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By: Sarah L. Myers
New York, USA
Photos courtesy of Bebe Buell
No one had more influence on my life as a rock chick than Bebe Buell. She's rock n' roll's rebel heart, serving as a muse for Todd Rundgren, Elvis Costello, and Steven Tyler, all while fronting her own band and rocking in her own right. To see Bebe live is unforgettable - statuesque and unbelievably stunning, she exudes punk elegance.
Having cut her teeth at Max's Kansas City, Bebe was a scenester before there was even a word for it. She hit the back room with Andy Warhol, David and Angela Bowie, and Mick Jagger. Bebe, along with Sable Starr and Cyrinda Foxe, represented the ultimate rock n' roll girl. Not just girlfriends, but real inspirations for the men they admired and loved. Cameron Crowe has said he based his "Almost Famous" character, Penny Lane, on Bebe Buell.
Interviewing Bebe had been a dream of mine since I was 13. I got the chance last month before the Joey Ramone Birthday Bash. Her life refuses to be summed up in just a few paragraphs, but we did the best we could during our conversation. Bebe's latest single "Air Kisses to the Masses" is out now!
Thirsty: I wanted to start my offering my condolences. I just read a few days ago that Sable Starr had passed away. Had you stayed in touch with her throughout the years?
Bebe Buell: Well, not consistently. (But) my feelings about Sable's death are based on memories of her as a little girl when I first met her. But I was a little girl, too. We were only four years apart in age. When I met her she was 14, I was 18. I just, it's part of, another part of my youth that's gone forever and you really, you really have to start playing in the big house and you realize that it ends. Everything ends and I thought somebody like Sable would live forever! It's just very shocking when people actually do die, even though it's not a bad thing. I believe in all the spiritual elements of death but it's still very sad. It's a sad loss.
Thirsty: It's almost like these people are so larger than life that you think they will live forever.
BB: I think that's why they become larger than life so that they will live forever. People will want to know her story for years to come because...you know, I get really angry at people who just dismiss these girls as whores or groupies or crappy labels they want to throw at them. They were more than that. They were darling, sweet girls that would greet you at the airport with flowers and invite you to all of these wonderful things, if you were there with your boyfriend or whatever who was in a band they liked. Forget it, you would have a blast. They were just really nice girls. They were not mean girls. I've had anger toward some of the things they've done when they were kids but I've done, but I was a kid too, so I can't judge people. It's not worth it. I don't have anything but fond memories of Sable Starr.
Thirsty: Let's talk about the new record. I've heard the new single and I love it. I love that it sounds a little like "Heart of Glass" at the beginning, like sped up a bit!
BB: Does it? I've never heard that comparison. I've heard every other comparison but that! I've head everything from Marianne Faithful to the Thompson Twins. But thank you, that's only a compliment I would think.
Thirsty: Can you tell me about your friendship with Dean and how he inspired you to record the song for the album?
Bebe and daughter Liv Tyler
BB: Yeah, well, he was just a really, really brilliant scholar sort of housed in the 6 foot seven drag queen. He was innovative and he had taste and he had bands. His band The Velvet Mafia was a really cool band and wrote these amazing lyrics. He just sort of hit the nail on the head with perfect wit, like Oscar Wilde or something! Real sharp wit. And he was really smart and he just churned out these lyrics. And when you do the song you almost have to have a map in front of you because he can fit more words in one song than anybody I know! So admiring him and thinking that he was a really cool person and somebody that I respected and I did a couple of his parties he did called "Homocore" with my band and we always had fun. He threw them at CBGB's and the place was always packed to the gills. He brought back a lot of glamour to New York, because everybody would get dressed up at these parties and they cared what they looked like when they went out, like they used to! You now, it was just kind of, he was a really important part of the scene but he was just a really dear friend who had a great vision. So that's how I came to do the song, at a memorial for him last year with his band. After rehearsing the song and digesting it i realized i really needed to record it bc it screamed to me, "do Me!" So I did.
Thirsty: Are the other songs on the record all originals?
BB: Yeah, there's 12 songs and the rest are self-penned. Well, I did one other cover I've been doing live for over ten years, a song called "Untouchable" that Johnny Thunders wrote, and I do a cover of that but all the rest of the songs me, Jim, and Bobby wrote them all. And it'll be out at the end of August. In the meantime the single is what's out there!
Thirsty: Do you plan on starting a tour in August or September?
