The Legend of Pamela Des Barres, Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Most Iconic Groupie
'I'm with the Band: Confessions of a Groupie' was her groundbreaking bestseller and Penny Lane from 'Almost Famous' is based on her. We talk to Pamela about her new book, 'Let It Bleed: How to Write a Rockin' Memoir.'
Pamela Des Barres is most often remembered for having sex with Mick Jagger. And Jimmy Page. And Keith Moon. And Waylon Jennings. And a bunch of other rock gods in between. Des Barres carved out her place in rock 'n' roll history as one of LA's most prolific groupies during the decadent era when the members of Led Zeppelin rode motorcycles down hotel hallways and musicians got crazy rich off of record sales. But she also made music herself as a member of The GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously), a band made up of a bunch of groupies, as organized by Frank Zappa (Des Barres used to babysit his kids). In pictures from the era, Des Barres is an ethereal, glowing redhead in silk vintage wear—exactly the kind of woman you'd want to spend time with if you were a virile young rock star in town for the week.
But what Des Barres is often less remembered for is her most significant title: best-selling author. Her first book, I'm With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie, recounted her adventures through the rock and roll renaissance and shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list upon its release in 1987. (The book celebrates its 30-year anniversary with a special edition released later this year.) Des Barres' following books, Let's Spend the Night Together, Take Another Little Piece of My Heart, and Rock Bottom recounted the highs and ultra-lows of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, and also became bestsellers. Des Barres has been honing her skills as a writer her entire life, since the days she spent scribbling in her diary, growing up in the San Fernando Valley. A college English major, she's taught writing workshops for women in her living room for the past 16 years, not to mention taking her classes on tour to cities around the States and beyond. She considers writing and teaching her most important life's work.
Des Barres' newest book, Let It Bleed: How to Write a Rockin' Memoir, is a masterclass for those who want to get their own life's story on the page. Published last week, the book encourages would-be memoirists of both sexes to fearlessly confess their darkest secrets and deepest flaws, offering prompts on how to do so, while weaving in writing from her own students and her own plucky observations ("Jesus and I have had quite a stormy relationship").
We called up the 68-year-old author (who just moved back to the Valley and pronounces "memoir" like "mem-wah") to talk about her biggest book, her most thrilling adventures, and why the feminists who once gave her shit were wrong.
Noisey: When you were writing I'm with the Band, did you have a clear sense of the significance of your story?
Pamela Des Barres: Well, I certainly had a clear sense of the life I lived being incredibly important and interesting to people. I was in the thick of the renaissance, and moving through it and creating part of it with The GTOs. The people I knew and the places I've gone, people still can't believe it. I'll tell someone a story about Keith Moon putting a box of Tide into the Century Plaza fountain and no one even believes me. It's like an episode of I Love Lucy. I've just been through so many incredible tales, and I wanted to share that. I tried to be singer. I tried to be an actor, and it all fell apart all the time, and I thought, "Well, I'll fall back on my writing."
Where did the idea for the book come from?
I was being interviewed by Stephen Davis for [his Led Zeppelin biography] Hammer of the Gods, which was the first best-selling rock book. He said, "You should write your own" after he interviewed me. This is coming from someone who knows what they're talking about and at the time I was in the middle of one of my creative writing classes at this place in LA called Every Woman's Village, that doesn't exist anymore. The teacher there was pretty hip, and at the end of the first class she said, "You've got to tell this story."
Did you have any idea how big the book would become?
No. No! I had no idea it would still be in print and would be in print the whole thirty years. That's unheard of for a memoir from an unknown person. I was one of the very first unknown nobodies to write a memoir. It took me a long time to sell it. I had many, many rejections. William Morrow, who finally did it, had rejected it already. Then Hammer of the Gods came out and they realized that a genre was being created of rock 'n' roll memoir. They called me and said they wanted to publish it. That was really a surprise. Random House actually wrote to me and said, "Sorry, we can't take this. This will never be a book. Maybe an article in Rolling Stone." I saved that, and when I got on the New York Times bestseller list I sent [the editor] a copy of the bestseller list. I just had to. Of course I never heard back from him.
