Spending two and a half hours at the Morrison Hotel Gallery and walking around downtown Manhattan with Bebe Buell, the former model and Liv Tyler’s 58-year-old mom, is like getting a crash course in rock and roll. The partial inspiration for Penny Lane in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, Buell spent her seventies youth befriending or bedding a who’s who of legendary musicians, from Mick Jagger and David Bowie to Elvis Costello and (obviously) Steven Tyler, all of which she chronicled in her best-selling autobiography, Rebel Heart: An American Rock n’ Roll Journey. But Buell didn’t just hang out with rockers; she is one, too — she’s been trying for over 30 years to get her singing career off the ground, with a deep, raspy growl that she put to use in high-school choir and hotel-room sing-alongs. Keith Richards encouraged her to start her own band, as did good friend Ric Ocasek, who in 1980 sent her into the studio backed by the Cars; later, Bebe Buell and the B-Sides opened for Alice Cooper. In 1984, John Taylor of Duran Duran formed the supergroup Power Station around her; eventually, Robert Palmer took her place. In 1991, her next band, the harder-edged group the Gargoyles, was offered a six-figure record deal. She turned it down to stay home and raise Liv, who was starting high school, beginning a modeling career, and watching the public discover who her father was. (Buell had kept it secret from Liv throughout her childhood, until her dad was sober.) Now she’s about to release her first big-deal album, Hard Love; face-melting New York–area gigs are soon to follow: the Stone Pony in Asbury Park on October 8, Hiro Ballroom on October 12, and Irving Plaza on December 15. Jada Yuan spoke to Buell for a magazine piece. These are the outtakes, including her very strong opinions on Dina Lohan and Courtney Love, why she has a right to rock until old age, and bikini waxing.
You seem to remember all the dates and circumstances from your youth.
Well, I didn’t take a lot of drugs, like everyone else. I’m not going to say I never did drugs. I just wasn’t a drug addict. I never shot up heroin. But I tried psychedelics and I smoked weed. Believe me, I became a vegetarian from being a teenager in the meatpacking district. Back in those days, there were cows going by on hooks. And if you’re tripping on good acid and you see that, you’ll never touch meat again.
What does the album say about you?
Who I really am. It’s important to me that people listen to it; you’ll understand me a little better. I start off the album with “Mother of Rock & Roll,” which is a play on being called “mother of Liv, mother of this, girlfriend of that.” One day I was walking down the street in a narcissistic lead singer moment and I went [starts singing and strutting around like a bird] “rock and roll, I am the mother of rock and roll.” Before I knew it, I had turned into a peacock! [Laughs.] And so I called my guitar player and I went, “Okay, that’s the next song.” It is a really personal, autobiographical record. For me, I have worn a lot of hats. I have been a model, I did Playboy when I was a youngster. I’m Liv’s mom. People know me as so many things. But the person that I really am is a rock monster. I am a rock-and-roll machine and I don’t have an expiration date. I am like one of those G.E dishwashers with the twenty-year guarantee.
When did you start being into rock and roll? You grew up in Virginia, right?
Yeah, I did. I’m a Stones girl, but it was as soon as I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. I was 9. The whole British invasion sort of changed my life. It made me want to move to New York.
Which you did in order to model when you were 18?
Eileen Ford had seen a picture of me when I was a lot younger, but she wanted me to finish high school. My mother sent her my graduation photo and next thing I knew, she was calling the house and we were on an airplane. I remember she made me spin around, she measured me, and she made me stand on the scales — very old-school — and then she gave me a contract.
They put me in a nunnery: St. Mary’s Woman’s Residence on East 72nd Street. That was where young girls who were pursuing career ambitions lived. But then I found out about Max’s Kansas City and I started to take the Second Avenue bus down with all the drag queens. And before I knew it, I had feathers hanging off my eyelashes. And my platforms were as big as skyscrapers. I found my home and modeling just sort of took a backseat to my love of the nightlife of New York. I guess some would call that irresponsible these days, but when we were young, it was more of a live-for-today attitude. That is how I met Todd Rundgren and Andy Warhol and [photographer] Bob Gruen. The back room at Max’s sort of became my living room. I only lasted a couple of months at the woman’s residence because I broke curfew a little too often. But by that time I had met Todd, so I moved in with Todd.
You had Liv while you were still with Todd. So you two weren’t exclusive?
