Celebrating a Lifetime of Controversy with the World's Most Famous Groupie
In honor of her 67th birthday, we talked to the notorious groupie, Pamela Des Barres, about being a "lyric whore," competing with underage girls, and whether or not Mick Jagger's balls belong in the Smithsonian.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Pamela Des Barres has made out with Jim Morrison while high on Trimar, maintained a regular drag dress-up date with Keith Moon, and juggled love affairs with Jimmy Page and Mick Jagger. She is the most famous groupie of all time, and today is her 67th birthday.
As a teenager in the 1960s, Des Barres grew up in the clubs on the Sunset Strip, where future legends like Jim Morrison, the Rolling Stones, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Frank Zappa played. Des Barres was a Paul McCartney-obsessed Beatle freak—at least until she befriended a boy named Victor Hayden who introduced her to his cousin, Captain Beefheart. She was hooked. She devoted her life to music, charming her way up on stage to dance at the Whiskey a Go Go, sewing signature cowboy shirts for the front men she adored, while she and her girlfriends started the first all-girl rock band the GTOs (Girls Outrageously Together). Des Barres was a top-tier groupie, being flown around on private planes with Zeppelin and dancing with Mick Jagger in a living room after party as he asked her opinion on the test pressing of Beggars Banquet.
Four critically acclaimed memoirs, one son and a divorce later, Des Barres is now a creative writing teacher, rock journalist, and multi-published author. Her 1987 debut book I'm with the Band: Confessions of a Groupie was a controversial story of female sexuality, love, power, and rock. After struggling to find a literary agent and a harsh rejection from Random House (Des Barres told me they denied her proposal by saying that I'm With The Band would "never be a book"), Des Barres was pushed to iconic author status when her debut ended up on the New York Times bestseller list for three months straight. Last year, she started a clothing line Groupie Couture and spends most of her time traveling for her writing workshops.
When I visited Des Barres in March to talk about what happens when a groupie becomes a senior citizen, her home looked exactly how I imagined it: plush mauve carpets, a gold velvet couch, and trinkets of idol worship, from her Walt Whitman oil painting to vintage portraits of Elvis Presley. When Des Barres opens the door to greet me, she's wearing a sea green, paisley-patterned maxi dress and a necklace featuring a picture of Bob Dylan and her hair dyed bright auburn. She's barefoot, her manicured toes painted metallic green. She's still music obsessed, a true "lyric whore" as she calls it, and is waiting for the next Elvis to change the overpopulated world.
BROADLY: How has the public's perception of you changed since the 60s and 70s?
Pamela Des Barres: The whole idea of what I am is changing. I used to be considered an anti-feminist: a submissive whore to these men. I've watched for decades as this conversation has turned around really slowly—I did not sit back and hide. I kept teaching, writing books, and expressing my ideas about life. This girl was not just a one-book-wonder hooker. Now I am finally seen as a feminist: a woman who went out and did exactly what she wanted.
Did you imagine yourself becoming an author?
I was an English major, and I always wrote—I kept diaries. When I was living through, in and amongst all of it, I knew I was a part of history. There was so many moments I wanted to last forever, like being on stage with Hendrix or sitting on Page's amp. I knew people would want to know about one day, so I kept very copious diaries. When my son was four years old, I decided to start writing after I had taken a class at Every Woman's Village, which was this place in the Valley where you could do adult education. I wrote the Rolling Stones chapter [in I'm with the Band] first for a piece in my class—those stories were on my mind a lot. Who would believe that in my high school art class I painted what I thought Mick Jagger's balls might look like, and then I went on to find out firsthand exactly what they did look like?
Do you still have all your old diaries?
Oh, yeah. They should be in the Smithsonian. My spiritual advisor told me that I am going to have most of my fame when I am gone, but I can see now, slowly, that I am getting a respect I never had before. When my first book came out, I got such shit for it—AIDS had just happened. I was called a slut and loose so many times you would not believe it. I had to do all these talk shows and the audience would just berate me: "How dare you tell these stories and with rock stars!" Larry King was cool. Geraldo was pretty cool. But the audience was so pissed off at me—a lot of the anger came from other women.
Do you see your influence in today's women?
