originally published December 9, 2013
I’ve got a picture, with me on the left, and beside me is singer/songwriter/reality show judge Ben Folds, one of my favorite talents in all three of his fields. On the right, there’s a groupie. Not one of Ben’s – she’s actually one of those women who gets all swoon-tastic over writers indulging in ridiculous online projects, enough to marry one. Fame most definitely has its perks.
This was the only time I waited after a show to meet the performer. I have never possessed the dedication or desire to be a true groupie, and it’s not because many of my favorite artists are deceased (though they are). Being a groupie takes time, it takes perseverance, and it takes a healthy splatter of crazy across the bubbly surface of one’s brain. It’s not a commitment that necessarily commands respect or admiration, but it’s certainly something to marvel at. Like someone who collects a basement full of old beer cans.
Among the field of groupies, as with everything else, there are some stand-outs. Heading up a fan club is nothing, building a shrine in the corner of your bedroom is amateur hour. If you want them to scootch clear a little spot for you on a shelf in the Groupie Hall o’ Crazy, you’ve got a high standard to meet.
Pamela Des Barres has literally made a living as a groupie. With four books, a steady online writing gig, her own ‘Groupie Couture’ clothing line, and sufficient exposure to lead to a music and acting career of her own, Pamela is the queen of the superfans. She hung out with the Byrds when she was only in high school and later babysat Frank Zappa’s kids. As a teenager she moved to the Sunset Strip so she could be closer to the heart of the Los Angeles music scene – Pamela wasn’t just a fan, she was an insider.
Her list of ‘sexual targets’ (and I’m not going to assume she actually slept with all these people… actually, yes I am. It’s a better story that way) includes Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, Keith Moon, Gram Parsons, Noel Redding of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Waylon Jennings, Chris Hillman of the Byrds, Nick St. Nicholas of Steppenwolf, and a slew of film and television talent, like Don Johnson, Michael Richards and Woody Allen. She was a busy girl.
Cynthia Albritton, better known as Cynthia Plaster Caster, has also successfully derived a respectable income from her groupie ways. Cynthia’s focus wasn’t so much on the music, the scene, or even on how physically appealing the targets of her admiration may have been. No, Cynthia was all about the wang. She famously cast the phalluses (phalli?) of her favorite performers in plaster. The results have been received as art, and have given Cynthia a curious but definitive spot in rock history.
Jimi Hendrix was the first subject of her handiwork. Other lucky models include Eric Burdon, Keef Hartley, Jello Biafra and drummer Ricky Fataar. She has also branched out across the gender line, casting the breasts of a number of singers and musicians, as well as herself. Some may see this as a low-brow way to show one’s appreciation for an artist. I would disagree; sure, it wasn’t Hendrix’s schlong that produced all that incredible music, but the schlong was in the room. And no one else came up with this idea; Cynthia deserves at least a few points for stunning originality.
Pamela Des Barres may have worked the L.A. music scene like a seasoned pro, but she was by no means the sole crown-holder. Sable Starr shuffled onto the scene a few years later, taking control of the Sunset realm in the early 1970’s. Sable started young, slipping into the Whiskey A Go Go when she was just fourteen. While a list of her sexual exploits is not presented, at least not in the few places I’ve been researching, her friends list is an impressive roster of stars: Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, Alice Cooper, David Bowie, Rod Stewart and Marc Bolan. She was also in a romantic relationship with Iggy Pop for a while, which I imagine would have led to some fascinating conversations around the breakfast table.
Sable and Pamela were anything but compadres on their journey into the weird. Pamela referred to Sable as a “hideous tartlet” who “thought she invented nipples and pubic hair.” Sable was known for getting into some verbal scrapes with other groupies, and even with Bianca, Mick Jagger’s wife. She drifted toward New York as the punk scene exploded there, but by the 80’s she was working as a blackjack dealer in Reno. She never scored a big book deal to draw in some money from her efforts, and tragically brain cancer yanked her from the mortal plane in 2009.
Bebe Buell got her start in the pages of Playboy, appearing as Miss November in 1974. Actually, by then she was already romantically linked to Todd Rundgren, but her bedpost would go on to rack up a number of fairly impressive notches after the centerfold shoot. These include Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Mick Jagger (whose name always seems to pop up in great groupie stories), Elvis Costello, Jimmy Page, and Barry Cowsill of the Cowsills. She also dated John Taylor of Duran Duran and the Power Station, and recorded a 4-song EP in 1981 with the Cars as her backing band.
The most significant event in Bebe’s groupiedom is without question the birth of her daughter, Liv Tyler. Bebe didn’t want Liv to be exposed to Steven Tyler’s drug addiction, so for the first nine years of Liv’s life, she was raised as Todd Rundgren’s child. To Todd’s credit, he stuck around and helped to raise the kid, even after Liv found out her true parental lineage.
Frank Zappa, who to my knowledge was not known for dipping his manhood into the groupie well (though it was a significant narrative theme on the Joe’s Garage album, so who knows?), helped a number of groupies sneak in the back door of the industry. He produced the band known as the GTOs, which featured Pamela Des Barres and a number of other groupie-girls who were hovering around the L.A. scene in the late 60’s.
The band only put out one album. Still, it was a little claim to their own fame. I found a track on Youtube, though I’d warn you not to get your hopes up. The GTOs will never find a place among the great artists of 1969, but they are significant enough to warrant a mention.
It’s easy to dismiss the life of a groupie as wasted and unfulfilled, living for the sweat and swagger of talented icons and foregoing any real sense of personal achievement. But without groupies, would there be rock n’ roll? Their stories may only fill the tiniest of cracks upon the genre’s scaly walls, but at least they helped to make the scene a little more colorful.