I mean, we weren’t married. I think every little girl would like exclusivity. But it just wasn’t like that in the seventies. You sort of had to roll with the punches. I just figured if he was gonna date, I was gonna date, too. I think I had lovely boyfriends. I think for your first three boyfriends to be Mick Jagger, Todd Rungren, and David Bowie, I think that’s okay. I can’t imagine why anybody would have a problem with that.
How did you and Mick Jagger hook up?
Eric Clapton played Madison Square Garden and invited Todd to come up and jam at the end of the night. I met Mick that night. It was on. It was, like, instant flirting.
And Todd was there?
I can’t explain it. People dated many people in those days. If you had a sensitivity about that or if you had a jealous streak, that wasn’t your era. You know what I’m saying?
Live in a different decade.
Yeah. Now fidelity and marriage and commitment are very important to me. I’ve been with my husband [Jim Wallerstein, a.k.a. Jimmy Walls, who produced Hard Love and plays lead guitar on it] for twelve years. I couldn’t even imagine that lifestyle. And I’m not saying it’s perfect. It’s painful when you see your boyfriend flirting with some girl or you know he’s been with somebody on the road. I was a young girl and had brilliant suitors. I sort of had that fantasy of being one of the muses of Paris and hanging out with Toulouse Lautrec and Picasso. I just followed my heart, you know? I never went looking for boyfriends or anything. I was just, I guess — what do you call me? — a Forrest Gump of rock and roll. I happened to be in the right place at the right time.
And you were backstage to see some of the greatest bands ever at their prime.
Sometimes. But I’m also one of those people that even when I have a backstage pass, I like being in the pit with the people. Yes, I’ve watched it from behind the soundboard, I think even from the ceiling a couple of times. I maybe even hung from a chandelier or two. But I think the best place to see music is from the vantage of the audience, where you’re supposed to see it. If you come to a show, you’ll see that the front is always filled with 20-year-old girls.
Why do you think that is?
I think I acquired a lot of my young audience from Liv. I think some of her fans come to see me because of curiosity, just like they go to see her dad. And then they never leave. But also I play rock music and it’s dangerous. This is not a fluffy act. You’re not gonna come to my show and get flowers thrown at you. My influences are Iggy Pop, Mick Jagger, the New York Dolls, the MC5s.
Do you have affinity with other female rockers?
Oh yeah. Debbie Harry I love. She’s one of my oldest friends. Chrissie Hynde has been a girlfriend of mine since I met her at the Portobello Hotel when I was a young model and she was a maid. This was before the Pretenders. When Patti Smith was still writing her wacky poems, she and I would get hairbrushes and put on Stooges records and pretend to be rock stars in front of the mirror. And they’re all still going! I just saw Debbie last week, she blew the roof off the place! When you go see Tina Turner, you don’t go, “Hmmm, that woman’s old.” You go, “That woman kicks my ass!” I want to carry the freak flag with them.
Kate Hudson’s character in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, Penny Lane, was based on you, correct?
Partially. Cameron and I did tour together. We met each other in ’73 when he went on the road with Todd Rundgren for a story for Rolling Stone, and we were the babies, and we did bond. He did take a lot of my lines, a lot of autobiographical stuff, and turn it into a fictional film. That’s what I try to tell people all the time. Almost Famous is not nonfiction! But so many people think it is! They think it’s the gospel. Nobody ever traded me for beer, and I never anointed myself a Band-Aid, but some of the story lines were very true.
Going on the road, being on the bus, the drama, Cameron thinking he was gonna be on the road with us for three days and ending up being there for a month, the story getting scrapped by Rolling Stone because Todd tried to censor a lot of the stuff that happened on the road. It’s entwined with truth. But I think the band Stillwater is a combination of the Eagles, Todd, Led Zeppelin, Bad Company. It’s a smorgasbord. And that famous line — “I am the golden god!” — I think it was Robert Plant that said that. It’s definitely the best movie ever made about rock and roll. It’s the most authentic. I was so touched when he named the singer in Stillwater Jeff Bebe. But when people come up to me now and go, “Penny!” I go, “No, Penny Lane’s dead, I ate her.” [Laughs really hard.]
What do you think of the term “groupie”?
I tried not to focus on sexism, and I consider “groupie” a sexist term. I think it’s a misused term. I’ve seen Jerry Hall called a groupie in the English press, and this is a girl who gave Mick Jagger four babies, and how many years did she spend with him? When people just decide that every woman in rock and roll is a groupie because she dated a rock star or two, that’s when I draw the line. A groupie was the girl that came backstage offering the blow jobs to the crew or this or that. I was a rock girlfriend.
