“The only true currency in this bankrupt world…
is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool”.
Lester Bangs (1967)
Within the broad metropolis of the 60s, there were suburban ecosystems, each contributing some unique facet to the whole. Music was the glue that made substance from abstract socio-political form. Musicians were allowed much artistic freedom to explore their world, painting pyrotechnic visions from a multicolor palate, interpreted with virtually total abandon.
For a variety of reasons, musical artists were protected from the longstanding rules of societal propriety that had percolated through the ages. As long as these artists continued to ply their art, enriching those attached to them in the process, they were allowed any endeavor they dreamt of, protected from any consequence thereof.
We understand the progress of the play by watching the players. An alternate universe of unconventional social and political mores passing through much optimistic iteration ultimately to end in a fatal mutation. In turn, we are allowed to view the aftermath of this progression as astronomers view dying galaxies from a safe distance. The consequences of “no limits”.
So emerges an interesting anthropologic question. In the absence of any constraining socialization, what would Homo sapiens evolve to? It’s said that following long periods of isolation, Antarctic explorers stopped shaving or bathing, ate with their fingers and ignored waist high refuse in their living area. Lifers in prison with no hope of parole turn into monsters; survival of the most gratuitously brutal. What then might be the social evolution of otherwise spoiled, unremitting adolescents in the presence of bottomless candy jars. If man is left to his preternatural inclinations, what are those desires and how do they proceed in real life?
A perusal of the genre of 60’s Rock artists clearly turns up four primal desires: Sex, drugs, rock & Roll and cheap thrills. (Somewhere Janis is laughing). Given that a primal need for these artists (and everyone else) is sex, we now introduce Miss Pamela Des Barres, groupie par excellence and high priestess of sexual gratification on demand for Rock artists. Now a matronly (but still very attractive) 62 years of age, Pam was there for all of it in the 60s. The Doors, Frank Zappa, Hendrix, Rolling Stones, Byrds, Iggy Pop and the heaviest of the heavy metal bands Led Zeppelin, from which came her relationship with Jimmy Page extensively chronicled in her first book: “I’m with the band: Confessions of a groupie” (1987).
Miss Pamela is an absolutely fascinating, personable woman, an excellent writer and a spellbinding witness to another era. I devoured her book and I am quite interested in putting it in some kind of perspective for you. If you really want to understand the world of sex, drugs, rock & roll and cheap thrills, Miss Pamela is an authoritative, lyrical and entertaining tour guide.
The groupie scene in the 60s pitched the limitless libido of young males stoked on a limitless supply of mind-altering substances, a limitless incentive for self-gratification and a virtually limitless supply of nubile young females right in the middle of their “girls just want to have fun” phase. Pamela surmises that the combination of the two equals the perfect rock & roll nirvana. A meeting of the irresistible force and fathomless respondent.
But although her descriptions are meticulously accurate, I take issue with Mill Pamela’s authentication of them.
Miss Pamela says in one of her books that being a groupie was much more than servicing the whims of rock stars:
“Being a real groupie is a talent on its own, and not one that can be performed by just anyone. Sex, while an important part of the groupie experience, is only one facet of the whole picture. A true groupie has a deep connection both to the music and the dimension in which musicians exist when they are performing. Rock’*’ roll is a ritual and groupies are the high priestesses.”
“We inspired the guys as much as we were inspired by them. It was very equal. They loved us because we dared to have a blast. We looked after them, picked their clothes and showed them the best restaurants to go to. I made cowboy shirts for Jimmy Page”.
“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.”
As pleasing to the ear as it might seem, I think Miss Pamela’s view is logically lopsided.
I think the recent film “Almost famous” written and previously experienced by writer/ producer Cameron Crowe brought a much more realistic perspective to the issue of groupies. Rock stars are accurately portrayed as absorbed by whatever gives them the most bang for their self-indulgent buck at the moment. Groupies are accurately depicted as currency in that transaction, but a currency traded on a capriciously alternative exchange.
In her most recent book: “Let’s Spend the Night Together: Backstage Secrets of Rock Muses and Super-groupies , Miss Pamela interviews a multiplicity of former 60’s groupies as to their job satisfaction. Without exception they had no regrets. But I perceive a logical disconnect.
In the real world we live in, the value of a female’s favors increases in proportion to its scarcity. In the world of Groupies, that value system is inverted. The former Groupies Miss Pamela interviewed related their experiences increased in value with the number of men they could service per unit time. Musicians, side-men, money-men, roadies, anyone, everyone. It was an established fact that the more they eroded into the organization, the higher in the pecking order they rose. Riding in limos, a berth in airplanes and busses, a reserved spot on the stage during concerts. These girls assumed that these actions traded with some currency invulnerable to devaluation.
