With his diffident manner and languorous speech, disc jockey Rodney Bingenheimer hardly fits the stereotype of the self-assured and smooth-talking rock 'n' roll radio personality.
For 20 years he's hosted "Rodney on the Roq," a Sunday night free-form alternative rock program on KROQ-FM (106.7), yet that hasn't given Bingenheimer the confidence to overcome his self-acknowledged timidity.
"When I do my show, I still picture in my head that I'm doing it for that one special person," he explains while finishing up a midday breakfast at one of his favorite eateries, a Denny's in West Hollywood. "That kind of keeps the butterflies out of my stomach. I'm really shy."
Part of Bingenheimer's appeal lies in his genuinely innocent take on the sometimes cynical rock 'n' roll world. Though approaching 50, Bingenheimer continues to bring a boyish, wide-eyed affection to music that's primarily directed toward teens and young adults. Tune into his 10 p.m.-to-midnight show and you'll hear a host of up-and-coming or on-the-fringe rock acts such as England's Supergrass and Los Angeles' Wondermints.
Bingenheimer may lack flash, but at times he has demonstrated a keen ability to unearth exciting new bands and trends. When he joined KROQ in 1976, he was perhaps the first local disc jockey to air the initial salvos of punk rock. During an era when most radio hosts still thought Led Zeppelin was the embodiment of cool, Bingenheimer was quick to embrace the rebellious discord of the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and the Damned.
One of his most memorable moments in radio occurred in 1977 when the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious called his show from London and proceeded to litter the airwaves with obscenities and general ill will.
"People were shocked [by the punk music I played]," Bingenheimer remembers. "I'd be playing the Damned and people would be calling saying, 'What is this? I can't keep up with it.' "
When Los Angeles became the hub of American punk rock a few years later, Bingenheimer was again on the cutting edge, spinning records by such seminal L.A. hard-core bands as Black Flag and the Circle Jerks. He also helped expose the city's paisley underground movement of the early to mid-'80s by championing the Bangles, the Three O'Clock and other neo-psychedelic outfits.
"Rodney on the Roq" also serves as a conduit for some of the music that defined Bingenheimer's youth. New bands are occasionally juxtaposed with his old favorites, which can range from '60s British heroes the Small Faces and Syd Barrett to surf icons Annette Funicello and the Beach Boys. Each Christmas season he devotes a show to pioneering rock producer Phil Spector.
The most commercially successful band indebted to Bingenheimer actually has zero alternative rock credentials. Twenty years ago, the disc jockey played a significant role in helping to launch the career of heavy-metal bad boys Van Halen.
"At the time, they were a local band from Pasadena," he recalls. "They weren't signed, and they were always hanging around the [radio station] lobby. So I invited them in the studio, and I got them booked at the Starwood. Then I invited Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons [from the band KISS] to see them. [They in turn] flew them to New York to cut some demos. I used to play Van Halen's demos on the air."
Despite his reserved nature, Bingenheimer first made a name for himself in L.A.'s rock community by becoming one of its ultimate scenesters. About 30 years ago, the star-struck teenager fled a broken home in Mountain View, Calif., in search of the bright lights and big stars of Hollywood.
Eventually, he found himself hobnobbing with the likes of John and Yoko and throwing star-studded parties for David Bowie and the Kinks in the early '70s. He knew everybody who was anybody in rock's glittery inner circle. This slightly built, unassuming-looking man was so well connected that journalist Elliot Mintz and actor Sal Mineo dubbed him the mayor of Sunset Strip.
Today Bingenheimer can scarcely believe how much his West Hollywood stamping grounds have changed since the halcyon days of his youth.
In the '60s, "you would walk up and down Sunset Boulevard and it was like the Vegas Strip," recalls Bingenheimer, who says he manages to live comfortably off his salary from his once-a-week show.
"It was wall-to-wall kids. Girls in bell-bottoms and tube tops. It was very colorful and exciting. It was so safe then that 14-year-old girls could hitchhike up and down the Sunset Strip. It would be their only means of transportation. . . . [Now the Sunset Strip] is not only dead, but people often die [on the street]."
Bingenheimer hopes that his show helps foster a sense of community that he feels is generally missing in today's more fragmented Los Angeles rock scene.