Good time girl
Super groupie Pamela Des Barres had the giants of rock’n’roll in the palm of her hand. As her candid memoir is reissued, she tells Craig McLean how she lived to tell the tale
Barely 30 seconds in and Pamela Des Barres has not so much name-dropped as chucked her diary on the table. I compliment the author of I’m With the Band – one of the alltime classic rock’n’roll memoirs – on her ornate necklace, and she says it used to belong to Psycho actor Janet Leigh. When I ask if she still has the jewellery gifted to her by Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, she replies, bereft: “No, it was stolen, by a kleptomaniac married to one of the Beach Boys.”
Then, as we scan the menu in the rapidly busying Friday night dining room of an in-crowd Hollywood hotel, I idly enquire as to her dietary habits. “I haven’t eaten red meat for 45 years. I went with Don Johnson, one of my dudes,” she says of the then-future star of Miami Vice, “to the first vegetarian restaurant in LA. And I saw on the back of the menu how we get the red meat. And I was so appalled that I stopped that day.”
I’m With the Band, the classic confessional of Des Barres’s sexual and romantic escapades with a cacophony of rock stars, is republished in a 30th anniversary edition this month. In bracing detail, the woman born Pamela Miller in Reseda, California, details her high jinks on the Sunset Strip of late-60s and early-70s Los Angeles.
Led Zep, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, the Kinks, the Who… These were many of the greatest acts of the cultural revolution, and Pamela – who turned 20 in 1968 – knew them all. She alchemised adolescent Beatles fandom into a new type of ardour: that of the groupie.
“A groupie is someone who loves the music so much she wants to be around the people who make it,” she explains. “A fan is content with an autograph or a look from the stage, or a selfie. A groupie takes the next step. And that takes a lot of courage. But they do so totally willingly, sometimes hoping for a romance, or a one-night stand – or sometimes hoping to marry them,” Des Barres hoots.
If groupie behaviour was judged then – the loose morals of silly girls, exploited by lascivious rock stars – it can appear even less savoury today. But before we get into that – and the still-no-holds-barred Des Barres, now 69, will happily get into that – let’s view a highlights reel.
As depicted in the book, the gateway crush for the teenager who Robert Plant and Mick Jagger would come to call “Miss Pamela” was the singer with San Diego band Iron Butterfly. But her relationship with Who drummer Keith Moon was considerably more important, even though she was simultaneously seeing renegade country singer Waylon Jennings. “I was Keith’s LA girl, and there was no doubt about it. I knew that whenever he came to town he’d call no one but me,” Des Barres recalls, wistful even now for the tragic Moon the Loon, who died in 1978 aged 32.
“He was such a needy soul… I was a stabilising thing for him. When he’d wake up screaming about being a murdering fuck [Moon accidentally killed his chauffeur with his Bentley] I could calm him. It was my duty as a muse to take care of this brilliant genius who inspired so many.
“I was the muse,” she adds, “and I don’t care what people say about that. Groupies enhanced these people’s lives in a huge way. And if it weren’t for us, they would not be who they are.” Page was more meaningful still. “I was in love with Jimmy and I was gonna be true to him. At this point I had only slept with four people; people think I was this wild insane maniac!” But then along came Jagger, whom she’d lusted after since her school days. “Mick was number five. He convinced me that Jimmy wasn’t being true to me on the road. So I decided, ‘OK, I’ve wanted this guy forever, I might as well do it.’ And we had this long-term fling that was really awesome.”
Her love of English rock stars eventually propelled Des Barres to Chelsea, in the heart of Swinging London. When two American tourists mistook her for Jagger’s girlfriend she thought she’d attained some kind of nirvana. “Fucking Mick on his pillows in the middle of his living room, listening to Dylan,” Des Barres sighs now, wistful once more. “There was nothing better on earth.”
