Groupie is Not a Four-Letter Word

I’ve always mused that I was born in the wrong decade. Or, rather, in my twenties during the wrong decade. If I could pull a Midnight in Paris and pick any era to live during those impressionable years, it would most certainly be the mid-sixties to mid-seventies. And it would be spent cavorting about in a carefree manner along the Sunset Strip and the hills of Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles.

I’ve never taken a Hollywood tour, not even before I became a resident of this mad city. Never climbed to the top of an open-air, double decker bus to drive by celebrity homes or snap blurry photos while bombing down Hollywood Boulevard. It’s not really my jam in any city, especially the one I now call home base. But there is one tour I’ve been dying to indulge in. Less so a tour and more of a curation of rock and roll history and Hollywood lore. Pamela Des Barres’ rock tour has been on my wish list for a long time, and spending an afternoon with Miss P was more mystical and goose-bump-inducing than I ever imagined.

When she rocked up to meet her group of rock revelers in front of Amoeba Music on Sunset, she emerged from her rented passenger van the way an angel might rise from the ether. Dressed head-to-toe in flowing lace and creamy textiles, complete with a shiny star fashioned on her cheek. She literally glows, causing one to question, is it her aura or just the positive energy she omits – or both? There’s something special about this pint-sized pixie of a hippie chick, and I’m not the only one to feel it. Jimmy Page, Keith Moon, Chris Hillman, Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger…her roster of lovers is that of rock gods, all seemingly as taken with her as I was (am, have always been).

I credit my parents for having exceptional taste in music, which turned me on to what I feel is one of the best eras of music and also what I consider to be the golden age of Hollywood. Give me The Doors residency at the Whisky a Go Go and mobs of kids converging on The Strip over pin-curls, red lips and mobster-fleeced movie execs any day. But when I saw Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, something inside me bubbled to the surface. His depiction of that era felt so real to me, it was as though I had been there in a past life and was reliving it while watching my worn VHS copy from my futon in my very first apartment.

Fast forward to my first year in LA, and I began to devour autobiographies of that era. Most notably, Rebel Heart by Bebe Buell and I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie by Pamela Des Barres, along with an abundance of supplementary reading (Life, by Keith Richards, Scar Tissue by Anthony Keidis*). This inspired a script that I wrote titled East and West, the story of two young women who struggle to carve out their own paths in life while, unbeknownst to each other, are entangled with the same famous musician.

Joining Miss Pamela’s tour was, in part, a way to research this era I’d fantasized and written about. To hear from THE SOURCE exactly how it felt to be part of that storied time. What it was like to spend time in Frank Zappa’s Laurel Canyon homes (pre and post fire) or to act as accomplice to petty vandalism instigated by The Who’s notorious, late drummer. To be among the first humans privy to the greatness that is Led Zeppelin II from one’s own apartment, as Page and Plant made notes on the arrangement of the music. But it was also to see this great era of Hollywood – and music – through her eyes and spirited storytelling, which pulls no punches, except that tour participants are not to ask who had the largest member and who was the best lover. Fair enough.

Lucky for me, the other folks on our 14-person tour were relatively quiet, so I had the opportunity to ask Miss P all the questions that have been burning inside me for years. Questions like…

Does she think women and the magnetic people of that era, who inspired some of the greatest music of all time, were given enough credit for their contribution as both muse but also soother of souls. Simply put, no way. In fact, she takes credit for inspiring the Outlaw Movement where artists like Waylon Jennings (former lover of Miss P) and Willie Nelson grew their hair out to resemble the rock stars of that era, which evolved into a subgenre of music that combines rock a folk rhythms.

Her thoughts on Oliver Stone’s depiction of Jim Morrison in his biopic The Doors. While she didn’t take issue with Val Kilmer’s performance, she said the film portrayed Jim as more of a philanderer than he really was and that the casting of Pamela (played by Meg Ryan) was way off, as his real-life partner was a “tough chick.” She also mentioned that there was a lot of suspicion around the cause of Jim’s death among people who knew him, and that perhaps the body was placed in the bathtub where he was found. (Ed. note: no autopsy was ever performed).

