Pamela Des Barres grew up living a comfortable middle-class life in Reseda California. She had loving parents and a stable home life, and all signs pointed to her leading a perfectly ordinary life. But somewhere along the line, Pamela Miller became Pamela Des Barres, one of the most legendary groupies who had a front-row seat (or, more accurately, a backstage pass) to the greatest era in rock and roll history. I’m With the Band is her story. If you’ve ever watched Almost Famous and found yourself wishing that Penny Lane had written a memoir (or better yet, Sapphire – “Does anyone remember laughter?!”), here it is.
Des Barres takes us through her life, beginning with her as a teenager, trying to sneak into the Beatles’ hotel with her friends; ending with her reflecting on a lifetime spent among musical legends. It’s a well-documented memoir, with photos, diary entries, and letters giving the reader plenty of detail into this period of Des Barres life. (It helps, too, that Des Barres was never hugely into drugs and alcohol, enabling her both to survive long enough to write this memoir and to remember everything clearly) Under the tutelage of Frank Zappa, she and four other girls formed the GTOs, the “music group” (sarcastic quotations because they really never had much of a music career) that became the most legendary groupies of their time. Think of a musician from the 60’s or 70’s. Which one? Doesn’t matter – Pamela Des Barres has seen him naked, or at least knows someone who has.
I started out HATING this book, and it’s almost entirely due to a laughably misguided introduction by Dave Navarro. Before you read the following quote, please do yourself a favor and look up a picture of Dave Navarro. Seriously, I’ll wait. I want you to picture his face saying the following, and suffer as I have suffered.
…did you do it? I’m serious guys, you’re not going to want to miss out.
Anyway, now that we all have that mental image in our heads, here’s how Dave Navarro decided to end his introduction to I’m With the Band:
“My personal advice to the readers: Men, keep a box of tissue handy while reading this book. Women, try to keep your deep feelings of jealousy and hostility at bay…you know you wish this was your story.”
Actually, Dave Navarro, I DON’T wish this was my story. Because unlike you, I don’t think it’s a compliment to have my life story reduced to future spank-bank material for some dude who looks like Dracula’s gay hairdresser. But thanks for playing, and fuck you very much.
After that noxious excuse for an intro, Des Barres throws us right into the hedonistic drug-fueled world of rock and roll in the 1960s. Throughout all of her adventures, Des Barres is constantly surrounded and supported by her fellow groupies, and frankly that was refreshing and surprising. Even the women who are fighting Des Barres for some rock star’s attention eventually become Des Barres’ friends, rather than becoming the villains. Even when a girl steals a man’s attention from her, Des Barres has nothing but nice things to say, and the way these women (who, you’ll recall, were all in their teens or early twenties at the time) support each other is fucking inspiring. What Des Barres seems to be saying, without having to come out and state it plainly, is that she and the other groupies bonded out of necessity – they had to love and support each other, because they knew that the men they were sleeping with would not.
Considering that she’s writing about a time when ugly sexism in the music industry was not only tolerated but encouraged, it’s a surprise and a relief that I’m With the Band contains absolutely no internalized misogyny from the author. Des Barres, for all her faults, seems to have flatly rejected the mentality that other women are competition – a mentality that Dave Navarro oh-so-subtly tries to instill in the readers with his ‘try to contain your raging jealousy, ladies.’ Once more with feeling: fuck you, Dave Navarro)
The writing itself is…not great. When I was starting this book, someone warned me about it by telling me that Des Barres wrote “like a toddler with a head injury” and unfortunately that description isn’t far off. The worst bits come from Des Barres’s diary, which is quoted at eye-rolling length. But at the same time, I have to give credit where credit is due: let them who would allow their teenage diaries to be published in a best-selling book cast the first stone.
Speaking of the writing, remember how Dave Navarro pitched this as some kind of literary porn (that only dudes are allowed to masturbate to, because Dave Navarro sucks)? His criteria for erotica must be pretty fucking wide, because the sex scenes in this book are almost the opposite of sexy. Take this excerpt from Des Barres’s diary, when she recounts the time she banged Noel Redding:
“October 2…I CAME! How do you like that? …Lovely romance, we played around for awhile and then he made love to me. AMAZING! I was totally under his control. He put me in a hundred positions and did such stupendous things! It’s doubtful that anyone could surpass his proism. It was like being caught in a web, unable to free myself – wanting to get more tangled.”
Oof. Look, Pamela, just because you write openly about your sex life doesn’t make you Anais Nin. Granted, that excerpt is from a diary entry she wrote when she was nineteen, but sadly her writing doesn’t seem to have improved with age. Although apparently the grownup Des Barres makes her living as a journalist, so what the hell do I know. Des Barres also seems aware of how ridiculous she comes off sometimes in her diaries and letters, and you can almost see her rolling her eyes behind the page as she quotes some passage where her teenage self gushed shamelessly over some rock star.