We created this look that now I guess they call "festival." That's what inspired me to start my online store and fashion line, Groupie Couture. I want girls to dress the way we used to: feminine, flamboyant, outrageous, eye-catching. We wanted to turn heads and express ourselves. We wanted to wake people up.
To me, your band—the GTOs—has always been an inspiration, an early girl rock band that was empowered. Frank Zappa produced and encouraged you without playing puppet master, like Phil Spector did with the Ronettes.
I would love for the GTOs to get the kind of recognition you are talking about. When people think about me, they don't think of the GTOs. They think about a groupie.
I think we could have gone further if some of the girls had not been drug addicts at the time. (Frank was totally anti-drug.) A couple of the girls, Sparky and Lucy, dropped out because they thought we were getting too commercial, which is hilarious. We were about as uncommercial as humanly possible. We were doing interviews and accepting press, [but] that was it—we were performance artists before that was even a thing. The GTO's was a lifestyle.
Was there a lot of fighting and jealousy in the groupie world?
Early on, there was not much jealousy. With the GTOs, we tried to be very careful not to get crushes on the same guys, and usually it worked. We all did have very different tastes. Our female friendships were just as important as our relationships to men, but that definitely changed in the 1970s, when Lori [Mattix] and Sable [Starr]—these very young, young girls—came onto the scene. There girls were 13 and 14 years old. How can you compete with that? Sable was a really bitchy little girl. She said terrible mean things about me, to me, because I was 24 years old when she came around and "over the hill," as she would tell me.
Did anyone ever question this age gap? The pedophilia aspect of it?
No. It was not a "thing." It's a very different reality now. Now, as you know, a lot of rock stars in England are getting busted for [sex they had with teenage groupies]. I mean, if they put Bowie and some of Led Zeppelin on trial today...it was a different time. The girls wanted to be there. The men were not chasing them; those girls' parents certainly did not know what was going on. Nothing was immediate. Months later you would appear in Star magazine beside Jimmy Page. A lot of the times [the affair] was over by the time the article was published.
But [my age] haunted me because I could not compete with these barely bleeding girls. They were getting in my way, in a big fashion, mainly because they were so mean. I was surprised little girls could be so mean. Not so much Lori [Maddox]—she was just following Sable [Starr] around. She was so young, 13 years old. Sable was 14 years old. Those girls were just something new to titillate [the rock stars] because the men were so bored. You have no idea how bored they were. I remember being in a hotel room with Mitch Mitchell, and he started taking furniture apart and gluing it to the ceiling. So, the groupie girls were...
I know these girls today, now. These girls are fine. I am still friends with Lori; she is married to some guy who just designed the new Hyatt. She is fine. The [sexual affairs] did not hurt or damage her or ruin her future. But Lori has had a lot of issues online. People don't believe her stories. They say things like, "No way would Davie Bowie touch a 13-year-old!" Um, yeah right.
What happened to the rest of the girls?
[Sable] eventually settled down in Reno, married, and had kids. She died about ten years ago. Once Sable was out of the music scene, she did not want to talk about it. Lori was different. She's happy about her past—I don't think Sable was. As I said, the new girls were mean-spirited and competitive and I wanted out of that scene.
Do you intimidate people now?
People are intimidated by me—what I am in this town. My last two true loves were 20 years younger than me; both those relationships lasted five years. They were both musicians, and we were connected through music. I don't want to go younger anymore. I want to meet someone close to my age.
I just choose to defy the idea of a "senior citizenship," except when I want my discount. No one believes me when I say I'm a senior at the movies or a thrift store. It's like when I was a teenager. I still have to prove I'm old enough.
Mick Jagger and his ilk have blown out of the water the idea of what a senior citizen—or even the idea of aging. Look at the biggest money maker rock icons who have sustained their careers: the Eagles, the Stones, Paul McCartney. They are all pushing 70-years-old. They are showing the world—and my generation especially—that you do not have to get old until it's really over. These people are proving that we can stay youthful and the reason that means so much to me is simply that I do not want to stop. The attitude of rock n' roll is that you do not stop.
But isn't it different to age as a woman than as a man?
Not so much anymore. There are so many options to take care of ourselves. There is so much I do to stay vital, just like Mick Jagger does. It is certainly perceived differently [though]. Men grow old without so much attention drawn to it. That's the big difference.