Mayor of the Sunset Strip and me

As an L.A. club kid, I hung out with Rodney Bingenheimer. Turns out, I'm even there in the documentary about him

By Donna Sandstrom
Published January 26, 2010 9:27PM (EST)

Caution: This story includes a link to the song "Beach Baby." If you listen to it, you will not be able to get it out of your head.

Recently I watched a movie called "The Mayor of the Sunset Strip," which tells the story of Rodney Bingenheimer, a seminal figure in the L.A. rock scene. Rodney has been a disc jockey on KROQ since 1976. He was the first person to play bands like the Sex Pistols and Blondie, the Blasters, the Go-Gos and X.

But before he was a disc jockey, he had a club called Rodney's, on Sunset. It was the first disco in L.A., when disco meant they played records instead of live music, and had nothing to do with the Bee Gees. And because of that club I watched the movie with more than a passing interest.

It was the summer of 1974, and I was 17. All of us had jobs, some of us had cars, and for a while we went to Rodney's as often as we could. We'd get all dolled up in our South Bay best and head north on the 405, then take Sunset east to faraway Hollywood.

We went mostly because we loved the music they played: T-Rex, Mott the Hoople, David Bowie. Too young for the Whiskey or the Troubadour, it was also one of the few places we could get into. It was a little like going to another planet, with the boys in their silver jumpsuits and sky-high boots, and the life-size cutout of Suzi Quatro near the front door.

The movie opens with a concert scene – Rodney is getting ready to introduce the band X. There are a series of interviews with an odd assortment of musicians and celebrities ranging from Nancy Sinatra and Brooke Shields to Ray Manzerek and Gwen Stefani. The story then shifts to his childhood, which set the psychological stage for an early fascination with celebrity.

Like a moth to the inevitable flame, Rodney moved to L.A. in his early teens. He became a stand-in for Davy Jones on the Monkees, lived on the streets, and was semi-adopted by Sonny and Cher. Really, and that's not the half of it.

They always played a beach-themed song when we walked in the club -- it was the summer of "Beach Baby" by First Class, and that got played a lot.

The club wasn't very big. There were tables in the front, and a VIP booth off to the side. The dance floor was in the back. It was fairly small, always packed, and lined with mirrored walls – the first we'd ever seen.

They took pictures of everyone dancing, and then made the pictures into slide shows they'd play in the following weeks (multimedia!). So while you were dancing you might see a picture of you or your friends from a previous night, larger than life, famous.

From the movie, I learned that Rodney moved to England in the early 70s and got immersed in the burgeoning glitter rock scene there. It was David Bowie who suggested he come back to L.A. and open a club like the ones that were sweeping England.

And so he did. Rodney's English Disco quickly became the epicenter of the scene in LA, famous for attracting rock stars (nascent and established), and infamous for attracting underage girls from all around the city. Hmm.

My jaw dropped a little as I watched the long parade of musicians and bands who visited or hung out there: Marc Bolan, Led Zeppelin, Iggy Pop, Elton John, Elvis Presley! We had no idea.

And I watched in fascinated horror as one person after the other talks about the debaucheries that went on at the club, with plenty of slides to prove it.

The focus shifts to Kim Fowley, one of Rodney's closest friends, and best known as the producer of the prototype girl band, the Runaways. Cherie Currie, the lead vocalist from the group, calls him a beast, and says that no one under 18 should be allowed near him. While she is talking, the movie cuts to a picture of Kim at the club. And there, standing next to him, is me.

Wait. Did I really see that? I stopped the movie and went back. Why yes, yes I did. There I am, sun-burned and laughing, in a brown halter dress that I suddenly remembered wearing. When I get over the shock, I'm annoyed at the implication that I was impressed by Kim Fowley, which was never true.

One slow night at the club, Rodney introduced us to his friend Kim, who immediately took a shine to my friend Carol. They started dancing together, flirting outrageously. He gave me the creeps, but she didn't seem to mind.

That same night, Rodney took an interest in me. We danced for awhile, and then he invited me up to the VIP booth. It was somebody's birthday, and I helped him cut the cake. He asked how old I was. Eighteen, I lied. He asked to see my ID. A short time later, I was ushered back down to the floor.

When we were ready to go it was hard to get Kim away from Carol. He followed us out onto the sidewalk. She gave him a fake phone number and we left.

I put the DVD on pause and took a good look at the girl on the screen. Who was she, staring back at me across three and a half decades? She had long blonde hair, no makeup on, and was probably wearing flip-flops – no wonder we stood out in that crowd. She was prettier than I ever felt. And I suddenly saw how young she was, waaaay too young to be in a place like that.

Like a sleeping tigress, the mother in me woke up. Where were my parents, and how was it that we were allowed to go there? The place was notorious, even then.

For the first time, I became aware of how alone I always was, and utterly on my own—navigating the empty space without a compass where someone should have been. Not so unlike a lot of other people in that movie.

I wanted to reach across time and tell that girl that it's all going to be okay; show her my house, and my garden, and the people we love. I wanted to tell her not to be afraid—her instincts are good. The worst things that happened, happened early, and they're over. She will always find the help she needs. And though she can't see it yet, her guardian angel is as tall as the moon.

A few weeks later my wallet was stolen from my purse while I was dancing. Someone called from a grocery on Sunset to say they had found it. We drove out in the middle of the day to pick it up. There was a slight orange tint to the air, and in the harsh light the whole area looked seedy and depressed. I got my wallet back, minus the money that had been in it, but we never went back to Rodney's.

The club closed in 1975, just before disco started to take on a whole new meaning. Rodney started his radio show a short time later. Like everyone else, I listened to it religiously. He's still on the air today, on Sundays from midnight to three. And I still love T-Rex.


Donna Sandstrom

Donna Sandstrom is an Open Salon blogger. She lives in Seattle, Washington.

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