Bebe Buell

There are rock stars, and then there are the women who hang around rock stars. The rock stars are our gods. They are people like Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Iggy Pop, Johnny Thunders and Mick Jagger. We overlook anything, infidelity, drug addiction, crawling on the floor in glass and peanut butter, anything. Their women are the beautiful ones who claw and flirt their way through the minions and get noticed – Anita Pallenberg, Patti Boyd, and Jeri Hall, Sable Starr, Bebe Buell and Pamela des Barres. We condemn these women and write them off as promiscuous “groupies”, yet we never consider the respect they deserve and the contributions they make to rock.Buell with Led Zeppelin

Does anyone ever call Mick Jagger a slut? Only endearingly. Mick used to go around at parties bragging about his many illegitimate children. But Sable Starr, who also slept around, was a “slut”. Was this because she didn’t play guitar? Does that even make sense? But even putting aside the pure injustice of this well-accepted double standard, we never ever recognize the contribution these women made. What does it take to get a song like “Angie?” It takes Anita Pallenberg (or maybe Angela bowie). And what about “Layla”? That took Patti Boyd. And I’m sure that Johnny Thunders wrote one or more songs about Sable Starr. He was madly in love with her! And what about that beautiful Bryan Ferry song, “Let’s Stick Together”. Sure enough, it’s inspired by a childhood motto that he beautiful wife Jerry Hall (the cover girl of Roxy Music’s great 4th album Siren) had with her sister. We would never have so much heartfelt, passionate music if it’s weren’t for these women, the muses of the music. Not every woman is going to be a songwriter, like Patti Smith or Lydia Lunch. The role of muse is more feminine and passive, but every bit as important. Our beloved rock stars depended on these women to cast a feminine spell that left them longing to write songs.

Recently, I wanted to read about the life of a “groupie”, so I chose “Rebel Heart” by Bebe Buell. Buell is one of rock’s better known “groupies”, (though she prefers to be known as a “muse”). In fact she was someplace in between rock groupie, muse, groupie, musician, top model and settled rock wife (to Todd Rundgren). It is Bebe’s continual striving, and continual in-betweenness that makes her such a dynamic person. Though she changed roles, cities and lover at a breakneck pace there was one constant in her life, and that was rock. She was a permanent fixture on the New York rock scene of the 1970’s and a sort of “hostess” of New York..for musicians.

Extremely beautiful, Bebe went to New York in the early 1970s to model for fashion magazines. She did a lot of fashion modeling, but also ended up as a Playboy centerfold in 1974, which weakened her modeling career in the states. Throughout it all, she managed to consort with the rock elite for two decades, hanging out at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s during the tail end of the Warhol-crowd era and the beginning of punk. She was involved in a deep relationship with Todd Rundgren. She also had relations with Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, Steven Tyler, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Elvis Costello. OK, she slept with Rod Stewart too, but we’ll try to ignore that. Bebe was happiest sleeping with famous people from the rock world, and eventually, like Mata Hari, they too pursued her as someone that they had to fuck, in order to achieve coolness.

Throughout “Rebel Heart”, in her own words, Bebe reveals herself to the reader. I am struck by a woman who is both powerful, flawed, and sometimes full of shit, [Buell gets a bit carried away thinking that pop stars wrote about her. She felt that the song “Little Red Corvette” by Prince, was a metaphor for her life and possibly written about her, though she had never even met Prince]. Overall, however, Buell has her feet firmly planted on the ground. Her expectations were never unrealistic. She left Jimmy Page in the early 1970’s, knowing that if she hung around she would end up just another cast-off. She left Steven Tyler and had his child alone, because he wouldn’t give up cocaine for her, and she was not on drugs. She knew that most of her lovers were high. She knew they were egotistical. Bebe Buell has a very strong constitution. She continually reminds us that her lack of breakdowns, destructive habits or drama is because she is German. However, the one crack in her bulletproof consciousness seemed to develop when Buell met Elvis Costello and really fell in love.

Buell’s relationship with Costello, like with so many others, started as a fling. They met in L.A. She went to London and lived with him for a while in 1978. Then in the early 1980’s, Buell joined him on his U.S. tour. They lived in hotel rooms and made passionate love to each other. “He could give me an orgasm just by looking at me”, wrote Buell. Her descriptions of the affair sound pretty great, however impossible. Elvis was married at the time and would not leave his wife and child. When Buell got pregnant with Elvis’s baby, Elvis refused to support the child, and Bebe had the pregnancy terminated, understandably not wishing another paternity controversy like the one that had surrounded her pregnancy with Liv Tyler. This was it for Elvis. A Roman Catholic, he called her a “murderer” and alienated himself from Buell. There is one harrowing scene where she is driving around L.A. and sees Elvis in front of a hotel talking to Nick Lowe. She runs up to Elvis and he ducks back into the hotel. To the end of the book Buell writes about their broken relationship with regret that he had still not forgiven her and put closure to the relationship. I get the feeling that her sadness over losing Elvis followed her throughout her life.

Shortly before cracking this book, I had finished “Please Kill Me”, an expose about the 1970’s New York punk scene written in the form of a group interview with passages by Ron Ashton, Danny Fields, Leee Childers, Richard Hell, Bebe Buell, and many others. Both books are obviously the kind of trashy reads that you finish in a week and feel like you’re read a long issue of “People” magazine. One contrast I find between the two books is that in “Please Kill Me” everyone speaks highly of drug experiences, with bravado, from Jim Morrison passing out from pills in a bar, to Danny Fields sitting and taking acid all day long in his office at [record label], to Dee Dee Ramone turning tricks, and Jim Carroll and Iggy pop and just about everyone else with their relentless excesses of heroin. After reading “PKM” you are left feeling that the hard edged soul of punk just cannot be achieved without addiction to hard drugs. But then Bebe, in “Rebel Heart”, takes you right back and reminds you that it could. Without bragging or reminders of her street credentials, Bebe describes plenty of intense sexual, cathartic “rock experiences. She had a good head on her shoulders, yet her discipline did not make her stiff or unsympathetic, in contrast, the lack of drugs enabled Bebe to feel the music that much more fully because she was around it for longer – she didn’t burn out so soon.

Buell was very high-class and beautiful, spending most her time in places like Manhattan and London. She was there at the glittering parties once the stars made it to the top, but she never really got down in the bottom. This is my one criticism of her. She never really knew the conditions that produced so much great rock, the trailer trash, low budget poverty, or even just the grinding mainstream normality of suburban white America, the lifestyles that send kids careening to their record players to lose it all in the escape of rock, or better yet, to buy a bus ticket OUT and just try to be rock stars themselves.

On the other hand, Bebe’s life contained more of the drama and instability of a 1960’s childhood than the boredom of 1980’s mainstream life. She was raised by a single mom who had great taste in art and life. When her mom later remarried, Bebe never felt accepted by her stepfather, which is what led Bebe to experiment with acid, get turned on to rock, and leave for NYC in her teen years. Bebe says that she always felt the lack of a man in her life, which is why she sought the attention of men constantly in her adulthood. Of course, she wasn’t a rich child and a lot of her success seems to have come from her wealth of beauty.

After 20 years in the backstage rock-and-roll life, it is certainly fitting that Buell put out some songs. The “Covers Girl” EP, the B-Sides, the Gargoyles, and the Bebe Buell band. It is touching toward the end of the book, to read about the shows Buell gave in her mid-40’s and all the people who came to see them – Jimmy Page, Michael Stipe, Keith Richards, the Black Crowes, Joey Ramone, all of the people who she inspired throughout her life returned to stand in her audience. And that is exactly the way it should be.