I still have dreams about Rodney’s Disco 42 years later. If sounds were smells, I’d wake up with the scent of an E chord sitting beside me while I inhale faded magazines and memories washing by in an endless movie reel of lipstick mouths on t- shirts, marching snare drums, multi colored cocktail cigarettes and the Capitol Record building. And always Sunset, the boulevard of hopeful teen angels and broken souls, each waiting their turn in the earthbound purgatory of Hollywood.
I first went there with an effeminate guy named Danny – whose orange rooster hair and flamboyant clothing made him a thing of ridicule and conversation. We hitchhiked to Hollywood and got into a van with two other guys in the back. A joint was passed around. In the far corner of the van, a dude with long wavy hair and a bandana around his head sat on a mattress. He leered and curled his finger, beckoning to me. He wore a Pancho Villa t-shirt. I didn’t know what to do. It was a tense moment. Danny gripped my hand and whispered to me, “don’t go over there, if he wants to talk to you let him come up here.” Thankfully he didn’t and the ride in was fast. They had one Jethro Tull 8-track they played over and over and it was driving me crazy. They must have thought Danny was a girl. He was sporting green glitter eye shadow and matching nail polish, lipstick and a fresh flaming red dye job. If they found out he wasn’t female, we’d have signed our death sentences right then and there. The driver and his friends were ripped to the tits and just kept right on drinking. Danny and I became fast friends.
We tumbled out of the van on Sunset in front of Denny’s and walked a block, fluffing our hair and straightening our clothes. There it was, a tiny brick hole in the wall. The sign was yellow wood proclaiming Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco in red letters, surrounded by bright bulbs that looked more at home around a stripper’s mirror than a club marquee. The way Danny went on and on about the place, I expected it to have a neon sign at least. In fact, it looked more like a diorama of a club than an actual disco. The minute I entered and heard this strange music I had never experienced before, saw the fabulous creatures gliding about, my life was forever changed. At first it was too much for me to take it all in. A poster blaring “The Ballroom Blitz” of a gang of guys, one in a gangster suit with bold pinstripes holding court with mannequins jumped out at me.
A long wood bar ran the length of the club. The bartender wore a denim newsboy cap raked over his eye and smoked skinny brown cigarettes, loudly sucking the tobacco out of his teeth. An animal shaped tooth dangled from his ear. I was so excited, I wanted a beer but he turned me down flat. There were about ten people in the club but the few there were having a great time. If someone didn’t have a partner, they danced alone staring into the dance floor mirrors. A girl in denim shorts encrusted with rhinestones, fishnets and silver platform wedgies shimmied her scarf around her neck as she bopped around, her white Jean Harlow ringlets bouncing. Her eyes were mascara’d and smudged baby blue on her lids. She moved with her hands on her hips and wiggled her shoulders back and forth without moving her feet much. I figured that was probably a smart routine considering the height of her shoes. I was baffled by how anyone could walk and dance so well in shoes that high. The song ended and she wandered up to the DJ booth through a small room that was elevated up from the rest of the room. She sat next to a guy who browsed through records. ‘That must be Rodney,’ I thought. It was as if everyone there was on a different planet and nothing existed outside of it.
I never heard anything Rodney played before, except for the few oldies he tossed in. I was used to heavy rock my cousins listened to. Long drawn out songs with flashy guitar solos by hairy dudes in denim that you couldn’t dance to – everyone sitting around smoking weed looking stupid. Rodney played short three-minute songs with honking saxophones and choruses that sounded like cosmic soccer cheers. I was thrilled. Little goose bumps swept up my skin. My toes were tapping and my hands fidgeted. I wanted to dance my ass off. Each song was better than the next. The walls were covered with posters of bands I’d never heard of, guys wearing satiny clothes, make up, and outrageously decorated boots and platforms. Everything had a layer of shimmer and shine. Some of the dudes were more made up than any woman I’d ever seen. Suzi Quatro’s album cover got my attention. It was a simple black and white photo, nothing glamorous about it. Suzi stood dead center, in jeans and a black leather motorcycle jacket. Three guys stood around her, all in jeans, wearing black wife-beater tank tops. One big guy to her right swilled a beer; his head tilted back sucking down the bottle of suds. His sideburns were the size of pork chops. Her expression looked like: “You mess with me, you mess with my boyfriends.” Little did I know I was listening to much of her album and also The New York Dolls that night. I stood there, all of 12 years old, in my cords and suede wallabee boots and vowed to come back as soon as I could. This was Nirvana and I wasn’t gonna miss out on it.