Her thoughts on Quentin Tarantino’s depiction of Hollywood in ’69 in his film Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. She loved it and confirmed he did a great job recreating all the iconic places we see throughout the film, including the Aquarius Theater, which still has the murals Tarantino restored for the film in all their psychedelic splendor. She read us a passage from I’m With the Band here, recounting the time she was rolling around with Jim Morrison in the rafters until he was called to stage to perform (it was the Hullabalo Club then).

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While on the topic of film, I asked her what she thought of David Caffrey’s film Grand Theft Parsons, about the death and burial of her late friend Gram Parsons. She hated it and thought it was full of inaccuracies. Then she remembered a map Gram had drawn her to his home in Laurel Canyon, something she stumbled upon recently in her treasure trove of rock memorabilia, so we cruised up there to take a peek.

How she feels about the terms ‘groupie’ and ‘band-aid’. She embraces being called a groupie and her designation as queen among them, however she’s not down with the negative connotation attached to the popularized term. She doesn’t see it as someone desperate for the attention of a musician, but rather, someone who chooses to exist among them. An enthusiast completely committed to the music, despite having a fling here and there. She hates the term band-aid and doesn’t remember anyone ever uttering the word, although Cameron Crowe recalls Portland-born groupie Pennie Trumbull using it. She and Miss P, along with Bebe Buell, inspired the character in his film.

Current bands or artists she’s into. She loves The Struts and Jack White, although she feels like White hasn’t hit his full potential yet and we’re still in for something groundbreaking from him.

What was it about Los Angeles in the 60s and 70s that inspired and cultivated such incredible artists?! She credits the warmth and chill Southern California vibe for creating a free-wheeling, braless, barefoot and happy atmosphere where people simply felt free to create.

Perhaps my favorite story of all is how Pamela first met Chris Hillman of The Byrds. While standing outside the Whisky one night, her friends were trying to devise a way into the club. The stage door backed out right onto Sunset in those days, so Miss P simply suggested – “why don’t we just knock?” And she did. And Chris Hillman of all people answered the door, and invited her in. And the rest is rock and roll history.

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*The first few chapters of Scar Tissue has some amazing stories on The Strip, Rainbow Room, Sonny and Cher and beyond during the 60s and 70s, as told by a very young Anthony Keidis.

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Like a moth to a microphone

Speaking in front of an audience is not a space I enjoy navigating. I’ve had to endure public speaking for years in my professional life, and I can deliver. I’ve even been told that’s it’s one of my “core strengths” (that’s corporate speak for a top talent or attribute). I assure you, it is not. I have to know my material inside and out. Rehearse that shit and sell it. Inject a silly joke halfway through my slide deck as a trigger to myself that it’s almost over. I hate it.

Strangely, I love to tell a good story. I enjoy regaling close friends of something hilarious that happened, whether traveling in India or en route to my local coffee shop. I get off on publishing stories that strike a chord in someone so deeply that they spare a few precious minutes ripping into me in the comments section. Huddled behind my laptop, squinting one eye, tentatively refreshing my browser. I love it.

Storytelling events are popping up all over Los Angeles: Don’t Tell My Mother, Risk! and of course The Moth, which originated in New York and now hosts events across the country. I was craving a little escapism a few weeks ago, so I went to a Moth event solo to sit at the back of the room and watch as other storytellers bravely took to the mic to tell their tales, in front of a panel of judges, no less. Horrifying.

The topic was Culture Shock. Much to my delight, audience members who aren’t quite bold enough to unleash their stories verbally can jot down a few sentences related to the topic and drop it into a sack. The host then chooses a selection to read in between speakers. Right up my alley.

Not surprisingly, most of the stories were about experiences abroad, mishaps that occurred while traveling or living in some far off place. My two sentences were about the culture shock I experienced when I first moved to LA. And the host read my cheeky words, as I nervously sipped on my seven-dollar chardonnay. And the audience laughed. And it reminded me of the relief I feel when a joke lands during a presentation in my day job.

