Love Letters from a Groupie: A Conversation with Pamela Des Barres

 

THE SNUG AND BRIGHTLY-HUED CASITA sits a few blocks off of Venice Beach, with its legendary boardwalk bustling with tourists, skaters, Rastafarians and the occasional dude in grape smugglers breezing by on roller skates.

Inside the home’s cozy confines, an imperious painting of Walt Whitman greets visitors, along with myriad pictures and pillows spangled with the visages of Elvis and James Dean. This is the residence of Pamela Des Barres, the world’s most famous groupie and the first woman to actively celebrate that distinction, audaciously repelling its prejudicial associations and instead redefining groupie culture as a mutual celebration between artists and fans, occasionally involving sex.

And what sex she had. Among her lovers, Pamela counts some of rock and roll’s most influential players, including Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger and Keith Moon. She got high with Jim Morrison, confided in Gram Parsons and she fronted an all-girl band—The GTOs—under the tutelage of Frank Zappa, all the while, fastidiously maintaining a collection of richly-detailed diaries that would eventually inform her bestselling debut, I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie.

That book not only shattered commercial estimates, but it cast Pamela as a celebrity in her own right, seeing her featured on television, radio and magazines. Anything but a spectator’s craven attempt to magnify her role in someone else’s story, I’m With the Band unfurled in warm, witty and thoroughly engaging prose, as Pamela told her own story, which just happened to boast a supporting cast of the most influential rock stars of the 60s and 70s. Where other biographers took on the storied careers of these men, Pamela painted them in rich vignettes, colored by their involuntary mannerisms, their vulnerabilities and the offhanded expressions that easily flowed in their intimate, unguarded moments.

She proceeded to write a follow up and two additional non-fiction titles, and in addition to her own writing career, Pamela currently teaches memoir writing workshops across the US, she gives guided rock and roll tours of Hollywood, and she recently her own clothing line. We sat down with Pamela to discuss her books and to talk about some of her enduring memories from those halcyon days of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.

 

pdb-portrait

 

How did your first book come to light?

Stephen Davis had interviewed me for Hammer of the Gods, and at the same time, I was taking one of my many, many creative writing classes. I had always kept that up because I knew I was going to write someday. After he interviewed me about Zeppelin, he said, “You know, you should write your own book because you have some amazing stories.” Meanwhile one of my writing teachers had just suggested the same thing to me because I had written about my early Stones experiences. She said, “Oh my God… you’ve got to write this.” So it was a double whammy. I just started writing—on a typewriter, because this was 1985—and I sent it all over the place. I found an agent to help me, and everybody turned it down.

 

Eventually though, a publisher grabbed it.

Right. After Hammer of the Gods came out, which was a huge success, one of the companies who had turned my book down the first time—William Morrow—signed it. It came out in 1987 and it became a bestseller, which was a shock. When you write a book, you never know. You never know if anyone’s going to buy it at all!

 

I'm with the bandWhen you were writing it, who did you see as your audience?

Peers, mainly. At least at that time, although I had no idea that it went across all ages. I just saw music lovers, peers and people interested in the 60s, because they always seem to be around. It’s going to get even bigger, I think. The longer the time passes, the mythologies become more and more unbelievable. But I just wanted to write. I just wanted to get the story out, for whomever might be interested, because it was a very special time—a special city, special age group that I was in, everything. Everything was perfect and I just wanted to share that.

 

The expression “Sex, drugs and rock and roll,” has become somewhat ubiquitous now. You were one of the people who tapped into all three of those. Was there ever any concern on how much or how little you wanted to disclose?

I was worried about my dad reading it, and one of the reasons that I didn’t start writing it until he passed away was because he would not be able to handle it. (laughing) I was worried enough about my mom, but she and I were so close and she knew a lot of it already. But as far as the people I was writing about, no. No, because I was telling my story and my truth and I’d never busted anyone on anything. No one got upset. No, I just told the story from my truthful point of view. And I had a lot of diaries so I remembered things in pretty good detail, and I used a lot of diary entries, which I think brought a lot of people into the moment.

 

And it did become very successful. Were you surprised?

Yes, I was very surprised, because you have no idea if anything’s going to sell. And in those days, luckily they put me on the road. Most authors don’t get to go on the road anymore, but they put me on the road first-class all the way. It was the first groupie book, and I didn’t realize it was any kind of big deal, but I got on the Today show, and Larry King, and the Tonight Show, so it was pretty fabulous. Exhausting, but fabulous.

