Pamela Des Barres is the definitive groupie who moved to Hollywood in the 1960s, embraced free love and hippiedom and frolicked with musicians like The Who’s Keith Moon and The Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger. She documented it all in her iconic tell-all book I'm With The Band and inspired the character Penny Lane in the film Almost Famous.
During the waves of feminism that have come since, however, Pamela's candid tales have been criticised and, with the #MeToo movement, the supposed sexual liberation of the halcyon rock’n’roll days reevaluated.
What does that mean for Des Barres' story? She sat down with The Last Bohemians in east London record shop Matters Of Vinyl Importance for an insight into her controversial wild past and what it tells us about the future.
This episode was produced by Shola Aleje.
"A groupie is just someone who wants to hang around groups. I do believe we were muses for them."
TRANSCRIPT: Pamela Des Barres
Pamela Des Barres: I was always attracted to the wives and girlfriends of these people I admired so much. Almost equally.
Kate Hutchinson: Do you believe in the saying that 'behind every great man there's a great woman'?
Pamela: Ah, right next to him, ok. Or maybe under him - if he's lucky. But certainly not behind him. [Laughing]
Kate intro: When I heard that Pamela Des Barres was in town, I had to meet her. She's the OG rock and roll groupie, frolicking as she did with bad boys like The Who's Keith Moon and Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page. But she also went beyond that stereotype, writing numerous books about her wild days in 1960s and 70s California, and inspiring the free-spirited character Penny Lane in the film Almost Famous. During the waves of feminism that have come since, however, her candid tales have often been criticised, her sexual endeavours reevaluated. I wondered whether, with the dawn of the #MeToo movement, she looked back on that era any differently. In an East London record shop, between rifling through the dusty racks, I got an insight into her whimsical way of life.
[Door chimes ring upon group's entry, group greet each other with hellos]
Kate: So lovely to meet you, I'm Kate. How are you doing?
Unidentified: This is Alan, whose shop it is.
Alan: Hi, how you doing?
Pamela: I'm good!
Kate: We are ready to rock and roll if you are?
Unidentified: Shall I get you a tea or a coffee or?
Pamela: A coffee, always have a coffee.
Pamela: Led Zeppelin II was actually created in my apartment. Because I was seeing Jimmy at the time and he would come and stay with me in my little Hollywood gaff and, um, he didn't like the order that the original demo that they had recorded, he just didn't think the order worked. So he sat in my little apartment going over each song, playing it over and over again, trying to decide which song would follow which song, which song would open it, and Robert came over and listened to it with him and they tried to sort the order out. Jimmy made that decision in my apartment and left the demo at my house with all of his notes and everything after he'd made that decision, and unfortunately I had to sell it later for 50 dollars. Because I always had to sell stuff through the years because I, you know, I was a creative soul and trying to make a living and everything, and I just wound up having to sell things. Of course now I figured it's probably worth about $50,000. Maybe more with his notes. And this of course [holding a Rolling Stones record], you know, I had a wonderful fling with Mick Jagger off and on through the years and this used to have an actual metal zipper on it, I don't know why they don't do that anymore. It was fun to zip Mick's pants... in real life too - although he never had a zipper! [Laughing]
Kate: Why do you think you were attracted to rule breakers?
Pamela: I suppose I wanted to, down deep, wanted to be one. Because, you know, there's always more, there's always more than what meets the eye for sure and there's just, you know, there's a lot to experience and I just wanted more all the time, I wanted all of it, I wanted everything I could possibly have, even as a kid. You know, but certainly after I met Don Van Vliet [Captain Beefheart] and then very soon after that started to go into Hollywood and meeting all kinds of very interesting people. You know, I felt like I'd found my tribe. I just like-minded people ready to break rules and smash doors down like Elvis did. Elvis broke all rules and smashed down the doors, he wore eye makeup in high school in 19 - early 50s, you know. And James Dean wept on the screen, no man had ever done that before. I was always attracted to people who did, you know, things that hadn't been done before and you know, unfortunately it was mainly men at that time because you know, women were marginalised for many years before that and certainly in the 50s and early 60s.
Kate: If you were a woman around at that time, you know, was being a groupie or being a muse a kind of way to create a sort of role for yourself in rock and roll?