I drove my family nuts, begging and cajoling rides from anyone who was either kind or aggravated enough to take me back to Los Angeles just to shut me up. I searched high and low for anything resembling glam in my boring suburban town. I stole “Rock Scene”, “Star”, and “Creem” magazines from the liquor stores and bookracks. I poured over every page. All of this fabulousness was going on and was determined to be there. I badgered my mom to buy me the New York Dolls first album from a cheesy drugstore chain. One look at the cover and I knew I must be on the right track. I scanned the songs and the word “Trash” stuck out. That was the word I kept hearing repeated from a song I heard at Rodney’s. I sang, “and please doncha ask me if I love yoouu” – it being the only lyrics I could understand within the murky mix. I insisted on having the album with a conviction that startled my mom. I was pushing it but couldn’t control myself as it was the only copy in the store. The album put a tenacious warp on me.
The next week I took the bus to a headshop that also stocked records. As I flipped through the albums I saw Bowie’s “Pin Ups” and almost shat myself right there on the spot. The Asian woman behind the counter looked like the newscaster Trisha Toyota in a crushed velvet blazer and high-waisted baggies. She looked stoned out of her mind. I was transfixed by the album cover. Bowie’s hair stuck straight up like a porcupine, fluffy and deep red. Skin pale as alabaster. A woman leaned her head against his shoulder. It was the ‘60s It Girl, Twiggy. Also the name of my childhood dog. What could be more of a fortuitous omen? Their faces made up in perfect masks, expressions frozen and serene. I didn’t have enough money to buy the album but I convinced the woman to let me put it on lay away. Instead I snagged a poster featured on the back cover of the LP: Bowie lunging toward the mic, a fireball blur of hair and patent leather. I hung the poster as soon as I got home and stared at it often, trying to decode the secret message it seemed to have on my senses.
I cut my hair, I changed my clothes and my fantasies were now consumed by rock and roll. Mott the Hoople became a serious consideration. The Sweet stomped out heavy metal bubblegum epics. Even Elton John’s “Benny and The Jets” and the mock ‘50s “Crocodile Rock”, fell under the twinkle of glam. The hard-fisted shouting of Slade, and Silverhead’s raw throated screams filled my head.
Boys who looked like girls and girls who looked like boys crawled out of their windows at night and strutted the streets like hormonal roosters looking for a place to nest after Rodney’s closed. This place had such a massive effect on my consciousness that for years I have the same dream over and over: Rodney’s club is no longer a club, but perfectly recreated as a museum. I see it as I drive by, jam my car into park and run into the club. It’s open but nobody is there. I wander around looking at every poster, every piece of tinsel, inspect all the nooks and crannies. Suddenly the intro to Suzi Quatro’s “Devil Gate Drive” roars from the speakers and I see Rodney in the DJ booth smiling, his hair curling towards his cheeks like an elfin cherub. He’s turning knobs and strikes his hand in the air with a thumbs up. I dance around in my memories, the mirrors reflecting my adolescent longings back to me. There’s nobody there but me. No one comes, no one is excited about the music, nobody dresses up and no one cares. It’s a different world now. I walk outside and the harsh Los Angeles daylight glares at the people walking around dressed as if they’re ready to go camping. I want to crawl back into the safety of the cool dark mirror ball of Rodney’s. I turn back around and it’s gone, fading from my sight like a shimmering mirage. The wind blows a dust cloud of glitter and candy wrappers around. I wake up and feel a terrible sadness. It was really that good.
Rodney’s English Disco, the infamous glam club may have closed in 1975, but it has been recreated inside ltd los angeles, an art gallery that now occupies the space that was once the nightclub. The exhibition is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. 7561 Sunset Boulevard LA CA 90046 (323) 378- 6842 FREE
Written by Kari Chrome