 

How did it feel to suddenly be the center of attention in the way that so many of the people you wrote about were?

Fun. (laughs) It was a lot of fun. Of course, I got a lot of slings and arrows directed at me because I was talking about sex. Not even so much drugs. It was such an uptight climate at that time, the mid-80s, with AIDS and that sort of thing, that people were acting like I was out hooking on the street in some of the responses I got. It was really funny. In fact, the night I did the Tonight Show, Suzanne Somers was the host, unfortunately, and she actually said, “How did you meet these guys? Did you stand out on the street corners?” She actually said that on national television. My mother said that she wanted to strangle her. So I had to defend myself a lot of the time as well.

 

One Night BandThat couldn’t have been something you could have prepared for.

No, it wasn’t easy, but I grew strong through it. I had fun with it. I remember one particular lady on Phil Donahue, and she was just blustering, “Well how could you write about… such sexual… how could you!” She was so upset! This middle-aged, heavyset lady from God knows where, probably Nebraska—no offense to Nebraska—kept going on and finally I just said, “Look, I’m sorry you didn’t get to sleep with Mick Jagger, but I did.” It was fantastic! So I learned how to turn it around, and I got into that state of mind. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong; I was just living my life and telling my story, and never hurt anybody. I realized that I had nothing to hide or nothing to be ashamed of.

 

Before your book the word “groupie” conjured an opportunistic…

It still does. I’m still trying to retrieve that word. My most recent book, Let’s Spend the Night Together, was about a bunch of other groupies. I’m still trying to set that word straight, because all it means is just a music lover who wants to be near the band. Period. That’s all it means, in whatever capacity. Sexual? Sometimes yes, but also friends, helpers, assistants, guides… we wanted to uplift and enhance these people who moved us so much. That’s all that a groupie is. They are music-loving muses.

 

That’s an interesting turn of phrase, because it puts the groupie on both sides of the creative process- they enjoy the music, and they also inspire it.

You love the music so much, and the men know that you love it. All men want to be revered and admired for what they do. Women do too, but men even moreso, OK? So with men, if you love and admire what they’re doing, if you understand what they’re doing and you comment on it, ask questions about it…if you’re beholden to them for what they create, then they want you around. They want to share it with you, they want you as part of their world, and that always made me feel good, because I could bring some joy into the lives of these people that brought me so much joy.

 

Pamela and Jimmy PageYou’ve met on a very personal, and occasionally intimate level, the biggest of the big in modern music. How did you do that?

I was in the right place at the right time with the right look and the right taste. Mick Jagger came up to Miss Mercy at a Burritos gig and said, “Please introduce me to your pretty friend.” That’s how I met Mick. Jimmy Page’s road manager came up to me at a Bo Diddley gig and handed me his phone number and said, “He’s waiting for you in room 605.” I didn’t have to go after these people. I was in the GTOs, I had an all-girl group, I was hanging out with Zappa, and I was in the thick of everything in Hollywood. People wanted to meet us. Early on, of course, I chased the Beatles, I tried to meet the Stones—and I did meet a couple of them when I was with Captain Beefheart—but I was just in the right place at the right time, but with the right attitude and the right love of the music, and my appreciation of what these people were doing was completely sincere.

 

Out of all of the well-known musicians that got to know, with whom did you have the deepest connection?

There’s so many… Well, Jimmy Page and I had an amazing affair that went on, and on, and on and it was deep and wild, and crazy, and tempestuous and fantastic, there was that romantic level. On other levels, Zappa was my mentor; he brought out in me all sorts of creativity I didn’t know I had. That was his main gift, I think. He insisted on it. He wanted you to be more of yourself than you’d ever really been, and he wanted to find out who you really were. He wanted everyone to be themselves, to a huge degree, and then he wanted to encapsulate that and share it with the world. So the fact that he wanted that out of me, was such an incredible gift. It made me want to express myself. The other person whom I still feel soulfully connected to is Gram Parsons, even though it was Chris Hillman who I was in love with, but Gram and I were soul mates. We just had an incredible connection.

 

Do you think that history has given Gram a fair shake?

Yeah, I think it’s going to get better and better. It’s gradual. But he’s not going anywhere, and his music’s not going anywhere. He’s heavily-featured in my new screenplay, and he would have liked that. I had always promised him, before death and after death, that I would carry his music to the world in any way that I could.

 

His eventual drug dependencies and some of the behavioral fallout of that habit have left him with somewhat of a complicated legacy. Where does the truth lie?