After moving to Los Angeles from Canada, I inadvertently strolled through Skid Row on my way to the Arts District. I’ve never been more relieved to see hipsters in my life.

In the last year I’ve turned down invites to speak at day-job-related conferences in San Francisco, Chicago and here in LA, but I did agree to sit on a panel discussion for one. It reminded me of Gloria Steinem’s book My Life on the Road, where she writes in great length about talking circles, a traditional Native American practice used to bring communities together and give people the space to speak freely. The formation of the circle ensures that no one is in a place of prominence, like some poor sod sweating bullets in a packed boardroom. I like that.

I’m going to another Moth event next week, this time the topic is Deadlines. Maybe I’ll sign up and step to the mic. Probably I won’t. But I’m glad there’s a space for storytellers to come together and inspire one another. It feels kind of necessary these days.

UPDATE: I signed up and dropped my name in the sack with minutes to spare, after the group of folks around me — all there solo too, strangely — convinced me. It’s a supportive crowd! But alas, my name was never drawn.

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Pappy & Harriet’s

Los Angeles is known for attracting, inspiring and launching the careers of rock stars from all over the world, this we know. It’s also known for an unmatched live music scene with more venues than any other city in the US. From massive stadiums all the way down to dark little dive bars, the vibe is legit.

While there’s no shortage of live shows every night of the week in LA county, there’s a place – a strange and kitschy little place – about 2.5 hours east that stands out among the rest. A “palace” perched atop a long and winding desert road to nowhere in the Yucca Valley, where artists like Robert Plant and Vampire Weekend have graced it’s storied stage.

Pappy & Harriet’s, a cabaret style roadhouse situated on the edge of the Mojave Desert in Pioneertown, is almost too good to be true. I had read about bands I love dropping in for surprise appearances, and given the bars remote location, I had to see for myself what was drawing people there.

The road from Yucca is kind of a trip, especially at night. You immediately begin to climb in elevation, in complete darkness, save a few random folks who call the valley home. We did spot a massive pine tree decked out in twinkling Christmas lights on the edge of a cliff with no visible house nearby. How they got there is a mystery.

The moment you pull up, you’re hit with the intoxicating smell of mesquite barbecue smoking out back. The bar is part of a small village founded in 1946 by Hollywood filmmakers who intended to create a living movie set for western pictures. With facades based on an 1870s frontier town, it feels a little like Wyatt Earp will rise from the dead and challenge you to a duel at any moment.

A mix of bikers, old folks, families and cool kids clasping their bourbon-filled mason jars filled the place. While the food is worth the trip alone, we were there for the music. Anthony D’Amato opened with an acoustic set; he and his guitar and harmonica had a big enough sound to match an entire band. Then the headliners, Israel Nash, hit the stage and as D’Amato put it, launched into a set that would melt our faces off. Think Harvest Moon era Neil Young meets The Who meets rockabilly. Fuck, is that even possible? Maybe it was the electro-magnetic air, maybe it was the whiskey but it was the perfect soundtrack for a wild night in the desert.

We couldn’t help but alter our plans to return the next day before heading back to the city. It was worth it. A trip to the California desert isn’t complete without wetting your whistle at Pappy’s alongside the gnarly locals and bright-eyed hipsters. Even for a first-timer, I felt right at home.

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Live Music in LA

When we decided to set up shop in Los Angeles, we narrowed it down to two of our favorite neighbourhoods: Venice and West Hollywood. Venice for the artsy, hippie, bohemian, and inspired beach bum lifestyle. WeHo for the energy, excitement, grit and garish atmosphere.

When I tell people in Venice that we nearly landed in Hollywood, they cringe and question how we could ever consider living somewhere as loud and busy as WeHo. Truth is, I’ve got it bad for the gigs. Live music is what made me fall in love with LA, and most of our favorite venues happen to sit in the shadows of the Hollywood Hills.

