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Reading: A Groupie's Claim to Fame

Alongside the vicarious thrill of a fan's passion and the titillation of backstage sex, Pamela Des Barres's updated confession offers something quite frightening.


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The "phallic man" must be a really splendid fellow if he wants to feel like a man at all. However, as soon as he has to be something specific and is not allowed to be what he really is, he loses, understandably, his sense of self. He then tries to blow up his self-esteem, which again leads to narcissistic weakening, and so on, ad infinitum. . . . The grandiose person is never really free, first because he is excessively dependent on admiration from the object, and second, because his self-respect is dependent on qualifications, functions, and achievements that can suddenly fail.

--Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child

They're taking your soul out.

--Boy George fan, in Starlust, Fred and Judy Vermorel, editors

Fuck-and-tell books about rock stars can hardly fail to be a good read, and books by or about fans are generally even more interesting than those about the stars they worship. Judy and Fred Vermorel's British collection Starlust is essential for all students of pop, precisely because it consists of almost nothing but the fans themselves reporting on, and fantasizing about, rock musicians. (Starlust is almost impossible to get hold of here, but the Vermorels are currently working on a U.S. edition.) Pamela Des Barres has had half a lifetime of these dreams and experiences, and despite the lurid supermarketing of her book I'm With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie, her account of the rock biz remains more than just a series of starfucking stories. It gives us some insight into the fame industry, a sense of how it felt to live the 60s as an experience of celebrity (rather than social protest), and it also provides a sometimes morbid sense of what it's like to take the everyday crushes that many of us have on pop stars (mine are Chrissie Hynde and Neil Tennant) and turn them into a way of life.

Pamela Des Barres's journey from teenage fan to groupie to rock star's wife to media celebrity is remarkable, if only for the extraordinary speed with which she climbs the ladder. One moment it seems she's Pamela Miller, a southern California high school kid with a thing for the Beatles and the Stones--yet in no time at all she actually meets Mick Jagger; within another chapter or two she not only beds him, but appears onstage with him, as a member of the GTOs, Frank Zappa's Girls Together Outrageously. As a teenage Beatles fan she manages to look directly into John Lennon's eyes and, albeit with the benefit of hindsight, see this: "On the way down the hill, a limousine passed by, and I saw John Lennon for an instant. He was wearing his John Lennon cap and he looked right at me. If I close my eyes this minute, I can still see the look he had on his face; it was full of sorrow and contempt." Perhaps he saw a disillusioned fan called Albert Goldman coming his way.

Des Barres says she planned a book as long ago as 1968 (it was to be called Groupie Papers). When her 15 minutes in the spotlight eventually came there's no doubt it was well earned and at least as interesting as many of her sexual conquests. You learn quite a lot from this book about the poor, warped psyches of our favorite rock legends. Des Barres encounters the Who's drummer Keith Moon in a series of episodes that are unsurprisingly bizarre, but that shed new light on his "accidental" overdose in 1978. (Rock stars suffer these events with such frequency that calling them accidental is a bit like suggesting that soldiers in combat die from accidental bullets. Des Barres gives some clues to the pathologies behind that.) We see the life on the road of the notorious Led Zeppelin from the point of view of the groupies--and it isn't pleasant. We learn about "plaster casting"--and if you don't already know what that is, then perhaps you shouldn't. We get a taste of what life was like when Des Barres and Don Johnson lived together as a couple of struggling thespians. Most of all, we see Miss Pamela (her GTO name) jumping in and out of bed with famous men who generally don't seem to care very much about her. And sometimes not jumping into bed with famous men who do seem to care about her (Ray Davies, Robert Plant, and Marlon Brando--each one, apparently, a perfect gentleman).

In Pamela Des Barres's groupie world, "obsess" is an important verb. When her beloved Chris Hillman starts playing with the Byrds in Los Angeles, she writes: "I latched onto the Byrds as I had the Beatles, only this time they were local and I could obsess in person." By now, we're reconsidering the caricature of pop fans as mindless victims of music-industry greed. What's so fascinating about pop fandom is that to be a real fan it takes an active, and sometimes creative, engagement with pop culture. Fans produce newsletters, run fan clubs, organize trips to concerts, write poems and letters to their heroes and heroines, analyze lyrics, swap interpretations, argue about critical judgments, and--perhaps--replace "everyday" life with an alternative reality that's more exciting than the one that the world says is their own. Fandom can be a form of creativity, an attempt to muscle in on the act. When one of her idols catches a glimpse of Des Barres, causing him to make a mistake onstage, she is thrilled rather than upset. Obsessing is an activity; it's something that you do, not something that is done to you.

