STILL ALMOST FAMOUS
February 20, 2010
By ROBERT BIESELIN
The imposingly large (and implausibly blue) eyes of Bebe Buell looked up from a $6 bowl of pureed lentil soup (of which she’d eaten about $3.25-worth) and tightened to something resembling a squint as she cocked her head back in recollection and looked up at the globe lights that hung astral from the ceiling of La Bottega on the ground floor of the Maritime Hotel in lower Chelsea.
“I think the first time someone asked me if I was a groupie, I either punched them or I kicked them in the balls.”
It was the first time in the meal she said it.
Prior to that, she’d called it “the G-word” — a lip-curling slur “right up there with the N-word,” that’s stalked the former-model/current-musician from her dancing days (as a young model exploring music, youth and sexuality in the famed backroom of Max’s Kansas City) to her present days (as a happily-married Bergen County suburbanite shopping for organic eggs and Kashi cereal at Whole Foods.)
“To have a promiscuous image, when I’m not a promiscuous person has been difficult for me,” she explained earlier in the conversation (maybe $2, or so, into the soup). “I can count every man I’ve slept with on two hands.”
After reading her autobiography, in which Buell dishes on intimate relationships with Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Stephen Tyler, Jimmy Page, Iggy Pop, Elvis Costello, Rod Stewart, Todd Rundgren, Stiv Bators, Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, it prompts one to wonder whether Buell’s sexdactyl or just trying to downplay her well-documented sex-life.
Add to the mix her 1974 Playboy centerfold and Cameron Crowe’s disclosure that the “Band-Aide” (not groupie!) Penny Lane in “Almost Famous” was partially-inspired by Buell, and it’s not hard to see where the reputation — false as it may be — derives.
It's an easy assumption, she acknowledged, but no truer now in the age of Wikipedia than it was then in the heyday of Mick and misogyny.
Buell isn’t a New York girl by birth, despite her association with the hot-bed art scene at Max’s and, later, CBGB’s. Born in 1953, she attended Catholic School in Virginia, before moving to Rhode Island at 14, and South Carolina at 16.
“I remember driving past New York when we were moving from Rhode Island to North Carolina, being so close, being able to see the Empire State Building, but not being able to touch it.”
Two years later, she’d be right there in the shadow of the landmark, working with Eileen Ford and stepping out into both the model world and the music/art scene with which it occasional intermingled.
Given the era and the environment, sex and drugs inevitably became part of the story — but as Buell tells (and re-tells) it, it was the last part of the famous pairing, the rock and roll, that was her primary attraction.
Despite her aforementioned conquests, she said she “was never really a sexual person.” “Sex wasn’t important” to her.
Despite her occasional use of cocaine, LSD and mescaline, she said she “never liked drugs.” “Feeling altered or sleepy or speedy” wasn’t her thing.
The tidal pull, Buell maintains, was the music — and that’s what ushered in the company of men, the effects of drugs, and the supervision (and symbolism) of what was, wasn’t, and now is again the city’s tallest building.
“I remember tripping in the city and [the Empire State Building] looked like a giant hypodermic needle and I think it was even red and looked like there was blood in the needle…” she said.
Now, “I get high when I’m just driving in my jeep in Jersey and I see the Empire State Building. That elates me. That makes me giggle inside…”
In a way, Buell said, that’s what brought her to Bergen County after 20-plus years in the city and a decade-long retreat to Maine — that and, no surprise here, a guy.
“I didn’t even know about Bergen County in the 70s,” Buell admitted after lunch with a playful look that could have been misinterpreted as either foolish or cocky.
She and Rundgren had a house outside of Woodstock. She and friends would go to the Jersey shore. But Bergen County wasn’t even on the map for the model and her flock of friends that included John Lennon, Debbie Harry and Patti Smith.
In her 2001 autobiography, she mentioned North Jersey only once, relaying a humorous story about a 1999 trip to Hackensack with a “crazy friend” to burn the mattress she shared with her volatile ex-husband Coyote Shivers.
“We went to this open lot, where you could imagine murders having occurred,” she wrote. “We burned the mattress … and it was great.”
Little did she know, this “Tony Soprano-type spot” would be blocks from the birthplace of her future husband, bandmate and producer, Jim Wallerstein.
“I figured she’d marry a rock star, but she didn’t — she wound up with a musician,” said Liz Derringer, who took Buell under her wing when she got to New York in January 1972. “He totally gets her and understands her and is encouraging. I figure she must deserve that, because that’s what she’s got.”