How did people embrace you, or not, when the book came out? You were sharing very personal stories about having sex with famous people.
It was very mixed. I was an unknown and a lot of people said, "How dare this person write about her sex life with these degenerates?" I went through a lot of surprisingly uptight interviews, especially with women, on the talk shows I did. They were live talk shows where the audience could give you shit, and I got a lot of shit. At first I was really stunned and couldn't quite figure out how to handle it, and then I just got into the idea of it and said, "Sorry you didn't get to sleep with Mick Jagger. That's probably what you really wanted to do, and I'm sorry you couldn't do that. It was an awesome experience."
My very first TV experience was the Today Show. Really scary. Bryant Gumbel introduced me as "queen of the groupies." Of course I had never considered myself that. In fact, the word "groupie' had become a really tawdry word associated with slutty behavior. The fact that I was admitting to being that—it was a very mixed bag, and ever since I've been trying to redeem that word and remind people it's all about love.
Do you think you'll be remembered as a feminist?
I think I'll be remembered as a sexual pioneer in a way, someone who wasn't afraid to have sex, go after what she wanted including men, and write about it. We're still a very uptight country sexually. People are really weirded out by it. I don't get it. It's how we all got here. I've always thought feminism as a woman doing what she wanted to do, and that's what I've done. I was not perceived as a feminist when I'm With the Band came out, and in fact I was perceived as submissive to men, and that's just because they got it wrong. A groupie was still thought of as a submissive slut. I never saw myself that way.
What does "groupie" mean to you?
To me and to everyone else it should just mean sharing love. That's all it's about, and love of music first of all, but of course it's become a much broader term now. You can be a groupie for anything. It started out with "group." You were after the group; you wanted to be with the group. You wanted to share ideas and yourself and interact with the group.
When did you first hear the expression?
I was with Zeppelin in front of the Hyatt House getting into a limousine and someone said, "She's a groupie." It was thought, "Hmm. I've got a term. That's interesting." It wasn't said in a mean way, but it quickly became a pejorative because people couldn't understand it. They couldn't get backstage and were thinking, "How are they getting backstage? They must be just sucking dick or something. I would never do that."
Of course it wasn't always that by any means. The GTOs were a group of groupies, and we would take care of these bands. The Jeff Beck group would come to town and we would take them shopping. I took Zeppelin to Nudie's Rodeo Tailor and the only vintage store. We would dress 'em up and take care of them—sew buttons on shirts and sit and watch soccer with them. It was not all about sex, and in fact none of us had any relations with The Jeff Beck Group. We just hung out. I've been friends with Robert Plant for all these years, and we've never been intimate, unfortunately. I was with Jimmy and that was a respected thing, but we were friends!
How do you think these guys felt about the groupie phenomenon?
Robert has said many things about groupies in a positive way, and any rock god worth his fucking salt knows how important groupies are. They usually will admit that. And they're not going away. Groupies are always going to be here. They cannot connect with huge bands like we used to. We used to just walk into the Whiskey a Go-Go and sit on Mick Jagger's lap. You can't do that now. We also did a lot of promotion. We talked these bands up and tried to help them.
I hear from my fans every day. It's usually women, and mainly young women, wanting to share their stories and also saying "How do I meet so and so?" I really don't have an answer for that now. The time frame I lived through has become myth. You would walk into the club and there'd be David Bowie, Iggy Pop, a couple of Ramones, and a Sex Pistol or two. It just doesn't happen now. There were no rules then. Now there are.
Kate Hudson said that she based her performance in Almost Famous on you, right?
Yeah, she told me that. I went to the premiere and she said she used me as inspiration and had photos of me on her dressing room walls. It was an honor, but I wasn't really compensated in any way. [Laughs.]
