Once upon a time no rock band was complete without a cache of beautiful girls hidden behind the amplifiers – girls who were more than happy to put out and didn't ask for anything in return.
Although the breed is not entirely extinct, the groupie – part fan, part geisha, part prostitute – was essentially a phenomenon of the 1970s, that pre-Aids, post-Pill world of drug-saturated concupiscence. And this week the exploits of one of that decade's most famous groupies, Bebe Buell – ex-model, Playboy centrefold and mother of the actress Liv Tyler – will be published in the US. Rebel Heart: An American Rock and Roll Journey has already ignited controversy for its frank account of the Seventies rock'n'roll lifestyle and brought blushes to several of its central players: Elvis Costello, Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger and David Bowie. Yet still the book does not explain what it takes to be a groupie – that cocktail of blind naivety, lasciviousness and adulation that compels pretty little girls to sleep with skinny egomaniacs for absolutely no emotional return.
Someone who has all these qualities in abundance is Josette Caruso. Thirty years ago she was a slim brunette with a big smile and a taste for outrageous sexy outfits. One of her favourites was a long, silver, sequinned dress, cut very low at the back. David Bowie took one look at her in it, she says, and declared, "I can see myself in you."
Today, at 48, Josette's wardrobe is a little less provocative, but she is still dark and petite, and still a self-confessed groupie. Like Buell she was a permanent fixture of the Seventies New York scene. "We were a small élite group of girls and I was very proud to be called a groupie. When I say that today, some people will jump down my throat, but they don't understand. I felt special. I had been with David Bowie. To me that was special."
At a time when rock'n'roll had yet to be absorbed fully into the consumer mainstream, stars such as Bowie or Mick Jagger were youth culture royalty. Josette was a sexually inexperienced 16-year-old from New Jersey. Like most teenagers she was obsessed with rock stars. One day in 1969 she found herself sitting in a restaurant adjacent to Fillmore East, Bill Graham's famous New York concert hall. Nearby sat Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and that other prominent British guitar strangler of the day, Jeff Beck. Josette approached them, trembling. Page took her by the hand, pulled her on to his lap and asked her to come up to his room later. She consented. "What else was I going to do?" she says now. "Here I was on Jimmy Page's lap; it was my fantasy come true." Josette stayed with Page for several days knowing full well that her single mother – whose only child she was – would be desperately worried.
When Led Zeppelin came back to New York to play Madison Square Garden, Josette asked her mother to meet the band and bring her some clothes. She expected to be dragged home immediately. Instead, her mother was all smiles and went home apparently quite content for her daughter to cuddle up with the group. "Years afterwards I said to her: why did you let me do that? Her answer brought tears to my eyes. She said she was afraid that, if she didn't let me, I would leave her."
Other bands followed when the Zeppelin tour finished. "Before then boys had not really been part of my life, but suddenly it just snowballed," says Josette. "There was always a new band coming into town. I met Deep Purple, Ten Years After and all the other British bands of the time." She left high school and became a full-time party girl, continuing to live at home, supported financially by her mother, who took phone messages if bands wanted to see Josette.
The groupie's attitude to sex was that it constituted a currency to be traded for a share in the Olympian glamour radiated by rock stars. Josette maintains that there was nothing wrong with the way she used her body. "The sexual revolution was all happening. Sex was good. I was living out fantasies. For example, I saw Ian Gillan from Deep Purple on the cover of Circus magazine and I fell in love with him. I called his hotel and told him I wanted him. And he just invited me up. It was that easy."
What now seems like a form of prostitution was, according to Josette, an empowering experience. "I could scope somebody out and be in bed with him in 15 minutes if I wanted to. I knew who was in town, where they would be and if I wanted to do them was up to me. It was like magic." In a world where she never had any reason to doubt her own choices and in an environment where it was normal for a woman to be fêted for being merely decorative, Josette claims she felt in total control of her life.
It seems hard to believe, but Josette says she was never looking for love, and that she never harboured any ambition to become the girlfriend or wife of any of the rock stars she slept with. This may sound like self-delusion but Josette is insistent. "I think I was so well liked by everyone because I wasn't trying to get an 'I love you' out of them. I didn't love them."
Initially, Josette insists that there were never any bad moments, that it was just "free sex and very frivolous" and that she was well respected. But as we talk more, the cracks begin to show.
Even at the height of the sexual revolution, the rules of the groupie game were still set by men and none of the girls was invulnerable. Josette recalls how, during a Deep Purple tour, Ian Gillan rejected her one day and she found herself stranded in the middle of nowhere without a cent to her name. Also, the dynamics within Led Zeppelin soon became difficult. Josette claims: "Jimmy [Page] and Robert [Plant] used to like threesomes. I didn't enjoy that because Robert was demanding and you felt used with him. He just discarded you when he was done."
Nevertheless, Josette says she felt she had no choice but to continue sleeping with them until the drummer John Bonham "saved me and made me his girlfriend". When asked how she felt after having spent the night with someone who treated her like a prostitute, she shrugs. "I would look at myself in the mirror and laugh," she says. "Well, it's still Robert Plant! You know, it wasn't some kid from a gas station."
In the 1980s Josette took a break from the groupie world. She married a rich businessman with whom she had her daughter, Nico, now 20.
Today Josette is hitting the backstage areas again. Together with Nico, who is studying to become a music journalist, she goes to meet the bands of her past. At times this can be unsettling. When Jeff Beck made a pass at Nico after one of his concerts, Josette was livid. Nico, in contrast, dismisses the incident. She ignores the sexual attention she gets from musicians and insists that she never sleeps with any of them.
"I enjoy flirting with them but if they come on to me, I tell them where to go," she says. But whereas her mother used her sexuality to chase her dreams, Nico has very specific material goals in mind: "I interview them for my college radio station and to put their picture on my website. Sex is not part of the picture."
The sexual revolution is clearly over. The Pill has failed to live up to its promise to provide sexual equality and Aids has led to a backlash against casual sex. Nowadays, Nico acts as Josette's chaperone. Yet not even Nico can stop Josette from getting the occasional teenage kick. Once in a while Josette still goes off by herself to see one of her past acquaintances and to make sure that her good looks are still in working order.