In 1987, famous groupie and rock ‘n’ roll lifer Pamela Des Barres released I’m With the Band, a juicy tell-all about her affairs and adventures with Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, Keith Moon, Don Johnson, Jim Morrison, Waylon Jennings, and many others. The irresistible page-turner went on to land at No. 11 on Billboard’s ranking of the top 100 music books of all time and earn praise from even Nobel Prize-winning wordsmith Bob Dylan, but at the time, Des Barres’s unrepentant tales of sexual liberation on the Sunset Strip raised many judgmental haters’ eyebrows and hackles. In fact, years before “slut-shaming” was the national hot topic it is now, a famous shock-rock DJ actually introduced Des Barres as “the national slut.”
But as she celebrates the 30th anniversary of I’m With the Band, Des Barres is as unapologetic and free-spirited as ever, and she’s opened the door of self-expression to a new generation of memoirists, some of whom take her writing classes and even inspired her latest, fifth book, Let It Bleed: How to Write a Rockin’ Memoir. In this personal essay, Des Barres reflects on how being known, for better or worse, as “queen of the groupies” helped her learn how to embrace her own life story and teach others to do the same.
When you write a memoir and spend so many months alone with your past, digging up memories both glorious and ghastly, you have no idea if anyone will read your words — much less the impact they might have on your own life or the lives of your readers. It’s like diving off the deep end in the dark, and it takes a poignant kind of faith. I quickly discovered it’s a frightening, courageous act to tell on yourself (I never felt I was “kissing and telling” on others), as you relive and rediscover who the f*** you really are, piecing together the experiences that created you. It’s like living life a second time, with the gift of hindsight, acceptance, and hopefully a sweet dollop of humor.
My first book, I’m With the Band, has been in print all over the world for three decades now. At the time, I felt I was just telling my wild-ride story from the San Fernando Valley flats of Reseda, through Laurel Canyon, to the Sunset Strip and beyond. And I continue to hear from music-loving women (and hip, groupie-appreciating men!) who found something in those 300 pages that gave them insight and the conviction to let their fearless, free-spirited curiosity roam free — judgment be damned.
However, back in ’87, the perception of the term “groupie” was far from positive.
An innocent word at first — meaning literally someone who spends time with groups – “groupie” quickly became a finger-pointing jeer. “Ooooooh, she must be having SEX with that MUSICIAN!” Stunned by the sanctimonious vitriol that I’m With the Band received upon its publication, I flailed briefly before fighting my way through attacks on live national TV and by misogynistic morning-radio jocks, defending my right as a female to do exactly what I’d always wanted to do.
Yes, 30 freaking years ago I sat nervously on The Today Show and was introduced as “queen of the groupies” by Bryant Gumbel, and I had to rise to that occasion on the spot. It helped to live smack-dab in the moment and not think too hard, but I said in my second memoir, Take Another Little Piece of My Heart: “Did I live it up just to have to live it down?” I know better now, and I have no regrets — except for a few things I didn’t do. (Jimi Hendrix tried to pick me up when I was a virginal 17-year-old. Can you imagine?) However, one female audience member on another TV show, Sally Jessy Raphael, was so aghast by my past that she stood up, spittle flying, outraged that I’d admit to such tawdry shenanigans. It was as if making love — the act that brings us all to life — was somehow even more wantonly wicked between a groupie and a rock star. Shame, shame, shame.
Our great country, the US of A, is still frighteningly uptight sexually. Weird. Not that long ago, I staggered up at 6 A.M. to talk about my fourth book, an anthology of iconic groupies titled Let’s Spend the Night Together, and I was greeted by a pervy Chicago DJ called Mancow with this opening question: “How does it feel to be the national slut?” In my own humble way, I’ve done my hard time in the trenches like a proud groupie suffragette.
Besides the slut-shaming, I’ve been judged as being “submissive” to the rock gods in my life — which couldn’t have been further from the actual truth. My relationships were an equal exchange of yummy, sometimes sexy, sometimes friendly energy between two like-minded souls floating around together in this trippy cosmic soup. I discovered early on that the way to a creative person’s heart is to (truly) admire, appreciate, and understand their passion. And as a founding member of the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously), a group produced and mentored by Frank Zappa, it was crazy full-circle to have my own groupies. I adored them all.
Although I’ve always considered myself to be a feminist, for many years I’ve single-handedly tried to redeem the scurrilous “G-word.” It’s taken these three decades, but I’m finally making inroads, sometimes actually being called a “groupie feminist.” We’ve come a long way, baby! There have been groupies since musicians stepped onto a stage, and there will always be groupies — those who are not content to merely listen or stand back and observe, but want to wrap themselves up in the hearts and arms of those who make the music. You can’t plop onto Mick Jagger’s lap at the Whisky a Go Go anymore or watch Led Zeppelin perform from a seat atop Jimmy Page’s amp, but music will always be made — since, indeed, rock ‘n’ roll will never die. New bands pop up in every city, in every small town across the globe, and they need their muses to uplift and inspire them, to appreciate the music they’re making and propel them to greatness.
I’m With the Band gave me a writing career, albeit a topsy-turvy one with way-ups and low-downs, as in any creative field. As a journalist I’ve interviewed many of my heroes, from INXS’s late, great Michael Hutchence to the great (Jack) White hope. But my most perfect moment as a writer came when Bob Dylan, the man who made me the lyric whore I am, said to me: “I read your book cover-to-cover, and you’re a good writer!” I happily could have shuffled off my mortal coil at that most spectacular moment. It was a humdinger — and I’ve experienced a few.
Seventeen years ago, in between books, my lifelong friend Moon Zappa suggested I take some creative writing classes from a coach in the Valley she admired, and while scribbling away during the first class I thought, “I could be teaching this myself!” I’d written two memoirs at that point, and soon after that lightbulb moment, I opened my home to a small group of nervous women of all ages. (I was a bit noivous myself!) My world was enhanced in a way I never imagined possible.
Kindred spirits united! Words pouring onto the page! Memories revealed! Pain released! After a few years of teaching (really just allowing the students to share their voices sans criticism or judgment), I started a class in Austin, where my talented goddaughter Polly Parsons (daughter of Gram) lives, then New York, Chicago, Toronto, London, and so on. I hold workshops in the homes of my writers, and it’s a cozy, comfy environment to expound and express. And inspired by my pupils’ brilliant outpouring, I’ve just released by fifth book, Let It Bleed: How to Write a Rockin’ Memoir.
I’m hoping this groovy guidebook will give other women the courage to dig up their pasts, give free reign to theirs feelings and reflections, and help them to rediscover who the f*** they really are. I believe we all have a wild-ride story to tell. Dive into the deep end at midnight. Tell on yourself. You’ll dig it. It worked for me.