Do women who like men have fun anymore? The married ones who write essays about their marriages don’t seem to be, and the single ones are famously pessimistic about their heterosexuality. Trad girls certainly claim to adore their men, but it’s hard to have too much fun in a full-length prairie dress. Even Sex and the City, once emblematic of a particular sort of carefree lifestyle, has now returned stripped of any real joy, or much sex for that matter.
All of which makes reading I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie for the first time feel like science fiction. In 1987, Pamela Des Barres — the very hot, very famous groupie — wrote a memoir of her time in the ’60s and ’70s. What feels striking about the book now is its premise: One woman sleeps with hordes of terrible men, and has a wonderful time doing so.
To call the young Pamela’s taste in men not great is like calling the Palace of Versailles a decent starter home. Early on, she describes “a perfectly stunning specimen”: a man in a top hat who asks her for some spare change outside the “Psychedelic Supermarket” in San Francisco. After they get talking, they go for donuts and he reads his poetry to her by candlelight before a passionate make-out session ensues. Moved by his intensity, teenage Pamela wonders if he will become a second Keats or Byron, maybe? Since the man in question turns out to be Bobby Beausoleil, instead he becomes one of the Manson murderers.
As the above suggests, one particularly enjoyable feature of the book is the abyss between what happens to Pamela and how Pamela perceives it. If you related the events of I’m With the Band to a friend, they would assume that you were reading one of the world’s leading accounts of straight sorrow. But! Despite every last detail of this often-horrifying memoir, the twist is this: no heterosexual woman on earth has ever had as much fun as Pamela Des Barres. (Almost certainly heterosexual, I should say. There is one scene where Pamela kisses a woman at a concert. However, I must insist that if you turn down a threesome featuring 1960s-era Michelle from The Mamas and the Papas, you’re straight.)
Imagine, if you will, that you had the sort of sex drive that could power the national grid. And — crucially — you also happened to be a 10. Not a 10 sometimes, to a few select people, if your hair looked good and the afternoon light slanted golden and you’d got eight hours sleep, but a 10 to every person who crossed your path. This might sound like the recipe for a very specific sort of charmed existence: to be as horny as you are beautiful! But according to I’m With the Band, this would actually just set you up as a revolving door for some of the worst men alive. Fortunately, nobody has ever desired men like Pamela Des Barres and as such, it is a 200 page-long howl of pure joy.
Let’s say that you, whether always, mostly, or once in a blue moon, are attracted to men. But are you really attracted to men — attracted to men like Pamela Des Barres is attracted to men? Have you, years before sleeping with a man you desire (in this case, Mick Jagger), ever rendered an oil painting of what you believe his balls would look like? Have you ever gone to visit a man you think is easy on the eyes (future Miami Vice actor Don Johnson) and been overcome by the erotic ecstasy of entering his boring-sounding apartment? (“It reeked of male conquest and female acquiescence. The furniture was big and beige, the rugs were white, the ceilings were high, the lights were dim, and I was reduced to a lump of blushing flesh.”) Have you ever gone to see a movie and become so undone with desire for the male lead (bafflingly: Bud Cort, Harold and Maude) that you were moved to stand up in the cinema and announce to the audience that you — yes, you! — would soon make him your “future friend”?
To see the world through Pamela’s eyes is to enter a parallel reality where sweetly ordinary-looking men are transformed into supermodels and monologuing stoners are profound and subversive thinkers. The unintended consequence of the latter is that Pamela — who truly loves almost every man she sleeps with and hangs out with, even when they are horrible to her — crucifies a lot of rockstars and music-biz people, not by describing what they get up to in bed, but by earnestly quoting what they say. For example:
- Kim Fowley “told me that he would rather be married to me for forty-seven years than to fuck me for forty-seven minutes. I believed this to be the most profound statement ever uttered.”
- Led Zeppelin’s guitarist Jimmy Page “told me he was going to come to my door, sweep me off my feet and take me away in his white chariot; he told me he was my knight in shining armor….’I’ve known you for a thousand years, don’t you feel that way?’”
- “As Captain Beefheart once said, ‘God is a perfect musical note.’”
- Jimmy again, days later: “We talked about how much better it would have been had we met before all the pop-star-groupie business started and got in the way of a meaningful and honest relationship. He vowed not to let it get in our way, but inserted a clause that allowed him to ‘do things’ on the road because he got so ‘bloody bored.’”
- Hymen-enthusiast Jim Morrison: “I was always going to marry a virgin.”
Pamela has a rich tapestry of not-great experiences with men. Jim Morrison hits her up for Trimar (the 60s’ answer to PCP) and makes out with her high before throwing away her drugs and giving her a stern anti-narcotics lecture. The bassist for Steppenwolf takes her virginity, vanishes, then starts sleeping with her again after becoming engaged to another woman. Iconically, he then sends her an “ecru lace invitation to attend his wedding.” The only pre-Michael-Des-Barres relationship in the book ends with 23-year-old Pamela being dumped for Tippi Hedren’s 14-year-old daughter! Jimmy Page talks about marrying her, ghosts her and then insists on reuniting for one evening only so he can wax lyrical about the new woman he’s in love with.
But while Pamela could rival Job in terms of terrible things befalling a person, for the most part, she remains resolutely unembarrassed. She never tweets “Heterosexuality is a prison” or tells the queer women she knows that she wishes she was them; they’re so lucky. Plus, as the book tells it, there are also some oases in this desert of human decency: Frank Zappa is generous and supportive, not just of Pamela, but of lots of women on the scene at the time (something which seems probably?? unrelated to sex — he seems like the book’s one true Wife Guy). And while the Marlon Brando of this era sounds pretty vile in at least one other account, Pamela gives us a very different rendition of him. Brando fields an unending stream of letters, nudes and throaty answer machine messages from Pamela in dignified silence, but when she hits rock bottom, takes the call to tell her “heavy anecdotes about instances in his life when he searched for the damned stupid answers somewhere else and found them right there inside himself…He said it would be better for me spiritually if we never met….‘Remember, look to yourself!’”
Speaking of looking to ourselves: At the risk of over-intellectualizing a delicious account of one woman bedding almost every music guy of the ’60s and ’70s, I think perhaps there is something to learn here. I am not advocating for women everywhere to go out and sleep with the worst men they know — but I am advocating for a little less performative hand-wringing over liaisons with men, and a bit more fun.
This doesn’t have to end at the people we choose to date or sleep with: Pamela is delightful not because she is horny for men or horny for musicians or (god help us) horny for Brits, but because she is EQUALLY horny for life. While many of her contemporaries die young in horrible ways (desert-side overdoses, car crashes, suicides), Pamela takes almost everything, fucks everyone, and still makes it out of the hot-people-die-young-decades not just alive, but buoyant. If the book has a message, perhaps it’s this: Been there, done that, would 200 percent do it again.
Sophie Atkinson is a writer and editor.