Lays of ancient rock
Why Pamela Des Barres survived the stars she slept with
Wednesday 13 November 1996
As she explains: "It's only because I wrote about it. I didn't do anything that hundreds of other girls weren't doing at the same time. It's just that I had my wits about me, I kept a journal. I'm proud of my history, but there is only so many times that you can answer `What was Jim Morrison really like?' and people only ask these dumb questions."
I realise that I had better not ask her, then, what Mick Jagger was like. I suppose I had better take her seriously as a rock courtesan, or, as she prefers it, "muse", even as a writer, but it is difficult when her entire claim to fame is based on the men that she has slept with. She admits as much, entitling her previous two books, I'm with the Band and Take Another Little Piece of My Heart: A Groupie Grows Up. But sometimes it gets too much. "Oh God, when I go on radio in the States, they introduce me as `Pamela Des Barres. She has slept with our entire playlist'."
Her new book, Rock Bottom, Dark Moments in Music Babylon, chronicles the tales of excess from the music business. We've heard the story before. Sex, drugs, alcohol, more drugs, madness, death. Jimi and Janis, Morrison, Bolan, Barrett. Here they are, losing it big time, and Des Barres, this "daughter of rock 'n' roll", writes tidily of the mess of their lives.
She is now a proper journalist, who researches her subjects, but it's a depressing and spurious read. Chuck Berry makes the book because of his coprophilia; GG Allin simply because he was the most perverted animal around, penning lyrics such as "Let's fuck some kids/They can't say no/Molest them now/Before they grow."
Each rock 'n' roll "god" is brought down by life on the road. Debauchery flows from numbness to excess. All the sorry tales are here, involving Led Zeppelin, dogs, bacon and groupies. Sordid stories of addiction and of violence: Marvin Gaye shot by his father, Kurt Cobain shot by himself, Syd Barrett shot to pieces by too much acid.
Yet Pamela herself is a healthy, happy survivor with a gurgling laugh. She is relentlessly upbeat. She makes no judgements in the book, she merely documents decline after decline. As I talk to her I wonder what judgements she made when she was hanging out with her icons. She still seems overwhelmed by them.
"I think these guys martyred themselves for us. They will be remembered like Keats and Shelley - Morrison will, Lennon will - as prophets. They lived a lifestyle for us. We gasped at what they did and tried to emulate it and they burnt for us - but then I'm really gooey that way."
Gooey enough, it seems, to have turned a blind eye to what was going on much of the time. Did she ever feel used? "Oh no. There was a time when Jimmy Page went off with younger girls and I felt pretty bad. But I was with him for two or three years. The same with Keith Moon and Noel Redding. Whenever they came to LA I was their girlfriend. I even went on the road with Noel and Jimi Hendrix. That was big news when you could do that."
The boys apparently would just phone Pamela up when they were in town. She was part of the Frank Zappa experiment, an all-girl group - Girls Together Outrageously. "That was always an intro for me - a lot of the English guys were desperate to meet Frank. It was competitive, you know, a lot of girls going for the same Greek gods."
Pamela developed a certain technique. "Oh, I was hot for Waylon Jennings. I don't sleep with married guys. I respect that union. I just didn't know he was married ... I used to go to these Country and Western clubs in garters and stockings - this is way before Madonna - and I brought huge bouquets of flowers which I used to throw at his feet and just sit there in front of him in my underwear. He couldn't not go for me. And he did."
She describes this boldness as full of coquettish joy, rather than as a sleazy endeavour. I ask gently if she was so popular not only because she was "fun" but because she made few demands on these men. "Probably. How about no demands?" she laughs loudly. Was there any one she rejected? "Oh sure. Mick Jagger for a long time. I was in love with Jimmy Page and I thought he was being true to me out there on the road. I was so naive. I was hanging around with Mick a lot and we made out a couple of times. I wasn't in love with him but you know, in those days you were supposed to experience free love."
I tell Pamela that I met Marianne Faithfull a while ago. "Oh yes, there is a part of her book where she says that Mick came home and brought her flavoured douches and that he must have got the idea from me." So did he? "Well, I used them. Strawberry-flavoured. You can't find that stuff any more." She reminisces about the good old days when you could "make out for hours" with the likes of Jim Morrison.
Yet all of this seems to me to be about male rather than female sexual pleasure. The argument that groupiedom is a primitive form of female empowerment leaves me cold. I am from another generation, though Pamela argues that Courtney Love told her that she would have been a groupie "back then". Surely, I say to Pam, some of these guys were disappointing? She disagrees: "I never found that. I totally got off on it." Her only regret is that she didn't sleep with Hendrix, because she was scared of him.
She also denies that self-destruction becomes repetitive, addiction boring. "I don't get bored," she says although she will admit that addiction does stunt emotional growth, so that guys like Jimmy Page "still act like 25- year-olds". Pamela, who has an 18-year-old son - "I mommed out there for a while," she says, in true Californian style - has just finished a relationship with a musician who was 22 when she met him. She is still hopeful, one might say hopelessly romantic, about the whole scene, excited by the news that Pearl Jam want to hang out with her.
Though she documents the darker moments of the times, she denies that she was involved in any of the nastiness. Was she expected to do things with dogs and baked beans and octopuses? "No. Sweet girls like me were almost like wives. We were protected, brought presents, kept in the room while they went off for half an hour or so. I knew about these things from my friend Cynthia Plastercaster but no one even asked me to do a three-way. Except Mick, and he wasn't like a boyfriend. I wasn't into any of that, but one girl wasn't enough for them. They were bored. I was so young. My goal was to spend the rest of my life with one of these arseholes."
She had a list, and she can now cross off most of the men on it; many of them have crossed themselves off for her. This 48-year-old woman, this chronicler of "Babylon", still giggles like the Californian girl she is. Perhaps she was protected because she bought the myth. She really has faith; she worships at this phallic shrine of rock 'n' roll.
I understand why she wants to write about Jesus - from one god to the next, I guess. But I am agnostic, and as she goes off to score herself some vitamins I think of Patti Smith's fabulous refusal of faith: "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine"
`Rock Bottom, Dark Moments in Music Babylon' is published by Little Brown at pounds 16.99. `Head Over Heels', a collection of journalism by Suzanne Moore, is published by Viking, at pounds 13. Suzanne Moore and Andrew Marr, editor of The Independent, will be in conversation at the National Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1, on 14 November at 6pm (tickets, 0171-369 1734).
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