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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Hiking to Hollywood’s Wisdom Tree

I’m always drawn to cities that have easy access to nature. Having lived in Vancouver for the past 13 years, steps away from the ocean, I don’t think I could exist in a proper concrete jungle, despite my urbanite tendencies.

Los Angeles is a lot like that, although I’m sure some people might disagree. As I type this, I’m sitting on our rooftop deck surrounded by humming birds – literally, little rapid-fire wings buzzing in my ear – with a view of our quiet street, lined with purple jacaranda trees in full blossom. Nature, only a few blocks south of the Sunset Strip.

The first thing I wanted to do once we made our way back to West Hollywood was to seek out the Wisdom Tree. It sounds like something you’d be more likely to stumble upon in San Francisco rather than L.A., but I was fascinated by the story that has transformed this lone tree into a budding tourist attraction.

As legend would have it, the beautiful old pine was originally someone’s Christmas tree, which they planted at the peak of the Cahuenga trail. In 2007, a devastating 160-acre fire ripped through the Hollywood Hills and the Wisdom Tree was the only tree left standing.

There didn’t used to be a hiking trail to Cahuenga Peak. The land was privately owned by Howard Hughes’ estate until 2002, when it was purchased by a group of investors. Apparently, Hughes purchased the picturesque mountaintop to build a home for he and Ginger Rogers to shack up in, but she was having none of it. So the land was left undeveloped.

The investor group had plans to subdivide the property to build mega-mansions – only a short walk from L.A.’s sacred Hollywood sign – but when the public caught wind of this, activists got to work.

The non-profit organization Trust for Public Land raised $12.5M with the final $900K coming from none other than Hugh Hefner. This was enough to purchase the land from the investor group and convert it into a public park.

At some point, someone left a tin box full of blank journals and pens for people to write their thoughts and leave with the tree. It’s been there for several years now and hasn’t been bolted down in fear of someone stealing it. There’s no one there to monitor it. It’s just a wonderful box overflowing with people’s poetry, thoughts and dreams.

If you visit the Wisdom Tree, be kind to it. Don’t climb it or pull on its branches. Just savor the much-needed shade it provides and soak in the energy of everyone who discovered it before you. And leave something in the journal box. Who knows, maybe there really is something mystic about it? I like to think so.

“It’s like saying let’s build a house in the middle of Yellowstone Park. There are some things that are more important. The Hollywood Sign represents the dreams of millions. It’s a symbol. It is as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. It represents the movies.” – Hugh Hefner

Also published in the Huffington Post.

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