Pamela: Yes. That was really our only option in a lot of ways. Yeah, there were girls fronting male bands, but there were no all girl bands. So the GTOs, actually, my group Girls Together Outrageously was probably the first or among the first half dozen girl groups, not counting the Motown girls, they were all put together by men. But, um, well actually Frank Zappa put us together so we were also put together by a man, but we weren't a dance troupe. But I just, I didn't feel lesser than a man, I've always felt very equal with everyone, I've never thought of them as almost two separate sexes. I believe in reincarnation, I've been a man many times too. So right now I know right now it's very important for women to say, "Yes, I'm a feminist and I've always been a feminist", and, uh... I'm a humanist really.
Pamela: Everything was very free in those days. It was very important to express your freedom, you know, so you could just do anything you wanted. Like basically often I never wore a bra, I wore many see-through clothes, and just tiny little panties under a lace tablecloth, you know I mean we were just showing off, put it that way. And in those days you could. There were love-ins, you know, there were actual love-ins, people, you know it seems like that couldn't really have existed but there were love-ins and I went to them all, and I was half naked and I danced all around handing flowers out to people. That really did happen. It seems to me a lot of people believe that, you know, that’s a myth. The Doors and The Byrds would play for nothing, they didn't want to get paid. It was a very magical time.
Kate: Can you remember your very first love-in?
Pamela: Actually the first 'Human Be-In' it was called, before it was called love-in. I used to hitchhike to San Francisco every weekend, through The Haight and Golden Gate Park, and the very first one was called the Human Be-In, and it was 67, spring maybe, of 67. And um, I just was wandering around this paradise full of like-minded freaks, and it felt, it was a huge shift - something big is happening here and I'm a part of it, you know. I'm right here in the thick of it, in the middle of it. Alan Ginsberg was there reciting his poetry and all the San Francisco bands were playing and it was all free and it was, you know, it really felt like we were gonna change things.
Kate: Can you remember your first trip?
Pamela: My first acid trip? Yes. I was with Cyril Jordan of The Flamin' Groovies. And um, I was pretty late taking it, I was pretty nervous about it. I guess I was 19 at that point, and yeah, it was orange sunshine, and I remember it very well. It was one of those things where I looked in the mirror at my eyes and everything was just like you imagined your first trip would be. And, you know, I saw all kinds of things in my eyes [laughing]. And I was up all night with Cyril and he was just a friend but he was very, had taken it many times before and he was very sweet with me. In those days those drugs were, you were looking for god, you were looking for your higher being, you were looking for meaning, and that's what those drugs were for me.
Kate: Did you find that they helped unlock creativity also?
Pamela: I suppose so. I was very creative anyway. I’d kept diaries from the time I was a little kid and wrote everything down all the time. I wanted to be an actor, I wanted to be a singer, I wanted to be everything, you know. I wanted to experience any creative possibility. It felt like anything could happen at any time and you could make it happen, and then there was a large group of people who felt the same way. They were seekers and revolutionaries, we thought of ourselves as that. It was a music renaissance, because of Dylan people were starting to say very important things in their lyrics, and people were covering Dylan - The Byrds and The Turtles and these people singing these very deep important songs and it was a massive shift when Dylan went electric, for instance. And we all just thought something huge was happening. There was hope in the air. We wanted some kind of change, you know, everything was pretty uptight and square coming out of the 50s era, you know. We'd call people squares and the cops were pigs and you know we were a separate entity, we thought we were going to bring everyone on our side, we were going to convince everyone [laughing] to be a freak with us.
Kate: What's your relationship like with that word 'groupie'?
Pamela: I went through a phase when I said, "Oh no, I don't want to use that word", because it became so negative and people were putting us down for just having fun with bands. But, ah, for decades now I've been trying to reclaim and retrieve and, um, point out that that word just means just another word for just loving. Because a groupie is just someone who wants to hang around groups, that's all it's ever been. I do believe we were muses for them, and gave them a lot of ideas for songs. I wanted to share my love with the people whose music moved me to such a degree that my life changed, you know. So, yeah, it was all about love and fun and sex and joy and freedom! That's what it was about. Of course, like most things it fell apart, it didn't last forever. The harder drugs came along, sort of knocked god to the corner there for a while, because heroin and cocaine has nothing to do with god. And the girls became younger and bossier and calling me and my girls 'old' when we were in our early twenties. It was just a scene you felt like you wanted to get out of. It had sort of gotten slightly tawdry, that world. The bands weren't as interesting to me, you know. Luckily I met Michael my ex-husband right around that time 74 and got out of it to some degree, I mean, I was still involved in that world because I married a musician. But the... the glory days had gone by.
