Bebe Buell’s life is what blockbuster movies are made of. In the seventies, she was a successful fashion model—not to mention 1974′s November Playmate of the Month—and Max’s Kansas City regular, where she sang into hairbrushes with Patti Smith and befriended (then dated) many a legendary rock musician including Elvis Costello, Todd Rundgren, and Steven Tyler. Today, she’s probably better known as Liv Tyler’s mother, but the 58-year-old’s about to change that with her first major album, Hard Love, a set of grunge-meets-glam-rock tracks in which Buell’s raspy wail demands listeners pay attention.
As of late, Buell’s dreams of being on stage instead of backstage are working out pretty well. Last week, she played a packed New York Fashion Week bash to a sea of bouncing hipsters and the first few days of March will find her rocking out at the Hard Rock Cafe in Hollywood, Florida. She’s most excited, however, to play Hiro Ballroom’s final blowout at the end of the month. We had a chance to meet the kick-ass Buell between rehearsals of her upcoming one woman show and chatted for nearly two hours about everything from those famous boyfriends to posing nude to properly raising Liv. If we learned one thing, it’s why you should never, ever call Bebe a groupie, but you probably want to read the rest.
ELLE: You’re suddenly doing a million different things, why now?
BB: I listen to the fans. I’m not a corporate machine. I’m not Lady Gaga, I’m not Madonna, I don’t have a million dollars behind me and big giant record companies. I am an organic artist. I actually do what I do because of a very rabid fan base, but of course, an artist like me also fights demographics because, if you try to say to someone who’s never seen me, “Oh, you’ve gotta see this, it’s incredible,” they can’t wrap their head around it. I’m not 15 and I’m not somebody who has a thousand hit records under my belt. The musicians that play with me are all world class. Little by little, I just keep making more strides. I’m not gonna call myself the little engine that could because I’m 5’10 and I’m far from little—I’m the little engine that roared. Now I’ve got a fever about what I’m doing, because I think it’s important for women to make this kind of statement, not to have an expiration date.
ELLE: Starting at the beginning, do you remember the first time you were invited to the infamous back room at Max’s Kansas City?
BB: Of course. I was embraced the second I walked through the door. Andy Warhol didn’t hang out there as much after he got shot, but he’d still poke his head in there. I was by myself, I didn’t even have a friend. I just sort of stood there and looked to the left and to the right and I was immediately approached by a very cute, very bubbly girl and she asked me if I was looking for anybody. I just said “I’m looking for friends,” and she said, “Well, come sit down!” I met Andy that night. I met Cindy Lane who was Alice Cooper’s girlfriend at the time, and before I knew it, my phone was ringing off the hook. I was getting invited to everything. I fell right into it. It became my religion almost, going to Max’s.
ELLE: Patti Smith mentioned you in Just Kids. Were you friends?
BB: A lot of people don’t realize that Max’s had an upstairs where bands played—that’s how I saw Patti Smith for the first time. She really taught me a lot about stuff beyond how cool the MC5 and the Stooges were and why a record like that was really cool. She taught me about poets. I already had an obsession with Oscar Wilde and we’d get in arguments about how she thought Rimbaud was cooler. I saw all of the early things that she did—the poetry readings—before I knew it, it was a full-on band and she was singing. We were all kind of misfits. When I rolled into town, I knew I wanted to be important; I knew I wanted to do something artistic and I knew I had love of so many different things, but I have ADD so honing in my energy and actually being able to sit down was hard. I would write tons of poems which later became songs. But that discipline that Patti had, to actually sit down and compose page after page of these written sonnets, people like that don’t grow on trees! Because of my youth and many different reasons reflecting my childhood, love really became the most important thing to me above all else. The quest for love became all consuming to the point where I would give up shooting the cover of Glamour magazine to go be with someone I was crazy about. I look back on that now and I would never let my own child do that, but I don’t regret it.
ELLE: Let’s set the record straight. How do you really feel about the word “groupie”?