That’s about as far as the self-reflection goes, however. The closest we get to any sense of disillusionment with her chosen lifestyle is when Des Barres describes being snubbed by the new, younger groupies:
“The rock and roll girls were getting younger, and I was no good at competing. They hated me because I had been there first, and they called me awful names at Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco, ‘old’ being the most popular odious declaration of loathing. I let them get to me; they told me I was over the hill, and I looked in the mirror, inspecting my twenty-five-year-old face for early stages of decrepitness. …I believed the GTO’s had paved the way for these infant upstarts, and I thought they should show me some kind of respect, or at least recognition for my groundbreaking Strip-walking efforts. Needless to say, they didn’t show me jack-shit.”
Of course right after this she makes sure to quote some rock star saying essentially the same thing in Rolling Stone, because God forbid the readers dismiss her as some jealous hag without knowing that a famous man felt the same way, which makes her feelings legitimate.
It’s also a little strange that, for a memoir focused entirely on the music scene in the 60s and 70s, there’s almost no actual music. I was waiting for some description of how Teenage Pamela felt the first time she heard a Beatles song, or what it was like seeing Jimmy Page play in person. But there’s not really any discussion of the actual music these guys were making, and you get the sense that the Rolling Stones could have been a barbershop quartet and Des Barres wouldn’t have cared, as long as they were the most famous barbershop quartet in the world. But where Des Barres fails to encapsulate what was so interesting about the music these guys were playing, she succeeds in painting detailed, intimate portraits of some of the greatest names in rock and roll. And it makes sense – after all, Des Barres had affairs with all of these men, and saw them at their most vulnerable. Sometimes it’s funny, like when she’s describing the bedroom preferences of a certain Led Zepplin frontman; sometimes it’s disturbing, like when she shrugs off the fact that one of them (I forget which, but it doesn’t really matter) liked to slap her around in bed and she wasn’t really into that; and sometimes it’s just tragic, like her description of Keith Moon:
“He was happy being anybody but himself. At night he would wake up ten times, bathed in medicine-smelling sweat, jabbering about running over his roadie and burning for eternity. He couldn’t wait to pay for that horrible mistake. We took handfuls of pills, and he drank vodka like he was dying of thirst.”
I got frustrated with Des Barres because there was no second-act realization, no turnaround in her wide-eyed adoration of rock stars. Where is her anger? I thought as I read through yet another breezy description of being used and tossed away by some famous dick with a guitar. I wanted her to rage at these men who had treated her like shit. Where was the regret? Where was the condemnation, the rage at these adult men who fucked thirteen-year-old girls and got away with it? Doesn’t she realize that she’s getting all her self-worth from other people? Doesn’t she know that these guys view her as completely disposable?
And here’s what I realized: Pamela Des Barres knows that none of these men really loved her, or ever saw her as anything more than a piece of ass. Pamela Des Barres knows, and she does not care, because Pamela Des Barres is too busy having fun. And that, readers, is her great secret: no one, not even the biggest rock stars in the world, can make you feel used and used up if you are having a good time. So what if these guys were just using her for sex? Teenage Des Barres once wrote a list of life goals, and one of the items was “have sex with Mick Jagger.” She might have been just a notch in these dudes’ belts, but baby, that road goes both ways. It was a fascinating roller coaster, watching Des Barres go from Feminist Nightmare to Feminist Hero? in my mind as I read.
And then, to my complete surprise, at about the two-thirds mark, I found myself sympathizing with Des Barres. I felt sorry for her, and not in the “oh god why did no one teach this child self-esteem?” way that I had originally felt. I began to sympathize with Des Barres because I realized how badly the men in her life actually treated her, and how badly readers will react to her book. Pamela Des Barres’s book is, at its core, the story of a teenage girl who was so insanely passionate about something that she made it the sole purpose of her life. She was obsessed with the Beatles in high school, and that paved the way for her obsession with rock stars, and her need to be part of the inner circle. And if there is one thing society cannot abide, it’s teenage girls getting really interested in things. Pamela Des Barres is not a musician, she is a groupie. And that word, in most people’s minds, automatically makes her an object of ridicule. I was supposed to hate Des Barres, and that made me love her.
We sneer at the women (or, more accurately, girls, since most of the groupies in this book are only teenagers) who devote themselves slavishly to their rock idols, but we never have any disdain left over for the men who were the cause of this. We criticize and mock the star-struck teenagers, but not the grown men who used these girls and tossed them aside and played songs like “Under My Thumb” and wrote memoirs gleefully documenting how many chicks they banged in a night. It’s easier, after all, to mock the results of a toxic culture rather than examining its origins.
Unfortunately, Des Barres doesn’t seem too interested in examining the misogynistic culture she idolized, or circumstances that led to her belief that sleeping with a famous person is just as good as being famous yourself. That was what I wanted from this memoir. I wanted Des Barres to end with this simple lesson: creativity is not acquired through proximity. Surrounding yourself with artists is great, but it doesn’t make you an artist yourself. It’s not enough to sit back and applaud while you watch other people create; you have to create something of your own. Pamela Des Barres spent her life sitting on amps and watching famous men play music; I wanted her book to end with her learning to make her own music, if only metaphorically.
But, as some famous dick with a guitar once said, you can’t always get what you want.
Verdict: three out of five stars