Pamela Des Barres had the rock ‘n’ roll gods in the palm of her hand, as she proudly noted in her memoir I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie. It’s also widely believed that she was the inspiration for the character Penny Lane in Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous. He apparently used her memoirs to create the fictional groupie.
It’s really no wonder that the director zeroed in on Pamela’s stories, considering she’s one of – if not THE – most famous rock ‘n’ roll groupie ever. Her confessional details all of her escapades with loads of rock stars (Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Hendrix, Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, Zappa, the Who, etc.) as she was living the life on L.A.’s Sunset Strip in the late-‘60s and early-‘70s. If you’re looking for a time capsule into that era, this is it…
Back in 1968, Pamela Des Barres was just 20 years old (she’s in her 70s now), yet her social group was filled with all the names we still listen to today. These bands were the greatest acts of the cultural revolution, and Pamela knew them all. In her own way, she turned the young Beatles fandom into a new type of devotion: that of the groupie.
What exactly is a groupie, you ask? Well, Pamela explains, “A groupie is someone who loves the music so much she wants to be around the people who make it.” So simple. In her opinion, the difference between a fan and a groupie is that a fan is content with just an autograph or (these days) a selfie…
A groupie, on the other hand, takes the next step, “and that takes a lot of courage.” But, as she points out, they do so “hoping for a romance or a one-night stand – or sometimes hoping to marry them.” It’s safe to say that the world today wouldn’t tolerate the stuff these groupies did back in the day.
After all, groupie behavior is characterized by silly girls with loose morals being exploited by self-interested rock stars. Today, such behavior would make headline news, and all those rock stars would be canceled the next day. But that’s beside the point…
Let’s take a look at the life of Pamela Des Barres, also known as the super groupie.
Pamela mentions in her book that her gateway crush as a teenager was the singer of the San Diego band Iron Butterfly. But “Miss Pamela” – as Robert Plant and Mick Jagger came to call her – had a much more meaningful relationship with Who drummer Keith Moon. And that’s despite the fact that she was simultaneously seeing rebel country singer Waylon Jennings.
She proudly claimed that she “was Keith’s L.A. girl, and there was no doubt about it.” Whenever he came to town, “he’d call no one but me,” she recalled. “He was such a needy soul,” she said of Moon, who would wake up screaming (because he had accidentally killed his chauffeur with his Bentley).
Pamela claims she was the only one who could calm him down. (Moon died in 1978 at the age of 32.) “I was the muse,” she said, adding that she doesn’t care what people say about it. The way she sees it, groupies enhanced “these people’s lives” in a major way. If it weren’t for groupies, they wouldn’t be who they are.
This is coming from someone who became famous for having “intimate relations” with Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, Keith Moon, and Waylon Jennings, to name a few. She was L.A.’s most notable groupie during the decadent era of band members riding motorcycles down hotel hallways – the time when musicians got insanely rich off of record sales.
But there’s actually more to Pamela Des Barres than just juicy stories between the sheets with rock stars. She also made a name for herself in music as a member of The GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously). The band was made up of a group of groupies, organized by Frank Zappa (Pamela used to babysit his kids).
The GTOs only made one performance under that name, which was alongside Zappa’s band Mothers of Invention, together with Alice Cooper, Wild Man Fischer, and Easy Chair in the 1968 concert that lasted six hours. The all-girl group dissolved a month later, though, after the release of their first and only album, Permanent Damage. It was cut short due to some of the members being arrested (for drug possession).
Frank Zappa has a lot to do with Pamela’s past. In fact, she lived in his house for years, and even after all that time in proximity to him, he still remained mysterious. Pamela remembers him disappearing into the basement where his recording studio was, and he would be there for hours on end.
Zappa was notoriously drug-free and anti-hippie, so Pamela confessed to having had to hide all that stuff from him while she was living under his roof. He probably wouldn’t have noticed either way since he was so focused on his music and creating.
What Pamela is less remembered for is her most significant title, as a best-selling author. Her memoir, I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie, shot to the top of The New York Times bestseller list when it was released in 1987.
