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In the Seventies Bebe Buell and Pamela Des Barres were backstage royalty—passionate about music, and of course, the men of rock
Rock ’n’ roll is more than music.
It’s raw emotion. It’s idol worship. And, duh, it’s also about sex. What else could all those fans be screaming about? A rock star’s magnetism makes the fan dream of groupie-dom, and leads a groupie hope for life as a rock ’n’ roll princess — Bianca to some modern day Mick, Nancy to his Sid, Courtney to his Kurt.
But back in the Seventies, there were two women who dominated the backstage scene. On the East Coast, the New York rock world was ruled by queen bee Bebe Buell, the one-time Playboy Playmate and model who dated Todd Rundgren, Jimmy Page and Elvis Costello, and gave birth to Liv Tyler, daughter of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler. On the West Coast, Pamela Des Barres was every rocker’s dream, a freewheeling L.A. beauty linked to Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger and Keith Moon.
Both women were in bands of their own — Bebe in the B-Sides and Pamela in Frank Zappa’s girl group the GTO’s — but rock at the time was a macho affair. “When I was knocking on all those doors backstage up and down the Sunset Strip, women didn’t have much of a role to play besides muse or confidant, or rock courtesan, if you want,” said Des Barres, who is at work on a fourth book about her life as a girl-with-the-band. “The word groupie didn’t exist. Now groupie has a negative connotation.”
How did groupie turn into a dirty word? “Jealousy,” said Des Barres. Well, a look at Buell’s or Des Barres’ life can give any rock lover plenty to be jealous about.
“The best shows were the ones where I was seeing it from the guys’ point of view,” said Des Barres, who joined the Stones, The Who and Led Zeppelin on-stage. “One time, when I used to get stoned, I was backstage rolling on the floor with Jim Morrison kissing, and we heard the first bars of ‘Light My Fire.’ That’s how the band used to find him. They’d just start the song. We came out of our tangle and I just followed him right out on to the stage.”
But while Des Barres’ Seventies-era rock reverie offers romantic nostalgia, Buell says that even back then she found the idea of groupie-dom offensive. “There was a difference between the rock ’n’ roll royalty, the woman who was married to or dating a rock star,” she said, “and the girl that hung out and just wanted sex.”
The most obvious difference being, of course, that the rock princess was the one all the boys wanted to meet. “A lot of guys picked up an instrument because they couldn’t get girls to pay attention to them in high school,” said Buell, whose autobiography is called “Rebel Heart.” They turned to the guitar as a sure-fire aphrodisiac. And most of the time, it did the trick.”
Most of the time. “I know people may find this hard to believe,” Buell added, “but there were lots of times when I would be just too tired to go out. I’d have Mick Jagger calling me on the phone saying, ‘Oh, Bebe, please come out,’ and I would be like, ‘Oh, please, I’ve gotta go to sleep.’”