The World's Most Famous Groupie on Rock & Roll after #MeToo

May 16, 2018

Pamela Des Barres talks sex, relationships and rock & roll in the #Me Too era

“I know people have issues with rock stars. It’s a different kind of lifestyle,” Pamela Des Barres told me confidently over the phone. See, Pamela Des Barres is a rock-and-roll historian, a musician and the world’s most famous groupie. A living legend who became a face of rock’s most dazzling era, Des Barres exalted the word “groupie”—once pejorative—into a badge of honor. Like so many other terms meant to disparage women, Des Barres helped to reclaim the word as one of empowerment. 

Last year, her groundbreaking best-selling memoir, I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie, turned 30 years old, and coincidentally, so did I. During those three decades, I’ve come to romanticize the popular culture of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s—beaming over stories of L.A. women in Hollywood bungalows, Zeppelin riding motorcycles down the hallways of the Continental Hyatt House, and The Doors’ impetuous tenure as Whiskey a Go Go’s house band. By the time I saw Penny Lane in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, (a character Kate Hudson admitted was based on Des Barres), tell a fledgling music writer knowingly behind purple-tinted glasses, “we’re here because of the music,” I was beyond hooked. I devoured Des Barres’ memoir, dog-earring passages she wrote about playing dress-up with Keith Moon or sitting atop Jimmy Page’s amp in New York while he played to thousands of screaming fans. On my coffee table lies a hardback copy of Rolling Stone’s infamous “Groupies and Other Girls” issue— overflowing with interviews and photos of “Miss Pamela” and her contemporaries between its now well-bent spine.

She’s written five books so far, inspiring and cultivating voices of female students ranging from burgeoning writers to award-winning novelists like Emma Cline. Her latest book, Let It Bleed: How to Write a Rockin’ Memoir, is a crash course in how you too can share your first-hand rock-and-roll experiences.

However, being a fan of rock folklore also means being aware of its sometimes seedy underbelly—walking a tightrope where the chances of you falling into freedom and sexual openness radiating from guitar chords are equal to the chance of falling into abusive power dynamics and non-existent accountability. With the #MeToo movement in full force, and every news cycle a renewed allegation, it seemed like it was time to check my pretenses. Not quite ready to toss out my band tees and pull apart the pedestal I’d built for this bygone era, I decided to get the word directly from the groupie’s mouth. I decided to call Miss Pamela.
"They thought of us as submissive to these people, which was anything but submissive. It was not like that at all. Most groupies I know, it’s their glory days."
I bantered with Des Barres about everything from her iconic 1989 Playboy spread, “first I wanted to say ‘look, this is what 40 can look like’ but I also got to write the piece, which was very rare [for women] at the time,” to the #MeToo movement and how this uncomfortable era of accountability was good for everyone. “It’s going to scare the shit out of men before thinking about doing things like this.” And most of all, we talked about what it means to be a groupie in the age of #MeToo and how to reclaim a word that’s often been maligned and misunderstood by those outside the music world.

“They thought of us as submissive to these people, which was anything but submissive. It was not like that at all. Most groupies I know, in [my book] Let’s Spend the Night Together, there’s a couple of scary episodes, but for the most part, it’s their glory days.” 
I asked her about power dynamics—how the girl on the floor isn’t always equal to the guy on stage, literally and figuratively. She responded, “[For us] it was very equal because I think that the GTOs helped.” The GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously) were a band made up of groupies mentored, championed and organized by rock icon Frank Zappa. “You know we had our own group, and Zappa was our mentor. Everyone adored Zappa, he was revered by everyone. There was no one like him. So, maybe that had something to do with it. We were just really well respected, it didn’t come up so to speak…unless you wanted it too.”

Long after Des Barres had left the riotous Hollywood Hills, she found her belief of female bodily autonomy as inherently feminist wasn’t widely agreed upon. In fact, many women decried her first book, calling her unapologetic sexual exploits anti-feminist at best.

“I was the kind of feminist that went out and did what I wanted. That’s what a feminist was to me, someone who does what she wants, goes after what she wants, says what she wants. And that’s what these girls are doing, and women [were] standing up against it, which I’m totally all for. I just have never had that experience with a musician. I’ve had plenty of crazy experiences with other men, trying to do various things, but not in the music industry.”

Des Barres shared some of those crazy experiences in a recent blog post—first describing a time at a party when comedian Andy Dick made a swift bee-line for her then squeezed her breast and groin, darting back into the crowd before she could react. Next, she recalled being 14 at an overnight stay with a friend in San Mateo, and being pulled into her friend’s father’s lap after everyone had fallen asleep. Confused and ashamed, she blamed what happened on the pajamas she was wearing that night. “He had taken something intangible, invisible and invaluable from me,” she writes. “As I waited for the sun to come up, I vowed never to wear those shortie pajamas again.”

Our country has an obsession with judging women and their morality—somehow connecting the frivolity of walking into a hotel room or wearing a short skirt with a woman clearly “asking for it.” By the same token, when women feel comfortable expressing sexual desire, and actually asking for it, someone is still bound to be uncomfortable. It’s one of the myriad reasons the term groupie still holds an unsavory connotation to some.

“The word ‘groupie’ has become synonymous with loose sex, free love. We loved the fact that we were living in an era of free love. Really, it existed. There were love-ins, people took half their clothes off, no one was ashamed, it was like fucking Eden for a while there. The people looking in at that were horrified, but the people within it were living a blissful experience for the most part,” she tells me. “It’s a complex word, it’s a complex issue, and so all these years I’ve been trying to reclaim the ‘g’ word. Hopefully, I’ve helped a lot of women see what it really is— just a woman going after what she wants.” 
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