He was a gentle Southern boy—funny, brilliant… He knew what he wanted to do and he had a mission. That was mainly all he cared about, and unfortunately he got sidetracked by drugs, like so many others did. But his mission was to prove to the world that there was no separation in any type of music. The cosmic American music thing was real for him—he was connecting all the dots and he didn’t want there to be any separation between types of music and music lovers. He wanted to bring everyone together.

 

Pamela and Keith MoonTalk to me about Keith Moon. Do you think his over-the-top stuff behaviors were authentic, or could that have been something else?

Well it was certainly real—I was a participant in a lot of it—but he was a very complex individual, and a lot of stuff was submerged. He really wasn’t happy with himself, and it came out in all sorts of chaotic ways, but he was so generous, and sweet…just a delight, most of the time. Then there was the other side that you had to deal with for awhile until the happy side came out again. I always thought of the tears of a clown when I’d see him go through that. I had some amazing times with him and all of these other people.

 

Is it safe to be a groupie anymore?

It’s never been safe to be a groupie. Anyone who lives out of the box and who’s living their lives in a way that will inspire others to judge and point fingers and be envious of…that’s never safe.

 

How do you think it’s different today from when you were in the mix?

It’s more difficult to meet your dream man. I used to be able to just walk into the Whisky and sit on Ray Davies’ lap and wave to Pete Townshend. These were very special days. Somebody just put up for a auction some pictures of me, Miss Mercy and Gram Parsons all sitting in a booth at the Whisky, and I can’t afford to buy them and I’m very upset. Things like that come up and I’m like, “My God, there I am with Gram…” These are pictures I’d never seen before. People didn’t carry cameras around in those days. I certainly didn’t but if I did, I’d be rich right now. But you didn’t think of it back then, because you were so busy living that you didn’t want to stop to capture the moment. Now, people at gigs have their phones up and everything. It makes me sick! You’re missing the moment! Yeah, you may be capturing it to look at it later, but I don’t get it.

 

As a writer, how have you evolved from your first book through today?

I write the same way that I always have. I just express myself. I have no way of writing. I edit myself as I go along, every two or three pages, I like to make up words and bring people into my moments. I don’t have any set way that I write and I don’t know if it’s any better now than when I started.

 

Do you read any other works or authors for inspiration?

My heroes are Walt Whitman, I read him all the time, Rumi, Goethe…the spiritual masters are who I like to read. And Stephen King, he’s a spiritual master. I read all of his books. I read a lot. I have five books going all the time.

 

Among your own books, which has been your favorite project from a creative perspective?

I think my second book. I mean I’m With the Band is a classic, and I’m proud of it and I love it, but Take Another Little Piece of My Heart: A Groupie Grows Up, was my life after that heyday. It was harder to write, and there was a lot of growing up to do in there, as well as a lot of death—my dad, my best friend, my marriage breaking up, raising a child who was troubled and gifted and amazing. It was a lot deeper and because of that, my second book is my favorite one. And it’s probably the least read, too, but at least they’re all in print.

 

Tell me about your workshops.

They’re writing workshops and they’re completely interactive. I teach in L.A. and I travel all around the country, teaching groups of women how to express their inner being. I started with men and women, but the women didn’t open up enough, so now it’s just women, and we do memoirs and creative writing. I have a class now with people who have been coming for five years. I have groups all across the country, often with the same girls, but new ones join all the time. I have some who have been coming for seven years in New York and Austin. Then they get to know each other, and it’s a magical experience. They’re all kindred spirits and music lovers. It’s a very different kind of writing experience. I’m so grateful that I’m able to transmit this kind of experience for so many women.

 

Looking back on your career both before and after your debut, what would you say gave you the biggest surprise?

I was surprised all the time. I’m surprised everyday. If you stay cognizant and awake and you expect a miracle, you’re going to get them all day, and I still do. I’m still surprised every time I fall in love. My life has been a big treat— a big, wonderful cake with icing running down both sides, you know?

Pam Portrait Amanda Milius

Joe Daly

About Joe Daly

Joe Daly (@JoeD_SanDiego) is a regular contributor to a number of magazines including the UK's Metal Hammer, Classic Rock and Bass Guitar Magazine, and he provides commentary, reviews and industry insight to many other outlets in the US and abroad. Joe has contributed to several books and he has won awards for his interviews with icons like Slash, Chuck D. and bands like Motley Crue and Slayer. Joe also digs photography, running and speaking to his dogs in silly voices.
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