Kate: Did the 60s do dating?
Pamela: No. We never dated. We 'hung out'. That's what we called it, although I did go on what you'd call now 'dates', you know, I'd be picked up in a limousine and taken to dinner by whoever it was, or on the road, but you know, we did not call it dating. That was something you wanted to separate from at that point, because that was kind of a square thing where the boy picked you up at the door with flowers or whatever. Not that I, I still like getting flowers, but you know what I mean, I'm much more finicky now. I haven't had a partner in a long time because I haven't found anyone who meets all the criteria that are important to me - spiritual connection number one and of course if you're not physically attracted you can't help it, it's chemistry, so that has to be there. I always think it's really strange how two people get together and one of them feels the chemistry and the other one doesn't, it doesn't make sense to me. Sex has always been really important to me, it's a great connector, connector hopefully of the spirit more than anything else, but yeah, I love to get off - who doesn't, right? With all the right, back then it didn't matter, everything didn't have to, as long as the chemistry was there when I was 18, 19, 20 then that was fine! And if there was a soul connection even better, but now it's the other way around.
Kate: Frank Zappa saw groupies as 'freedom fighters at the avant garde of the sexual revolution'.
Pamela: I love that quote by him, isn't that awesome? He loved us! He really saw how important we were and he saved our little reality on record, which is so wonderful. I was always in awe of him and thought of him and still do as my mentor really, and his wife Gail also was. Because she was his female counterpart, she was just equally as brilliant and brave and wise as he was.
Kate: Did you also see groupies as being proto-feminists, you know, the earliest feminists, really?
Pamela: Yes. Yes and of course I wasn't thought of that way back then by the feminists, they saw me in the opposite way for sure. And that was annoying and distressing but I was too busy living my life to worry about it too much and, um, I call it the 'G-word' and I've been trying to save it, reclaim it, remind people that it's only, you know, people judge you for wanting to fuck - it's so bizarre! We all have sex right, how did we get here? So you know for instance it wasn't even that long ago I was doing a reading in Houston, Texas. And you know, you think about Texas it could be kind of scary, the people that hang around it Texas. But my ex-boyfriend lives there and I was on a bill with him, I was opening for him, he's an amazing country artist, and as I was reading about my experiences with Mick Jagger, one guy, he stood up and said, "You're a whore! You're a slut! I brought my mother in here tonight, how dare you!". It's like wow, right in the middle of a show, and you have to figure out how to respond to it and I ignored it. But at the end of the show - they hustled him out, he was really disruptive - but at the end of the show I asked, I said, "Raise your hand who among you here has had sex. Ok, this guy happened to get annoyed cos I had sex with Mick Jagger. Sorry. You know, it's the same thing as you all". Done. So you know I do have to defend myself at times - still! After all these years! I'm almost 70! Crazy! It had been a long time since Anaïs Nin had been like banned all over the place for writing about her sex life, people just didn't do it. And unfortunately the people who hadn't read the book thought it was every page had an orgasm in it or something very wicked, and of course that's just not the case. It was just part of a book I wrote about growing up in Hollywood in that era. But at the time it was sort of stunning because I was being judged very harshly by not just men, women too. And still. Like I'm making all women look back because I wrote about an orgasm I had with Jimmy Page in 1970. It's just absurd, right? It's changing, and women are making it change, especially your generation. You're just saying, "Fuck you", basically, to anybody who tries to label you in any way. And in my era, time, we had to really fight for it. I really believe that I helped open doors for women, generations that came after me, because I was doing what I wanted to do. And it wasn't what you, I wasn't trying to wear trousers like some of the other feminists were doing [laughing], like I was doing the opposite of that! But yeah, I wasn't trying to be a man like a lot of the early feminists were trying to say, "Ok I can do anything a man can do" type thing. We can't do anything a man can do! Just physically.