BB: I know you can go to JCPenney’s and you can buy a t-shirt that says “groupie” on it, and it’s considered really cool and that’s all fine. I have nothing against that culture and the girls who created that whole thing, but I’m not part of it. It’s been thrust on me and people have called me that and it’s been very difficult for me because I actually have a career and I work. I mean, I guess it kind of ruined Winona Ryder and Pamela Anderson, too. I don’t think I’m the only girl who’s not a groupie who has been called a groupie. Talented, beautiful people tend to fall in love each other. I don’t know why that’s so unusual.
ELLE: But Penny Lane, the character played by Kate Hudson in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, was loosely based on you in the ‘70s. How did you feel about the movie? How did you react when you first saw it?
BB: I burst into tears. It was like the first time I saw ET! I just cried from the beginning to the end. I saw so much of myself and my life and so much of what really did happen. Cameron and I really were friends, we really were the babies on the tour. The movie is fiction, but he mixed together some things that really did happen. The band, Stillwater, is a combination of Bad Company, the Eagles, Todd Rundgren, Greg Allman, Zepellin. I think Penny’s probably a combination of a couple people. I think Cameron showed his love of women in that movie; one of the things that he tried to show about the Penny Lane character is that she was really more rock n’ roll than the band and I thank him for that. The part of her that was me, he captured… dead-on.
ELLE: Why do you think these iconic rock stars fell head-over-heels for you?
BB: I was always part of a boys’ club and I’ll say it with pride: I was never known for my sexual prowess. It’s one of the reasons I posed nude in Playboy. I wanted to be a wild child; I wanted to be Jane Birkin; I wanted to be Brigitte Bardot; I wanted to be Sophia Loren; I wanted to pout my lips and be daring and rebellious. But I couldn’t live up to it. Once the Playboy came out, the rock stars really pounced and the heavy-hitters started coming onto me. I think I was a bit of a disappointment, but I was also a bit of a comfort because they could relax. They didn’t have to feel like they had to put on a performance for me. I could cuddle up with Mick Jagger at the Plaza Hotel and watch TV and order Caesar salads and discuss philosophy. Which was a hell of a lot easier than getting me in bed, I’ll tell ya that.
ELLE: Back to the present, tell us about your new one woman show.
BB: People have been asking me for so long, “Who’s that song about?” So now I’m gonna tell you what the songs about. I’m ready to spill it, baby. I’m going to incorporate storytelling within the music and not in a way when Courtney [Love] does one of her rants and goes off twenty minutes in between a song—not that that can’t be amusing—but this is a show I’m creating and writing with an incredible band. Let’s just call it a rock n’ roll smorgasbord.
ELLE: Has anyone ever approached you about making a film about you? Who would you want to play you?
BB: Let’s put it this way, it’s definitely been something that’s starting to be discussed in very recent times. Amanda Seyfried is like a little baby version of me. They’d have to put her in nine inch platforms to have my height. Zooey Deschanel maybe. She’s got the eyes and she can sing. And believe it or not, and I know I’m probably gonna get tons of flack for this, but when she was younger and she had it together, Mischa Barton. Some of the style blogs put her picture next to me and she’s somebody who could’ve absolutely done it, too.
ELLE: At the end of the day, what do you want to accomplish the most?
BB: When all is said and done, the things you’re most proud of are the things you do yourself. I feel like I’m fighting for women and if that sounds corny, so be it. In some ways, fighting for my own daughter, who is 34-years-old and who will be 54-years-old one day. I want her to be still working; I want her to have her Glenn Close and Meryl Streep moments. I just think we have to stop putting an expiration dates on human talent and on people. Look at Betty White! I consider these the best years, because I’m finally seeing the results for all of the work I’ve done my entire life.
ELLE: ‘And for fun, let’s close with a quick game of word association: Elvis Costello.
ELLE: Steven Tyler.
ELLE: Todd Rundgren.
BB: Oh gosh… my first love.