Her later books, Let’s Spend the Night Together, Take Another Little Piece of My Heart, and Rock Bottom, which also recounted the extreme highs and lows of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, became bestsellers, too. She’s actually been honing her skills as a writer her whole life, ever since she started keeping a diary.
Born Pamela Ann Miller in 1948, she grew up in the San Fernando Valley. Her mother was a homemaker, and her father a gold miner. Pamela wrote that she was born to a” seemingly contented housewife and her adventurous, Budweiser beer-bottling man.”
Her father, O.C. Miller from Kentucky, worked the night shift, which came in handy when she would creep in at 3 a.m. The truth is Pamela’s earliest childhood drawings were created on the backs of beer labels. She even kept a few of them. Her mother had two miscarriages before Pamela was born, making her a special only child with more toys than she says she deserved.
Growing up, she idolized the Beatles and Elvis Presley and fantasized about meeting and dating Paul McCartney, her favorite Beatle. Once she discovered the Rolling Stones, she spent her time daydreaming of Mick Jagger.
The fact that she actually ended up canoodling with the Rolling Stone only makes her life a dream come true (but we’ll get to that soon). Before she became famous, she was an English college major. For the past two decades, she’s been teaching writing workshops for women in her living room. She even takes her classes on tour around the States and beyond.
Pamela considers writing and teaching her life’s work. Her newest book, Let It Bleed: How to Write a Rockin’ Memoir, encourages wannabe memoirists – both men and women – to fearlessly confess their darkest secrets and deepest flaws.
In an interview with Vice, Pamela discussed her memoirs (which she pronounces “mem-wah”). She said she was one of the very first “unknown nobodies” to write a memoir, and it took her a long time to sell it since she was getting rejection after rejection. When her book of secrets came out, the reaction from people was mixed…
She wasn’t a known figure at that point, and people said things along the lines of, “How dare this person write about her sex life with these degenerates?” She did many “uptight interviews” with mostly women and went on talk shows where the audience would “give you s**t.”
And she got a lot of it, as you can imagine. At first, she was stunned and didn’t know how to handle it, but then she figured it out. She started saying things like, “Sorry you didn’t get to sleep with Mick Jagger. That’s probably what you really wanted to do, and I’m sorry you couldn’t do that. It was an awesome experience.”
After lusting after the musician for most of her youth, she got lucky and became his right-hand gal for a period of time. “Mick was number five,” she stated. “He convinced me that Jimmy [Page] wasn’t being true to me on the road.”
Page came before Jagger, and she was in love with the Led Zeppelin band member; she wanted to “be true to him.” At that point, she had only been with a few people. But then Jagger came along, and she thought to herself: “Okay, I’ve wanted this guy forever, I might as well do it.” They ended up having a “long-term fling that was really awesome.”
Her attraction to English rock stars eventually led her to Chelsea, in the heart of “Swinging London.” There, two American tourists mistook her for Jagger’s girlfriend, which made her feel as though she had achieved some kind of blissful nirvana.
She said it frankly: “F***ing Mick on his pillows in the middle of his living room, listening to Dylan… There was nothing better on earth.” The frontman and the groupie clearly had something special, so what did he think when her memoir came out and dished the dirt? Rolling Stone once asked him what he thought of it, and his response was simply: “I was there.”
Believe it or not, no one has tried to sue Pamela, and the way she sees it is because she was telling the truth – her truth. Everybody was okay with it, only a bit surprised if anything. If you’re at all like me, you’re wondering how did she go from being an English college major to making out with rock gods?
Well, it started when she was in high school. An acquaintance of hers, Victor Hayden, introduced her to his cousin Don Van Vliet. Don was better known as Captain Beefheart, the musician, and friend of Frank Zappa. Don then introduced the teenager to Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones…
It was then that Pamela was welcomed into the rock music scene on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. Soon enough, she found herself hanging out with the Byrds and other bands. By the time she graduated from high school in 1966, she had found odd jobs that allowed her to live near the Strip and thus take part in the music scene.
Pamela started to form friendships and relationships with not just Jagger, Page, and Moon, but also Jim Morrison, Nick St. Nicholas, Noel Redding, Chris Hillman, Gram Parsons, Waylon Jennings, Brandon de Wilde, Michael Richards, Woody Allen, and Don Johnson.
