The LA muse and inspiration for Almost Famous's Penny Lane says she fought for women to be able to define their own experiences on their own terms
“She’s a good girl, loves her mama. Loves Jesus and America too. She’s a good girl, crazy ’bout Elvis. Loves horses and her boyfriend too. It’s a long day, livin’ in Reseda…”
I meet Pamela Des Barres for lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Reseda, the San Fernando Valley neighborhood where she grew up and now lives. She can’t say for certain whether Tom Petty was thinking of her when he wrote those lines, but it seems likely. ‘Free Fallin’’ was released two years after Pamela published her explosive memoir ‘I’m With The Band’ in 1987, and those lyrics echo the early chapters. “I always thought he must have written that song after reading it,” she says as we take our seats. “The girl growing up in Reseda, loving Jesus and horses. That’s all in the book, although I don’t know for sure.”
‘I’m With The Band’ became an instant bestseller, making Pamela the most famous groupie on the planet. “Groupie is just another word for love,” she tells me today, “And love of music and musicians.”
Her memoir provides a window into something everyone wanted to know about: what it was like to be right there on the Sunset Strip, at the heart of the ’60s’ musical, cultural and sexual revolution. To be fought over by Jimmy Page and Mick Jagger, huff solvents with Jim Morrison and find yourself living out debauched fantasies with Keith Moon. These days, however, Pamela says people are more interested in hearing horror stories.
“People are always trying to make me say that musicians abused me and used me, and it just didn’t happen,” she says, defiantly. “I’ve said that all along. It was equal. There was an equal exchange of love and energy and fun between us and the musicians.”
She did have her own experiences of harassment, but they came later – particularly when she was trying to establish herself as an actor, in situations where the power dynamics were very different. In the book, she recounts the story of auditioning for a director who then offers her a massage and comes at her with a vibrator. “There was tonnes of that in my whole life,” she tells me. “There were so many assholes! I related so much to the women who came forward finally, having been through so much of that shit myself. I have plenty of ‘Me Too’ moments, plenty, but none with musicians.”
Pamela is rightfully entirely unabashed about her youthful escapades, but she was above the age of consent by the time she entered the swinging world of groupiedom. By contrast, in 2018 it’s shocking to read her stories of Jimmy Page going off with the then 13-year-old Lori Maddox, or her actor boyfriend Don Johnson leaving her for 14-year-old Melanie Griffith. Pamela tells me it’s impossible to judge that era by today’s standards, adding: “I was repulsed by it. I was totally turned off by it in many ways, but it was what was happening. You deal with what’s put in front of you. At that time, no-one thought: ‘Oh, we better call the police.’ It just didn’t happen that way. Lori’s mom knew what she was going on. Lori is a very good friend of mine, and has been for decades now. She’s proud of her history, she’s happy with it, she has no qualms about it, no regrets whatsoever. That’s what happened in those days.”
She doesn’t think there will ever be equivalents to the Operation Yewtree convictions for the rock stars of that era. “People ask me: ‘Do you think so-and-so is going to go down?’ No, they’re not going down,” she says. “The girls aren’t complaining. No women have come forward and said: ‘David Bowie abused me.’ It’s not going to happen. So that’s why. These women [in the #MeToo movement] came forward and felt abused and taken advantage of. In music, it was an equal exchange, and a very different dynamic.”
Pamela’s own introduction into the world of rock’n’roll came when a school friend, Victor Hayden, introduced her to his cousin Don Van Vliet – better known as Captain Beefheart – who in turn introduced her to Frank Zappa. “Zappa and Beefheart were my mentors!” says Pamela, letting out a laugh at her own good fortune. “Just that alone! They fed off each others’ genius, you know? I came across them so young that I was really sparked by their brilliance.”
It was Zappa who encouraged Pamela to form her own group, The GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously… or Orally… or Occasionally… or Often… these were such free times that even acronyms resisted consistent definition). Their sole record, ‘Permanent Damage’, was released in 1969 and remains a trippy, fascinating document of the Sunset Strip scene at that time. “Zappa always wanted to capture moments in time,” remembers Pamela. “He found this nutty group of dancers and he wanted to encapsulate our world. He thought we had something fun and interesting and useful to say. That encouraged us so much, that someone of his calibre would find us intriguing. He was a master at pulling stories out of people. He helped our creativity by believing in us and then encouraging.”
The emergence of The GTOs helps explain how Pamela went from fantasising about Mick Jagger at home in Reseda to making him her lover. “By the time I met him, he wanted to meet me,” she says. “I was in that situation with The GTOs. There was no internet, no Instagram, none of that, but people were talking about The GTOs. We were the first all-girl group in that rock’n’roll, far-out Zappa way. All the bands were very curious about us, especially the British bands.”
Pamela, of course, has plenty more rock’n’roll war stories, both exuberant and somber: watching Led Zeppelin from atop Page’s guitar amp, seducing Waylon Jennings, taking acid at the Joshua Tree Inn after the death of Gram Parsons or the moments after Altamont when a shaken and distraught Mick Jagger seriously considered leaving the music industry for good. For those, you’ll have to get your hands on ‘I’m With The Band’, which has just been republished in a revised edition. She has also written four more books, and continues to teach a writing workshop for women which has produced award-winners like the author Emma Cline.
It’s her writing that is her most important legacy. She might be best known for the people she partied and slept with in the 60s – immortalised by caricatures like Penny Lane in ‘Almost Famous’ – but really the line between Pamela and the current era of Me Too is a direct one. At a time, and on a subject, when women were expected to stay silent she decided to tell her own story loudly and proudly. She defined her own experiences, on her own terms. “I’m perceived as a loose, freaky woman, and I was a wild child I admit that,” she says, with a playful smile, “But I’m really proud that I was able to express myself in the book. It was the first time you could do that as a woman, in our timeframe.”
The revised edition of ‘I’m With The Band’ is out now, published by Omnibus Press.