Kate: The writer Robert J. Lewis said that 'being a groupie was about wanting to participate in the myth of creation'. How true is that?
Pamela: I think that's a pretty accurate statement for that period in time because the women in girls of course didn't have much of an option to create within the world of rock and roll. There was just a handful, even women songwriters, I mean it was very very much a man's world and it still is probably very unbalanced, but way back then it really was. So yeah, you know if I was sitting up on Jimmy Page's amp or on the side of the stage with the Stones you know it was a very heady feeling and as close to being, you know, part of the creative process as possible. Plus, Robert has told me that Going To California, you know, it was based on me and a couple other girls in LA that they couldn't wait to see when they'd come to town. It was something they looked forward to. We didn't have to go chasing after these people.
Pamela: Early, early on when I was trying to meet the Beatles at 14, that was a very different story, but you know, when I was part of this world it became my universe, then you know they would call me when they came to town. When I tried to meet the Stones at 15 I didn't know what to do. So I'd knock on Mick Jagger's door finally and get that kind of bravery and he opened the door naked at one point and I screamed and ran out, you know, "Ahh! Oh my god!". I had no idea that was going to happen, I don't know what I thought would happen if I knocked on Mick Jagger's door at that time, but that's what happened. So years later of course it was a different story, but you know when I was a kid just trying, I wanted to meet these people who did this to me. I didn't almost understand what was happening inside me, you know, I had to find out, so the only way to find out was to try to get near them and meet them.
Pamela: Women are more on their own than men are in a lot of ways. Emotionally a whole lot of men still even to this day keep their emotions tucked away. It's very hard. Sometimes they put them in songs which is wonderful that they have that outlet, but I don't even see the separation in a lot of ways because I'm much more spiritually oriented than physically oriented the last many decades.
Kate: Can you recall a specific moment where you helped a musician unlock that, get over the hump, get through their writer's block?
Pamela: I was just living, just being myself and being an assistant. Quite a lot of the time, I was an assistant to my boyfriends' creativity because I understood what they were doing and appreciated it. If you're around a man, any man, whatever he does in any walk of life and you understand, or try to understand, and really appreciate and admire what they're doing, they just get better at it. It's just the nature that that relationship, between the symbiotic relationship, between men and women is. For the most part, you know I'll probably get some shit from feminists from this, but it's too uplift them, make them realise their potential, you know, understand, oh, you know. Like my last boyfriend, he was an amazing songwriter and you know, I would point out a line and say, "My god! Say more about that, that's really moving, that's really touching!". But you know, we do that for each other, right? Male or female, friends, lovers, acquaintances, we try to love each other, hopefully. That's why we're here. I helped Keith Moon just because I was kind to him, I didn't want anything from him. You know there are a lot of people who do want things from these rock stars, whatever it is, I was not on that wavelength. I wanted to be, I wanted to experience them, and have them in my life, but I didn't want anything from them. Really. I wanted them to be in love with me a couple times but they're, you know, after a while you say, "Well that's not gonna happen, I'm gonna just enjoy this". But Keith I think I had a... I could ease his suffering. Just my presence could soften him - not that he was ever ang-, well. It's hard. Today he would be bipolar, today he would need a lot of medication. So he was medicating himself the only way he knew how. He was one of the most amazing human beings who ever lived, oh my god! He was the most unpredictable, fun-loving, joyous person. Of course and then there was the opposite, because he was a manic depressive, they called him at one point. He was just one of my favourite people ever. You know, whenever he was in town I was his girl. I was never into being with married people. At the time, you know, if they didn't tell you they were married you had no idea. It was very very private and mysterious, their lives in England, some very far off reality, you know.
Kate: Looking back, do you think that male rock musicians deserve the pedestal that women have put them on?
Pamela: Hmm. No one has ever asked me that, do they deserve it? Well Jimi Hendrix deserved it, some of them deserved it. I think the Stones do, because they're still going, and certainly Dylan does because he changed everything. Some do. You know what? The fact that they are getting that then they deserve it because it is what it is. It's reality, so yeah, I believe they deserve it, or it wouldn't be happening.
Kate: When you look back on that period is there anything you would tell the 16-year-old Pamela? Or the 19-year-old Pamela?
