May 23, 2017
Pamela Des Barres and I have met before. It was 1987 and I was two. My mother, through her job with an apartment rental company, had become acquainted with Pamela's then soon-to-be-ex-husband, the actor and musician Michael Des Barres. She babysat the couple's son a few times and scored an autographed copy of Pamela's just-released memoir, I'm With The Band. A brief encounter to be sure, but Miss Pamela, as she's known to those who know her, laughs when I tell her the story and says, "everything comes full circle, doesn't it."
That holds true for the professional life of Miss Pamela, too: I'm With The Band, a book that detailed her connections, romantic and otherwise, to musical acts as famous and as varied as Led Zeppelin and the Flying Burrito Brothers, turns thirty this year, but she hasn't frozen in time: Let It Bleed: How to Write a Rockin' Memoir, out now from TarcherPerigree, is her fifth book, and an extension of the writing workshops she started teaching in Los Angeles a dozen years ago. I'm With The Band is many things: a story about bands, a piece of history and a living, breathing chronicle of a woman's interior life (Des Barres kept a diary for years and was able to reconstruct scenes and feelings from her own words and her extraordinarily precise memory).
Over the phone, taking a break from her recent move, Des Barres talks about her teaching journey: "I have a knack –which I didn't realize until I started teaching – that people open up to me. People want to tell me things. It has a lot to do with that also of being in a room with me. When I say write about your first sexual experience they want to share it with me," she says.
The book is very much an extension of that camaraderie. Filled with writing exercises inspired by the lives of Des Barres and her students, she's genuinely convinced memoir is a genre everyone has a right to work in: "I've always said this – way before I started teaching – that everyone has a story to tell. Everyone's life is a fascinating story if they can just put it down on paper."
Of course, much of the personal writing being done these days seems to happen not on paper but online, where readers can feel compelled to make snap judgments and writers, especially women writers, can feel pushed to share their deepest, darkest secrets without much in the way of a safety net. And while Des Barres is active on social media she's (perhaps mercifully) missed out on the rest of it, again: "you're going to have to point me in the direction of where those things can be found!," she laughs.
When asked how she approaches the more intimate work produced in her classes, the kind of work that makes people vulnerable, she agrees that the world is filled with judgement (and that she's come up against her fair share of it, especially when I'm With The Band was first released), the best way to write is to firmly insist it have no place in the process. "In my classes I do not ever give constructive criticism," she insists. "What happens is everybody flourishes because there's no condemnation no judgment of any kind. People think they have to have that in order to be a better writer."
Des Barres makes a convincing case: “I've had many, many of my musician friends and creative friends in other arts tell me that when you get the mind the ego out of the way is when the real stuff comes through. My old friend Terrence Trent D'Arby, I said 'Wow, man. How does this stuff come through? Where does this stuff come from?' And he said, 'I don't know. I get out of the way and I let it come through. So many of my artist friends have said that. So that’s what I encourage in class. In twelve minutes they don’t have time to think."
Many of her students have become friends, both with each other and Des Barres (she affectionately refers to them as her 'dolls'), and it’s from that spirit that Let It Bleed was born – one of her students happened to be a book editor and saw space on the shelves for Des Barres' brand of writing instruction (and inspiration), knowing, perhaps, that the world of writing guides tends to offer advice that can feel hopelessly impersonal or outdated.
Des Barres, for her part, thinks that this work, the work of guiding people (especially women) to find their truest selves on the page, is the most satisfying work she’s yet done, and sees much of her previous personal writing as part of her teaching arsenal: “I think by me sharing my life through autobiographies, people feel they can cut loose as well. Because I’ve done that!”
‘That’ includes exposing many of her own innermost secrets to a reading public, and it’s genuinely remarkable that she’s managed to stay on such good terms with many of her famous subjects, especially when they don’t always come across as perfect gentlemen. “My attitude in life is very, very optimistic,” she says. “Even when I’ve been hurt by these people - with the band or my husband and I breaking up [she and Des Barres officially divorced in 1991 but continue to remain close friends] I make sure to tell my story and no one else’s. Mine. My feelings my expressions the way I handled it it’s very different than telling on other people.” It’s a particular brand of cheerfulness and ownership that comes across as refreshingly genuine, and the takeaway is a good one: tell your own stories, don’t take any shit.
She offers a last bit of hard-earned, on-brand optimistic wisdom: "The way I live my life is very positively. I have a really great mom and a really great adventurer dad who I got a lot from – how to live my life. I believe. I have a lot of faith. The way I wrote those books when I wrote about other people I just wrote the truth. The truth doesn't lie!"
By Angela Serratore Rolling Stone
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