What was Jagger’s reaction when I’m With The Band was originally published? “He was asked once in Rolling Stone what he thought of the book. He said: ‘I was there.’ It made me feel good. He had no problem with it, in other words. No one has.” So no one tried to sue her? “Absolutely not. Because I was telling the truth, in a sweet way. I was telling my truth.”
Of course, there’s truth then, and there’s perception now. We discuss her friend and fellow groupie Lori Maddox. She’s been dragged into social media “debates” in the #MeToo era from those who decry her losing her virginity to David Bowie at the age of 15. “I’m very proud of Lori for the way she’s handled this whole thing. She’s very proud of her history. She has no regrets at all. A lot of people have come after her and she just doesn’t rise to it.”
Do they come after her because, as she was 15 she was, by definition, abused? “She was not abused,” is Des Barres’s firm conviction. “Because that’s what she wanted. Yeah, she was young. And nowadays 15 is not what it used to be. And prior to that era, 15 was not what it became. It was just a period in time when things like that happened and it was OK! It was a short period in time. But it was our reality, and everyone was OK with it.”
In 1977, Pamela married English rock star Michael Des Barres. He was a raging cocaine addict so she vowed, on the spot, to give up drugs. They had a son together, but divorced in 1991. She’s had a few relationships since then, but is currently single. Today she finds strength in her faith, something that has deepened over the years. As to how she squares her sexual escapades with Christian morality, she acknowledges that, “I fought with it. Until I finally realised that the orgasm – la petite mort – is godly. The orgasm is when you actually forget everything else but that. So you are actually one with all that is. And when the orgasms continued, I came to realise that sex is so good, so important, so connecting with the divine.”
Putting her CV where her soul is, she’s also an ordained minister. Pamela Des Barres can officiate your wedding and throw in, too, eye-popping anecdotes about Jim Morrison getting her off gorilla anaesthetic Trimar, and why she only went to third base with the Kinks’ Ray Davies.
Of course, a switched-on woman whose number plate reads “GROUPIE” can’t be ignorant of how culture has shifted on its axis in the months since Harvey Weinstein was exposed. “I’m concerned that my amazing life will be lumped in with some of that [behaviour]. But it was a whole other universe. And I hope that people will see my life as the choice for freedom. The choice for allowing sex to be a gorgeous, exquisite part of your life as opposed to something scary. And to tell those fuckers, ‘FUCK YOU!’ if they come near you when you don’t want ’em.”
As she considers the new edition of her book, I ask if she has any regrets? She admits, laughing, that she wishes she’d slept with Hendrix when he offered. More soberingly, she mentions Altamont, the 1969 Stones show at which a fan was murdered by Hells Angels. And she recalls a “devastated” Jagger in a hotel room afterwards, saying he was “quitting” and begging her to stay. “He only wanted comfort after that horrific, traumatic experience. But I assumed he wanted a three-way with [the Mamas and the Papas’] Michelle Phillips – I was never into three-ways – and I was completely wrong. To this day I feel bad about that.”
These days, Des Barres still lives for the music. She throws gigs in her backyard, and hosts rock’n’roll tours of “her” LA for tourists. “I’ve become this historical person,” she smiles, “which is so weird.”
But don’t go mistaking that for sadness, an elegy for an era whose time’s up, for a youth wasted. Pamela Des Barres was her own woman then and she’s her own woman now.
“I miss a lot of people who didn’t make it,” she says quietly, “but there are plenty people who did. So, no, I have no sadness about it at all.”
I’m With The Band: Confessions of a Groupie by Pamela Des Barres is published by Omnibus Press at £14.99. Order a copy for £12.74 at guardianbookshop.com
‘We enhanced these people’s lives. Without groupies they would not be who they are’
Happy hour: Pamela Des Barres with Alice Cooper in Los Angeles in 1974
Songs of innocence: (from top) with Keith Moon in Hollywood, 1978; with her band the GTOs (Pamela is in the front) in 1969; and with Jimmy Page in 1973