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Rodney Bingenheimer, The Runaways, And The Cult Of Personality

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As a rock and roll kid growing up in the seventies, I was never a big fan of the Runaways. But I was still keenly enough aware of them — thanks to the constant hype they got through rock magazines like Creem, Circus and Rock Scene. I religiously devoured all of these rags from cover-to-cover each month as a sixteen year old rock fan.

Why exactly the Runaways slipped past my radar growing up as a teenage glam-rocker I couldn’t really tell you. I was certainly into all the other seventies glam bands from Alice and Bowie to T.Rex and Mott The Hoople. But despite my own wildly raging hormones, the whole teenage jail-bait schtick of the all-girl Runaways just never did it for me.

Even so, I recognize and respect their influence enough today — paving the way for all-girl bands like the Go-Gos, the Bangles and The Donnas as they did — that I was probably as excited as anyone else to see their story get the Hollywood treatment with this year’s rock-biopic The Runaways.

For those who missed The Runaways in theaters, I can’t recommend at least renting the DVD highly enough. But I am also going to make an additional recommendation.

If you can find it, and if you have an entire night to devote to it, watch The Runaways back-to-back with the DVD Mayor Of The Sunset Strip as I did this week. For a complete picture of the seventies glam-rock scene that spawned the Runaways (among others), as well as how it was seen through the first-hand eyes of one of its primary scene-makers, Rodney Bingenheimer, you simply won’t find a better twofer.

Bingenheimer’s character appears only briefly in The Runaways film, in a pivotal scene that takes place outside Bingenheimer’s English Disco club in L.A., as Joan Jett has her fateful encounter with future Runaways promoter Kim Fowley.

Surprisingly, given the enormous influence that both Bingenheimer and his English Disco club wielded in the seventies L.A. glam-rock scene back then, his character doesn’t even get any lines. Bingenheimer was absolutely a major player in the development of seventies glam-rock, but you wouldn’t know it watching The Runaways.

This, along with the fact that The Runaways focuses on Joan Jett and Cherie Currie to the near total exclusion of the other members, are probably the two most glaring omissions of this otherwise historically very accurate film. Even as the credits make mention of Jett’s subsequent success as a punk-rocker, guitarist Lita Ford’s own post-Runaways career as a heavy metal babe is simply ignored altogether. Go, figure.

Otherwise, the film mostly tells its story well, and the performances are all pretty great.

Kristen Stewart in particular nails Joan Jett — the tough-as-nails teen-queen whose heart bleeds rock and roll. Michael Shannon is also deliciously disgusting as the vampiric, bloodsucking scumbag Kim Fowley, and delivers what is arguably the best line of the entire film in “Jail Fucking Bait, Jack Fucking Pot.” It’s a little weird seeing former child-actor Dakota Fanning all slutted-up in garters and lace as sexpot singer Cherie Currie. But to her credit she pulls the role off quite convincingly.

However, where The Runaways succeeds in telling the story of how these five impressionable, and quite underage teenage girls were seduced by rock and roll — and subsequently criminally exploited by two-bit music biz hustlers like Fowley — there’s also one big chunk of this story that’s missing.

For one thing, what the hell were a couple of minors like Jett and Currie doing hanging out in a glam-rock sleaze-pit like Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco in the first place? Mayor Of The Sunset Strip not only fills in those holes, but in doing so, also tells the unexpectedly tragic story of Bingenheimer himself.

Reading about the decadence and debauchery that went on at Bingenheimer’s club as a teenager, I would have never pegged him as a sympathetic character at all.

In fact, based on the stories and pictures in rock-rags like Creem back then, I’d have probably put him in the same morally bankrupt category as a sleazeball like Fowley. What I found instead in Rodney was what not only seems to be a very likable, if clearly lonely guy, but a story which strangely moved and lingered with me quite deeply for several days afterward.

While its true that Bingenheimer was probably no angel back then — and the scenes of the seventies-era Bingenheimer groping topless teens at his club in Mayor Of The Sunset Strip certainly bears witness to this — a picture begins to emerge which contrasts sharply with a lot of the wilder stories.

Scenes from the glory days of the English Disco may show young, half-naked girls alongside glam-rock stars like Iggy Pop and David Johansen of the New York Dolls. Still, you can’t help but think that some of the stories might have been rather exaggerated when it comes to Rodney himself.

Even as Fowley brags of Bingenheimer’s sexual prowess — claiming he got more girls than even a seventies rock-god like Robert Plant — it’s a picture that just doesn’t quite add up. Sitting alongside Fowley, Bingenheimer cuts a diminutive, almost painfully shy figure that comes across as the polar opposite of Fowley’s slimeball huckster.

The fact is, you get the distinct impression of Rodney as a guy who couldn’t get laid in a brothel flashing a fistful of hundreds. These couldn’t be two more different people.

In reality, the Rodney Bingenheimer seen in Mayor Of The Sunset Strip comes across as something more like a man out of time. He clearly still loves rock and roll passionately. But more than that, he seems to have become trapped by the same cult of personality that so many of those in Hollywood who’ve dedicated their lives to celebrity have before him. At times, Bingenheimer seems more like a ghost.

With his once trailblazing KROQ radio show Rodney On The ROQ now relegated to the graveyard shift on Sunday nights, Rodney still fights the good fight. But the position appears to be a largely ceremonial one. In one scene, a fellow KROQ DJ sums it up by saying that KROQ’s target 18 to 24 year old audience isn’t interested in hearing Sonny & Cher or The Beach Boys.

