Pamela Des Barres: Her latest book celebrates the outrageous, unsung exploits of her fellow 'band-aids'
Sarah Harris meets the legendary groupie who slept her way through swathes of rock musicians during the 1960s and 1970s.
Sunday 23 September 2007
You know what rock'*' roll means, right?" asks Pamela Des Barres, one eyebrow raised: "It means rock'*'roll in the sack. It means sex: the lyrics, the beat of it, the thunderous feeling through your body. Before the word groupie even existed I knew that I wanted to share myself with someone who created that music and turned me on in every kind of way."
For 40 years, the name Pamela Des Barres has been synonymous with the heady Los Angeles music scene of the 1960s when she partied alongside (and in bed with), some of the most infamous, snake-hipped gods of rock'*'roll – from Jim Morrison, via Jimmy Page, to Mick Jagger ("the most thrilling, naughty, sexy man I had ever seen").
"I would go on tour with them, on planes, in the back of limos, to parties. I would be on stage with Led Zeppelin, the Stones, the Who and the Doors. It was a magic time," recalls Des Barres, who has just written her fourth book, Let's Spend the Night Together. This tantalising follow-up to her 1987 debut, I'm With the Band, includes interviews with Elvis's secret mistress Tura Satana, the notorious Cynthia Plaster Caster and modern-day muses and career-groupies such as LA rock sirens Lexa Vonn and the Plastics (see box).
She has written it, she says, on behalf of the women regularly derided as the painted, backstage sluts or gold-diggers of the music industry, vampishly chasing the famous in order to satisfy a craving for notoriety. "In the 1960s, 'groupie' was just a word used to describe girls who wanted to hang out with groups, but over the years it has slowly become a negative term," she says wistfully. "I wanted to give these girls a voice, for people to understand the groupie mentality."
"Like most groupies, I was never just a follower," says Des Barres, who is imbued with the kind of rock-star majesty that could only come from being touched by some of the century's most celebrated musicians (Page was her greatest lover, apparently). Resplendent in leopard skin, hands laden with rings, lips scarlet, she proffers an unapologetic splurge of colour against the drab London hotel lobby.
Groupies are not just star-fuckers, insists Des Barres. "We inspired the guys as much as we were inspired by them. It was very equal. They loved us because we dared to have a blast. We looked after them, picked their clothes and showed them the best restaurants to go to. I made cowboy shirts for Jimmy Page and Miss Christine [fellow member of her all-girl band, the GTOs], showed Alice Cooper how to do his make-up".
I ask about her most memorable groupie experience and she giggles wickedly and recalls the time she ended up, high on PCP, at Jim Morrison's house in Laurel Canyon doing backbends on his Persian rug. "I was 17 and heard The End playing from a house nearby. It hadn't even been released yet, so of course I was curious. I wandered over to this house to find Jim Morrison standing next to his refrigerator in unzipped leather pants, no shirt, looking the epitome of rock god, singing along to his own record." Des Barres' impromptu acrobatics earned her Morrison's admiration and his then-girlfriend's wrath (on discovering the spaced-out teenage Pamela in her kitchen, she chased Morrison out of the door, smashing all his unreleased demos after him). Backstage, later that same night, Des Barres remembers "making out passionately" with Morrison, spread out on top of her " crazy muskrat coat" and thinking, "this is the most beautiful man I have ever seen. He was so gorgeous, everything about him was just perfect."
The rock star eventually went home to his girlfriend ("he was always a one-woman man"), but the thrall of the music, the magic of backstage and the artists who presided over it continued to be a seductive combination for Des Barres. Alongside various day-jobs, including designing cowboy shirts, performing in the GTOs and nannying for Frank Zappa's kids, Des Barres dipped in and out of relationships with many rock'*'roll greats during the 1960s and 1970s. Jimmy Page won her heart and in return allowed her a place on his amplifier, so "I could feel the audience's insanity and energy pouring on to the stage". Keith Moon was her "freakiest" lover, confesses Des Barres. "He liked to dress me up as a little schoolgirl and he would be the naughty priest, or we would trade sexes and he would put on my clothes and I would put on his." I tentatively ask Des Barres where feminism fits into the sexually "liberated" groupie idyll.
"People often ask me whether I felt demeaned, and I always say it was exactly the opposite of that: it was empowering. Any woman who gets out there, looks on stage and goes after someone who inspires her – that is the ultimate feminist act, surely? Some women like doctors, politicians, football stars – I like musicians, and I was always very focused about who I wanted to be with. I consider myself a sexual pioneer. To me great sex is like touching God, and I was lucky enough to have experienced it to the hilt and wrote about it freely, openly and joyously, when not many other women had."
But of course, Des Barres writes from a bygone world of love-ins, limos and flowers in your hair – what of groupies today? "Women still have the same desire to be with people who are in the limelight, who are talented and inspiring and who make a good living," says Des Barres, who is now living in LA with her long-term partner, country-singer Mike Stinson, " but a lot of things have changed in the outside world. When John Lennon was shot, security became tighter and then Aids came along and it could no longer be as free as it was – but the same attraction is there. These days we might be more cautious, but there are still many well-known women who are repeatedly pulled into the rock-star orbit."
Des Barres' book concludes with an interview with the LA groupie Lexa Vonn, who is a journalist and founder of a glamorous clutch of publicist-promoters, The Plastics, who have professionalised their groupie status. Des Barres quotes an article Vonn wrote for LA's Rock City News: "Being a real groupie is a talent on its own, and not one that can be performed by just anyone. Sex, while an important part of the groupie experience, is only one facet of the whole picture. A true groupie has a deep connection both to the music and the dimension in which musicians exist when they are performing. Rock'*' roll is a ritual and groupies are the high priestesses." And if groupies are the high priestesses, they all seem to worship at the altar of Des Barres. *
'Let's Spend the night Together: Backstage Secrets of Rock Muses and Supergroupies' is published by Helter Skelter on 27 September, priced £17.99
I'm with the band: Five supergroupies
The original 1950s groupie, Tura Satana (aka Miss Japan Beautiful) was the exotic burlesque dancer and actress who claims she taught a young Elvis Presley how to move – both on stage and in the bedroom. He proposed to her in secret, and she wears the diamond engagement ring to this day.
Blonde rock'*'roll temptress "the elusive Miss James" was celebrated in song by Jimi Hendrix and John Mayall, had a son at the age of 18 with the Moody Blues' Denny Laine and even had an affair with the snarling Jagger, while employed as a cook at Eric Clapton's country residence.
Cynthia Plaster Caster
Self-described "recovering groupie", Plaster Caster gained notoriety in the late 1960s by casting the erect penises of famous rock stars including Jimi Hendrix, Clint Mansell and Brian St Clair.
Preferring to call herself a "muse" rather than a "groupie", Buell is famous for her relationship with Aerosmith's Steve Tyler, with whom she had one daughter (actress Liv Tyler). She was also linked with Todd Rundgren and Elvis Costello.
Lexa Vonn and the Plastics
Founding member of Los Angeles glam-goth publicity outfit the Plastics, Lexa Vonn is part of a new breed of "professional groupie". A fetish and pin-up model, burlesque dancer and journalist, Vonn has famously been linked with Marilyn Manson.
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