When I was a teenager, my idea of a wild night was drinking a bottle of Zima in a field in rural Alabama. When Pamela Des Barres was a teenager, she was sitting atop the amplifier on stage at a Led Zeppelin show before spending the night with Jimmy Page. When she wasn’t on the road, she served as a nanny for Frank Zappa’s daughter Moon Unit and—along with her girlfriends—inspired him to create the all-girl group The GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously). Affectionately known as “Miss Pamela” to her fans and paramours, Des Barres is a legend of the ‘60s and ‘70s groupie scene. She is said to have been one of the women who inspired Cameron Crowe to craft the Penny Lane character in the 2000 film Almost Famous, his ode to backstage life in the heyday of rock’n’roll.
While Miss Pamela doesn’t live in the past, she has smartly leveraged her unique experiences to her own gain by penning multiple books that give readers a peek into the world behind the velvet rope. Her latest book, Let It Bleed: How to Write a Rockin’ Memoir (published by TarcherPerigee), is a writer’s guide and the natural evolution of the workshops she has been hosting for nearly 20 years. I spoke with her in advance of her June workshop and reading at Art Klub and got the dirt on which seminal musician she most regrets passing on, how the rock gods of the 1970s might have fared in the era of #metoo, and what Almost Famous got wrong.
To you, what differentiates a fan from a groupie? Were all the groupies you knew actually fans first? Or was it really just about the fame/attention/sex for some of them?
First of all, [my first book] I’m With The Band is the real story of Almost Famous. Cameron kind of stole my persona and I got nothing out of it. Kate [Hudson, who played Penny Lane] told me I was her inspiration. I know many people love that movie and I get it. It probably is the best rock’n’roll film ever made. But Kate’s character called herself a band-aid because groupie was a negative term, right? Well I’ve been trying to save and redeem that word most of my life. I’m not making much headway! [laughs] To me, a groupie is just someone who wants to hang out with the musicians that make them feel good. That’s what a groupie is—boy or girl. And you know, sometimes relationships evolve or even just one night stands. I never had any of those because I was looking for a romantic relationship with someone. I wanted to be enmeshed in that world and be a part of it, and in those days it was very hard for a woman to do that. There were no girl rock bands really. There was Grace Slick of course. But there were no all-girl bands until the GTOs came along. Frank Zappa created it out of a group of groupie dancers. We were just wild, crazy girls. The difference between a fan and a groupie to me is that a groupie won’t just sit in the audience and be content to sit in the audience. It starts with being a fan of someone’s music of course, but then you just have to take it to the next step. Or try to—right now it’s a much harder time to do those things. In my day, you could wander into the Whisky a Go Go—which was like my living room—and you could bump into all The [Rolling] Stones and a couple Beatles and The Doors. You know, everybody hung out. There was also no barrier of any kind between the girls and the guys. I mean that in many different senses. There was no barrier psychologically because John Lennon hadn’t been killed yet; there was no barrier sexually really because there was no AIDS or anything that horrible that could happen to you; there was no barrier between energies because it was the ‘60s and everybody was all about peace and love and connection. It was very different—let’s put it that way.
So eventually you fell in love. You got married and had a son. Did that feel like a natural time to close this chapter of your life? Did you ever get tired of the “lifestyle” before that point?
Well, people think of it as a lifestyle like I didn’t do anything else, but you’ve read I’m With The Band so you know I had all kinds of jobs. I traveled and was a spiritual speaker; I did all kinds of things besides lust after musicians.
I was thinking more along the lines of the transitory nature of being on the road all the time with different bands. Tour life can be a grind. Did you ever get tired of that?
No [laughs]. But all throughout my groupie days I was looking for a husband, for someone to be with and someone to “settle down with.” And when I met Michael and he fell madly in love with me and proposed, it was just the right timing. It was perfect. Because I didn’t really even leave the scene—he was a musician after all. But the girls were getting younger and were making fun of us “older” girls. Harder drugs were coming along and it just wasn’t the same vibe. So it was the perfect time for me to meet Michael. I met him on a movie set when Keith Moon didn’t show up to play his role. That’s how that happened.
Life is life and we learn from the good and bad of course, but is there anything you wish you had done differently during that season of your life?