BB: Yeah, I don't exactly know when the dates start bc I'm not doing that part of everything. I sort of asked everybody to not make me think about it right now bc I'm concentrating on getting the live show really strong. So I feel like a marine so I'm doing the treadmill, I don't drink, I don't eat anything except for straight protein but not in the form of animals, which you can imagine how difficult that is. Lots of egg whites! I'm just sort of really focused right now but yeah, I think the tour's beginning in Berlin. I've always wanted to play Berlin and I had no idea I had a following there. I didn't know anybody in Berlin even knew who I was if you want to know the truth! It was very exciting and I thought I would start my tour over there and then just work around Europe for a little bit. Then come back to the estates after i go to japan and Australia. So that'll be interesting bc I haven't done anything like that in a very long time. It'll be a lot of work. I've gotta get ready for it, get all psyched up and train. It's like being an athlete a little when you go on the road. It's not the same as being in the studio. Like, in the studio you can be all cozy and curl up and do your thing abut on the road you really have to be ready for it. You can get sick. People get sick on the road a lot. Not the healthiest place, the road! All those hands you shake!
Bebe and Cyrinda Foxe
Thirsty: The band you're touring with will be your permanent lineup?
BB: Definitely the lineup for now! I don't think Kitty Kowalski will tour with us. But I'll have Dave , Jim Wallerstein, Pete Marshall who played with Iggy on bass, and Bobby Ray on drums. And Maya, this new girl we found. She's a very very young Asian girl, and she's just a genius. I cant wait for people to see her, they'll freak! It's just amazing what she can do. She's so young. She's 21. She shows up to rehearsal with her two keyboards, and she's little and she lifts those things up and just does everything perfect. She's just like this dream to work with. Very musical and special. Nice energy. I like having that kind of energy around me. David Matross I've been working with for a long time, and I've been working with Jim and Bobby for a long time but David I've been with the longest, for about 12 years.. He'll be doing all the lead guitar work on the road. For the record all the lead was done by Jim, my husband.
Thirsty: When did you do the writing for most of the record?
BB: I did a lot of the lyrics over the summer. But I'd been working on the songs for like 3 years. Some of the songs had been in my head. Then we just went and banged it out and did the vocals, and mixed and mastered it in December and it was pretty much finished by January. It was kind of a process, absolutely. I'm excited about people hearing the album. On Joey's birthday, I'll stream the song "Black Angels", that I wrote on the album for him. I might stream it for one day on MySpace so people can come and hear it. That'd be on May 19th. That'll be one of the tracks on the album. But I wanted fans to be able to hear the song. I was going to unveil it next year at the Bash. It'll be on the record, but I want to do it next year live, on the tenth anniversary of his passing. I guess Mickey's going to have an extra special Bash next year. It's really hard to believe it's been ten years.
Thirsty: Speaking of Joey, I know he was a good friend to you over the years. Can you share a few stories with us about your time together?
BB: Well, I mean Joey is somebody I met first just, I didn't know him in the early days at CBGB's and stuff because I hung out at Max's more than CB's. I didn't start going to CB's until I started hanging out with Bators and that was around 78. My thing with Joey was just sort of, I don't know how to explain it, we just always clicked. We met briefly in the late 70s and then in the early 80s we sort of became friends and we would see each other and talk and I realized that he loved everything about music. He was such a scholar himself. He knew all the gory details about every record ever made. It was really fascinating to talk to him! He would know who engineered something, and what year, he was just very cool like that. So I got to know him that way and then he came to see one of my bands, The gargoyles, that I started. And he liked the band and he started to like give us gigs. My friendship with him really started with music, which is really interesting. So he put us on a couple of these parties he used to throw. He used to do these parties that he would put together at various venues for bands that he thought were cool, that he liked. He was really a godsend and you were a band and you were trying to get a deal, and it was kind of cool to be at one of his little Bashes, you know? You'd get his endorsement, plus he'd introduce you. It was always a lot of fun. We played a few of those and opened for the Ramones a couple of times. Then in 1989 I moved back to New York again and we only lived right down the street from each other. So he'd come over for dinner sometimes and we would visit him.
Bebe and Todd Rundgren
A great story - one time Liv found $3000 under his turntable! She was only about eight years old, so her eye level was more in tune with where a turntable would be in the house than Joey or me, because I'm 5'10" and Joey's this tall guy, and so we're standing around and Livvy used to be fascinated, because she'd open a drawer in his kitchen or something and there'd always be one-dollar bills in the drawer that he'd use I guess to tip people when they'd bring food deliveries and stuff. And one day she goes, "Joey! I think I see a lot of money under your stereo!" Joey goes, "Where?" And he lifts it up, and he takes out this wad of cash, and it was like $3000! And he goes, "thanks, Liv! I've been looking for this!" Cause he put some money under there and forgot where he put it, and thought it had been missing for years and years and Liv found it. So just funny stuff like that. But he was a very good friend if you ever needed to talk. He gave very good boyfriend advice, believe it or not. I don't know how to explain it, he just had a really big heart and he really enjoyed helping people. Helping people get recognition for their music if he thought the band was talented, that kind of thing. He really enjoyed seeing people do well. Instead of get jealous like some people. He wouldn't like that. If his friend did well he was happy. He would get a a lot of pleasure from that.