Pamela: [Long pause] Not to take so many drugs, because in the end it blocked out some of my memories, and I love the memories - they've given me a career first of all! [Laughing] But no, I love my memories, so yeah I took too many drugs. I was never an addict, thank god, like so many of my dead friends. Um, there's only three GTOs left out of the seven. But you know, I don't have regrets. There are things I would tell, perhaps, my 16, I would say, you know, "When Mick Jagger calls and asks you to go on the road, go." Or, "When he begs you to stay after Altamont, stay". You know, the things I didn't do that I could've done and think back on and go, "Wow, why did I do that?". Or like meeting Elvis, I had the opportunity, and I didn't do it because I was in love with Michael, I had just gotten engaged and I didn't want to perhaps blow that, if you know what I mean... by being around Elvis! [Laughing]
Kate: Do you think that could've happened?
Pamela: Oh yeah! But I didn't wanna chance that because I really was in love, engaged for the first time. Of course Michael later said, "What were you thinking?". Like with Led Zeppelin one time I was at the biggest party they ever threw in Hollywood, and I had just started reading palms, I guess it was 1973 or something, I was reading palms at the Renaissance Fair. So I was reading palms for everybody in the room and I remember sitting there with Stevie Wonder reading his palm and he was saying, "How do you know all this?". I was really drunk, because first time I'd ever had champagne, they kept rolling in carts and carts of Dom Perignon, I didn't know when to stop, and last thing I remember is reading Stevie Wonder's palm and then the next day I was home in my bed. I have no idea how I got there. So I know many other interesting things probably happened that night [laughing], so I do regret taking too many drugs.
Kate: Do you think you could be a groupie in the social media era?
Pamela: Well that's real hard to say, like I said I'm 69 years old, I try to keep up with it all, but I have, you know, I teach women's writing workshops all over the country, you know, London and Toronto, and a lot of my writers are very young women and they meet on social media. Like I was mentioning there was a six year period, maybe seven, eight years maybe, where the rock and roll heyday when you could get away with almost anything. And you know now there's so much scrutiny and it's just going to continue to get more and more. More and more eyes on everything, and it's just, yeah, it's not gonna happen again.
Kate: With the whole #MeToo movement that's happened in the past year and the conversation around women and power dynamics, what do you think when you look back on, you know, the groupie heyday? Has that changed how you think about it at all?
Pamela: Not at all. Because groupies were doing what they wanted to do, when they wanted to do it, with who they wanted to do it when other people wouldn't even consider doing that. And even though some of the young women, you know that came after me, now it wouldn't work but then it worked somehow. The girls wanted to be there, they wanted to be with David Bowie, they wanted to be with Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page and so they got to do that. And Lori Mattix, the girl who's often in question you know because she was so young with these people, she loves it! It was the best time of her life! And no, now it wouldn't work, it's not a good idea, and before that era it wouldn't have worked, but something about that time frame when those things happened, it wasn't... no one thought much about it. It's just rock and roll, you know?
Kate: What about that era do people get wrong that you want to put right?
Pamela: Well just the groupie love thing. Even those young girls, you know they loved the music too, they wanted to be a part of that scene, that wild scene, you know. It was about loving the music and that was it, that's the truth about the groupie world, is the real groupies still are in it for the music - and the fun. I mean, let's face it, young girls, you gotta remember how young we were and how young the guys were. But I mean would you do the same things you did then? We were kids in a playground that had never existed before, and I think people don't realise or can't, it's very hard to put it in context now, to compare this reality to that reality. So you gotta try to, you know, imagine what it was like back then. It's just not the same. Even seeing that sexual freedom in every way was about to really burst forth, and it was! It's coming back, thank god, all the LGBT kids are freaking everyone out, I love it! [Laughing] The transgender things going on, I mean people are so afraid of that, I mean the older people, but you know. And people in the South. The South in America and the Midwest is still like the 50s, so, yeah, they're freaked out. And I think it's scaring people to death just like we scared people to death. You have to scare people to death to make change.
Shola Aleje: This episode was produced by me, Shola Aleje. For more in the Last Bohemians series, follow us on iTunes or see the portrait series at www.thelastbohemians.co.uk.