Pamela Des Barres is still on a mission to reclaim the word “groupie.”
After decades on the music scene, making friends and lovers out of a string of rock icons, from Jimmy Page to Frank Zappa to Mick Jagger, whom she was at the infamous Altamont concert with, the 69-year-old has no qualms with the word and still considers herself a groupie. But only when the definition is correct, which is when it’s based around the almost quaint notion of love.
“It’s tragic that people still see the word as synonymous with ‘slut’ or loose morals, or whatever,” Des Barres said from her relatively new home in Reseda, Calif., where she was born and raised but only returned to last year.
In all of her projects, be it her apparel and accessories brand GroupieU, the “rock tours” she personally runs, her many books and writing workshops or her new column on Pleasekillme.com, named for the oral history of punk written by scene fixtures and journalists Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, Des Barres works to show groupiedom for what it is: “An exchange with an artist that has opened your heart in some way, made you happy to be alive.”
And that doesn’t always include sex. Des Barres recently drove 12 hours round trip to see her friend Todd Snider perform in Santa Cruz, Calif., at a show that had her “completely blissed out.” Any show for her is “magic time,” as it’s been since she was a teenager forcing her way to the front of a Bob Dylan performance. But for all of her writing and fond memories, Des Barres is adamant that she is not living in or pining for the past. “I don’t stop,” Des Barres said. She doesn’t think any other woman should either.
Speaking to the current #MeToo era, Des Barres said “Thank God it’s happening,” but noted even though she came up in an era when blatant sexism was accepted and expected, even in the counterculture movement of the Sixties, she never felt held down.
WWD caught up with Des Barres, busier than ever — despite being one of the best-known groupies of rock’s heyday and at least partial inspiration for Penny Lane in “Almost Famous,” thanks to her newfound 30,000 or so followers on social media — to talk a little about the past, but also the present.
WWD: You’ve spoken about this, but you still refer to yourself as a groupie.
Pamela Des Barres: Oh yeah…
WWD: You don’t feel there’s any kind of negative connotation with that word?
P.D.B.: Of course, I do! It’s tragic that people still see the word “groupie” as synonymous with slut or loose morals or whatever. It’s really absurd because it’s just all about love. I call it the “G word” and I might as well have it tattooed on my forehead in red. You know, even at my age, people still accuse me of things. On Facebook, for instance, if I have something about my past, a picture of me and Keith Moon, or whatever, I get some real creeps disparaging me and calling me a slut and everything. Just the other day, still all these years later.
WWD: It’s so strange, that type of reaction.
P.D.B.: People are still weird about sex in this country. They just are. I have to remind them that’s how they got here all the time and it’s absurd. One of my main reasons for living is to redeem [groupies].
WWD: And do you see that type of reaction tied in at all with everything that’s happening with #MeToo and Time’s Up?
P.D.B.: No, well, very little. Very little rock ’n’ roll and music related things have come into this. I’m sure you’ve noticed nobody [from the rock industry] has been brought up on charges or anything. And you know, you could name many, many people who you could wonder, “Wow, what did they get up to?” but you know, the girls, a whole lot of the women, most of them, who were involved in rock ’n’ roll and considered groupies, put themselves there. They wanted to be with these guys. These guys, unlike these directors or producers, even actors coming under scrutiny now, these girls wanted to, they tried to meet [the musicians], wanted to be with them, wanted to be backstage. They didn’t have to fight anyone off; it was quite the opposite! So, it’s quite different. And yes, there have been younger girls [who were groupies], a long time ago, not so much now at all, but way back when, when things like that were seen as permissible in a certain part of society. But these girls were very happy about the fun they had with these guys. It’s very memorable. It’s a very wild and extreme experience. It’s very unforgettable when you hang out with these people, especially when it’s the way I did, a very high level — on stage with the band, traveling with them, things like that.
WWD: So it sounds like you see an aspect of empowerment to the culture that you were in, and still are in, to an extent?
P.D.B: Yes. I was considered submissive by feminists back in the day, and it’s quite the opposite, because I wanted to be there. So, I fought that from Day One, from the day the book [“I’m With the Band”] came out and even way before then, when I was living the lifestyle. But nothing was going to stop me from doing that. It just makes you stronger.
WWD: You have a very “sex positive” message, as people like to phrase it now.
P.D.B.: Yes! That’s something that’s getting a little lost in this whole #MeToo thing…
WWD: I feel like it’s been difficult when women have come out and tried to broach this conversation of, maybe it’s getting to a point of where everybody’s just scared…
P.D.B: It’s really a touchy time. You know, thank god this all happened; it’s very, very important stuff, but it’s going to swing back to a more appropriate level pretty soon.
WWD: But it’s understandable that it has swung to a certain height because women have been marginalized for so long.
P.D.B.: Forever. Forever. But, as a woman coming from the Fifties coming through to this era, I have never been stopped doing anything by being a woman, so we don’t have to be stopped, we don’t have to be halted or marginalized in any kind of way — I’m proof of that. You can can do whatever the f–k you want to do, you just have to do it.
WWD: So what drew you to writing? Your first book came out in the late Eighties.
P.D.B.: I’ve always written, I was an English major, and I kept very copious diaries. My mom bought me one for, I guess it was my eighth Christmas — it was under the Christmas tree with a little lock and key and I felt obligated to write it in and then I found I enjoyed it. It was almost like sharing with another person what I was up to. It actually helped me define who I was, writing in my journals, and I always recommend that to my writers [I workshop]. So, I kept amazing diaries all through my groupie years.
WWD: And you were unashamed about excerpting them, which is inspiring because I would sooner die than do that.
P.D.B.: I sound super dumb in a lot of them and that’s fine. Everybody sounds pretty stupid in their diaries. But it’s real immediate. It gives you an immediate entry into that moment. But my second book, “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart,” I used only a few excerpts. When I met Michael [Des Barres] and we got married, I actually stopped doing my diaries as often, which I’m actually really bummed out about. But I was able to write the book and I’m actually writing my sixth one now.
WWD: Oh, what’s number six on?
P.D.B.: It’s called “Sex, God and Rock ’n’ Roll.” It’s my spiritual journey, which took place alongside my groupie journey and continued my whole life. It’s gonna surprise a lot of people I think, but you know, I’m pushing 70 and I’m thinking, I’ll go out on another limb. I’ve been out there for so long, who cares? I’ve had amazing spiritual experiences and I’m going to share them.
WWD: Do you think part of why people are drawn to your writing because you’ve been through all of these generations that are very different: the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, Eighties? All those times are marked by very specific things that younger generations now are very nostalgic for, even if they don’t know what exactly they’re nostalgic for.
P.D.B.: They’re nostalgic for freedom. They’re nostalgic for the idea that you could walk down the street half-naked and no one is going to attack you. You could show yourself off and be with the people you wanted to be with, you could dance wildly at a Love-In with flowers in your hair. People can’t believe that stuff happened. It’s become myth. So, I embody that myth somehow.
WWD: And that myth being usurped by capitalism in a way is intriguing, too.
P.D.B.: Well, we burst through [capitalism] for a while. It was a time when the counterculture was made important, it was acknowledged. We’ve always had a counterculture, but that one raised up its flower-clad head and made sure to be noticed. But the spiritual revolution has continued.
WWD: And the rest has gone by the wayside.
P.D.B.: There are always pockets. But also, so many of my friends were gay back then and we just didn’t think anything of it, our belief systems were so wide and all encompassing and expansive and that got narrowed down after AIDS. All kinds of things were crushed and we were crushed in all kinds of ways. But for a small period of time it was magical thing going on and I was living it.