Thirsty: You always said that you like your rock stars to look like rock stars, and you want glamour back in rock n' roll. Who's out there now that you think just has really great style?
BB: I love Jack White. I think he's a rock star. I think he was born in the wrong era. He should have been around in the 1970s! But it's transcended well, I mean people love him. He's got so many bands, and they're all successful. But I think he's got a lot of charisma and a lot of rock star charm. I like Manson. I love Marilyn Manson. I think he's a genius and an innovator. I get a lot of shit every time I say that, but I really don't care! That's truly the way I feel. I love Eminem. I always have. I think he's brilliant. I loved him way before anybody else loved him, that's not something to brag about, that's just a point I'm making. I really, really like the Kings of Leon. I love Wilco. I think Jeff Tweedy is a great writer. I love the Killers, I love the Kills too! The Kills and the Killers! I think my favorite band right now is Living Things. I think they're just the best thing to happen in the last thousand, billion years. I'm the biggest Living Things fan, and I can't wait to see them.
Thirsty: Is there anything you miss about the past, or do you really just focus on the future and continuing to release music and tour?
BB: I don't miss the past. I'm very happy with my life, I'm very happily married. I've been with my husband for 10 years and I have a beautiful daughter and a grandson, and wonderful friends. That's what I'm proud of. I really couldn't ask for more blessings in my life. It makes anything that I would think is worth complaining about seem stupid. I just sort of try not to...of course there's things about the past...I wish I had never married the first person I ever married. That was a huge mistake, a blunder. That was in 1991. I've made some mistakes that I've had to pay for because I've used bad judgment or I've been too trusting or I've been taken advantage of. You know, there's those kinds of things, where there have been times in my life that I deeply wish hadn't happened but at the same time, it's those kind of things that make you stronger and wiser, and push you forward. You can't really look back and say, 'gee, I wish I hadn't done this or this' because if you have any belief in fate and your life having a reason and a journey then you just sort of have to accept that things won't always go like you think they're going to go. Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans! I don't think you really have a whole lot of control over whatever it is your spiritual destiny is. I think you work all of that stuff out before you get here and when you get here, you just have to do it. I try to be a good person. I try to work as hard as I can I don't like lazy people and I will always try to be creative and work as long as I can. I say that anybody that thinks you should hang up your skates - you should never hang up your skates. You should skate for as long as they're sharp. I just try to live like that, and I try to keep all the negative stuff really far away from me. That's the way I like to live!
Thirsty: Well, the spirit of rock n' roll will always be there if you truly live that lifestyle. You can do it for the rest of your life.
BB: It depends. I think if you start to look ridiculous up there you should stop. And I think that people know when that time comes! I mean, some people can look great forever and ever. I still love the way Keith Richards looks even though he's got the map of the world on his forehead. He's still fascinating and limber and wonderful to watch. And so is Mick Jagger. I think there are certain people that just are! Lux Interior was incredible, Ivy Rorschach. I would go see her if she was 70. And Wanda Jackson and Eartha Kitt. I saw her when she was in her 70s. And look at Tina Turner. I think there are just certain people that can keep rocking and rocking. Some people, I don't know. I think when you start to really look the fool, one must exit! Seeing anybody that's got a gift or is good at what they do, I don't really care how old they are. But I still get very excited by a lot of music. Great bands. When I saw Muse, they were brilliant. I've seen a lot of great live bands. When I saw the Killers live, I thought they were really good. And the Kings of Leon - they still have an innocence you know when they play. I know these are all the trendy bands to like but I've liked them for a long time and it took awhile for everybody else to catch up. You know, my daughter was a big fan of Kings of Leon, god, seven years ago for Christ's sake. She turned me onto them.
Thirsty: Do you remember the first night you went out in New York City?
BB: I went to Max's. Max's Kansas City. I mean, I had gone out and done other things in New York but I hadn't had a real rock n' roll night until I went to Max's. And that was it. Once I went into Max's I felt like all my kindred spirits and all my friends and everybody that was going to be part of my life was in that room. And I knew it. I went to Max's and never left!