart, David Bowie, Jimmy Page, and the most famous musical artists of the era.
Playing unlikely host to all the hedonism was Rodney Bingenheimer, the walking music almanac and night-life alchemist with an Andy Warhol-like instinct for creating the most exciting scene in town—and then, like the socially awkward Warhol, discreetly stepping back to watch the action from the shadows.
In the fascinating documentary “Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” acclaimed director George Hickenlooper coaxes the enigmatic Rodney—friend, confidant, and lifelong admirer of countless luminaries from all walks of public life—out of the shadows and into the spotlight. The result is a film that transcends biography to present not only an overview of every significant pop-music trend from the mid-60s to the present day, but a bittersweet examination of our society’s relentless obsession with fame and celebrity.
For Rodney, best known today as a Los Angeles radio personality who has probably broken more bands than any DJ in history, the English Disco was just one of several star-strewn way stations in a life defined by a fascination with, and a knack for getting close to, the most famous names in music, movies, television, and beyond. Since August 22, 1976, when he made his debut on L.A.’s modern-rock leader KROQ, Rodney has helped define the sounds that have dominated four decades of youth culture, from punk to new wave to alternative rock. A partial list of bands he has championed (several of which he was playing before they even had record deals) includes the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Jam, the Ramones, X, the Go-Go’s, Blondie, Devo, the Specials, Madness, Adam and the Ants, Van Halen, the Stray Cats, the Smiths, Nirvana, Oasis, No Doubt, and, more recently, Coldplay and the Strokes.
In 1985, Rodney’s enthusiasm for a song called “Anything, Anything” by the then-unsigned New Jersey quintet Dramarama led to a record deal for the band and a devoted friendship between Rodney and Dramarama bass player Chris Carter. After Dramarama broke up, Carter and Rodney remained close, and in 1996 Rodney agreed to allow Carter, now a radio personality himself, to write a book about his life. But as Carter began interviewing artists about Rodney, his thoughts on the project changed.
“I kept interviewing these amazing, colorful, almost cartoon-like people like Joey Ramone, Nina Hagen, and Ronnie Wood,” says Carter. “And as I was interviewing Ronnie Wood, it hit me. I thought, this is going to be so boring as just printed words on a page. Wouldn’t it be more fun to see Ronnie Wood?’ That’s where I got the idea to do a movie.”
Because he was such an insider—not only a longtime friend of Rodney’s, but a professional musician and a huge fan of many of the stars in Rodney’s orbit—Carter, having made the shift from author to neophyte producer, knew that in order to maintain objectivity, he would need a director who was more of an outsider.
“I didn’t want a director who was a crazed rock fan,” says Carter, “because we’d end up telling the story that we already know, and that’s not what I wanted. I wanted a director who could put his own perspective and spin on the material.”
Carter found his ideal collaborator in Hickenlooper, who co-directed the award-winning 1991 documentary “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse,” after which he forged a successful career writing and directing such feature films as “Big Brass Ring,” “The Man From Elysian Fields” and the short film “Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade,” which inspired the Oscar-winning feature “Sling Blade.” “I’ve never really been a pop-music connoisseur,” says Hickenlooper, a St. Louis native who moved to Los Angeles after graduating from Yale University. “I was into the Beatles and Rolling Stones as a kid, but I never really followed it with any great fervor.”
To Carter, who contacted Hickenlooper through a friend, this blind spot made him perfect for the job. But first he had to convince Hickenlooper that Rodney was a worthy subject for a film. “George came over to my house,” recalls Carter, “and I showed him some interview footage I had shot, and I took out all my pictures of Rodney, and it was almost surreal: ‘Look, here’s Rodney with Elvis, and with the Beatles. And of course George knew who all of those people were. And then I said, ‘And here he is with Oasis and Hole and all the bands that are out there now.’ I think it just hit George like a sledgehammer: ‘Wow, look at this story.’”
Hickenlooper admits that he was intrigued by the photos, but he wasn’t sold until he visited Rodney at home. “When I first met Rodney, I thought his contribution to the music world was interesting, but wouldn’t necessarily make a compelling documentary,” he says. “But I wasn’t actually convinced until Chris brought me over to his apartment, which is filled floor to ceiling with all of these Zelig-like photographs of himself with just about every pop star, movie star, and politician you can imagine. It wasn’t just seeing the photographs, but seeing Rodney sort of light up as he shared these photographs with me. It reminded me of the opening chapter of Ralph Ellison’s eloquent novel The Invisible Man, where the African-American protagonist who’s a victim of racism goes home to his one-room apartment, and he’s filled it floor to ceiling with light bulbs with which he illuminates his skin in order to feel that he exists. And I saw something very interesting in Rodney’s reaction to these photographs. In a way, they sort of gave him vitality and life. I was wondering why that was, and in a larger picture I saw Rodney as not only a kind of cipher, but also a kind of living metaphor for what American culture has become. And I began asking questions like, ‘Why are we as a culture so intrigued by celebrity?’”
