I can’t remember life without music. When I was young, I sat in front of my parents’ stereo like it was the Wailing Wall and would reveal the meaning of life if I paid proper attention. I found truth in the trenchant observations of Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark and in Cat Stevens’s (the name he went by then) meandering hippie lyrics for Tea for the Tillerman. I fanned the albums and eight-track tapes around me like a mandala, a protective moat of music. Listening was a sacred rite, a solitary ritual I performed only when my parents and sister were occupied. I had enough company coming through the speakers. I did not believe in the Holy Trinity—we were Jewish—but I believed in the Beatles, the Who, and the Rolling Stones.
I mainly played my parents’ records, which are now mine: Motown from my mother, who likes a backbeat and synchronized dance moves, and country from my father, a fan of the smooth sounds of Glen Campbell and Charley Pride. There was a healthy serving of the British Invasion, like Abbey Road with my mother’s maiden name handwritten on the front; there was Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends; there was a blues record with Irma Thomas singing “It’s Raining”; there was a beat-up copy of James Brown’s Live at the Apollo; and there was the chunky brown double album of the Carpenters’ greatest hits, a brilliant example of 1970s’ period design which perfectly matched the rainbow of browns in our living room. My parents had also shrewdly invested in the cutting-edge eight-track technology, with tapes including many 1970s’ blockbusters like Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, Billy Joel’s The Stranger, and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.
I not only knew the words to the music, I knew the sounds of those albums—like the rumble when the eight-track player would suddenly go silent and change the channel right after the baseball bit in “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” adding to the frenzied exchange between the reluctant girl and the horny, insistent Meat Loaf. She begs him to say he loves her—and then it really gets going. He gets more and more worked up until he bursts: “I couldn’t take it any longer/Lord, I was crazed/And when the feeling came upon me like a tidal wave.” I can still sing both parts of this song, much to my husband’s dismay: not everyone recognizes the bombastic genius of songwriter Jim Steinman (who also wrote Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” by Céline Dion).
I incontrovertibly chose to be around music and musicians from a tender age, going to see the boys I knew play in various permutations at my local youth centre on Long Island, New York. Those nights—more like early evenings, as the place closed at 9 p.m.—were central to my indoctrination into fandom and the tortured teen existentialist questions about belonging and alienation. That seriousness and the intensity of love I had for music meant I wondered—more accurately, I worried—about my role in the ecosystem of rock. I’ve never played an instrument. I have often been asked not to sing and once had a tambourine taken away from me at karaoke. I don’t really like writing about music as it messes with the joy I get from it. I will never volunteer to carry something heavy, so roadie was out. That left one obvious role open: groupie.
I knew there was ample evidence to characterize me as such: all of my boyfriends before I reached twenty-five and a lot of my friends played in bands. The evidence against was that I was more opinionated than beautiful, more likely to slip into the role of friend who can talk about underrated 1970s’ New York City punk bands or why Sandy Denny’s voice—especially in her music with the Fairport Convention—haunts me for hours after I listen to it. Having and sharing my opinions was a role that I coveted and shirked in equal measure. It has taken me a long time to justify my fascination with groupies and to reckon with my possible inclusion in that club, to see hanging around in the proximity of musicians not as a betrayal of feminism but as a celebration of fandom.
I started seeing legitimate live shows when I was thirteen. I’m Generation X, and we liked our musicians drunk and silly yet profound like the Replacements; or all edges like Fugazi; or beautiful and doomed like Jeff Buckley and Kurt Cobain. I met Buckley when he was milling around the audience after a show, and he signed the book I had in my bag, volume one of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality. I swooned: he was sweet and shy and gorgeous, mingling with the awestruck crowd like he had lost his puppy, not like he was the biggest, swooniest act around after the release of Grace. In high school, some girls whined about not having anything to wear; I complained that I had nothing to listen to. Then I moaned about the clothes.
The argument for me as groupie is more complex than the definition of the term. Groupies were women who hung around bands. They were crucial to any music scene, alongside musicians and bands, other fans, and the inevitable young music writer trying to make a name for themselves. I’ve been part of a few scenes in my time, but I never bedded a big star (nor did I try to). If I was a groupie, I was not a successful one from the notches-on-bedposts point of view, the one commonly associated with the group.
