Groupies -- specifically, women who can't resist sleeping with rock stars -- have a bad name, but I've always gotten the sense that it's mostly other women who have given it to them. In "Rebel Heart," her tedious, self-obsessed, almost shockingly joyless autobiography, Bebe Buell, a former model and Playboy centerfold who has been paramour to the likes of Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, Todd Rundgren, Steven Tyler and Elvis Costello, asserts with obvious disdain that she has never been a groupie. In the early '70s, while she was living with her then-steady Rundgren (certainly no model of fidelity himself), she would drift into affairs with dashing rock stars partly to get back at him, but mostly because she was madly, and understandably, drawn to them. "Todd would always be fucking these nondescript road tramps," she writes, "whereas I would be fucking major icons."
Sisterhood, as they say, is powerful.
You could argue that the whole idea of groupiedom is steeped in retrograde sexual politics, and maybe you'd be right. But "Rebel Heart" is one of those tell-all memoirs that tells you much more about its author's insecurities than it does about her exploits -- or even about the personalities of the fabulous men who swarmed around her. It suffers from one of the major failings of so many memoirs written by "'60s people," especially those who dug their little paws right into the sexual-freedom candy dish: Buell spends plenty of space justifying her behavior and apologizing for it ("I was from a generation that didn't think that far into the future. We thought opportunities would always exist, that we would be fifteen forever") even as she works overtime to keep those of us who missed out on the era's cultural licentiousness drooling with jealousy. It makes for a numbing cocktail.
And that's a bummer. Buell's book should be so much more fun than it is -- it isn't nearly as exhilarating, as good-natured or, its proto-feminist mutterings to the contrary, as intelligently pro-woman a book as Pamela Des Barres' 1987 memoir "I'm With the Band." (It's telling, too, that Des Barres' book is subtitled "Confessions of a Groupie"; for her, there's no shame or embarrassment in the word.)
Buell kicks her book off in the right mood, opening her story with a brief account of her teenage years in Virginia, a period when she drove her mother and stepfather nuts and tripped her brains out whenever possible. Her parents gave her a Volkswagen convertible for her 17th birthday: "I was dangerous and damn good-looking. I had acid and a car!" Buell was -- and, now nearing 50, still is -- a great beauty, a golden-haired vixen-cherub with a cushiony pout and massive blue eyes. Buell does right in acknowledging her beauty upfront. Anyone who writes a memoir has to have a certain degree of narcissism, at least for the span of time it takes to get the book written. And aside from that, it's not just refreshing but necessary for a woman as stunning as Buell to be frank about her looks: To try to downplay them would be disingenuous.
But a beautiful woman -- especially a historically beautiful one like Buell -- has to decide whether she's going to wield her looks as a powerful attribute or as an excuse: They can't be both. Between reminding us how beautiful she was and explaining how hard it was to be so beautiful, it's a wonder Buell has any time left to spill juicy secrets.
Buell left home in 1972 to launch a modeling career in New York. "Girls who wanted to be stars went to New York," Buell writes, capturing some of the dazzling brashness of her youth. "I wanted to be a superstar!" It's not long, though, before she's stroking that old-time victimization violin: "The problem was that everything was too easy -- modeling, traveling, partying -- and I forgot my original desires and beliefs."
But then, remembering one's goals on the way to superstardom is such a trial. You almost can't blame Buell for getting sidetracked, considering the number of sizzlingly attractive men who pursued her. To her credit, she's rather gentlemanly (there is no better word for it) in describing her liaisons with the biggest rock stars of the day. She rushes to reassure us that Jagger, despite his reputation as a womanizer, is really "a sweet, caring man"; with Page, renowned for his kinkiness and black magic noodling, she had "the most wholesome sex imaginable." (Some people would say she got cheated on that one, but never mind.)
There are the requisite measures of gossip, drugs and rock-star excess in "Rebel Heart." Buell never slept with Keith Richards, but she hung out at his place one night while he was on the nod and reports that she couldn't resist peeping at the huge erection that filled out his cutoff blue jeans.
Though Buell claims, believably, not to have partaken of as many drugs as the rest of her crowd, there are numerous anecdotes of her passing out ("I woke up the next morning on the pool table with a blanket over me. Dij` vu"), or, in one instance, O.D.'ing on THC when Johnny Thunders' then-girlfriend laid out a line of it without telling Buell she should take a only little bit. Buell often claims to be more innocent than is entirely credible, as when she relates how, around the time of her Playboy centerfold photo shoot, she decided to take a nude nighttime swim in the pool at the Hugh Hefner mansion -- only to be shocked and outraged that one whole side of the pool was a plate-glass window that faced indoors, exposing her to an audience of oglers. (It's a wonder she hadn't shown up at the mansion with pigtails, ankle socks and a cardboard suitcase.)
Buell's adventures by themselves are amusing and benign. But her lingering insecurities thread through the book like creeping ivy, choking off much of its potential liveliness. Instead of just telling good stories, she's constantly reinforcing her rock 'n' roll cred by informing us what great taste she had. Her first inkling of this grand gift? When she first heard "Layla" on the radio, she rushed to the phone to call the station and was told she was the 75th caller. In Buell land, if a lot of people like it, it must be good.
Of course, Buell, as she reminds us relentlessly, didn't just want to sleep with beautiful rock stars. She wanted to make her own music (which she did, for a time, with two bands, Bebe and the B-Sides and the Gargoyles). Buell pays lip service to the idea of sisters' doing it for themselves, but she's also loaded with excuses for why she didn't become a singing sensation, even though, as she points out repeatedly, "People always said that I had a lot of talent and that I was a good singer." The problem, Buell laments, was not having the right man: "I wasn't lucky enough to find a Chris Stein like Debbie Harry did. I was with Todd Rundgren ... He was the star, I was the decoration."
Toward the end of "Rebel Heart," you sense desperation ringing out of every page. Buell's relationship with Costello ended badly when she became pregnant with his child and, after sinking into a deep depression, had an abortion. But some 20 years after the end of the romance, she still claims to hear hidden messages to her in many of Costello's songs. "It's scary what Elvis does. He writes these lyrics because he knows I will see them, but he also knows that if I try to express this to people, they will think I am nuts. He wants people to think I'm crazy; it delights him. But deep down he knows the truth." I'll just bet he does.
Buell also spills the details of her relationship with her famous daughter, Liv Tyler, whom Rundgren supported financially for most of her childhood although he knew she was not his child. (Aerosmith's Steven Tyler was the father.) Buell managed Liv's modeling and acting career until Liv, feeling frustrated and constrained by all that motherly attention, "fired" her. Buell suffered a breakdown, and while you can't help but sympathize over her suffering, you can see how her repeated bids for attention would become wearying to the people around her.
Lord knows they're wearying enough for the reader. "Rebel Heart" is filled with sentences along the lines of "Everyone loved me!" and "I didn't know who I was." By the time Buell gets around to bragging about how dang funny she is (she compares herself to Carole Lombard), enough is enough. In interviews, Buell has claimed that she was the inspiration for the Penny Lane character in Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous"; if so, Crowe must have seen something in her that's nowhere to be found in this book.
And then again, there are those uncharitable remarks about groupies. At one point Buell refers to the West Coast crowd that Des Barres ran with as "body snatchers," women who "didn't have many scruples," ready to grab the best rock stars right out of Buell's clutches. It's an interesting idea: rock stars as personal property. Buell claims to be above such catfighting, but her potshots only highlight her pettiness. There's an old saying, beloved by grannies everywhere: "Pretty is as pretty does." Apparently, Buell never heard it.