What would you do on tour as a rock girlfriend?
It was always about the music for me. Some of the wives, they never really like the road. They felt very threatened by all the women and the lifestyle. But I wasn’t one of those. People have to stop being so judgmental. If I’d been Todd’s wife, maybe things would have gone totally different. But there was no ring on it. I was a free agent. And I was a very independent, successful girl. I did my own thing, I made my own money, I bought my own airline tickets. When I got a paycheck, I went to Bergdorf and I bought my own clothes. There were no rock stars buying me my clothes.
Were you making money modeling at the time?
I did Playboy in ’74, which was unheard of. I’d been in Vogue and when I did Playboy no fashion model had ever done that, and I don’t think any girlfriend of a rock star had ever done it, either.
When I saw the photos (NSFW!), what struck me most was the seventies bush.
Yeah! We had hair on our hootchees back then, yeah baby.
What do you think about shaving and waxing?
Well, I started doing that in the eighties. I was ahead of the curve even with that. I’ve always been a pioneer, baby! [Laughs.] I look back at those pictures and it almost looks like I had a fur bikini. Almost like I had clothes on. I had hair on my vajeejee and in the eighties, because I was doing so many live shows and I would be flailing my legs around and stuff, I started removing the hair on my vajeejee for performance reasons. All my drag queens were like, [imitates voice] “Oh, you gotta wax!” And you didn’t want it to look puffy or whatever when you had your tight pants on. So that’s why we started taking it off then. Now I go to my Korean place and I see girls as young as 14 and 15 taking off their hair, and I’m like, Wow. These girls are never gonna know what it’s like to have a bush. I’ve never cared for the landing strip; I think it should be all or nothing.
Were you ever with Alice Cooper or Joey Ramone or Ric Ocasek as boyfriends?
God no, honey. Absolutely not. My reputation is so overblown. I can count the number of men I’ve dated on two hands. It’s just that you recognized their names, so it looks beefier, it looks more. But most of my friendships with musicians are platonic. I always laugh at the sexual image I have because I’ve never been known for my prowess in the bedroom. I’m sure that a couple guys even broke up with me because I was so bad in bed. [Laughs really hard.]
Is Steven Tyler part of your life still?
Steven’s my best friend. I love that guy.
You were only together a year when you got pregnant.
Well, he was a nut. He was, um, very, very much into the lifestyle. A little too much for me.
You mean drugs.
Yeah, a little too crazy. But when somebody betters themselves and does what he’s done with his life, I feel kind of icky rehashing it. I mean, God bless that guy that he’s even alive. People have died from less, trust me. He took himself to rehab, pulled himself together, turned around the biggest show on television, and at 63 years old is one of the biggest rock stars in the world.
You ended it because of the lifestyle.
I was on tour with Aerosmith in Europe, pregnant and hormonal, with a lot of crazy crap going on and jealous, mean rock wives around me. Only one, really. I actually like all the other wives. Joe Perry’s first wife, Alyssa, was a monster. She was a horrible, horrible person. And Steven says that in his current book and I say that in my book. It’s common knowledge. Billy Perry I love, Joe’s wife now. The first wife, she was not very nice. And it’s just … I got frightened. I was 22 years old. And Todd felt a certain responsibility for me, since we’d been together forever and he took me back. We decided that we were gonna be the parents together. Steven was just in no shape. But bless him, he finally got sober and realized that. He tried very hard to make up for all of that. I do not punish him. I forgive him. We all do. I mean, Liv turned out great. I did my job.
Why didn’t you tell Liv who her father was until she was in middle school?
Because he was crazy. And I didn’t want her to be psychologically affected. If she’d tried to have a relationship with him then, it wouldn’t have been a good thing. He would have maybe been sweet, because he is a lovable, sweet, dear thing. The first time they met was backstage at a Todd Rundgren show when she was 9. He taught her to play “Dream On” on a little Casio keyboard backstage. And he was two weeks into his sobriety at that point. I thank God that she never knew the crazy guy. Well, she knew the crazy guy. She never knew the drug-riddled guy.
And it was at that concert that she guessed he was her dad?
Yes, but she didn’t approach me and confront me about it until she was 11, and it didn’t go public until ‘91, so there were a lot of secrets from ‘86 to ‘91. But, you know, she effortlessly made the transition because I think I have a very close family. My mother [etiquette expert Dorthea Johnson, founder of the Protocol School of Washington] and my cousin, who was raised as my sister, we all raised Liv together. She was raised by three powerful, alpha women. I think that made Liv the interesting, beautiful soul that she is.