To develop the themes of fame and celebrity and place them in historical context, Hickenlooper includes in the film comments from University of Southern California professor Leo Braudy, author of the 1986 book The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History. “Leo Braudy says it’s a function of human behavior that we look for things outside of ourselves as guideposts for life, whether that’s a deity or a hero,” notes Hickenlooper. “But I think in our own culture that has become enormously magnified because celebrity is being used as a kind of cure-all for a lot of the fragmentation that’s happened in our society in the last 30 years. In particular I believe that with things like the breakdown of the nuclear family, for instance, we often find ourselves filling those cracks with celebrity. I think that’s why, particularly in the last 30 years in this country, celebrity has become such a huge, enormous thing.”
If true, this latter notion may have contributed, at least in part, to Rodney’s celebrity worship, the seeds of which were sown at an early age. Growing up in the sleepy northern California town of Mountain View, Rodney, whose parents divorced when he was three years old, was a sometime latchkey kid who passed his time alone reading the fan magazines that his mother, a free-spirited waitress, kept around the house, and fantasizing about the glamorous lives in their pages. Although quiet and withdrawn, he was a music-mad adolescent who watched Shindig faithfully, foraged for discarded copies of Billboard to study the charts, and stayed up late with his ear pressed to a transistor radio, hoping to pick up faint flickers of southern California stations.
At 16, he left home and moved to Los Angeles. Blessed with a naturally guileless demeanor and an unthreatening, lost-puppy quality that made throngs of young women want to take him in and look after him, Rodney, a perennial misfit in Mountain View, fit perfectly in mid-60s Hollywood. His first brush with fame came when, shortly after he arrived in L.A., he was hired as Davy Jones’ stand-in on the popular television series The Monkees, and for a while Sonny and Cher took him under their wing, serving almost as surrogate parents to their young admirer. After The Monkees, he went on to write for various music magazines, and eventually landed at Capitol Records, where he helped promote Linda Ronstadt’s early music, and later at Mercury Records, where it was his job to shepherd David Bowie, Rod Stewart, and other Mercury artists to press events. “I would take Bowie to radio stations and they thought he was weird,” says Rodney. “Maybe because he wore a dress.”
Rodney was so knowledgeable about music, such a fixture on the live-club circuit, and so plugged-in with the stars of the day that actor Sal Mineo dubbed him Mayor of the Sunset Strip. But in 1971, when the scene became overrun by what he describes as “long-haired guys with beards,” Rodney left for London, where he spent a year immersing himself in British music and hanging out with his friends Bowie and Stewart. It was Bowie who suggested that he open a British-style nightclub in Los Angeles.
When Rodney launched the English Disco, the L.A. scene had shifted again, and the permissive, pansexual decadence of glam rock reigned supreme. Eyeliner, hot pants, satin shirts, and platforms were the order of the day; Bowie, T. Rex, and the Sweet provided the soundtrack; and pint-sized, mild-mannered Rodney, according to famously virile Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant, got more girls than he did. But when glam faded with the rise of disco music, Rodney closed the club after a glitter-strewn dance bash at the Hollywood Palladium, and a little over a year later he was spinning records on KROQ, where he has been ever since.
Although he has been increasingly marginalized over the years (when he started, he was on the air both Saturday and Sunday nights at 8:00 p.m.; today he is relegated to Sundays from 12:00 to 3:00 a.m), Rodney’s influence on KROQ—and, by extension, on modern-rock stations nationwide—cannot be exaggerated. The list of bands he has broken speaks for itself, and even in his insomniac time slot he is routinely the first to play obscure imports and demos by artists who eventually achieve major success. He is a bashful, unusually low-key radio personality, but despite his halting, reedy timbre, Rodney speaks about music with the authority of Bernard Berenson discoursing on Renaissance painters. He may not be eloquent, or stereotypically DJ-slick, but if he likes a song, he pronounces it “godhead,” and moves on to the next one.
Today, Rodney bears no external traces of his glam past (he abandoned the satin and frills long ago for a uniform of basic black), and it is difficult to believe that the diminutive, soft-spoken man with the jailhouse bangs and perpetually bemused expression once stood atop the Everest of L.A. cool. “If you only knew Rodney from his pictures, you’d think he was this social animal, a party guy almost, but he’s the complete opposite,” says Carter. “Which makes him even more fascinating.”
Indeed, when he starts talking about his life it becomes clear that Rodney has witnessed every major pop-culture event, whether musical or social, of the last 30 years, invariably in the company of the most famous people of the moment, making it easy to understand why he has been likened variously to Peter Pan, the Pied Piper, Where’s Waldo, Forrest Gump, and, perhaps most frequently, Woody Allen’s befuddled human chameleon Leonard Zelig.
“The irony,” says Carter, who along with Hickenlooper devoted nearly six years to making the film, “is that after everything he’s seen and experienced, and all of the people he’s met along the way, the things that Rodney wants now—and I don’t think he would mind me saying it—are a wife and a house and a white picket fence. Basically, all of the things he kept himself from obtaining his whole life. While he digs rock & roll, and we all do, what he really wants is a comfortable place to settle down and someone to share it with.”
“That’s definitely true,” admits Rodney. “But even if I had those things I would still want to continue my radio show because I really love the music.”