I learned about groupies from reading Rolling Stone. The 2000 movie Almost Famous, written and directed by former journalist Cameron Crowe, is a semiautobiographical version of life on the road as a teenager (his fictionalized counterpart is fifteen) alongside bands like Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers while he wrote multithousand-word profiles and reviews for the magazine and learned how to live outside the strict confines of his college professor mother, who urged him loudly and often: “DON’T TAKE DRUGS.” What she should have warned him about were the girls, the sirens in bell bottoms and tight shirts, Pre-Raphaelite hair spilling down in tendrils that framed their faces like they were lit from within. At the centre of the film is a triangle composed of the Crowe reporter character; a Jimmy Page-esque rising rock star played by an attractively worn-in Billy Crudup; and groupie Penny Lane, played by Kate Hudson and partially based on Pennie Lane Trumbell, an American socialite who founded the groupie collective the Flying Garter Girls. Desire flows in all directions. In the film, “groupie” is a label Lane and her friends reject in favour of the warmer and fuzzier “band aid.” She patiently but firmly explains to William (the Crowe character) that band aids don’t have sex with musicians; they just inspire them. It’s not very believable.
Almost Famous is an unabashed love letter to Crowe’s youth. His character, an innocent fox in the groupie henhouse, demonstrated how magic happened when the girls and the writers agreed a band was special. At the height of groupiedom, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, musicians loathed the press, so the groupies would do reputation rehab. Their presence legitimated bands. If groupies approved, a band was suddenly more exciting and sexier than all the other scruffy guys staring out from the photo collage on an album’s inner sleeve.
The journalist is in a feminized position as he is not onstage yet his opinions about music are discussed with great importance. The groupies in the movie, even Penny Lane, are mainly atmosphere. They are ephemera. They are light. They are fun. They turn a rock concert into a “happening”—that flagrantly 1960s’ word that connotes something more than art, an event imbued with a fleeting momentousness.
In an interview around the twentieth anniversary of the movie, Pamela Des Barres, a legendary American groupie of the late 1960s and early ’70s who was also a member of the music group the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously), raged at the “misogynistic” portrayal of Penny Lane, a character said to be also partly inspired by her, at the same time acknowledging Crowe’s positive (albeit naive and male) characterization of her and her friends. In a profile of Des Barres for Vulture, journalist Brock Colyar wrote about her and her friends’ view of Almost Famous: “‘Groupie’ used to carry an intensely negative connotation—something to do with the ‘uptight sexual nature of America’—but Crowe’s movie pushed back on that.”
“It was a positive look at the groupie-muse,” Des Barres tells Colyar despite taking issue with the “band aid” line and its denial of groupiedom. “And I’ve been trying to redeem the word ‘groupie’ for most of my life.” Des Barres has published two memoirs—as well as a book about how to write a rock-and-roll memoir and a collection of interviews with other groupies—works that act as a historical benchmark for the role of groupies in the dizzying circus that was rock music during that era.
This year, Sarah Priscus’s new novel, Groupies, has brought my ambivalence toward that label back to the front of my brain. Set in 1977, the novel is a confection of friendship, sex, and music. Faun, the narrator, is an aspiring photographer whose friend Josie has big news: she is dating Cal Holiday, the superstar front man of the band Holiday Sun. Josie invites Faun into the world of backstage green rooms and afterparties raging at hotels. While it is a valid and absorbing version of the fantasy of what it might be like to be a groupie, ultimately, I found myself craving a more complicated version of the story: not boy meets girl, girl suddenly has a life of waiting around at 4 a.m. for boy to finish flirting with a few fans and pack up his gear. I know what it feels like to be Faun, the newcomer who could barely move backstage for fear of knocking something or someone over. I also know how it feels to be Josie, to be of the inner circle and still retain the feeling of being on the outside, looking in. Maybe that is part of the jig: to accept that, as a groupie, you will always be secondary to the people who make the music. They don’t need to write books to legitimate themselves; there are albums and sometimes even films to attest to their grandeur.
That real groupies did write books, though, is a gift from music scenes past. I rate Bebe Buell’s memoir Rebel Heart (2001) above either of Des Barres’s memoirs, I’m with the Band (1987) and Take Another Little Piece of My Heart (1992). Buell was in New York City in the 1970s and was the girlfriend or consort of Todd Rundgren, Mick Jagger, Elvis Costello, Iggy Pop, and Steven Tyler from Aerosmith. (She is actress Liv Tyler’s mother.) Buell is frank about her passion for weird-looking guys who were musical geniuses and about the music always coming first. “I was never on a quest for sex itself,” she writes. “I was always on a quest for rock ’n’ roll.” She might have been the most beautiful woman in New York City—a woman connected enough to never have to buy her own drinks in the city, who would model a couple of days to earn enough money to have fun for the rest of the month. Models and rock stars do often find each other—many of the most famous rock consorts are also top models. But Buell was special: a creature of New York’s rock underground, her creativity was arguably stifled by the rock stars she orbited.
