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Touched by Celebrities: Rodney Bingenheimer dwelt in the antechamber of the musical pantheon.

Rock & Roll Royalty

From Mountain View to L.A., Rodney Bingenheimer crowned himself the 'Mayor of the Sunset Strip'

By Richard von Busack

LET'S TRY to sort out the opening images of George Hickenlooper's documentary Mayor of the Sunset Strip. Rodney Bingenheimer, billed as "The King of Los Angeles Radio," emerges from the shadows. Here is one classic face for radio--undersized, slightly wizened and crowned with a shapeless shag, a 1975 haircut he stayed with and liked.

Behind him is the band X, older but wider, preparing to break into the L.A. national anthem, "Los Angeles," at a reunion concert. Here's John Doe, soon to be a Niagara of his own sweat. Next to him is his ex, Exene, her snaky hair pinned down with a madwoman's costume-jewelry tiara. Billy Zoom, sleek and plump-faced, is blandly smiling, a demonstration of the preservative power of Orange County sunshine and Christianity. It worked for Pat Boone, and it's working for him. As they get ready to shred, Bingenheimer introduces X to the crowd of the year 2003 or something as "the band who invented you."

Flattering, no? As if we were all but formless spirits of punk rock that X conjured up out of the ether. Rodney always knew the right words to describe you, the listener, as if you were but an orbiting satellite in the vast solar system of celebrity.

Oh, yes, I remember listening to him, yakking on the telephone with his hundreds of close personal friends on the Rodney on the Roq show on KROQ. "Oh, I saw Cherry Vanilla at the Sugar Shack." "Yeah?" Rodney would answer, the glow of reflected starletdom warming his voice. "And Sinnamon and Destiny and Chauncey were there also," continued the caller, dropping names to beat the band. "Play a record, damn you," we snarled, all us born-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-velvet-ropers, as we valet-parked cars, flipped burgers or filed files.

Happily, Bingenheimer still does the show midnight to 3am on Sundays, which--in the cutthroat world of L.A. radio--is like winning the Nobel Prize for Longevity. Deborah Harry of Blondie is today a wistful character actress. The Angry Samoans, who composed a musical letter to Rodney titled "Get Off the Air" ("Get off the air, you fucking square"), have long since been broomed out of the punk-rock spotlight by the Sweep-Clown of Oblivion. And Bingenheimer still paces the boulevard, dines at Denny's and hangs out with Kim Fowley.

In his more expansive days, Bingenheimer was a DJ on the radio station that was, 1975-85, the most eclectic in Los Angeles. On the strength of KROQ and that Sunset Boulevard hole in the wall known as "Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco," Bingenheimer was in the right place at the right time. Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant said Rodney got more girls than he did. And Bingenheimer's knowledge of English bands was more thorough than David Bowie's--or so Bowie claims here.

That Bingenheimer is alive and has not succumbed to some baroque L.A. death is a triumph. That he survived the bullies of Mountain View is perhaps a bigger one. Suzanne Jenkins, his neighbor from the old days, says Rodney was "the kid everyone beat up on the way to high school." He was small, timid, a duck-carrying member of the 4-H Club. Let's face it, he had a funny name. Single-parented by his mom, a cocktail waitress at the Los Altos Hills Country Club, Bingenheimer spent his youth picking up the faint signal from 93 KHJ Boss Radio from L.A. We see photos of his home, with his mother's pinned-up TV Guides and collections of autographs.

In his teenage years, he was abandoned on Connie Stevens' doorstep (no, it's not a joke). Bingenheimer moved from street kid to a finalist for Davy Jones' part on The Monkees TV show. Eventually, he was Jones' double on the set. From there began his career as a go-between: as he says, "the bridge between the famous and the not so famous."

Bingenheimer was an early devotee of the church of St. Warhol, accepting the doctrine of salvation through contact with celebrities. He actually knew the artist, showing us a Christmas card he got from Warhol, in which the artist is wearing wings: "Andy is an angel, and he's with my mom right now."

Mayor of the Sunset Strip looks like a tragic picture; certainly it's darkened by the death of the subject's mother. Bingenheimer seems to have Jay Gatsby's problem: a loneliness only truly quenched by parties. The movie is at its most scarifying when it pins down the subject's love life, an exercise that is like nailing the proverbial glob of quicksilver. The pop world's Zelig is serenaded on the soundtrack with a well-chosen Sonny Bono song, "Laugh at Me" ('Cause I'm Praying for You").

Bingenheimer was particularly good friends of Sonny and Cher. In an interview, Cher notes, "Rodney just seemed very gentle. You didn't have to wonder what his ulterior motives were." L.A. is so full of ulterior motives that the exterior motive is almost extinct. That lack of ulterior motives may be Bingenheimer's claim to fame, and so the life of a second-generation dweller in the antechamber of celebrity is movingly captured.

Mayor of the Sunset Strip (R; 94 min.), a documentary by George Kickenlooper, opens Friday at Camera One in San Jose.

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From the April 7-14, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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