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L.A.'s own Mayor Zelig

Times Staff Writer

“What’s happening?” says Rodney Bingenheimer, looking up from his breakfast of fruit and scrambled egg whites. He’s sitting in the far corner booth at the Denny’s coffee shop in Hollywood’s Gower Gulch, where he arrives every day at 1 p.m.

“What’s happening?” has been his immutable greeting since the phrase was new, back in the euphoric bloom of the Sunset Strip in the ‘60s, and it served him well through subsequent eras -- glam and punk, new wave and Brit-pop, power-pop and alt-rock.

These days Bingenheimer is probably best known for his midnight Sunday KROQ-FM (106.7) radio show “Rodney on the ROQ,” on which he continues his quest to play the coolest new music before anyone else. Before starting at KROQ 27 years ago, he played a similar role through the glitter-spewing speakers of his English Disco. His list of “discoveries” includes the Ramones, Blondie, the Go-Go’s, Oasis, Coldplay, Black Flag, Van Halen and David Bowie.

But radio DJs with a nose for the now come and go. Bingenheimer’s true claim to fame and inescapable uniqueness stems from something more elusive and fascinating: his presence for four decades at the throbbing center of the Los Angeles music scene.

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There he’s become something of a presiding spirit -- a ubiquitous, deadpan leprechaun who pops up at every notable event. Actor Sal Mineo long ago pronounced him the mayor of the Sunset Strip, and no one’s come along to challenge him yet.

Those who have seen the framed photos on the walls of his Hollywood apartment -- Rodney with Dylan, Rodney with Elvis, Rodney with Lennon -- inevitably think of Zelig, the Woody Allen character who drifted from one momentous historical scene to another.

There’s also something Warhol-like in the way Bingenheimer maintains his reserved, understated manner amid the social swirl. He’s a shy man who likes to keep his private life private and his feelings close to his vest.

Which makes the latest twist in his saga all the more remarkable: “Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” a documentary film opening this week, captures him with his guard painfully down.

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“Mayor” probes the sensitive tissue of family dysfunction, including his parents’ divorce and the story of how he came to stay in Hollywood -- his mother drove him from their home in Northern California, dropped him in front of actress Connie Stevens’ house so he could get an autograph, then drove away and didn’t see him again for years.

“Yeah,” Bingenheimer says of the movie’s sometimes uncomfortable intimacy and emotional candor. “I kind of think, ‘That’s not me, I’m the guy watching this guy.’ You have to put it in that way.... It’s a documentary, that’s what a documentary’s about, it’s about life.”

‘The human need’

Although most people might look at Rodney Bingenheimer and see a cuddly music mascot or a rock ‘n’ roll kewpie doll, George Hickenlooper saw both a kindred spirit and the stuff of symbol. That’s why he signed on to direct “Mayor of the Sunset Strip.” It wouldn’t be just a glorified VH1 biography. It would be something much bigger.

“Celebrity ultimately is an extension of the human need to be loved,” says Hickenlooper, whose previous films include 1991’s “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” a documentary on the making of “Apocalypse Now,” and the 2001 drama “The Man from Elysian Fields,” with Andy Garcia and Mick Jagger.

“I saw Rodney as a perfect Zelig-like metaphor for what’s happened to American culture and our obsession with celebrity,” adds Hickenlooper, who says that the pain of his parents’ breakup gave him a powerful bond with his subject.

“Our culture’s trying to sort of heal those fragments that have come along with the rising divorce rate and the breakdown of religion and all that, so I was interested in Rodney in an anthropological sense.”

Maybe so, but even though Hickenlooper cites Gershwin and Stravinsky as his favorite music and puts a USC professor expounding on celebrity in the film, “The Mayor of the Sunset Strip” still rocks, with its buoyant, thumping music and a cast of colorful interview subjects. Among them: Cher, Bowie, Joan Jett, Courtney Love and the cynical, flamboyant record producer Kim Fowley, Bingenheimer’s longtime friend, whom Hickenlooper describes as “Darth Vader to Rodney’s Luke Skywalker.”

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The nuts and bolts of Bingenheimer’s journey are here: He grew up an only child in Mountain View, near San Jose, and his parents, celebrity hounds themselves, it turns out, divorced when he was 3. He began visiting Hollywood in his teens before that fateful trip with his mom.

At some points in the movie, Bingenheimer appears to be fighting tears, and one scene captures an uncharacteristic outburst of anger. A plot involving his late mother’s ashes yields a moment of bittersweet triumph, while visits with his father and stepmother have a surreal edge reminiscent of “Crumb,” Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary on artist R. Crumb that was something of a blueprint for “Mayor.”