In the movie her character emphasized that the groupies were there because of the music. You and your crew were just sincere lovers of these groups and the music they made, like we all are. You just got to be in very close proximity.
Yes, it was a time frame too. Free love. Everybody was open. People weren't as afraid. John Lennon had not been killed. Rock stars could walk down the street. They really can't now, although I heard Springsteen goes the mall. I wish I could run into him there.
What was the reaction from the men in I'm with the Band when it was published?
Everybody was OK with it. They may have been a little surprised. I know Kurt Loder from Rolling Stone asked Mick Jagger if he had read it and Mick said, "I was there." I was also not putting anyone down. I was not chastising anyone. I was telling my story, not theirs, and I was telling what it meant to me. I was not busting anyone or saying anything derogatory.
One of the things that really struck me about I'm with the Band is its sincere sense of excitement. You really seemed to be enjoying your life and on this giddy, very girlish physical, and emotional thrill ride.
A lot of people try to darken the 60s and early 70s, and my story is very light. Of course there's heartbreak, but I'm very blessed with an optimistic nature. I would bounce back and get my heart broken again and bounce back and get it broken again. The fact is that we all get our heart broken, I just got mine broken my Jimmy Page. Everybody goes through it, and I think that's also what people related to the humanity that I was putting on the page. The reality of being a young woman growing up in Hollywood in the thick of the madness.
Do you have a favorite adventure from that time?
It's impossible to have a favorite. My most important time with these men, friends and lovers alike, was being onstage with them. As close as you could be to being in the band was to stand on the side of the stage. Keith Moon, when they were doing Tommy, he made me stand on the stage next to the drum kit. It's amazing I can still hear. He wanted me right there. In Zeppelin's case, Jimmy had me sitting up on the amplifiers, so I could see. Everybody could see me up there, and I could see these girls [in the audience] with so much envy.
You've gotta remember how young I was. I was 19, 20 years old. Jimmy was 24. We were young people. Your ego wasn't even formed yet, and it was just a heady experience. There were no girl rock bands yet, so it was as close as you could get to being in the band. Being onstage with The Stones, with The Kinks, with The Doors, with The Byrds, with the Mothers, with Zeppelin, The Who. It was incredible.
What was it like feeling that thrust of energy from the crowd?
You get that feeling from the crowd that the band gets. Not quite, because they're making the music, but you are right there and are feeling the sweat from them on you. It's really an indescribably spiritual experience really, getting the energy of 20,000 people coming at you.
Are rock stars today as sexy as they were then?
They're not as dangerous. The element of danger is pretty much gone. The last danger in the world of rock 'n' roll was Kurt Cobain and that era of grunge. Before that of course it was the Pistols. Of course in rap there's still danger, or there was, but that's fading too. Eminem was dangerous. I love him. But that danger element is missing, and I don't know if that can ever be recaptured unless some brand new fucking thing comes along.
Who's the sexiest rock star of the moment?
I love Jack White. He's carrying it on, and I think he still hasn't had his grandest moment yet. I'm waiting on his next solo album. I loved his last one, but I think he's got something brewing there. He appreciates the history so much and encapsulates all of it but makes it his own. He's awesome. The White Stripes killed it. I love Rhett Miller. He's the lead singer for the Old 97s, and he also has solo records that I love, and I think he's incredibly sexy and beautiful. His lyrics are, mmmm. I'm a lyric-whore because of Dylan. The words are equally as important as the music. I think Ryan Adams is important and kind of cute and cuddly sexy. There's a teddy bear sexiness about him. There's a British band with a really cute, Freddy Mercury type singer called The Struts. They're good, and the lead singer Luke is really sexy.
It sounds like you still go out.
Yes! I was out last night at a premier. I go out all the time. I don't act my age, ever. I hope nobody expects me to.
Katie Bain is also sorry she didn't get to sleep with Mick Jagger. She's on Twitter..