Rereading Rebel Heart alongside I’m with the Band is a study in East Coast–West Coast rock mores and a rallying cry for punk and its levelling of sexual power. When big, bad stadium rock gave way to the small venues, unskilled musicians, and pared-down sound of punk of the late 1970s and beyond, women had a point of creative entry on stage. You didn’t have to play or sing well if you had a look and a drive to perform.
Scratch the surface of a groupie and you might find a frustrated rock star. That’s not me, but it seems true of both Buell and Des Barres as well as a young Viv Albertine in London. In Albertine’s first memoir, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys., the British musician tells another story—a story about how to put the music first, how to be a woman and an artist, how to make room for yourself in a scene that’s hostile to women not on the groupie path. In New York City’s punk world, as chronicled in Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s glorious oral history, Please Kill Me, and Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, women are not just sleeping with or inspiring the artists and musicians: they are participants in making art. Albertine was a guitarist and member of the Slits, one-time girlfriend of the Clash’s Mick Jones, and a true friend of Sid Vicious. She was also a crucial practitioner and perfecter of punk style as conceived of by fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, a trailblazer of safety pins as punk fashion statement and who helped create the Sex Pistols’ style. Neither Albertine nor Westwood was a groupie. They were cool, tough women making art and music in a hostile world.
Being a groupie is something I have worried and fantasized about. I understand the desire to get as close as possible, even if it’s too loud or I’m suddenly claustrophobic and need more air than what’s in the club. I have been the woman who knows as much about music as any man but is talked over, slighted, teased for not liking music considered old and hip and edgy—like the progressive rock band King Crimson—or for defending music that is old and processed and cheesy, like Steely Dan. But I have been the woman who fell in love because of the way a bass line reverberated on the same frequency as my heartbeat. I have been the woman who minimized preshow jitters and fetched beer to soothe nerves—and the woman backstage later, milling with a band that was sweaty and triumphant after a good show or surly after a bad one. I have been the woman who fixes a lyric and critiques a solo more often than I’ve been the woman the music is written for: the femme fatale, the groupie, the muse.
When Almost Famous came out, I saw it on opening night in theatres. I remember sitting alone at the 10 p.m. show at a multiplex in the Upper West Side, furiously scribbling notes for a possible review while I watched the movie. I simultaneously wanted to be Penny Lane, Crudup’s feckless rock star, and the writer who lived and told the story. But I never did write that review. I wasn’t ready. I still hadn’t figured out who I was in that triangle. I had gotten as close as I could to the music, and it never loved me back. I loved it anyway but chose the path to becoming a critic.
I wanted to be like Ellen Willis, a writer equally brilliant when covering music or politics. I discovered Willis and learned shortly thereafter she was The New Yorker ’s very first pop music critic, a title she held from 1968 to ’75. She died in 2006 as a smart, fiery writer who loved Bob Dylan (but who appears to have later critiqued his views of women), admired Janis Joplin, made fun of Lou Reed, and wrote about her generation with the same contradictory desires as I see in myself: a fight between skepticism about commerce and an inclination to believe in the transcendence of art. No one would mistake Willis for a groupie, though her passion for certain artists was unmistakable. Yet she knew how crucial critical distance is when writing about what you love: even her heroes do not escape her nimble mind.
Books by groupies do have a critical undercurrent: Buell can talk music as well as any of her boyfriends, and Des Barres knew every song by every band she loved. It’s too easy to forget that groupies were not just bodies, not just muses and comfort women. Groupies also had hearts, minds, and opinions. They had taste—good taste. They had the kind of taste that made record-industry people pay attention to their opinions: these women who made fandom a vocation knew what was good. If this is the definition of a groupie—a woman who truly loves music, a fan with a spiritual and/or bodily attraction to musicians that can be a passionate friendship or a grand folie à deux—I would have no trouble saying yes to that definition. What might you call a woman who loves music, loves it enough to make unpopular assertions, and to make sure her opinion is heard? I call her a critic.