Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pamela Des Barres, I'm With The Band

For me, the gold standard for sleazy rock and roll biographies is "Backstage Passes" by Angela Bowie. Flip to almost any page in the book and you'll read about her fucking some guy, or David fucking some guy, or David fucking some girl, or her fucking some girl, or the two of them fucking some girl together, or the two of them fucking some guy together. You might think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not (and yes, all the different combos are in there, multiple times). When she's not bragging about the people they fucked, she's bragging about how she's solely responsible for David Bowie's entire career. After all, she was the person who sometimes gave him pointers about what to say or wear (and even designed some of his costumes), so you can surely understand where she's coming from with that, and if you don't, she'd be happy to repeat it for you a thousand times in her inimitably obnoxious and pompous style.

In a 1990 interview, Angie Bowie made a sensational claim about finding David Bowie and Mick Jagger in bed together one morning in the 70's, which was HUGE news at the time and even came packaged to music video stations with its very own catchphrase ("Dancing in the Sheets", a reference to the 1985 Bowie/Jagger hit version of "Dancing in the Streets"). However, she almost immediately backtracked from her story, which was never much of a story to begin with, because she didn't catch anyone in the act, she just walked in on two men sound asleep in the same bed (albeit naked). Even Angie Bowie (and her lawyers) weren't dumb enough to get sued into tiny little bits based on pure speculation, publicity be damned. Snopes has a good summary of the controversy and an excerpt from the book so you can see Angela Bowie's scummy writing style for yourself. Having said all this, "Backstage Passes" was a hilarious and entertaining read, comparable to the enjoyment factor of Jose Canseco's books, and comes highly recommended. Maybe I should track down Stephen Davis' "Hammer of the Gods" next ...

I was expecting much of the same from Pamela Des Barres' somewhat notorious book, but it's nothing like "Backstage Passes". At all. First of all, Des Barres kept a diary her entire life, so we can trust her stories have truth to them since the details and events described in the book were recorded as they happened as opposed to twenty years and tens of thousands of dollars of drug abuse later. There's a tremendous amount of detail in the book, with week-to-week or even day-to-day accounts of her activities, supported by lengthy quotations from her diaries throughout the book. She's a fantastic storyteller with a surprising gift for subtlety that you wouldn't expect in a book like this. The 60's come to a close, the years drag on, and she's washed up as a groupie/pop star with no real plan for what she'll do for the rest of her life, and she's only in her early 20's. She never says that, but you can feel it, the pathos and sense of resignation in her writing is noticeable. She returns to the US after living in London for a few months, and she understands that her associations with rock stars have gotten her nowhere in life -- they've all moved on with their increasingly messed up lives, she needs to pay the bills, and can't rely on anyone other than herself. Again, she never says that explicitly, but it's noticeable in her writing.

"I'm With the Band" is a love story, or rather, a serious of love stories told by an old fashioned girl who wants nothing more than to find herself a husband and settle down. She didn't sleep with Chris Hillman because she wanted to feel empowered, rather, her foremost wish was to become the future Mrs. Hillman, and she spent untold hours writing him letters, designing his shirts, and hanging out with his friends, hoping he'd somehow get the message and make the dream a reality. This pattern repeated itself many times -- with Jimmy Page, Noel Redding, and many others, before she finally crossed paths with her eventual husband Michael Des Barres. It's like "How I Met Your Mother", starring a girl who has a penchant for rock stars.

Along the way, Des Barres helps to deconstruct one 60's myth after another. According to her account, the LA Sunset Strip scene didn't seem to be a haven for political activism and feminist enlightenment, rather, it was teeming with horny Jesus-fearing kids looking to get married in their early 20's, just like their parents did. She quotes from some of the poetry she wrote as a teenager, much of it in the hippy dippy "peace love and understanding" mode, and practically scoffs at it in her restrained, subtle way. A lot of the hedonism of the era comes off looking like the rantings of kids looking to escape their boring suburban lives while showing off how "deep" they are. That's hardly challopsy talk now, but this book was published in 1987, when the 60's were still very much a sacred cow to a lot of music critics. Pamela Des Barres -- ace storyteller and one of the finest, most ahead of her time music critics of the 80's? Can it be?

Some might find the book repetitive and formulaic -- how many times can you slog through page after page of the same love/rejection cycle anyway? Sometimes the book can feel like an intrusion, in a way almost too personal, but that's because you're almost literally reading through someone's diary. I found Des Barres to be very genuine and down to earth, which is tough to pull off when you're parading through so many names. But she has a knack for humanizing every character she came in contact with, no matter how mythic they were.


Sandra said...

On the subject of rock biographies, highly recommend The Dirt about Motley Crüe. I have zero interest in their music, but a really entertaining read and actually quite well written. Seriously....sex, drugs, rock 'n roll. They were completely bonkers!

Barry said...

I've been meaning to read exactly that kind of bio (80's LA bands). Was thinking about checking out the Slash bio too.