Speaking of Don Johnson, Pamela – who hasn’t eaten red meat for about five decades – said her choice not to eat meat was something she decided while she was on a date with the future star of Miami Vice. “I went with Don Johnson, one of my dudes,” she said, “to the first vegetarian restaurant in L.A.”
She described how she saw a blurb on the back of the menu about how restaurants get their red meat. “I was so appalled that I stopped that day.” (I can just see the smirk on every vegetarian’s face right now).
During the ‘70s, she pursued a career as an actress and managed to find her way into movies (including Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels), commercials, and soap operas. She actually played a recurring role in the Search for Tomorrow in 1974.
Once her acting career stalled, Pamela continued to work as a nanny for Zappa’s kids, Dweezil and Moon Unit. Zappa was actually the one who urged her to continue writing in her diary when she was still in high school. It’s a good thing she did because now we can really get all the juicy details!
Pamela’s very first TV experience was on the Today Show, which she recalled as being “really scary.” Bryant Gumbel introduced her as the “queen of the groupies.” Up until that point, she never labeled herself as one.
Pamela points out that at that time, the word “groupie” had already become a really cheap word associated with trampy behavior. Having to admit to being a groupie was complicated for Pamela – a “mixed bag” were her words. Ever since that day, she’s been trying to redeem the word – to remind people it’s all about love.
The first time she ever heard the term groupie was when she was with Led Zeppelin (in front of the Hyatt House) as they were getting into a limousine. Someone said, “She’s a groupie.” She thought to herself, “Hmm. I’ve got a term. That’s interesting.”
It wasn’t even said in a mean way, but it quickly became a judgmental term because people couldn’t understand it. Pamela explained that since people couldn’t get backstage, they were thinking, “How are they getting backstage?” and just assumed that these girls were doing you-know-what to get such perks.
Being a groupie wasn’t only about hanging out and making out with the band. Pamela and The GTOs would “take care of these bands” and watch soccer with them. Whenever the Jeff Beck Group would come to town, for instance, the girls would take them shopping.
Pamela took Led Zeppelin to Nudie’s Rodeo Tailor and the one vintage store in town. They would dress the guys up and take care of them by sewing buttons on shirts. “It was not all about sex,” she claimed. She said none of them had any relations with The Jeff Beck Group.
Pamela pointed out that she’s friends with Robert Plant to this day, and they’ve never been intimate, “unfortunately.” She added that she was with Jimmy [Page] but that it was “a respected thing,” and they’re friends more than anything else.
The way Pamela sees it, groupies are here to stay – they just can’t connect with huge bands like they used to. “We used to just walk into the Whiskey a Go-Go and sit on Mick Jagger’s lap. You can’t do that now.” Aside from taking care of these guys, groupies also did a lot of promotion by talking the bands up.
Not only did Cameron Crowe (allegedly) base the character of Penny Lane on Pamela Des Barres, but the actress who played her did too. Kate Hudson actually told Pamela that she based her performance on her. Pamela even went to the premiere of the film, and she heard it from the horse’s mouth.
Hudson told her at the premiere that she had photos of her on her dressing room walls. “It was an honor,” Pamela asserted, jokingly adding that she “wasn’t really compensated in any way.” She emphasized that it wasn’t just her stories that inspired the film – it was the time period.
The time she lived through has become a myth. “You would walk into the club, and there’d be David Bowie, Iggy Pop, a couple of Ramones.” There were no rules then – everything was about free love. People were open, unafraid, and as Pamela reminded us, John Lennon had not yet been killed.
“Rock stars could walk down the street. They really can’t now, although I heard Springsteen goes to the mall.” Having lived during the Wild West of L.A.’s ‘60s and ‘70s, there must have been a favorite adventure or two…
Although she said it’s “impossible” to pick a favorite adventure, she did say that her most important time with these guys, friends and lovers alike, was being onstage with them. As close as you could get to actually being in the band was to stand by the side of the stage.