Can you take me through what happened when you quit music to raise Liv?
It was hard for me. I was offered a massive recording contract after working my ass off for ten years with my band the Gargoyles. And I made a choice. Now, maybe some other people would have taken the choice to leave their kid at home and go on the road and take that record deal, but I knew that I would never be able to live with myself if I did that. I always look to Jackie Kennedy. She said something in that little voice of hers [imitates], “If you mess up with your children, what’s the point?” I would have suffered if I had not done my best to be the best mother I could be. But I’m not a Momager. I’m not into the Dina Lohan — that stuff makes me seriously, Roman-style puke. I’m not into that. What I did for Liv was a little different. I had a lot of knowledge of the industry, so I was able to steer her correctly through her future and show her how to be professional.
Was your decision to turn down the record deal directly tied to the paternity coming out publicly?
Absolutely. I don’t want to name the label, because it’s not good etiquette, but it was one of the big three and it was a six-figure deal. They thought I had lost my mind. When I actually went in there and said, “How long will I need to be gone?” And they told me, “Pretty much three years.” I’d be on the road pretty solid.
I gave up my career for my daughter. I’m just going to say it bluntly. And I had to work all the time. Sometimes I had three jobs. But that’s what I did. I’m not Courtney Love. I don’t throw my daughter under the bus for my career. My kid comes first and I get very fucking huffy about it. And I want to kick people’s asses that don’t put their kids first. They suck.
Courtney Love in particular.
I don’t know her, but I can’t imagine my daughter getting a restraining order against me. That’s frightening to me. What does a mother have to do to cause that? That’s scary.
And you couldn’t take Liv on the road with you.
No! She had to go to school. I mean, Liv took the subway to school. She took the 6 train up to York Prep after she was a movie star. Liv has work ethic. If she was naughty in school, she got gum duty where she had to scrape the gum off the bottom of all the desks. She got so good at knowing what the gums were she was like, “Mom, I scraped enough Hubba Bubba today to sink a ship!” She graduated from high school in a cap and a gown with her daddy and I standing there and then literally a week and a half later we were on a plane to Tuscany for her to do Stealing Beauty.
Once Liv left home at 19, you decided to focus on you?
I was going to have to fight ageism, sexism. I was going to have to take on the -isms, you know? But as soon as I saw that she was safe, poised, and had a really clear vision and taste … I went down at Don Hill’s that afternoon going, “Don! I need to get a band together. I’m dying!” I couldn’t wait. Your mommy job is never done. I’m always going to be there for her, always. But if I don’t have to do that, believe me, I’m a lot happier. Because I would much more prefer doing this all the time. Nothing makes me happier than being in rehearsals, making records, being onstage.
What do you object to about Momagers?
I don’t think you should be your daughter’s best friend. You’ve got to be a mother. The other night I was at that Lovecat/V Magazine party during Fashion Week and [Lindsay Lohan] threw a drink on somebody and she was there with her mother. I just know that if my daughter threw a drink on somebody, she’d be over my knee getting an old-fashioned whooping. No matter what age. You don’t do things like that. First of all, my daughter would never do something like that. It’s not in her nature. You have to have something in your nature to do something like that. I find it tragic, because Lindsay to me is extremely talented. I just wish that she had the influence of somebody like me or somebody around her — not that I have time to wear a manager hat anymore, but I’m just saying that I just don’t like these moms that run these careers. How do they even understand the industry? When I was working for my daughter, you had to know when to step aside. The spotlight is not on you. It’s on them. These moms, they just don’t get it. It kind of upsets me. Because I think you’ve got to be a mother first and foremost, and I personally think when you’re in recovery and trying to get better, you shouldn’t be going to parties. You shouldn’t be going to parties and your mom shouldn’t be going with you. That’s my humble opinion.
Can you talk about your relationship with Elvis Costello? He was a boyfriend, right?
Yeah. Slightly. I adored him. I don’t think that’s a secret. It was an incredibly turbulent — on and off for eight years. The chemistry was really good. It was love at first sight. My girlfriends all thought he was ugly and I said, “He’s not ugly, he’s a genius. He just doesn’t look like everybody else.” I thought he was beautiful.
I thought you said in your autobiography that Elvis Costello was the best lay you ever had.