I don’t believe in regrets because there’s nothing you can do about it and it’s like banging your head against the wall. I have regrets about things I didn’t do… things that came my way that I didn’t actually take advantage of. A lot of it has to do with Mick Jagger, because he kinda came after me. People ask me, “How did you meet these people?!” but sometimes they wanted to meet me. Mick Jagger pursued me, but I was seeing someone else at that time. Even before then, he’d tried to get me to stay with him at Altamont and I didn’t do it. But that’s a regret I have—not spending more time with him when I could have. I was seeing him when I was in England, but then I went to another part of Europe for a while. When I got back, I called him and Bianca answered the phone. And that was that, you know. I couldn’t see him anymore [laughs]. I could’ve met Elvis and I didn’t do that because I’d just gotten engaged to Michael and I didn’t want to chance ruining things. But still… it was Elvis! My friend Larry Geller, who wrote one of the great books on Elvis, called me. He was his hairdresser and his spiritual advisor and he called and said that Elvis wanted some girls to come hang out with him and some of the boys to watch TV. And I said no! I can’t even imagine it now. I’m such an Elvis freak and I became even more of one after he passed. But now I look around my house and I’ve got Elvis on velvet and Elvis paintings and Elvis statues and lamps… and I could’ve had that experience—whatever it might’ve been—but I didn’t take it. So I do regret a few things!
I was actually going to ask if there was anyone you wish you could’ve been involved with that you weren’t, so I guess Elvis would be #1 on that list. Anyone else?
Elvis would be numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 probably [laughs]. If I were younger, there are some people I would’ve hoped to dally with and certainly one of those would be Jack White. Even though my last two loves were 20 years younger than me, Jack is still a little too young! But I admire him and I love what he’s doing. Most men—almost all men—if you appreciate what they do and what they’re giving to the world, they will want you around them.
“Many people, feminists included, saw groupies as submissive women because they were with rock guys. That was the last thing I was; I was doing exactly what I wanted to do.”
I know you’ve held back some details, but has anyone been upset with the things you’ve shared about your time with them?
Nope. Because I never put anything negative about other people in my work; I was telling my story and my truth. I was actually one of the first “nobodies” to write a memoir. These days everyone writes memoirs. If you win a farting contest in Kentucky, you can write a memoir about it! But back then no one was doing that. So I feel like I opened a door for a lot of people to start writing their stories down, which is why I teach women’s memoir writing now.
How is your relationship with those former paramours these days? Do you keep up with anyone?
Well, Keith Moon died. Noel Redding died. Zappa. A lot of my people are gone, sadly. But the ones who are alive, yes I’m in touch with them. Except for Mick Jagger. He’s like the pope! You can’t get to him.
So you were both a nanny for Frank Zappa’s children and a member of the GTOs. I feel like he’s sort of a misunderstood figure in rock history. What is something about him that you feel like people didn’t really “get” or see because they didn’t know him personally?
I lived in the house for years and he still remained mysterious. He would disappear to the basement where his recording studio was and just be in there for hours on end. He never took drugs and he really scorned people who did. I had to hide all that from him. Granted, he was pretty naive about it because he never did it, so you could hide that from him. But he was so focused on his music and his creative output that it came before anything—including his family and friends. But he was very encouraging. He could find your creativity—he knew everybody had it—and he could pull it out of you. He could see your lurking madness and he wanted you to go as far as you could. He wanted to make you become more of who you were. He was very good at that. Of course we were teenage girls. People forget that, but like when I was seeing Jim Morrison, he was 21 and I was 17. We were kids, really. But Frank’s art, aside from his incredibly genius music, was to pull out everyone’s creativity.
As you mentioned earlier, I’m With The Band sort of blew the door open on memoirs of that type. What compelled you to write it in the first place?
Well, I kept diaries constantly. I carried them around with me wherever I went. They were always in my bag, so they were very, very immediate. I just wanted to preserve the moment. Sort of like [how] Frank wanted to preserve moments in time. That’s how the GTOs came about: he wanted to preserve these crazy girls’ antics in the ‘60s in Laurel Canyon and on the [Sunset] Strip, so he asked us to write songs about our lives. And I wanted to preserve that time too. It was a time of musical renaissance and I knew it even when I was a kid. Even when I was living it, I knew that. And I knew people would want to know what it was like in that world. Twenty years later, I did an interview with Stephen Davis, who wrote Hammer of the Gods, which is about Zeppelin. That book was one of the first rock books to make The New York Times Best Seller list, which actually helped me get my deal. After the interview, Stephen said to me, “You should write your own book,” which was really encouraging. At the same time, I was attending creative writing workshops every once in a while and I started writing about my Rolling Stones obsession in class and how I tried to meet Mick when I was just a kid. The teacher said, “Oh my God! This could be a memoir.” When both of those things happened simultaneously, I said to myself, “I guess I better get started!” I was 35 and my son had just started school, so I had some time. But it wasn’t a quick sell; it took a long time to sell it. I actually have a letter from a publisher at Random House who said, “This will never be a book—maybe an article in Rolling Stone.” So when I got to #6 on the bestseller list, I sent him a copy of the book with a copy of the letter he had sent me and a clipping of the bestseller list [laughs]. And I was a woman too! I mean, I’ve been a feminist forever. And many people, feminists included, saw groupies as submissive women because they were with rock guys. That was the last thing I was; I was doing exactly what I wanted to do. And I wrote my memoir as a young woman and I’m pretty proud of that. I went on to write five more books and I love teaching my writing workshops. I do all kinds of things. I don’t ever want people to think that I live in the past. People always want to talk about it and I probably should’ve known when I started writing that people would always come up to me and ask, “What was Jim Morrison really like?” [laughs] But it’s telling that the music being made during that time frame still titillates people way more than what’s being made right now.