In this process of creativity, fans sometimes start a war against the famous that is crucial to rock meaning. Fans read lyrics and musical meanings in ways that the stars often reject (and sometimes despise). The star wants to talk about his (usually, his ) message. The fan often just wants to talk about the star. After meeting Pete Townshend, Des Barres writes: "I was . . . honored to have spent a few moments with Pete Townshend. He was one of The Ones, I believed, who had been sent from On High to more than entertain us mere mortals. 'From you I see the glory, from you I get opinions . . . From you I climb the mountains, I get excitement at your feet.'" Except that when she quotes from Tommy she inverts the passage's meaning in order to deify Townshend. Generations of pop stars have trod this path, telling their fans (like the Christ figure in Monty Python's Life of Brian) not to follow leaders, and the fans, ever obedient, worship them for saying it.

But there are different kinds of fandom. Some of us maintain a mild fascination with particular pop stars that combines curiosity, admiration, and lust in varying degrees. Others become full-fledged devotees, join fan clubs, and become the completists who are preyed upon by a record business that now dictates that you must buy each cut by your favorite act at least a dozen times if you want to own everything they've recorded. Some fans become groupies--but again there is a progression from those who follow the band around on tour to those who sleep with every rock star who comes through town. Des Barres inhabits a piece of that last bit of terrain. But of course there is another category: the deluded fan. As one, I believe that all David Bowie's songs are addressed personally to me; I become convinced that one day I'll break through from being a mere fan and become Debbie Harry's lover and mentor; I'm stung by the rejection when Bruce Springsteen doesn't reply to my fan letters; eventually I start to hate--until one day I go out and shoot John Lennon.

Des Barres's story never tips over into madness, but it does recall another poignant sign of the times: the culmination of her story is right out of the movie The King of Comedy. By the end of the book--in the postscript to the paperback edition, which covers the year since the hardback came out--Pam the notorious groupie has separated from rock star hubby Michael Des Barres (once the singer with the LA band Detective and later Robert Palmer's replacement in the Power Station) and is a celebrity in her own right. Des Barres found success in the end, and got the adoration she craved all along, but as an author, not a groupie. The irony seems lost on her: "To be on the other side of the adoration--the receiving end, as it were--has been a double eye-opener. When I was out on the road, taking the book from TV show to radio show to bookstore, I had my own groupies. They had GTO albums for me to sign, and they wanted photos taken with me. The look on their faces mirrored my own; how many times had I gazed at someone like that? I appreciated it all the more." But understood it not at all, it would seem.

Still, there's a nice surprise in Des Barres's newfound status. Fame isn't an empty experience after all. You don't claw your way to the top only to discover there's nothing there. There is something: love, recognition, worship, adoration, respect, desire. Contrary to what the rock stars say, it's very pleasant indeed to have people listen to you, take an interest, hang on your every word, lust after your image, etc. Trouble is, of course, that if this recognition is based on the star's need to possess the public's soul, then it's the stars and not the fans who need therapy. At least, I think that's what Alice Miller is saying in The Drama of the Gifted Child.

The relations between stars and their satellites, as the Vermorels showed in their book, isn't always thoroughly benign. But in the end, I don't buy the line that star worship is pathological or the result of a psychically damaging music-industry process that finds its apotheosis in murder and madness. Fandom and paranoid delusion might overlap, but they are not the same thing; the argument that makes no distinction between them resembles the logic that says that everyone who smokes dope becomes a junkie.

The real sadness in this book isn't Miss Pamela's fandom, it's her desire to be a star. There's no necessary correspondence between the two impulses, but in Des Barres's case it's clear that the music biz is stirring up trouble she doesn't even know she's got. If this book is a permanent fix, then good luck to her. But what's disturbing about Des Barres is that even after having, achieved fame, she obviously craves recognition the same way she did as a teenager. We ought to care about this, because it's a fault line in many of us that the music industry taps with cruel disregard for the consequences.

In the end Pamela Des Barres's book offers something rather frightening alongside the vicarious thrill of the passion of fandom and the excitement of a groupie's life. The book reminds me of the scary way people who are cured of dependencies take such a high media profile--the Cosmo articles, the Donahue appearances, the radio interviews. Even as they proclaim their new freedom from whatever addiction afflicted them, you get the feeling they've merely become fame junkies, swapping one drug for another. In that sense Miss Pamela has surely joined the wonderful world of rock and roll for eternity.

I'm With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie by Pamela Des Barres, Jove Books, $3.95 (paper).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David K. Nelson.


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