Well, you know, you say a lot of stupid stuff when you’re young. I kind of regret that I ever even discussed that. Because it’s really not a nice thing to do. On the record, I want to apologize to Elvis if I ever embarrassed him talking about what a good lover he was. I mean, gosh, maybe he’s grateful. I don’t know. But when I look back on that now, I go, “Oh my God.” I’m so happily married now.
How did you meet your husband, Jim Wallerstein?
We met in 1999 when our bands were playing the same Christmas party. We did everything very traditionally. We met, we fell in love, we dated, we got engaged, and we were married in 2002. Every relationship I’ve had, sexual or nonsexual, has been based on chemistry. I never just dated somebody because they were a rock star. People always say to me, “I thought Mick Jagger was your dream boy from childhood. Why didn’t you stay with him?” He became my best friend. I adore him. But I also knew that to be his girlfriend you would also have to have 65 other girlfriends with you, too. [Laughs.] I think I always craved that romantic fantasy. And to finally have it … to have my life with my husband and to be able to make a record and to be getting the response that I’m getting for this record, I think it’s a real victory, not just for me but for all women. The boat doesn’t stop just because you get at to a certain age.
Was Iggy Pop a lover?
I had a fling with him. But we have remained friends through many decades.
Yes, I toured with Led Zeppelin. Once I went in first class with them from L.A. to New York. I can’t even recount how insane that was. I had my South American raccoon with me and the raccoon was supposed to go under the plane with the dogs. But Jimmy Page bought the raccoon a first-class seat and it ran amok around the cabin and two of the stewardesses … I mean, we didn’t even have stewardesses. They were in the bathroom with the band most of the time.
We made one feeble attempt at having sex and we ended up in a heap of laughter. We just didn’t have that kind of relationship. We would play with makeup and go see the Rockettes and he would ask my opinion of clothes, you know what I mean?
Never! I would never date two guys in the same band. Why is it so important to you, sweetie? Woman to woman? Why are these rock star guys so important? I’m just curious. Don’t you think it’s weird to ask about them when somebody hasn’t dated rock stars in, like, 30 years? Isn’t it time to put it to bed? That was my life in the seventies. I’ve been with three men since 1985 and I married two of them. Nobody has ever been a conquest for me. I like relationships. When I’ve ever had a fling in my life, which was maybe three times, it was because that person worked better as a friend. Maybe my crush on them or their crush on me might have resulted in attempted scrunching, but …
I get it. But they’re part of your story.
People have to stop focusing on people’s sex lives and people’s personal lives and start to hone in on what they actually do. You don’t earn money if you date a rock star. That’s not a job. And that’s not a career. If you’re fortunate enough to be considered pretty or a top model and meet these guys and they happen to have these wonderful professions, that’s a coincidence. But you’re not going to get your rent paid by following around a rock band. I feel sorry for women that have that fantasy, that if they follow somebody for long enough they’ll end up with a ring on their finger. This is 2012. The world doesn’t work like that. Maybe that worked in the fifties. It’s not like that anymore. You have to really take the bull by the horns. To me, sex is the last step, not the first. Even then, I never jumped into bed with anybody. That’s just not the way I am. I’m a little icy. It takes a little to warm me up. I think we need to become a little more European about how we covet people and how we treat women, because I think it’s really sexist. We have to stop this nonsense.
Labeling. I think it sucks. You never see it happening to men. And if you do, it’s rare.
Like slut, groupie?
Whore. Why do people say these things? It’s usually because they’re jealous because it’s not them, or because they don’t understand. And the only thing I get uppity about, and I feel like I have a right to because I’m educated about it, is this momager thing. That pisses me off. Unqualified people should not handle their children’s careers. It’s not your career; it’s your child’s career. If you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, hire people who do. Even me, who had a very savvy business sense and knew exactly what I was doing and knew the industry inside and out from being a part of it, I still hired great people to manage her money and to be the agent. Never took her money. Never used her money for me. I find that some of these other parents, they’re dipping in their kids’ money. Wrong. If your child wants to gift you or do something for you or give you a fabulous purse or buy you a house, that’s up to them. I would never expect that. I take my work very seriously. And that’s my message. The music is doing the talking. I worked very hard and I’ve earned it. It’s a badge. I wear it proudly. To be able to battle all the sexism, all the crap, all the focus on the men I’ve dated, and to be able to come back with an album and a tour and presales that are higher than anything I’ve had previously, I think that should give a lot of women and a lot of men and a lot of people a lot of hope. There are no rules. Rules are made to be broken, anyway.