Like you said, you journaled heavily during that time. Do you ever look back on those and feel silly or strange? I find so much of what I wrote at 19 or 20 to be sort of painful to read now, and I wasn’t detailing such intimate moments!
No, I don’t really. I think it shows where I came from and what got me to where I am right now, which is a pretty content person. I’m happy to be who I am. And it shows your growth. In fact, I threw in a lot of really embarrassing passages from my diary in the book, and I think that’s why so many people—especially women—can relate to it. Because like you just said, we all said really stupid things at that age. And I revealed that, so people could relate to it. I didn’t hold back anything about myself. But I definitely held back certain things about people that I knew might hurt them; and I also didn’t get graphic.
You often joke that women who are uptight about your writing and your tales are just jealous. That’s probably true for many of them. You got to see a side of these famous men that most will never see. Was there anyone you were involved with who shocked you? Anyone who was just totally different in person than you had imagined they would be?
No [laughs]. Men are men. They’re predictable in a lot of ways. Jimmy Page was someone who, even though I spent a lot of time with him, remained mysterious. Because he wanted to; that was part of his persona. But you have to remember too, I was very, very young when I was doing these things. So I had to act “as if” a lot of the time. I had to act as if I belonged on the stage with Led Zeppelin or The Stones or The Doors or The Who, which is something we all have to do at some point in our lives: think to ourselves, “I’ll get through this. I can fit in here. I can do this!”
It’s pretty well known that most of the rockstars of that age were heavy into booze and drugs of all varieties. But you never really got super deep into that world. Do you feel like being more clear-headed during this time gave you a vantage point nobody else had? Like maybe you remember things more vividly and accurately because of it?
Oh definitely. A lot of the girls were going along with the guys and getting as high as they were. I’m just not prone to addiction, which is a blessing. Now I did get too high, many different times. I wish I hadn’t gotten as high, especially when cocaine came around. I was never an addict, but it’s the truth that everyone I went out with was. I think it’s probably because my dad was an alcoholic, if you want to get psychiatric about it. I never thought of it at the time—I just assumed every dad drank 24 beers on the weekend. But looking back it’s clear that he was an alcoholic. So I guess I was attracted to that. I always wanted to fix, to uplift, to inspire… to “be there for my man.” But you know what? I’m no longer a fixer. People are gonna do what they’re gonna do and you cannot make them do something else.
“If you let your ego get involved at all, it will shut you down.”
Tell me a little about the politics of the groupie world. Almost Famous paints a very supportive picture of how the girls interacted with each other and how they (mostly) moved from band to band and tour to tour without emotional hang-ups or drama. Was it really that way? Or was there more to it?
With the GTOs, we were like that. But that movie was supposed to be set in 1974 or ‘75 and by that time, things had gotten pretty cutthroat. The girls were real, real young—they didn’t show any of that—and they wanted the guys and were trying to get the older groupie girls out of the way. It became pretty awful. Then I met Michael and I just wanted out of that world. The movie was very whitewashed. It’s almost like a fairytale version of what really happened. It was way more amplified than that. And another thing that really bothered me about that movie—besides having my persona stolen—was the fact that Kate’s character tried to kill herself over a rock guy. No groupie would do that. Groupies, no matter whether they’re with someone for an hour or a year, would kill themselves over any rock guy—because there was always another rock guy coming down the pike. That pissed me off because it’s such a misogynistic view of a woman: “Oh, this woman loves this rock guy so much she’s gonna kill herself.” For a lot of the girls, it was just fun. It was one of the only times in the history of the world that was really sexually free and people took advantage of that. They didn’t fall in love all the time. I fell in love a couple different times, but I did not fall in love with Mick Jagger or Keith Moon. They were my guys of the time and I spent a lot of quality time with them. We had sexual relations and fun and I helped them with their wardrobes or whatever, but I didn’t fall in love with them. You knew who to fall in love with. Jimmy Page was someone who made you feel like he was in love with you. He would say those kinds of things, so you had hope. And I was a very very romantic person. Not all of the girls were, necessarily. They were happy with short-term, or whenever the guy was in town or whatever. And there was no internet or Instagram or any of that shit where you could find out what they were up to or who they were seeing. Everything just sort of happened and it was lovely that way. Zeppelin would come to L.A. and base there; they’d come back and forth between there and all the cities on their tour. The wives didn’t know that; the wives never knew what they were up to. Now, none of that can happen.