Crowe’s film more accurately depicts the value of sexual favor as a commodity that trades in an alternate universe of vaporous values. A commodity that rapidly and dramatically varies in value with time-in-grade, the potential for accelerated boredom and the presence of emerging younger, more nubile stock. In “Almost Famous”, a very attractive, personable and otherwise desirable Groupie was swapped in a poker game for fifty bucks and a case of beer.
The fundamental disconnect is the nature of the beasts. Women use sex to get love and males use love to get sex. There is virtually nothing a female in the throes of estrogen storm is incapable of. There is nothing in the universe more capable of sexual self-interest than a young male on a roll. Diamond Dave Lee Roth (Van Halen) was not known for staring into limpid female eyes over intimate dinners. Gene Simmons (KISS) is said to have had over a thousand women, most a couple of minutes at a time. Women were there for the moment and when that moment was over, they simply became irrelevant and were replaced by the next in line.
Females, by genetic imperative, tend to believe there is a difference between “love” and “in-love”, an amazing facility to perceive some variety of endearment from the shallowest of evidence. Miss Pamela suggests that the melding of these factions was an “equal terms” situation but that reality is highly unlikely. The benefit was mostly male, and it was at the expense of the female who fantasized whatever they desired. Not one of the former Groupies Miss Pamela interviewed ended up in a long-term relationship with any of their former rock star paramours.
The next reality is that these artists never found much personal satisfaction in their explorative freedom.
The undisputed ultimate in human de-evolution, the upper ionosphere of malevolent mischievousness: John Bonham (Led Zeppelin) and Keith Moon (The Who). Both of these guys embody the pure essence of unfettered adolescence empowered to explore the limitless reaches of human desire. Comprehensive books have been written about their exploits in the glory days. Both died in bed incapacitated by drugs and alcohol, not even in the throes of having fun.
Jim Morrison very publicly searched for his soul by bolting through the Doors of Perception, immersing his persona in cathartic rock music masquerading as social profundity. A quest for fulfillment in the face of insanity. In the end, Jim could not, himself, find the values of freedom and self-expression his performance stood for and it shows in his life (and death).
Janis Joplin made love to thousands of adoring zealots at the Fillmore, then went home alone and ultimately died alone. Insomniac Jimi Hendrix died in a mixed alcoholic and sleeping pill haze having misjudging the potency of each. Said to have creatively died sometime in the late 60s, the hoary, morbidly obese doppelganger of Elvis belatedly succumbed to a poly-drug overdose in 1977.
In the end, the 60s remains a vision of the consequences of a world with no limits. My friend Shoshana, who was there in the middle of all of it, starkly clarifies the issue very accurately in a letter to me a while back (marginally edited by me):
“The Summer of Love was a lie. The real story isn’t about the ones with money and homes and a steady supply of dope and food and clothing. It’s an ugly, filthy story about middle American kids, living lives of privilege and quiet desperation, who heard the siren of a modern pied piper, and followed him to the streets of San Francisco”.
“I am a victim of the Summer of Love, one of the damaged, nearly destroyed. I bought into the tune in, turn on, drop out lie in a big way. I was ripe for the plucking: emotionally starved, lonely, damaged in spirit, searching for meaning and utterly abandoned. The icons of transcendence in the Summer of Love were so disconnected from those they affected. They took no responsibility for the havoc they wreaked. I never saw them on the streets of the Haight, bandaging the feet of the children, feeding the drug-soaked pregnant teenagers. They may have affected the hair and the speech of Jesus, but they never washed a sole or healed a bruise. Their hands were clean; their souls unaffected”.
“I was and am a victim of all the lies of the Summer of Love. I still struggle with the nightmares of lost children, near rapes, nights spent searching without knowing for what because the drugs had robbed my mind of all sanity. I had dreams. I was supposed to finish grad school, teach college, marry and have children, and spend a quiet and illuminated old age reading, writing, and teaching until my voice grew silent. Instead, I wrestle with demons and nightmares and illness. I have always feared growing old, alone and impoverished.”
I hope she writes the book someday.
One of the fundamental myths that the sixties articulated was that some benefit could come from testing these bounds of reality. A large number of very talented people found out those consequences the hard way in the late 60s. Perhaps prior lessons learned from the existential philosophers, most of whom went mad or suffered violent deaths, should have been heeded. In the end, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix remain examples of the fate that awaits those who reach too far for answers unobtainable.
It hurts to set you free
But you’ll never follow me
The end of laughter and soft lies
The end of nights we tried to die
This is the end
Jim Morrison (1969)
Feb 2, 2010
* Lester Bangs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lester_Bangs
* Des Barres website: http://www.pameladesbarres.com/
* Almost famous: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0181875/
* Pamela Des Barres: I’m with the Band (1987)
* Pamela Des Barres: Take Another Little Piece of My Heart: A Groupie Grows Up (1993),
* Pamela Des Barres: Let’s Spend the Night Together: Backstage Secrets of Rock Muses and Supergroupies