When The Who were doing Tommy, Keith Moon made her stand on the stage next to the drum kit. “It’s amazing I can still hear it,” she admitted. With Zeppelin, Jimmy Page had her sit on the amplifiers, so she could see. Everybody saw her up there, and she saw all these girls in the audience with “so much envy.”
She and the guys in the band were all very young – in their early 20s. Eventually, Pamela grew up a bit and settled down. In 1977, she married English rock star Michael Des Barres, who was a raging addict. It was then that she decided to give up drugs.
The couple had a son together but divorced (amicably) in 1991. When Michael met Pamela, she was the star of an Andy Warhol movie (and was going by Pamela Miller). The first time he saw her, she was dressed in a “very tiny outfit,” and when she turned around, he couldn’t help but “fall in love with that face.”
Michael didn’t have a problem with his wife being a groupie – in fact, he praised it, calling it “fantastic.” He also thought of her first memoir as “the jewels in her crown.” He recalled a time (during an interview with Fox News) when Led Zeppelin was playing a gig and in New York and Pamela was sitting in the wings.
The four guys went on stage, and each one took his turquoise bracelet (all the rockers had them at the time) and put it on her wrist. “That is rock ’n’ roll history,” Michael stated.
Pamela has had a few relationships since her divorce from Michael but has more or less remained single. Today, she says, she finds strength in her faith, which has only deepened over the years. So, how did she reconcile her scandalous past with Christian morality?
“I fought with it,” she acknowledged. But then she came to a realization: that the “big O” (called “la petite mort” in French – “the little death”) is “godly.” Pamela came to realize that sex is good, important, and a way of “connecting with the divine.” So that’s that…
Believe it or not, Pamela Des Barres is an ordained minister. That’s right, folks, the former groupie can officiate your wedding… at the right cost, of course.
She’s concerned that what she calls her “amazing life” will be lumped in with some of the deplorable behavior that has been exposed in the last ten or so years as part of the Me Too movement.
She hopes that people will understand that her life was the choice for freedom. Not just that, she also wishes for every man and woman to tell anyone to “f*** off” if they don’t want them.
Does Pamela have any regrets? Well, there is one: She wishes she had slept with Jimi Hendrix when he offered. But on a much more serious note, Pamela recalled the Altamont festival in 1969 (the free concert the Rolling Stones threw in which a fan was murdered by the Hells Angels).
She remembers a “devastated” Jagger in a hotel room after the traumatic show, saying he wanted to quit and begged her to stay with him. In an era of decadence and drama, there were clearly regrettable times. But these days, Pamela Des Barres still lives for the music. She throws gigs in her backyard and hosts rock music tours of L.A. for tourists.
In her interview with Vice, she was asked if today’s rock stars are as sexy as they were in her heyday. Pamela’s responded by giving her opinion that they’re “not as dangerous.” In her eyes, the last “danger” in the world of rock was Kurt Cobain and the era of grunge.
Before that, it was the Sex Pistols. In rap, there’s still danger, but she sees that fading, too. Vice then asked her who the sexiest rock star of the moment is. And she had one name to give: Jack White. She absolutely loves the guy.
Pamela wrote about her love for the perfect thrift store “hunt” – something that became a secret treasure hunt and a joyful outing with her mother during her childhood. When she arrived at school every day, she outshone the other girls with her unique and original outfits that came directly from thrift stores.
At the young age of seven, she didn’t really get the evident stigma of wearing someone else’s used clothes. And by the time she figured it out, “it didn’t matter a whit, as I was already well into the HUNT.” She would go on these early hunts with her mom, taking the bus to thrift stores miles away.
She and her parents would go to garage sales, too, which is where she found her first “life-changing” Elvis record, Treat Me Nice. During Beatlemania, she started making her own mod miniskirts and wide, low-cut Cher bellbottoms.
She became entranced by the dreamy feminine clothes that graced both the models and the pages of old-fashioned magazines. Pamela would buy stacks of Vogue and Marie Claire. One day, after school, her friend Linda’s grandmother (aka “Gammie”) told them they should check out the trunk in the attic. It was like Pandora’s box…
The two girls ran up to the attic and basically entered a time warp into the past. It was 1966, and Pamela said she had “never even heard the term vintage.” As they pulled out “frock after magnificent frock,” it was as though the pages of Vogue were coming to life.