There are a million warring schools of thought within feminism. Some of them would hail you as an independent, assertive, sexual being, where others would say you were used and abused by these famous men.
If they think that, they have no idea who I am. There was no abuse in my world that I knew of. I certainly was never abused by anyone. You know, I’d fall in love with someone and ultimately they’d break my heart, but that happens to everybody in every walk of life. It has nothing to do with being a musician or a groupie. I get so mad about that… when people insist that I was used. But it’s a constant thing I have to argue, especially now with #metoo.
How do you think the bands you hung out with back then would fare now in the age of #metoo? Do you feel like their escapades would sink their careers?
Well that’s an impossible thing to ponder. It was a whole different era. I can’t even think of an example that could show you how different it was then from how it is now. It was like another planet! The things that people did back then… it was just life to us. Rock’n’roll was this little pocket of madness that the rest of the world wasn’t in on. Everything that went on fit the era. Nothing’s perfect and I’m sure there are some girls who felt abused, but I didn’t and none of my friends did. There were times when I thought, “Oh my God, how did I get myself here?” but it wasn’t because I was afraid of anything. It was just too heavy. It was profound. I was with these incredibly brilliant people and I was just overwhelmed to find myself there, but I was never afraid of them.
You’re doing these workshops and, in them, talking to women about the power of telling their stories. How do you think revealing details about your past can function as a stepping stone to empowerment for women?
When people come to class, they’ve often read my books and they feel comfortable with me because I’ve shared. So they come ready to share and ready to release some stuff. And they often find out that way more comes out of them than they ever would have imagined. I give prompts and they write three different assignments a night for homework. Another bonus is that like-minded, music-loving women come together and they discover, “Wow, there’s more people like me!” and they become lifelong friends. That’s been an amazing bonus that I didn’t expect. Also, I was once a fearful public speaker. I spoke at colleges and festivals early on, but I was petrified about it. I would worry about it for weeks ahead of time, but not after my writing class. And for these women, it’s the same for them. Once they’re in a small group of writers, interacting, it removes a lot of fear. All kinds of things can happen!
What drew you to start the writing workshops? You’ve been doing them for a while now, but mostly in L.A. right?
Eighteen years total. But I started traveling with them I think 12 years ago. I started in Austin because my goddaughter lives there. But they originally came about because Moon Zappa told me about a writing class that I could take. In between my books I liked to brush up and try to stay creative. So I went to this class and I realized halfway through that I could be teaching it, and I probably should be teaching it. I was looking for ways to make a living creatively and it just worked. I did it on MySpace; that’s how I got people that first go-round. And they just walked through the door, these brave girls, and I came up with some assignments… about 12 minutes each. It seemed like the right amount of time. The secret is not to think; you just have to let it flow out of you like Dylan does. He says he has no idea where his shit comes from [laughs].
Don’t overthink it.
Well, more like don’t think at all, really. If you let your ego get involved at all, it will shut you down. It’s kind of a spiritual experience as well. And there are a lot of laughs; we laughed so hard the other night we were crying. It’s a very healing experience as well. A lot of people cry when they write about things. I can’t tell you how many times one of these girls has told the group, “I’ve never even said these things aloud.” It’s a very safe place; it’s pretty miraculous. This is one of my first times doing this in New Orleans, which is one of my favorite cities in the world, so I’m really excited.
Your last book was a sort of how-to for folks who want to write a memoir. But what if someone looks at their own life and finds it dull in comparison with your exploits? What would you tell someone who says that their life isn’t worthy of a memoir?
I’d make sure they know right away that everyone’s life is worth writing about—for whatever reason you want to do it. A lot of times people don’t want to get published. They just want to express themselves. But it’s been proven over and over again that “nobodies” sell a lot of memoirs. People are curious about other people’s lives and they don’t have to be fraught with drama. Well, everybody’s life is fraught with drama in some way, right? But there are things you can share with people that can help them. Things that you might not think would touch someone can change someone’s life. I really believe everybody has a story in them that’s worth telling and worth reading. I love Stephen King and I always recommend his book, On Writing, but he says something in that book that I don’t agree with, and that’s that you are born a writer. I totally disagree with that. I think everybody can do it. I really believe everybody’s a writer. You just have to write!
Art Klub hosts An Evening With Pamela Des Barres on Thursday, June 21. It will include readings from Pamela as well as a Q&A with local scribe Alison Fensterstock, followed by a ‘60s dance party helmed by DJ Lingerie. Pamela’s writers’ workshop will take place Saturday, June 23 and Sunday, June 24 at Art Klub. For more info, visit pameladesbarres.net.
illustrations EDEN CHUBB