Being present at the creation has its own rewards. Thankfully, Pamela Des Barres had the presence of mind to write everything down. Long before she became “The Queen of the Rock and Roll Groupies” and hung out with Whisky-a-Go-Go house bands that soon became household names, Pamela Des Barres was a compulsive diarist who filled up notebooks and pined about the musicians she idolized.
She desperately wanted to meet them. And she did.
Joining us in Los Angeles, Pamela Des Barres and her close friend Catherine James gave us the inside view of a rock and roll courtesan (Des Barres prefers the term groupie) during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when we let our hair grow, loosened our conventions, and rock and roll simply ruled. It was a life lived out-loud and it took place in London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, and all parts in-between.
How it began for Pamela. A high school friend of Pamela’s was the cousin of Captain Beefheart, who along with Frank Zappa, influenced a generation of musicians during the 1960’s. Pamela eventually went to work for the Zappa family as their nanny before founding The GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously), which served as an opening act for Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. The GTOs were young women who hung out on The Sunset Strip and were very much part of the scene. Within the space of a couple of years, she had gone from fantasizing about popular music to being in the eye of the hurricane. She remained somewhat anonymous to those outside of the LA music scene until she published I’m with the Band in 1986. It was an immediate best-seller and she followed up with two other memoirs, Take Another Little Piece of My Heart, and “Rock Bottom: Dark Moments in Music Babylon.”
Catherine James emerged from a difficult childhood. She was abandoned by both parents but after a chance meeting with a young Bob Dylan, who said that “it was her life, her gift, and she did not have to follow anybody’s rules.” She escaped from the orphanage and made her way to Greenwich Village. She was 15. By 19, she had a son with Denny Laine of the Moody Blues and later with Paul McCartney’s Wings, lived with Mick Jagger in London, modeled for Wilhelmina, and found herself in Andy Warhol’s crowd. When she doubled for Diane Keaton on a number of her films, the actress encouraged her to write and Catherine published “Dandelion the Memoir of a Free Spirit” in 2007.
It was Pamela’s deep crush for Chris Hillman of The Byrds that drew her further into the Sunset Strip scene. She idolized these musicians and understood them as artists. She noted that Jim Morrison wanted to be a poet and being a rock star was nothing but a way-station, a stop along the route. She saw him arc upward from an art student into a Rock God until alcohol brought him down hard; Morrison, who she once thought was the most beautiful person in the world, was reduced to a overweight and overwrought drunk, one who would get kicked out of the Whisky for behaving badly and interrupting other acts.
Long before the Hard Rock Café opened up their line of hotels, the Continental Hyatt House was ground zero for the mayhem and craziness whenever Led Zeppelin came to Los Angeles. It was close to The Whisky and the management was either forgiving or oblivious and the hotel was soon called “The Riot House.” Led Zeppelin would rent out several floors at a time and John Bonham would ride his Harley up and down the hallways. Robert Plant shouted out that he was “a golden god” from the balcony of his suite, far above the traffic in West Hollywood. Plant, who now has become an avid texter, once held up the start of a concert until Des Barres could arrive.
However, Jimmy Page left quite an impression. She noted in an interview, “Some people just have it. Jimmy obviously has insane charisma and his talent is unsurpassed, innovative and majestic. Not to mention he was the epitome of what a British Rock God should look like: delicate, mysterious, androgynous, sensuous. And he made sure you never really knew what was on his mind. He loved being in control of every situation, still somehow remaining an elegant, intense gentleman…… And I was a joyous, blissed-out basket case when the sun came up.”
“People often ask me whether I felt demeaned,” Pamela noted in a 2007 interview in The Independent, “and I always say it was exactly the opposite of that: it was empowering. Any woman who gets out there, looks on stage and goes after someone who inspires her – that is the ultimate feminist act, surely? Some women like doctors, politicians, football stars – I like musicians, and I was always very focused about who I wanted to be with. I consider myself a sexual pioneer. To me great sex is like touching God, and I was lucky enough to have experienced it to the hilt and wrote about it freely, openly and joyously, when not many other women had.”
James described her journey in delicate terms. With Mick Jagger in hot pursuit, “As I was speaking with Denny (Laine), Mick came into the room and closed the door behind him. I was seated at the desk in a regal, antique high-back chair with ornate carved arms. Mick walked up next to me and just stood there. He was wearing these delicious black-and-white checkered hound’s-tooth wool trousers with a soft cotton white shirt. When I looked over, all I could see was the undulating moving pattern of the hound’s-tooth. Mick didn’t say a word, but I felt the electricity. He was clearly waiting for me to get off the phone.” The rest is left to our collective imagination.
Times have changed but the song remains the same. “Women still have the same desire to be with people who are in the limelight, who are talented and inspiring and who make a good living,” says Pamela, “but a lot of things have changed in the outside world. When John Lennon was shot, security became tighter and then AIDS came along and it could no longer be as free as it was – but the same attraction is there. These days we might be more cautious, but there are still many well-known women who are repeatedly pulled into the rock-star orbit.”
Pamela and Catherine are part of a larger sisterhood that emerged for a brief period in the 1960’s, when groupies who followed bands while on tour or met them when they came to town. They were smart and perceptive free spirits who entered the world of rock and roll with their eyes wide open. They knew that “the life” was not some church social and that wandering eyes came with the territory, but they loved the music and idolized those who created it; any heartache was worth the ride.
To the surprise of nobody, this sisterhood continues and many of the friendships have remained as their lives have taken divergent paths. Patti D’Arbanville became a successful actress, Cynthia Plaster Caster became an artist and ran for mayor of Chicago, Cherry Vanilla became a publicist for David Bowie and handles the publishing issues for a number of artists, and Cassandra Peterson answered an open call for a Los Angeles television station and within a short time, she created the character of a lifetime, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
Time has a way of healing old heartaches. Jim Morrison, Keith Moon Gram Parsons and others died before they reached their prime. Captain Beefheart passed away in 2010 after a long battle with MS and Jeff Bridges eulogized him at the end of his Saturday Night Live appearance. Groups that once owned the Sunset Strip have faded into obscurity, retirement, or if talent and good fortune merged–enshrinement in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Catherine James eventually returned to California where she lives today, not too far away from Pamela Des Barres. Old relationships were rebuilt. Pamela teaches a number of writing classes geared toward women and has emerged as a gifted teacher. The music scene has changed and there are still artists Pamela finds appealing but in her mind, they don’t make Rock Gods like Robert Plant or Jimmy Page anymore.
But one night I found myself watching Chris Hillman give a lecture at the Library of Congress that somehow found its way on to C-Span. I was going through a number of work-related speadsheets and within a few minutes, I put down my work to pay closer attention. It was an engrossing oral history of how folk became electrified as it wove its way through the LA music scene in the mid 1960’s.
Once the fame has mellowed and the ego no longer needs to beat the wheel, once the drugs have lost their allure, and when the next big thing has come and gone, it all comes down to the music. Perhaps Pamela and Catherine understood that long before any of us did.
The Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Boston. We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result. There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.