Buell feels the same way, repeatedly referencing her newfound spirituality and a guiding philosophy (that nods both to existentialism’s cause-and-effect evolution and the synchronicities of fate) and, according to her, points to New Jersey and Wallerstein.
“It’s funny, I have a couple of pieces of art portraying Lillie Langtry, who was called the Jersey Lily … And I lived in a building called “The Rutherford,” then I met Jim, who’s [originally] from Rutherford,” she said. “I always think I’m in tune with the universe when things start to fall into place.”
The goal for “Sugar,” her latest record, was “to get it all out” – pains after a failed marriage (Shivers), joys of a new love (Wallerstein), fears after catastrophe (9/11), the loss of a friend (Joey Ramone).
Getting back on stage is fairly new for Buell. Using music as an outlet — not so much.
Buell launched her musical career in the early 80s amid multi-faceted dramas which she detailed in “Rebel Heart”: raising her young daughter Liv and a back-and-forth affair with Elvis Costello that resulted in several miscarriages and an abortion. This, she said, was the fuel for a string of punk and glam-inspired records that ultimately earned her an opening gig with the Ramones and some mounting scene-cred.
“I picked up one of her early records in New Brunswick in the early 80’s and thought it was really cool,” said Matt Pinfield, now a DJ at WRXP 101.9. “And I’m still a huge fan of her and her music. If anyone has a right to music born out of the glam or the punk era, it’s Bebe because she was such a big part of it.”
The way Buell sees it, the music was a part of her more than she was a part of it.
“It was always there,” she said. “I think that all that stuff all happened even before I met Mick Jagger or met Todd Rundgren or had a child with Stephen Tyler. I think my style, my sense of rhythm, my sound, my moves were all ready there.”
Longtime friend Bob Gruen, who continues to photograph Buell’s shows, tends to agree.
“I didn’t meet her as a model, I met her as Todd’s girlfriend,” he said. “I didn’t occur to me that there was a transition. It just seemed to me that that’s who Bebe was — a performer and a musician.”
In 1998, when Buell’s management of her daughter’s modeling career began affecting their relationship, when her marriage to Shivers ended, when she became so desperate and depressed that she lied about having “exotic leukemia … from the Himalayas,” — she found finally herself again with the help of Zoloft — and, as ever, music.
Along with Wallerstein, that’s been the constant in the newest/calmest phase of her life.
“I’m constantly writing now,” she said, “and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”
The girl who had sex and did coke with Jimmy Page while her pet South American raccoon ate a fruit basket and ran amok in the bathroom of an LA hotel, the girl who hung out with the Rolling Stones while they recorded “Black and Blue” in Andy Warhol’s Montauk compound, the girl who rocked every square inch of CBGB’s stage in a cropped skirt and knee-high white boots – well, she’s a proud grandmother now and learning, among other things, to appreciate the little perks of suburban life: (excellent descriptions here!)
Christmas shopping on Bloomfield Avenue in Montclair.
Cupcakes at Sweet Avenue Bake Shop in Rutherford.
A nature walk through the Meadowlands.
“Jim and I love to look at the swans,” she said with a sincere smile. “They mate for life you know.”
Buell still keeps an apartment in the West Village for the times she needs a big city fix — and she still manages a big night now and again, like her record release party in mid- January at Hiro Ballroom.
She took the stage in all black — black heels, black skirt, black blazer, finger-less black gloves — save a silver tiara inset with a row of heliotrope-colored stones. Those same huge blue eyes looked up at the multicolored paper lanterns that hung astral from the 20-foot barrel vaulted ceiling of the ballroom beneath the ground floor of the Maritime Hotel in lower Chelsea.
She blew the crowd a kiss, mouthed “I love you” and roared into the opening to “Air Kisses for the Masses.”
The crowd roared right back.
“My fight is not over. My journey is not over. I’m still defining who I am,” she said. “And if there’s going to be confusion, if people are still confused, I’m just going to have to work a little harder to blow their minds.”
A waitress came by to clear the final $1.70 of the lentil soup, while Buell jokingly shushed her husband who was loudly talking shop at a nearby table.
He turned and smiled.
“You know what I do to people who still don’t know what I do?” she asked, turning back. “I invite them to one of my shows. That’s it. Just come see me play once. Then, I tell them, come see me after the show and tell me if you still feel the same way … See if you still want to use the G-word?”
If the answer’s “no,” she’ll reply with a long-overdue “I told you so.”
If the answer’s “yes,” well, then Mrs. Buell just hopes you’re wearing a cup. (haaa!!)
[UNEDITED VERSION - Copyright 2010 Bergen Record Corp. All rights reserved.]