After Flavor Flav's Flavor of Love hook-up took off, Brett Michaels of Poison fame has recently been giving rocker chicks with quick tongue reflexes air time on VH-1's Rock of Love. Watching hair-metal groupies do the mini-skirt-scoot toward infamy is trashy viewing pleasure of the highest and lowest caliber. Pit a couple of shameless souls against one another for the affection of a fickle music dude, and ratings could fly. I can't imagine the same drama playing out for, say, a dashing author. Backstage-passers and their temporary paramours have a certain je ne sais quoi that can't be beat, even if you have to avert your eyes and your pride watching these women scramble for scraps. When it comes to the music game, though, sexual tension can be a grand part of the show. And having had my fair share of band crushes over the years, it's also a thrilling part of the spell pop music casts, so long as you don't lose grip on reality.
The lustful fan is a more complicated character than the quick television edits dictate. Modern groupies want their 15-minute share of fame, asserting themselves through tawdry memoirs and talk show gigs. They're passing along trivia about penis size, championing songs written in their honor, and demanding a place in show-biz history. In short, these women want to be known for more than blow jobs which would be admirable if they had more to add to the discussion than whose dicks ended up in their grip.
Old-school groupie Pamela Des Barres has made a career of talking about her rock-star exploits, arguing that she is as valuable a part of the music scene as the bands that surrounded her. She comes to town this week to further provoke questions on the place of the horny female fan with her latest salacious tome, Let's Spend the Night Together: Backstage Secrets of Rock Muses and Supergroupies. (She reads at Booksmith on Friday, July 27, at 7 p.m.)
I'd first read Des Barres as a kid, when her famous memoir I'm With the Band came out in the '80s. It was an era before gossip sites and Behind the Music episodes, and her lascivious stories about Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger, and Keith Moon made for juicy under-the-covers reading. She gave me entry into a world I had no access to otherwise, adding flame to my imaginary make-out sessions with rock stars.
All of which is great when you're 13. But all these years later, Let's Spend the Night Together is an uncomfortable read. Although it's not for Des Barres' lack of trying to be both playful and empowered, as she interviews two dozen groupies and tries to hammer home repeatedly how few regrets her subjects harbor.
Des Barres' purple prose attempts to paint every tale as giggly slumber-party gossip, and, as the title suggests, the author wants to cast these women as inspirations for the Iggy Pops and Elvises they screwed. But there's more darkness in these oral histories than artistic catalysts. To wit: Jimmy Page had a fling with Lori Lightning when he was 29 and she was just 13, an age difference that's downright creepy. Page's bandmate, Robert Plant, is described as flitting between his wife and her sister-in-law, while a heartbroken teenager named Michele Overman gets lost in the shuffle. After Cherry Vanilla bags a member of the Guess Who, she hitchhikes her way to his tour bus, only to find he's given her the shaft. Not the typical conduct you'd expect between men and their mentors.
Young girls are pawned off on roadies, given STDs and drugs, slapped around, and ignored completely when a better piece of ass comes around. Some are even interchangeable by their own admission, as Dee Dee Keel tells Des Barres, "I would say to certain musicians, I'll be your L.A. girl because I wanted to be something some kind of monumental thing to them." And yet these women keep trying to claim some status from between the sheets.
The respite from desperation comes from the women who've made more of their lives than recounting the bedpost notches they carved 40-something years ago. Cynthia Plaster Caster is a funny and charming interview subject, having made her legacy as an artist making molds of rock penises from Hendrix to Jello Biafra (an equal-opportunity sculptor, she later included casts of female musicians' breasts in her collection). Elvira (yes, she was a groupie back in the day) built her niche as Mistress of the Dark, and Margaret Moser is a writer and part of the Austin music industry down at SXSW. But for each of these careerists is another middle-aged woman who still refers to sex as "servicing" a musician for the music he wrote.
The one male groupie in the mix is Pleather, a 32-year-old straight guy who offers Des Barres memories of Courtney Love and L7. His women-worshipful attitude is a fresh change of pace from the book's general tone that rock is a man's world (which ladies snuggle their way into), but in the end, Pleather's kiss 'n' tell admissions feel less like table-turners and more like tabloid trivia.
Of course, groupies can sleep with whomever the hell they want. And yeah, taking home a performer can add new thrills to a random sexual encounter. But Des Barres is married to this concept that her groupies are different from today's loose ladies jacking off drummers she quotes Bebe Buell saying, "I'm sick and tired of being associated with scantily clad girls with no eyebrows and silicone breasts." But the author offers little evidence as to the difference between yesterdays' gypsy girls and today's gummy-boobed groupies, when in the end so many of the affairs seem to involve the same love-'em-and-leave-'em attention spans from the male rock stars.
In today's world, women are involved in all facets of the music community, from playing in bands to managing them, writing about them, booking them, and, sure, sleeping with them, too. But let's celebrate booty calls for what they are, and leave the term "muse" for the women who contribute more than their flesh. Yoko Ono and Courtney Love have both been reviled as groupies, but these women worked in artistic fields alongside their former spouses and created music long after becoming widowers. Women who want a piece of music-industry action can share in locker room talk, but it's a hell of a lot more compelling when their war stories involve using their brains as much as they do balling dudes.