“You didn’t leave ‘Crumb’ talking about his pen-and-ink work of 1971, you left ‘Crumb’ talking about his brother and his mom,” says Bingenheimer’s friend Chris Carter, the host of the KLSX-FM radio program “Breakfast With the Beatles” and the driving force behind the documentary. “I said, ‘Oh, yeah, you want to see a cast of characters?’ We had equally interesting folks.

“Rodney is probably one of the toughest characters to get a handle on, but that’s what makes for a good subject.... He’s been a lone wolf for so many years, because, as Kim Fowley says, when you come to Hollywood on your own, you kind of sense trouble and you sense what to do. So he’s got very good street instincts.”

‘Into something good’

Whether by instinct or by luck, the newly arrived teenager quickly fell into the warm embrace of hippie-era Hollywood. Before you could say “I’m into something good,” he found himself being tended to by Sonny and Cher, hanging with Phil Spector and the Beach Boys and working as a stand-in for the Monkees’ Davy Jones on the group’s hit TV series.

He later had jobs doing publicity at record labels and writing magazine columns, all the while cultivating his contacts and hovering somewhere within the frame of what’s happening. Vintage television clips show him bobbing his head and clapping his hands behind everyone from the Mamas and the Papas to Jerry Lee Lewis. Later, he “performed” on TV alongside Rod Stewart as a substitute bassist for the Faces. Still later, he was a guitar-wielding member of Blondie on “Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve.”

His greatest notoriety probably came during the early-'70s glam-rock era when he opened a little nightclub on Sunset just east of the Strip. Rodney’s English Disco became the mecca for hedonistic young locals as well as such touring bands as Led Zeppelin, who enjoyed drinking the English beer and eyeing the L.A. girls.

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His life is less of a circus these days. He still loves to see bands, and on any given night there’s a good chance you’ll find him on a club or concert stage, introducing an act with his endearingly awkward enthusiasm. Just last month he pumped up the crowd at the Wiltern LG for an encore by David Bowie, who later greeted him warmly backstage and thanked him again for his early support.

But the parties, the entourages, the compelling need to be out there: That’s all diminished, he says. His focus is keeping up and finding music to play on the radio. He’s not happy about being shunted to the Sunday midnight slot (he started with a prime-time showcase both Saturdays and Sundays), but that’s still the place where he’s happiest.

“I shut the world behind me and go into the music, not be bothered, play the music. Interview people and stuff,” he says in a voice as distinctive as his meticulous, rock ‘n’ roll pixie appearance: soft, with a rising inflection that’s almost whiny and a cottony timbre lacking any overtones and resonance.

Sitting up military-school straight in his booth at Denny’s, he’s a man of few words, at least when the subject is himself, and with his breakfast plates empty he’s itching to head home to open the day’s shipment of CDs and make some calls (he lives an e-mail-free life and doesn’t even own a computer). Later, he’ll be stationed at the nearby International House of Pancakes at 5 p.m. and then Canter’s deli on Fairfax at 11 p.m.

“The thing about having these certain hours -- see, I don’t have an office or anything, and people can come and meet me, they can bring me demos and records and stuff, I’m there.”

Bingenheimer resisted doing the movie for a long time but finally gave in to Carter’s urging. Just to do something different, he says, and perhaps coax someone to offer a syndicated radio show or work as a music consultant.

“Mayor” spanned six years of shooting, but its central figure didn’t see a frame until the final cut was ready. He took Nancy Sinatra with him to the screening room for his first viewing, but he came out feeling all right about it.

“It was weird,” he says. “I really enjoyed seeing the early footage, especially as a kid, all blown up. And seeing Cher talking about me.”

What did he learn about himself from watching it?

“I am a nice guy. I don’t go around upsetting people or trying to trick people, anything like that. I’m just myself.”

Maybe that’s the key to his acceptance by the stars over the decades. In the film, Cher says, “He just seemed very genuine .... You didn’t have to wonder what he wanted or what was his ulterior motive. He was just a really sweet boy and just kind of there to absorb whatever he could absorb.”

Says Hickenlooper, “I think so many people gravitate to him because there’s something they see in Rodney that’s very universal -- his shared enthusiasm for this human need for all of us to find warmth and be loved and be celebrated.”

Whatever the reason, Bingenheimer’s knack for attraction goes back to the 1960s, rooted in his mayoral precinct, in a long-gone coffee shop.

“It just happened, on the Sunset Strip,” he recalls. “You’d see these people at Ben Franks -- the Byrds, Eric Burdon. But I could never walk up to strangers. It’s one thing I cannot do to this day, walk up to people I don’t know. There has to be an introduction or someone has to say something first.

“Luckily, now they come up to me.”


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