Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Miss Pamela by Miss Caviglia

When I was a kid growing up in West Egg, I wanted more than anything to be an artist. I wanted to grow up and do interesting things and meet interesting people.

Like girls all over America, I knew that none of those things were going to happen in my little corner of suburbia, so I got the hell out. But before that illustrious day, I spent lots of time reading biographies and looking at the many books of photographs my mother had. I spent hours looking at pictures of artists and writers and performers in Paris between the wars. I read Edie: an American Biography and loved it, but Warhol had just died, so that was no help. And, of course, part of the problem was that I wasn't precisely sure what it was I wanted to do exactly. It all seemed so complicated (and, honestly, so it remains).

Then, when I was 17, I read Pamela Des Barres's I'm With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie, which, while deeply problematic in many ways, I loved, and honestly still do. Des Barres (Bless her!) is a pack rat who saved all her high school journals, letters and notes from friends. She quotes extensively from them throughout the book and they are priceless. She writes a lot about her early teen years of Beatlemania, and about her friends and her boyfriend. It's all very recognizable and candid and relatable. Then, she meets a boy at school named Victor, whose hair is too long and wears corduroy pants and likes the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. She began wearing her hair straight and her suburban friends all freaked out on her for liking "filthy" Mick Jagger. Then:
My new best friend, Victor, had a real-life rock and roll cousin who lived in a trailer in the desert, with the outrageous name of Captain Beefheart. Vic titillated me with this information more than once before inviting me to see his group, The Magic Band, perform at the Teen Fair at the Hollywood Palladium...Don Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, was a wildly intimidating crazy genius who was so far ahead of his time, people are still trying to catch up with him. He was just a wee bit out of place at the Fourth Annual Teen Fair, where the big thing was Knudsen's new fruit-flavored yogurt.
This was when she was 16 in 1965. She writes about how she started hanging around in Hollywood and meeting people like Kim Fowley (of later Runaways fame) and The Byrds. She had a huge crush on their bassist, but he totally ignored her. She met lots of boys and made friends and saw lots and lots of bands play. Des Barres has a a nice self-deprecating sense of humor, and brings vividly to life what it must have been like to be a teen whose world was suddenly exploding in all these exciting new directions.

She started hanging out with artists and poets and musicians. She visited San Francisco (she didn't like it much. She liked her lipgloss more than dirt and lentils, a sentiment with which I enthusiastically agree), and wound up hanging out with Bobby Beausoleil (this was years before the Tate-LaBianca murders). One of my favorite things about Des Barres's book is the gleeful enthusiasm with which she tells of her exploits. It's funny, in the current state of memoir writing, nearly everyone writes of all the miseries and horrors of their youth. It's in fashion. But Des Barres sounds like she had a blast. Sure, there's heartbreak a-plenty, but she knows she has a terrific story to tell and does it justice. I think it's also important to remember how very, very young she was when all this was going on. I mean, she was a kid. As she says at some point, (I'm paraphrasing) she'd rather sleep with rock stars than creepy frat boys like the girls she grew up with.

Which is a little problematic, but it sounds as if she was a willing and enthusiastic participant with few regrets. Another thing I've always liked about Miss Pamela is that she has never been one of those awful women who have no girl friends. She writes just as much about the interesting girls she befriends as the boys. Eventually, she joined forces with a group of freaky, like-minded young women. They would go to shows and clubs and dance, blurring the lines between audience member and performance art. They met Frank Zappa through a mutual friend and he named them the GTOs (standing for Girls Together Only - but the girls themselves decided the O could stand for anything: Outrageously, Outlandishly, Openly, etc.). Eventually, he decided they should be an actual band and they recorded an incredibly strange album with the Mothers of Invention backing them (with Jeff Beck and various other luminaries sitting in as guests), but the girls wrote their own songs.

They performed in a musical, performance art extravaganza that sounds kind of awesome. Alice Cooper played, as did the Mothers, the GTOs sang their weird songs, danced and did some other bits. Opening, was a homeless man named Wild Man Fisher. I think Tiny Tim may have been on hand as well.

The book follows Miss Pamela through her mid-twenties when she marries Michael Des Barres. It's really clear that she was on a mission to find romance and adventure and stardom, and doing a better job at finding all three than most people. She was still married when she wrote this book, but got divorced (amicably) shortly after its publication. One wonders how the subsequent twenty years or so have colored her perceptions of her interesting life. One of the delightful things about I'm With the Band is it's immediacy, but it also makes me wonder how the events she portrays would look to an older Pamela who has a little more distance on her life. Her journal entries all make fascinating reading. She is so clearly torn down the middle, wanting a new sort of artistic and exciting life, and a desire to an almost 1950s-style freaky rock and roll house wife. She was writing at the cusp of the sexual revolution, in the last pre-feminist moment.

There's been some noise that Zooey Deschenel is trying to adapt the book for HBO, and I'm cautiously optimistic. There are a lot of different ways this material can be treated, but with Miss Pamela very much alive (she's 62 and looks both fantastic and unsurgeried), the possibilities are likely somewhat limited. But, you know, I would watch every second of it if it were to happen.

And Miss Pamela is still a very busy lady, writing and making appearances. I recently saw a documentary in which she drove around the country interviewing other former groupies (likely in support of her book Let's Spend The Night Together), including a fantastic one with the late, lamented Tura Satana who spoke of her romance with Elvis. She was so charming and showed some of her old burlesque photos. I've searched, and searched and it is posted nowhere, which is tragic. So, the point is, being a former groupie at this point is Miss Pamela's business, which I think might be impairing her critical acumen.

Whenever writing about women whose principal claim to notoriety was sexual, it's difficult to parse. The world she inhabited was essentially unfair, and she gave the young men she devoted so much of her energy toward so much power. She talks and writes endlessly about the music, certainly, but the boys who made that wonderful music weren't terribly nice to her. The system that (still) tells men that one of the rewards of success is women causes so much unhappiness. I don't feel super comfortable judging her, as Miss Pamela seems so willing to truthfully document her experiences, warts and all, which is rare. As one of the editors of Bitch recently wrote: I have a feminist blind spot where this book is concerned. And she always had her own artistic pursuits, which should not be discounted. She's an awfully likable person, and I think what I liked so much about her book when I was a teenager was the vision she had of Romance. She doesn't write much about just bedding rock stars, she writes of her pursuit of love and art and a different sort of life from the one she was brought up to value in her middle class suburb.

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