My groupie tendencies and love of music are what inspired the name of this blog, actually. Sure, LA is famous for the film industry and I’m equally as passionate about that art form. But the bands that were formed here and the music that is inspired by this crazy town seduce me to no end.

Los Angeles is a relentless temptress. Being the nine-to-fiver that I am, it’s hard to hit the town on school nights, but I can’t help myself. Once I’m there breathing in the stench of LA’s late night underbelly, it’s hard to get me home. I realize that doesn’t sound too enticing, but I’m telling you, this city has pheromones.

Over the past several months, my husband (fellow groupie) and I started keeping track of our favorite venues and began listing all the places we want to go next. So far, I’d have to say the Troubadour is my favorite and my husband is partial to the Greek but here’s our ever-expanding list and what we’ve scratched off so far:

Hollywood Bowl
Greek Theatre
The Fonda Theater
Hollywood Palladium
El Rey Theatre
The Echo
Teragram Ballroom
Whisky a-Go-Go
Hotel Café
Roxy Theatre
Trip
The Del Monte Speakeasy
The Orpheum
Basement Tavern
Grammy Museum
Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever
The Observatory
The Forum
Troubadour
Echoplex
The Getty
The Mint
The Viper Room
The Shrine
House of Blues – Sunset Strip (now closed)
Club Nokia
Santa Monica Pier
The Regent Theater
The Theatre at Ace Hotel
Pappy & Harriet’s
Bootleg Theater
The Wiltern
Belasco Theater

Before catching a show at the Whisky last week, we had dinner at the Rainbow Bar & Grill. Although I’m about 50 years too late to the party, the place still had an eerie vibe to it and apparently hasn’t changed much over the past several decades. While we were there, hiding in a corner table surrounded by gold records and other precious memorabilia, an older gentleman began telling patrons stories about the old days. How Sinatra would sit and chain smoke and drink for hours with his friends and how Zeppelin would receive blowjobs under the tables from forthcoming groupies. He also shared the “true story” of how Marilyn Monroe, another star who frequented the place, was murdered by the US government and how the hit man who carried out the deed was brutally murdered somewhere in Florida to abolish all evidence. Thank god some of these people are still around to tell these torrid tales.

I love this list of the 50 best music venues in LA from LA Weekly, which has become our cultural bible since moving here.

What am I missing? Is there another music venue I need to add to my list?

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Northeast Party House

The smell as you enter the dark and dingy confines of the Echoplex can only be described as a mix of latex, lager and the blood, sweat and tears that have be shed on its well trodden stage. A venue with a reputation for launching the careers of LA-based bands like Foster the People and The Airborne Toxic Event, the place feels a little haunted by rock star souls of the past. Which is why it’s kind of appropriate that we walked in right as Aussie band Northeast Party House was ripping into a song of the same name, as part of the Culture Collide music festival.

I bought tickets specifically to see Kiwi electro-pop rocker Ladyhawke – who I’ve been following and grooving to for years – but when Northeast Party House hit the stage before her set, I was glad I got there early.

Six handsome lads hailing from Melbourne, on their first tour oversees, it was obvious they were excited to be playing for an international audience. New to the game, however, they were not, blowing up the space with testosterone-driven stage antics, they knew they had earned the right to be there. Their set was tight! And loud. And fucking brilliant.

They reminded me a bit of Blur circa the Blur album, but more up beat. At times you could have sworn Trent Reznor was onstage with them, churning out weird and wonderful sounds as lead singer Zach Hamilton-Reeves went borderline ballistic. Mitch Ansell was insanely good on lead guitar, launching into “Enter Sandman” for a few riffs. I’m pretty certain my husband and I were some of the only spectators to catch on, given the sea of millennial-aged hipsters surrounding us.

Funk rock with pop hooks and a beat you can dance to, but a sound that will blow your hair back. These guys are ones to watch.

Their album Any Given Weekend is available on iTunes. The band plays The Echo in LA this afternoon and then heads to New York for the next leg of their tour. Follow their updates here.

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