For Pamela, it was one of the most “profoundly life-altering” days of her life. A few weeks later, the late great comedian Lenny Bruce was found dead in his Hollywood bathroom. She was 16 and fresh out of high school.
She didn’t know who Bruce was at the time, but nonetheless, she went to hear his eulogy in nearby Chatsworth, joining “the hipsters in acknowledging his contribution to hipness.” In those days, she was driving a 1959 Chevy Impala convertible, which she drove to meet musicians and other “hippie-types.”
She wore one of Gammie’s long black velvet skirts and a red 1930s silk velvet wrap blouse. She even carried balloons with her in an attempt to be respectful and hopefully fit in with the real Lenny Bruce fans. After the cemetery march, the mourners gathered at a local DJ’s backyard.
There, they all sat cross-legged in the grass while Phil Spector hosted a group of speakers. While that was a spectacle in itself, Pamela couldn’t help but look toward the back of the yard where Frank Zappa and his wife Gail were dilly-dallying on a kid’s swing set.
“I remember his neon flowered bellbottoms and the way [his wife] Gail gazed at him unabashedly as if he lit up the entire universe.” Among the grievers was a “trippy group of freaks” – girls wearing see-through vintage pieces, and Pamela admired their sense of freedom and style.
A few days later, she saw the same eccentric group, parading around on stage with The Doors at a “love-in” at Griffith Park. Pamela was part of the hippy crowd with daisies in her hair, wearing another item from Gammie’s trunk.
As she wandered among the peaceniks, a young photographer asked if he could take a photo of her. He later asked if she wanted to dance in a “short film” with a new band from England, The Jimi Hendrix Experience. He told her to wear the same blue velvet dress she was wearing that day.
Not too long after Lenny’s eulogy, Rodney Bingenheimer invited Pamela to a party, where she joined a “gaggle of dazzling girls.” One of those girls was “Miss Christine,” the nanny for six-month-old Moon Zappa. Miss Christine then invited Pamela to come visit the “log cabin” in Laurel Canyon to meet her boss (Frank Zappa).
It was the beginning of her all-girl group, the GTOs. The group consisted of Miss Pamela, Miss Mercy (Fontenot), Miss Cinderella (Cynthia Cale-Binion), Miss Christine (Frka), Miss Lucy (Luz Selenia Offerrall), Miss Sandra (Leano), and Miss Sparky (Linda Sue Parker).
The seven of them danced with Zappa’s zany troupe at first, becoming The Laurel Canyon Ballet Company, frolicking with local bands on stage, including the Mothers of Invention. Once Zappa started his own label, he asked the girls to write songs based on their experiences, and suddenly they were a group.
The all-girl band also helped dress up their rock and roll boyfriends, dragging the British lads to the then-one-and-only vintage store in Hollywood, The Glass Farmhouse on Sunset Blvd. “I vividly remember wrapping Rod Stewart up in a feather boa and silk vest,” Pamela recalled… vividly.
During her “Led Zeppelin phase,” when she dreamed of becoming Mrs. Jimmy Page, Pamela took Alice Cooper and his band to the store Nudie’s where they got outfitted “in George Jones embroidered rhinestone madness.”
Pamela explained that she showed her affection and appreciation for the music by making clothes for her “true loves.” She created a “humdinger” for Jimmy Page, a pink and white velvet cowboy shirt with long fringe. Her heart melted when she saw him wearing it in the pages of the magazine the New Musical Express.
The GTOs were pretty influential in the world of fashion. Years later, Gene Simmons told Pamela that Paul Stanley was inspired by the starry painted eyes from Miss Sandra’s look, and he himself took his topknot from Miss Christine.
Pamela is always on the lookout for authentic vintage pieces, which makes her treasure hunts all the more exciting. For Pamela, “true vintage” is the “feminine finery” that spilled out of Gammie’s treasure chest. It was filled with the smell and style of yesteryear – something she still holds dear to her heart.