TVD Radar: The Prodigal Rogerson by J. Hunter Bennett

What a wonderful little book. J. Hunter Bennett—who when he isn’t doing the kind of thorough investigative work that makes The Prodigal Rogerson such an entertaining and enlightening read, plays bass for the D.C. band Dot Dash and practices law in our nation’s capitol—has done us all an inestimable service.

Because Rogerson is a larger-than-life figure. Bennett sums up Rogerson’s improbable existence as follows: “In 1983, Circle Jerks bassist Roger Rogerson stole the band’s van and dropped off the face of the earth. Thirteen years later he came back, demanded that his bandmates reunite so they could become “bigger than the Beatles,” and promptly dropped dead.” Bennett then lets us know, through the voices of Rogerson’s bandmates, friends, wives, step-children, and others, just what Rogerson—who was fond of going by aliases, because, or so he claimed, he was in hot water with the military for having committed a varying list of crimes before going AWOL—did during those lost years. Bennett also does an excellent job of filling us in on Rogerson’s years with the Circle Jerks, one of hardcore’s most fondly remembered bands.

In an oral history published by Portland, Oregon’s Microcosm Publishing, Bennett seeks out and interviews some 20-odd people who knew Rogerson during his life—which he spent, after disappearing with the Circle Jerks’ van, working as a security guard, driving a garbage truck, and other very odd jobs. He also married and served as a stepfather to several children, who remember him fondly, at least when he was sober. That said, he was one rather, er, unusual father figure. His stepson Wyatt Robards recalls, “I remember he told me about how to best prepare peyote to consume it,” before adding, “Why peyote would come up with an eight-year-old, I couldn’t tell you.”

Bandmates remember him as being as musical prodigy; he was fond of claiming he could play Beethoven’s Fifth on the guitar with his dick tied around the fret board, but opted to play bass because it was a “party instrument,” meaning he could play it with ease no matter how wasted he was, and he seems to have been wasted all the time. His substance abuse extended from marijuana to heroin (he overdosed once, but survived), and Circle Jerks’ drummer Lucky Lehrer recalls that in the squalid flophouse where Rogerson was living, the denizens would search the Dacron carpet for marijuana, and then add some carpeting into the mix. Adds Lehrer, “When you smoke Dacron it will also get you high but it’s probably super carcinogenic. They referred to that as ‘carpet sauce.’”

Addiction and bipolar disorder account for much of Rogerson’s erratic behavior, but they don’t explain his charisma. He had a lexicon all his own; “Horn in, chief out” was the phrase he was best known for, although it’s never stated whether anyone understood what those words meant. He was also surrounded by an aura of mystery; many of the book’s characters recall the colorful tales he would tell about his shady military past, and perhaps the most remarkable thing about them is they probably contained a kernel of truth.

The Circle Jerks enjoyed an odd type of success. They were making decent money and had access to all the booze and drugs they could want, although no bunch of addicts ever has all the drugs and booze they could want. And their label was putting them in houses. Unfortunately every one of these houses was in imminent danger of either falling off a hill or sliding into the Pacific Ocean. As for Rogerson, he was beginning to entertain delusions of fortune and fame, and his materialistic and very un-punk attitude was enough to cause Lehrer to quit the band. And Lehrer wasn’t alone in this respect. Circle Jerks’ vocalist Keith Morris put it like this: “He was displaying Keith Richards-like qualities. That wasn’t necessary. We [didn’t] need a rock star in the band.” An anarchy-loving punk rock band has got to have some principles, you know?

The Circle Jerks finally got rid of him after he suffered what he claimed was a heart attack, and their management hooked him up with soap opera actor Jimmy McNichol, the younger brother of Kristy McNichol. McNichol wanted to play punk rock, and Rogerson, entertaining fantasies of a big score, was more than happy to help him achieve his goal. But first Rogerson ripped off the Circle Jerks’ van, drove it to Reno, Nevada, and parked it at the home of his parents. And soon thereafter fell off the radar of anybody who had known him as a Circle Jerk.

His return, after more than a decade of living alternately the life of a wild man or sometimes-stable family man, was not uncalculated. He may have been insane, but he wasn’t nuts. He did not fail to notice that Green Day was all the rage and punk was back, and he figured there was no better time to cash in on the trend with his former bandmates. Unfortunately, they knew a crazy person when they saw one, and never seriously considered manning up with him again. They scheduled one rehearsal, at which Robertson was a no-show, and several days later he was dead, from a lethal combination of lithium and alcohol. He had indeed cashed it in, but not in the way he wanted.

At one level Roger Rogerson is just another case of an addict who died the death of an addict. In short, his was an unnecessary and sad fate. But at another level Rogerson’s life was one big goof, and his humor and insanity made an indelible impression on anyone who ever crossed his path. Bennett has done an impressive job of resurrecting a character who might have otherwise have been just another footnote in rock history.

I enjoyed Bennett’s slim work of reportage immensely. It has everything you could possibly want in a book, including a myth-making punk rocker with numerous aliases, collapsing beach houses, an eight-year-old with the knowledge to process peyote, and a gay dog. That eats rocks. I’d say more, but you’ll have to buy Bennett’s wonderful little book yourself. It’s a golden shower of hits!

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