More often, Rodney is seen in private moments haunting a window booth at L.A.’s infamous “Rock And Roll Denny’s” or at Canter’s Deli (who have even dedicated a seat to him). He is also seen at his small apartment, tripping over the sea of rock memorabilia that make up this shrine to an era which all too sadly seems to have left him behind.

Still wearing his trademark spiked pageboy bowl-cut, Rodney seems more than anything like a figure tragically trapped by own his rock and roll past. His closest friends include a burned out space-cadet (complete with spacesuit), would-be rock star who sings songs about Jennifer Love Hewitt to the tune of old Moody Blues’ hits (which Rodney dutifully plays on his radio show).

There’s also a semi-girlfriend named Camille who clearly doesn’t return Rodney’s romantic intentions (as seen in one of this film’s sadder scenes), but rather seems to be using him to satisfy her own hunger to get close to celebrities. Although Rodney is still acknowledged by some of the superstars whose careers he once helped shape like David Bowie, here again the debt appears to be one more of gratitude than anything more genuine.

In one of the more telling scenes from The Mayor Of The Sunset Strip, Rodney Bingenheimer is shown in a heated backstage exchange with Chris Carter, a former member of Dramarama (who got their first break from Bingenheimer) over the latter starting his own competing radio show. Carter is also one of the producers of this film.

Even more heartbreaking is a scene of Rodney scattering the ashes of his deceased mother in England, as the song “Good Souls” by StarSailor (another of the many bands Bingenheimer helped break in America) plays poignantly in the background.

Like The Runaways before him, Rodney Bingenheimer’s story as told in Mayor Of The Sunset Strip is proof that the rock and roll business often eats its own, particularly in Hollywood. Taken together, The Runaways and The Mayor Of The Sunset Strip offer two opposing, yet strangely complimentary sides of the same story. In Hollywood, and in rock and roll, there are victims and there are also those who survive.

Watch them together in one sitting if you can. You won’t be disappointed.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://www.soundclick.com/bands/default.cfm?bandID=463156 JC Mosquito

    “As a rock and roll kid growing up in the seventies, I was never a big fan of the Runaways.”

    That whole first chunk of your article describes me in detail too, Glen. However, I have an answer as to why neither of us (or many others like us) didn’t get into the Runaways back in the day: simply put – they weren’t that good.

    There’s a can o’ worms y’all can have to start your day.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    True, The Runaways may not have been musical virtuosos, but hell neither were most of the other glam bands of the day (Slade, Sweet, etc).

    The thing is, that for all the jailbait sex appeal they were pushing, I just didn’t find any of them (outside of maybe Currie, and to a lesser extent Jett) to be all that sexy.

    Now, Suzi Quatro…that was hot.

    -Glen

  • Marina

    I recently saw the Rodney Bingenheimer DVD for the first time and ended up watching it again the next night. Such fascinating and compelling viewing! One of the things which really stood out for me is Rodney’s loyalty to his friends and to rock and roll… he values and displays characteristics I don’t think one really finds too often in L.A. Even his family, and his “friend” Camille come across as indifferent at best. As for Kim Fowler… yuck! And I’m sure Fowler would love that assessment! He lacks the sensitivity and integrity Rodney so obviously possesses, despite some of the perhaps less than noble shenanigans in his younger years. After all, Rodney played a powerful part in a scene a lot of people would have killed to be in, and he enjoyed the plunder as any man would. But he has paid a price too… His story is eye-opening, entertaining, and ultimately utterly heartbreaking.

  • Christine Hendrix

    Hi Marina.
    You couldnt have worded it better.
    After watching a show on Foxtel here in Perth Western Australia,my heart went out to Rodney Bingenheimer big time!!
    He seemed very genuine and a true friend.
    Even though he is 63 he looks and acts like a “little boy” and I just want to cuddle him.
    If you ever read this Rodney, I think youre a real star !!!
    Christine Hendrix
    Yes THAT IS MY NAME

  • Jill C

    Have seen both movies and recently watched them again and LOVED them both- That Rodney is seriously just the sweetest, genuine lil fella and if I ever run into him Im going to give him the biggest thanks for all the music that so many of us grew up with, have known and loved for so long.

  • Atticus Finch

    Funny you should mention watching the Runaways along with Mayor of the Sunset Strip. I did just that and even watched Edgeway, the documentary about the Runaways. Agreed, Kim really blew that whole thing. They were good and he should have done less to fuck them up as he did.

  • David N

    Great movie.
    I have one comment on the article. The song playing as Rodney pours his Mother’s ashes and his heart into the London bay is “Yellow” by Coldplay. Just a comment…not taking anything from you.

  • Vivian

    Why can’t we start a movement that gets Rodney to another radio station? If he was influential in breaking a band as recent as Coldplay, he must still possess the knack for spotting great talent..
    Wonderful and heartbreaking film.. his family seemed shamefully apathetic but that’s just my take.
    And I also agree with your assessment that watching The Runaways and The Mayor of Sunset Strip together, does fill in a lot of blanks for tha latter. What I don’t understand is how KROQ can relegate him to the midnite to 3am show after all he’s done for them?? Recognizing and breaking (or having a hand in breaking) band after band at their station?? Hollywood really does eat it’s own..